While weather and markets are the big-ticket items influencing farm profitability, the recent Farm/Ranch/Water Symposium in Rocky Ford dug deeper to examine some of the more subtle issues that can impede agricultural success among crop and livestock producers in the Arkansas Valley.

Rocky Ford native A. J. Brown, now a doctoral candidate in the soil and crop science program at Colorado State University, worked for five years under horticultural specialist Mike Bartolo at the Arkansas Valley Research Station before heading to Ft. Collins to complete his degree. He made a return engagement to talk about his ongoing work on soil salinity during the annual symposium.

Decades, and sometimes even centuries, of surface irrigation have led to hot spots of salinity that hinder crop production on about a third of the globe, including the lower Arkansas Valley, he said.

"The number one threat to food security is soil erosion, but the second biggest threat is salt," he said.

High salt content in soils is usually a function of poor water management, typically involving over-saturation coupled with poor drainage, he said. Regardless of what farmers do to increase the organic matter in their soils, high salts at the root zone will have a negative impact on yield, he explained.

The reason for that is something called "osmotic potential." As water binds to salt, it becomes harder for plants to retrieve it, he explained.

"Plants will do what they can to compensate," he said. "Plants will adjust their suction to account for salinity at the cost of yield and growth. It requires more energy and that's why we lose yield. They can look drought-stressed, even in wet conditions."

Gypsum salt is less soluble, which buffers some of the impact, he said.

Brown spent most of his time at the podium talking about new technologies he and his colleagues are developing that will enable them to sample soil salinity at a lower cost and then offer management recommendations to producers.

Due to the type of farming prevalent in the valley, Brown admitted that it would be difficult to eliminate the problem entirely. But improving the quality of irrigation water and avoiding overwatering whenever possible are two key steps to minimize salt build-up.

Within ten years, he also predicted that improvements in remote sensing and noninvasive sampling techniques would allow researchers to make major advances in pinpointing the specific causes of crop distress and find better management solutions.

When it comes to livestock production, yield is best imagined as the profit margin a rancher makes on each cow, according to Logan Hoffman, a new beef extension associate at CSU.

He presented an overview of TRAC, or Total Ranch Analysis for Colorado, which involves meeting one-on-one with producers to help them evaluate the cost structure of their business and compare the profit potential of various livestock enterprises.

Several area producers have already signed up for the program, but Hoffman said he is seeking additional producers willing to participate starting next spring.

"We will set up a benchmark group, but the greatest benefits will be for the individual producer we sit down with and tracking these metrics over time," he said.

Hoffman provided a breakdown of the individual components of production and financial data he and CSU beef specialist Ryan Rhoades plan to collect and analyze, as well as the various production enterprises for ranchers to evaluate.

The main thing he emphasized was the importance of understanding cost per unit of production and how it fits with overall financial goals.

One sobering statistic he shared, based on data taken from 37 herds with more than 75,000 breeding females, was that the average return on investment from those herds was minus .06 percent over the past two years.

Part of the reason for that is the average carrying cost for a cow has now climbed to around $1,000 a head, he said.

But it's worth noting that the most profitable operations consistently make several hundred dollars more per cow than less profitable ranchers, he pointed out in another graph.

The gains come by combining a lot of small advantages, such as better pregnancy rates, more pounds of calf weaned per cow and lower feed costs.

"There are no silver bullets," he said. "This has been studied a lot, and it's people doing a lot of little things that add up to $300, $400 or even $500 a head difference."