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Grounded in Principle, Oregon ranchers maximize soil health on grazing lands

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With innovation comes risk. Trying something new can be uncertain and scary, especially when your livelihood depends on it. But for several Oregon ranchers, their appetite for innovation is creating positive change to revive the land, bolster production, and maximize profits.

Eastern Oregon ranchers - head shots


These forward-thinking ranchers understand that being in the cow business means they are also in the grass business. They depend on nutritional forage at the right time, in the right places, and at the right price. To get the grasses they need, they know that their top priority is to invest in their soil.

With assistance from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, they are grounded in principles they know to be true—the principles of soil health:

1) Keep it Covered
2) Maximize Diversity Above for Diversity Below
3) Keep a Living Root in the Soil as much as possible
4) Minimize Disturbance
5) Integrate Livestock

Cows Grazing at Southworth Bros Ranch

Southworth Bros. Ranch – The Quest for 100% Soil Cover

Jack Southworth manages a cow/calf/yearling operation at high elevation in the Bear Valley of Seneca, Oregon. His growing season is only 45 days long with potential for frost on the ground every day.

Jack Southworth with bunchgrass

“It isn’t our winter that kills things—it’s our growing season,” Jack said.

Jack believes the answer to mother nature’s challenge is to achieve 100 percent soil cover.

“My goal is to have a dense stand of palatable range grasses that entirely covers the ground, with some shrubs,” he said.

Keeping the soil covered provides many benefits, such as reducing erosion caused by wind and rain; increasing water holding capacity and boosting organic matter. Adding more biodiversity to the cover helps prevent disease and pest problems associated with monocultures.

To that end, he’s planted a “range cocktail” – a mix of crested wheatgrass, western wheatgrass, alfalfa, turnip, and yellow sweet clover. He’s always looking for new mixes to try on his seeded pastures. This approach also ties in with another principle of soil health – maximizing diversity.

Jack stresses the importance of a recovery period to ensure plants have enough time to recover from grazing during the current or upcoming growing season.

To that end, Jack uses high-intensity, short-duration prescribed grazing. His herd grazes a small plot for a short time, then lets the area recover for the rest of the growing season.

“We aim for four head per acre, with a hoof print on every square foot,” he said.

This type of intensive grazing management helps to minimize disturbance of the soil, allowing plenty of time for the pastures to rest.

Secret Valley Ranch – An abundance of native rangeland diversity

Mark and Patti Bennett manage a cow/calf operation in Unity, Oregon, with a conservation-minded vision for native plant diversity.

Mark Bennett - Rancher in Baker County, OregonWith help from multiple agencies including NRCS, the Bennett’s have removed invasive western juniper on 7,000 acres of the ranch. Their goal in removing juniper is to promote a diverse spread of native rangeland grasses, shrubs and forbs to not only feed their cows, but to also support wildlife habitat, enhance water infiltration, and create healthy rangeland soils.

Junipers are thirsty trees. One juniper can absorb up to 55 gallons of water a day from the soil. After removing the junipers, Mark has noticed water returning to natural ground springs that had once run dry.

Junipers tend to choke out sagebrush and forbs. If left unchecked, they can create a monoculture stand with very little biodiversity. Removing juniper is beneficial to wildlife such as the greater sage grouse, which depends on diverse shrubs and forbs for food and shelter.

Mark and Patti follow a rest rotation grazing system that promotes and improves diverse mixes of native plants, including bunchgrasses, legumes and wildflowers such as phlox and lupine. These plants have varying root structures that tap into multiple levels of the soil profile, creating a diverse web of roots to feed soil microbes.

They monitor the quality of the forage by taking photos at 15 monitoring sites annually, with assistance from the NRCS Conservation Stewardship Program.

In their more diverse pastures, they have seen more resistance to weeds like cheatgrass and medusahead.

“With such a high diversity of range plants, you don’t leave a lot of room for weeds,” Mark said.

Jensen Farms – Living roots thrive in no-till, high-residue farm

Kenneth and Sheri Jensen farm about 1,000 acres of irrigated cropland producing wheat, corn, alfalfa and various vegetable seed crops in the Willow Creek Valley near Jamieson, Oregon. They also manage a cow/calf operation on adjacent rangeland and forestland.

Kenneth and Sheri JensenWith only 8 inches annual rainfall (half which falls outside of the growing season), this region demands irrigation on all crops, even the wheat.

“There’s no such thing as dryland crops here,” Kenneth said. “This takes serious irrigation.”

Farming in such a dry climate means that the Jensen’s must maximize the water holding capacity of their soil, so they can make the most of every drop of water.

That’s why the Jensen’s strive to keep a living root in the soil as much as possible with their high-residue cropping system. They leave the crop stubble on the fields after harvest, which provides extra cover and protection for the soil. It’s also cow feed. During the winter, the cows graze the stubble and then feed on hay on top of those fields.

They plant cover crops to keep a living root in the soil during the winter; and they graze the cover crops off using their cattle. Kenneth is experimenting with different cover crop mixes but has found the most success with beardless barley.

“There’s always something on the ground here,” Kenneth said. “It’s probably only been plowed two or three times in its life.”

The Jensen’s gave up the plow and starting using strip till equipment and a no-till drill in 2009, which significantly minimizes soil disturbance. Reducing soil disturbance provides many benefits to the land, such as healthy plant growth, less erosion, more water infiltration, and higher organic matter.

Since they switched to a no-till system, Kenneth says “Our water retention is much better, and we don’t fight the crusting problem.” They also increased their soil organic matter from 0.5 percent to 3.5 percent!

And economically, it makes sense. Using the strip till requires fewer passes in the field. Kenneth spends less than 250 hours a year on his tractor, and he burns significantly less fuel with less wear and tear on equipment.

“Economics drives this—we’re not tree huggers,” Kenneth said. “We farm this way because it’s more profitable.”

Crown Cattle Ranch – Trying new approaches to rest the soil

Mat Carter manages a cow/calf/yearling operation at high elevation in the Bear Valley of Seneca, Oregon. His growing season is only 45 days long with potential for frost on the ground every day.

Mat Carter, Rancher in Grant County, OregonMat is not afraid to try new ideas and do things differently than most of his neighbors. This includes his calving season.

Typically calving season occurs in March and April in the Bear Valley, but Mat changed his strategy so that his calves are born in May and June.

With a later calving season, Mat ensures the nutritional value of the forage is at its peak when the calves are born, which is important for both nursing mothers and calves.

Mat adapts his grazing strategy to incorporate more periods of high intensity, short duration grazing. He manages all of his cows in one herd during the spring time, which allows him to graze his pastures for a few days to a week before they move on to the next pasture. This approach allows the soil more time to rest and recover.

It also has a side benefit – the cows adopt a herd mentality. This makes working and moving the cows easier and also has advantages in defending against predators.

Mat has trained his herd to eat almost anything on the ground, especially during the winter. He uses an electric fence to keep the cows in specific areas of a pasture, which encourages them to eat whatever is available, which includes sagebrush and rabbitbrush.

Mat carries a notebook with him where he tracks a running list of things he has witnessed his cows eat. The list is quite impressive. His cows eat stinging nettles, tarweed, snowberry, Mountain Mahogany, buckwheat, white top, anthills… and much more.

By encouraging his cows to try different plants, and harnessing the benefits of a herd mentality, Mat's cows are more willing to eat different plants and pass along this knowledge to other cows in the herd and their offspring.

“Most of my neighbors think I’m crazy,” said Mat. But his results are hard to question. With his grazing rotation, Mat has achieved 3 percent organic matter in the soil on some of his seeded pastures.

He has shifted the plant species composition away from sagebrush-dominated pastures to more sites with grasses and forbs with only a small component of sagebrush in the native rangeland pastures.

Mat attributes his success to the health of his soils.

“A lot of things I do here are different from what other ranchers are doing,” Mat said. “I love to learn from people who are on the forefront of grazing innovation and try new things. I like to think outside of the box.”

Defrees Ranch – Grazing revives dredge tailings, range and forest soils

The Defrees Family manage a cow/calf operation on a mix of rangeland, irrigated pasture, and forestland in the Sumpter Valley of Baker County, Oregon. Their property includes a dredge tailing site where dredged material from the Powder River was pumped for gold mining in the early to mid-1900’s. Pictured: Dean Defrees (front) with Lyle and Delores in the background).

The Defrees Family, Baker County OregonFather and son duo, Lyle and Dean Defrees, along with their family, Sharon Defrees, Dallas Hall, Riley Hall, Nathan Defrees, Jess Defrees, Tyler Defrees and Max Patashnik, have been protecting their forested land, the wildlife habitat it provides, and the water supply that runs through it, for more than 100 years.

They have made soil conservation a family affair. For decades, the Defrees used their cows as tools to achieve soil health goals across multiple land uses – rangeland, forestland, and even a dredge tailing site.

The dredge tailing site used to look like a bare stretch of ground with rock piles and sparse vegetation, mostly weeds.

With the primary goal of weed control, they planted a variety of range grasses, shrubs and forbs on the site and then integrated their cattle by using the dredge tailings as winter feeding ground. Once the seeding established, they used a high intensity, short duration grazing strategy that minimizes ground disturbance and allows more time for the soil to rest.

“There was definitely a fertilizing benefit from the cows, we grazed them here in the summer months and put their feed on top of the snow in the winter months,” Dean said.

After 20 years of implementing soil health grazing practices, the dredge site went from 92 percent bare ground to 19 percent bare ground; and their pounds of usable forage per acre increased nearly 300 percent!

The Defrees use a high intensity, short duration grazing strategy that promotes healthy rest for the rangeland and pastures. Their shift from hayland to only grazing on irrigated pasture has improved efficiency extending into the irrigation season and has helped them maintain plant production throughout the season. It has also eliminated the need to maintain equipment to hay.

They also manage forestlands and have done several thinning projects to help promote healthy tree growth and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire. Their timber ground is about 80 percent ponderosa pine and about 20 percent larch and Doug Fir.

They have developed and updated a multi-objective forestry management plan focused on improving timber production, fuels reduction for fire, improving wildlife habitat, and integrating forest grazing. The cows are an important management tool for achieving their soil health goals.


Story and Photos by Tracy Robillard and Spencer Miller. Published July 2019 by NRCS Oregon.