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Cattle: Upcycling Superheros Help Save the San Luis Valley

Nissen Farms, LLC are no strangers to the challenges facing farmers and ranchers in the San Luis Valley, but they have found ways to adapt and better manage their land with the help of cattle and their unique ability to upcycle.

After attending college, Erin Nissen returned to her family’s farm alongside her father, Lyle, to become the fourth generation to work the land. Their farm is located in Mosca, CO in a high-mountain desert called the San Luis Valley. This area is home to over 1,500 farms and ranches and is the nation’s second largest producer of potatoes. The valley sees little rainfall, so farms and ranches in the area are sustained by an underground aquifer fed by mountain snowmelt.

In 2002 that all began to change when a drought took hold of the valley. During this time, farmers and ranchers began rapidly draining the aquifer to meet their irrigation needs. Circumstances became dire when wells began to run dry. Without intervention, agriculturalists in the area faced the threat of state water regulators shutting off wells completely.

In response to this water crisis, the Nissen’s began to drastically change the way they farmed. To lower water demands they cut back the amount of potatoes and malting barley in production. They divided their 120 acre field into 40 acre blocks, using only one block at a time to grow a cash crop. The other two blocks were used to grow cover crops. Combined with improved irrigation practices, the Nissen’s have been able to reduce water use by over 30% in the last 15 years.

The Nissen’s introduced something else as part of their solution. Cattle have provided a unique service to the Nissen operation with their useful ability to upcycle. This means cattle can take low-quality, human inedible feeds and convert them into a high-quality, high-protein product in the form of beef. By adding cattle into their operation, the Nissen’s can now upcycle their cover crops. These crops take less than half the water to grow a potato or grain crop. Using cover crops as feed allows the Nissen’s to conserve water and still end up with a valuable product.

Erin is cautiously optimistic about the future of agriculture in the San Luis Valley. She believes more still needs to be done, but every year there’s improvements in farming practices around her. Because of these efforts, conditions have been improving in the valley. The Nissen’s have been able to increase their potato crop once again, but sometimes scale back if water levels are low. Soil health and water use are receiving better attention and cattle are grazing farmland that hasn’t seen livestock in over 30 years. Cattle have provided a unique way to better manage water in the San Luis Valley, showing once again that Colorado is truly Better with Beef.

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