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Grazing for the Good of It

By Rebecca Gresham, NRCS Planner

Soil health isn’t just a popular topic of discussion among farmers, ranchers are also discovering how adjusting their management techniques can affect soil quality underneath their grazing land, in turn, improving forage quality.

Jeff Goodwin, pasture and range consultant for the Noble Research Institute, recently discussed the importance of soil health in perennial pastures to a group of farmers and ranchers attending the Fourth Annual Southern Soil Health Conference recently held in Wichita Falls, Texas. The event was hosted by Green Cover Seed and Noble Research Institute.

 “To develop healthy perennial pastures, we need to utilize and manage the timing, distribution, frequency and intensity of grazing management and fire,” Goodwin told the audience.

Cattle Can Help

Goodwin pointed out how proper management is key to a healthy, diverse plant community and soil. Cattle recycle 85 percent of the nutrients that they consume, returning them back to the soil. Disturbance from hoof action helps incorporate the recycled nutrients and residue into the soil.

“Rangeland needs a cow on it; it needs to be grazed,” said Goodwin. “These plant communities are created through disturbance and were built to be utilized.”

Goodwin visited with the audience about how grazing rangeland not only puts pounds on cattle, but when properly managed, it also increases productivity of the plants and soil. Goodwin recommended ranchers utilize the entire pasture, but still leave a good residue behind. He added that 30 percent of grass roots die every year, and cautioned producers against using a management system that increases that number. To avoid causing plant damage, he stressed that ranchers should ensure that all paddocks are rested an adequate number of days before returning.

“Overgrazing is a symptom of time, grazing must be managed correctly to avoid it. You never want to leave your ground unprotected,” Goodwin stated. “Bare ground is the number one enemy when building soil health.”

Residue left in the pastures is not wasted. It is an investment into organic matter and carbon bank. Organic matter increases the soils infiltration and pore space. Goodwin said an increase of one percent of organic matter into soil can result in a twenty thousand gallons per acre increase of water storage in soil.

“We can’t make it rain, but we can manipulate the rainfall we receive to keep it in our soil. What we have to do is create a bigger sponge,” explained Goodwin. “Soil is the base for all living and growing things. N civilization has outlived the usefulness of its soil. We don’t want to just be sustainable; we want to be better.”                      

Plan for Plant Diversity

Dewey County Conservation District board member and vice president of the Oklahoma Association of Conservation Districts, Jimmy Emmons, farms and ranches near Weatherford, Oklahoma. As one of the featured speakers at the Southern Soil Health Conference, Emmons emphasized the importance of the soil, and how to improve it with pollinator strips and companion crops, on both crop and rangeland.

“If we don’t start looking below the ground and understanding what is happening, we are missing it,” Emmons said. “Planting rotation has everything to do with your soil health system.”

He explained how diversity improves soil health and each plant should have a purpose. “Minimize soil disturbance, no-till soil will be softer, healthier every year and leave the soil armored,”  he told the audience.

“You cannot take everything. When people take everything it turns into a desert,” he added. “You have to leave cover.”

Companion crops are planted to attract beneficial insects and to suppress weeds and detour pests. According to Emmons, the benefits gained from companion crops will exceed the damages that would occur without them and they also provide residue when planting. The yield may decrease by 50 percent, Emmons added, but in turn will gain 60 plus days of grazing.

“If the companion crop takes over the cash crop, go to plan B and graze it. Learn to be adaptive to maximize profits,” Emmons explained.

“You don’t have to run it through a combine to be profitable. Use cattle, grazing is part of a system,” he said. “You don’t have to have the biggest yield to be the most profitable.”

Managing for Maximum Utilization

Cattle ranchers often find that one of the hardest things to overcome in an intensive grazing system is getting animals were they need to be for maximized utilization of the entire pasture. There are many different options to consider when choosing the right kind of fencing and watering facilities for grazing management systems.

“You must be able to deliver adequate amounts of water, at the right place and the right time,” said Doug Peterson, national soil health specialist for the NRCS in Missouri and Iowa. “The closer they are to the water, the higher the grazing efficiency.”

Evaluate and consider all water sources. The only way for a grazing management system to work is if there is adequate water where needed. Ponds, springs, creeks, wells and public water all need to be taken into account to find the most efficient way to keep animals watered.

Planning and preparing paddocks for a grazing system require a lot of attention to timing and current conditions. Peterson instructed the audience that water and forage should be in the right proportions for the number of animals the ranchers intends to run for an allotted time.  

“A proper fence is anything that keeps your livestock where you want them,” said Peterson. “It’s easy, but it’s not simple.”

Whether you choose to have permanent or temporary fencing, it’s only effective if it meets the needs of the livestock. Having the flexibility of temporary fencing allows a more adaptive grazing program. Peterson pointed out that there is a lot of new equipment out there to make moving fence and livestock more convenient for producers.

Rethink Your Grazing System

Texas A&M AgriLife Researcher Richard Teague started the second day of the conference with a presentation of his findings for grazing management to regenerate the soil and farm livelihood.

According to Teague’s research, over 90 percent of the best soils were found on land that used an intensive grazing management system.

“Ranchers who are doing a good job are twenty to thirty years ahead of academics,” said Teague. “The operators who are out there doing a good job everyday are the ones who are making a difference. “We look after the land for the general population.If you want excellent results, you need excellent management.”

Teague said the biggest limiting factor in grazing land is water availability in the soil. Continuous grazing systems result in plants with shallow root systems, causing a decrease in infiltration. Organic matter on an adaptive management system showed to improve tenfold over a ten year period, increasing infiltration from one inch to ten inches per hour.

Teague stressed that proper management of intensive grazing is key to keeping your plant communities healthy and productive, and allowing adequate recovery time so that roots aren’t damaged and optimum sunlight absorption occurs. Grazing can be increased by 20 to 40 percent if adapted to the current condition. Managing for healthy soil reduces input costs and increases production.

“If you have a healthy fungi and earthworm population, you don’t need to add extra fertilizer,” said Teague. 

Timing of grazing is crucial to get the maximum profit from grass. Digestible energy and digestible protein must be at a balance. Grazing when first possible wastes nutrients, and grazing when nutrients are at a low results in a decrease in beef yield and profits.

“Your goals should be to manage for the best results possible,” said Teague “Success requires you to take things into account that you haven’t before. Don’t modify how you think now: rethink it.” 

Grazing for the Good of It, Rebecca Gresham, NRCS Planner,(2018, January)