Part five in a series of short articles on the soil health principles by Mark J. Kopecky, New Mexico State Agronomist,
United States Dept. of Agriculture/ Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA/NRCS)
We’re wrapping up our discussion about the principles of soil health with a look at the fifth principle, Integrating Livestock. In the “Soil Health Circle” diagram we’ve been covering, you can see there are only four sectors, each dealing with a principle we’ve covered in these past few weeks:
Officially NRCS considers this principle to be part of “Maximizing Biodiversity,” but many of us feel that integrating livestock has such substantial benefits to a soil health management system that it merits its own place among the principles.
Grazing results in ecological benefits beyond what’s possible without livestock, and it’s also an important economic component to soil health systems for all ranchers and many farmers.
To help us understand this principle better, I’ve borrowed some information from Jay Fuhrer, retired NRCS Soil Health Specialist from North Dakota:
Animals, plants, and soils have played a synergistic role together over geological time. In recent years, animals are playing a reduced role due to being placed in confinement, and fewer farms now include livestock as part of their overall operation.
Why do we want to return livestock to the landscape?
- Fall or winter grazing converts high carbon annual crop residue to low carbon organic material; balancing the carbon/nitrogen ratio and managing our crop rotation residue for no-till seeding.
- Spring or summer grazing annual and/or perennial plants with short exposure periods followed by long recovery periods allows the plants to regrow and harvest additional sunlight and CO2.
- Reducing nutrient export from our cropland and hayland fields: In lieu of transporting feed to a feed lot, we can reverse the roles and have the livestock graze the material in place, recycling the majority of nutrients, minerals, vitamins, and carbon.
- Managing weed pressure by grazing in lieu of using herbicides.
- Grazing cover crops and/or crop residues allows us to take the livestock off the perennial grasslands earlier in the fall, extending the grass recovery period and providing a higher livestock nutritional diet.
- Grazing reduces livestock waste associated with confinement, helping to manage our water quality and nutrient management concerns.
- Allowing cattle and sheep to be herbivores by securing their energy needs from plants.
How do we return livestock to the landscape?
- Winter and fall grazing cover crops and annual crop residues
- Summer grazing a full season cover crop, allowing adequate plant recovery, followed by a second grazing during the fall or winter
- Winter feeding on hayland fields (or rangeland) by rolling out bales or bale grazing.
- Seeding rotational perennials, grazing and managing as part of the crop rotation.
But simply giving cattle access to range or cropland is no guarantee for improving soil health. Grazing needs to be done thoughtfully, limiting the amount of time cattle have access to a particular area and allowing the stand to rest and regenerate between grazings.
If stands are overgrazed or otherwise not carefully managed, livestock will actually degrade soil health. Our neighbors from Colorado State University published a very nice extension bulletin last year that describes how well-managed vs. unmanaged grazing practices can affect soil health:
So—that takes us all the way through the principles of soil health. Next, we’ll start digging a little deeper into some of the specific processes and interactions in soils that affect soil health and how we can work with these to improve our cropland and range. Stay tuned for more articles on this blog!
Connect with your local NRCS office to learn about available financial and technical assistance
to build soil health on your farm or ranch.
NMDA’s Healthy Soil Program
The New Mexico Department of Agriculture (NMDA)’s Healthy Soil Program is based on the 5 healthy soil principles, offering incentives and education to farmers and ranchers. Click for more information!