Oklahoma www.ok.govOklahoma Conservation Commission

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People on Kay County tour, photo 1
Neal Otto (orange shirt), Kay County farm producer, stands in front of his field of no-till corn as he tells participants in the recent legislative tour how he has switched his farming methods to no-till. He has cut his field labor by three-fourths and his fuel usage by two-thirds.

Kay County CD: Legislators Learn about Conservation

by Susan Henning, Kay County Conservation District Manager

Photographs by Amber Jeans

The Kay County Conservation District hosted a tour for legislators and candidates on July 14 to better acquaint them with the conservation and natural resource concerns affecting the county. Those in attendance were Senator David Myers, and candidates Jamie Sears, Ken Luttrell and Stan Paynter. Oklahoma Conservation Commission (OCC) Executive Director, Mike Thralls and Assistant Director Ben Pollard, local farm producer Neal Otto, Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) District Conservationist Caleb Stone, and Kay County Conservation District Board members and staff also attended.

The tour started off at the Farm Service Center in Newkirk and included farm and ranch land within a close radius. The group visited conservation practices installed with State Cost Share monies appropriated by the state Legislature including terraces, waterways and grass plantings. Since the inception of the State Cost Share Program in 1998, a little over $53,000 in state monies has been matched by local producers to reduce soil erosion and improve water quality.

“The great advantage of the State Cost Share Program is that it is a locally-led program,” Mike Thralls, OCC executive director said. “Each local conservation district, with input from local residents and agricultural producers, selects which of the available conservation practices to provide assistance on, based on their local natural resource issues.”

A stop was included to view Dam Site No. 7, a Duck Creek Watershed Dam. This is one of nine watershed dams in Kay County, one of 2,105 in Oklahoma, the state with more watershed dams than any other in the U.S. Watershed dams are built on tributaries to major rivers or streams to trap floodwater during heavy rainfall events and slowly release the water through pipes in dams over a period of several days. It is estimated that in Oklahoma these watershed structures have prevented over $147 million per year in loss of livestock, damage to crops and fences, soil erosion, and damages to roads and bridges.

Although this particular dam was built in 1983, 132 of the dams in Oklahoma have exceeded their 50 year life expectancy. By 2015, over one-half of all dams constructed in Oklahoma, will have reached or exceeded their design life. Although these dams were originally built to protect agricultural land, today homes and highways are downstream. The Oklahoma Conservation Commission is requesting $3.2 million to maintain the watershed structures with an additional $2.8 million needed to rehabilitate the 10 most critical dams. The first two dams in the nation to be rehabilitated were in Rogers Mills County in the year 2000.

Conservation districts played an important role in early watershed work by sponsoring feasibility studies and helping develop watershed plans. After projects were approved, land rights and easements were obtained for construction, operation and maintenance. Conservation districts continue today providing maintenance by controlling brush on spillways and dams and checking gate valve operation. Dams are inspected annually by NRCS and conservation district personnel, as well as after heavy rain events.

Neal Otto, local Kay County producer hosted the next stop on the tour, sharing with the legislators how he has incorporated no-till farming techniques into his operation. No-till involves planting a crop with minimal soil disturbance. From 1998-2000, no-till acres in Oklahoma increased by 60 percent. No-till leaves crop residue on the soil surface which in turn decreases soil erosion, increases water infiltration and the soil’s water holding capacity (especially important during times of drought), reduces the time required for field work and in turn reduces fuel costs, utilizes crop rotations, and improves soil structure, evidenced by increased numbers of earth worms and soil channels or pores.

People on Kay County tour, photo 2
Caleb Stone, NRCS district conservationist, (white hat, in center) explains invasive species control, eastern redcedar, Osage-orange and sericea lespedeza in LaVerna Greenwood's pasture east of Newkirk.

The tour wrapped up with a stop at LaVerna Greenwood’s pastureland. Caleb Stone, NRCS district conservationist, explained how Mrs. Greenwood had used federal EQIP cost-share funds to clip eastern redcedar and Osage-orange trees, two invasive plant species, from her land. Control will be implemented in future years for sericea lespedeza. NRCS estimates that Eastern Redcedar is infesting 760 acres per day. Cedars compete with native vegetation for sunlight, space and water. One Eastern Redcedar uses from 50 to 80 gallons of water per day. Cedars also pose an allergy threat to Oklahoma residents as well as a wildfire threat due to their high content of volatile oils.

Historically fire helped control invasion of woody species to the prairie, but with people building in the rural countryside fire has been suppressed. NRCS offers cost share assistance for mechanical and chemical control of Eastern Red Cedar, when prescribed burning is not feasible. Prescribed burning is most effective for cedar control when trees are less than six feet tall. Bois-d’arc or Osage-orange trees are another invasive species controlled by mechanical or chemical methods.

The tour concluded with barbeque lunch at the Stagecoach Restaurant in Newkirk.