Adaptive Management, Multispecies Grazing Improves Soil Health
A healthy soil ecosystem is the foundation of a productive, profitable livestock grazing operation and has the power to impart many ecological and economic benefits.
Actively applying soil health principles on the farm or ranch and incorporating adaptive grazing management strategies can help producers reap the rewards.
For producers new to using livestock grazing to improve soil health, Greg Brann, a Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) soil health specialist from Tennessee, suggests the following 5 steps to get started:
- Manage grazing heights. Allow plants to get adequate size, at least 6-8 inches on average, before turning livestock out to graze.
- When forage is growing fast, rotate fast and top graze the upper third (e.g. if canopy height is 8 inches, graze the top 2 inches, leaving 6 inches of residue).
- Use long rest periods combined with short duration high intensity grazing to lessen disturbance, allow plants sufficient recovery time, and distribute manure more evenly.
- Designate one pasture or skip a paddock every rotation to serve as a reserve pasture of stockpiled forage for use during drought or winter. Try to graze within 90 days.
- Distribute water across grazing areas to encourage better forage utilization.
For beginners considering grazing cover crops or other annual forages, Brann says, "Use a single species at first, until you get the livestock numbers right and the rotation down."
Producers should expect a delay between planting and when plants will be ready to graze. In addition, as cover crops are more sensitive to overgrazing and lack the carbohydrate reserves of their perennial cousins, grazing heights should be monitored to minimize occurrence of overgrazing and ensure adequate leaf area for plant regrowth.
While grazing of cover crops is short-lived (+/- 30 days), Brann explains with proper management producers can expect average daily gains as high as three or more pounds per acre, making this an excellent option for livestock with higher nutritional needs such as stockers or feeder cattle.
Lastly, grazing multiple livestock species together is another opportunity to capitalize on the benefits they impart to soil health. A side benefit from this practice is the addition of a new enterprise to the livestock business and the opportunity to tap into new markets.
Brann used the example of sheep and goats which have pellet-shaped manure compared to the patty shape of cow manure.
"You get a bigger bang from the goat and sheep manure because of the form it is distributed," says Brann. "It takes five or six sheep to equal one cow, so look at the area they are covering versus that one cow."
As well Brann remarks, small ruminants generally graze different plants than cattle and require less water compared to their bovine counterparts which lets them travel farther to graze. On a typical farm, he recommends a multispecies ratio of one sheep to two cows or one goat to one cow. Keeping animal ratios in balance ensures the small ruminants do not impact cattle's grazing.
Using these management strategies and incorporating changes slowly will help put livestock producers on the road to improving soil. The important thing is to continuously be observant and focusing on keeping the all aspects of the ecosystem in balance.
Authored by Jesse Bussard, an agricultural writer based in Bozeman, Montana.