Healthy soils are fundamental to sustainable rangelands. In fact, “grazing lands occupy nearly half the Earth’s land area, provide livelihoods for millions, and mitigate climate change via massive stores of carbon,” explains Ken Tate with UC Rangelands. “Maintaining and restoring soil health is essential to ensuring these benefits in our ever changing environment.”
Healthy soil can increase the resilience of rangelands to weather variability and predicted climate change. It also offers enhanced water-holding capacity and increased nutrient cycling.
Improper livestock grazing can compact soils and reduce plant vigor, resulting in more runoff, decreased plant rooting and soil carbon and decreased soil fertility and biodiversity, Tate says.
To improve soil health, Jim Johnson, senior soils and crops consultant at Noble Research Institute, suggests the following:
- Armor the soil – Actively growing forages and forage residues helps keep the soil covered. You can manage your forages and forage residues through grazing management and stocking rates based on carrying capacity. You can’t keep the soil sufficiently covered on a ranch that is consistently overstocked and overgrazed. Regenerative ranchers manage forage residual heights and amounts during both growing and dormant seasons. If base forage doesn’t provide enough soil cover, you can use annual forages or cover crops.
- Minimize disturbance – Grazing is a natural disturbance, while mechanical tillage is not natural. The goal is to find balance. Periodic soil disturbance by the hooves of grazing animals and tunneling by roots and earthworms is natural and good for soil health. This is why you may sometimes hear graziers state this principle as “optimize disturbance.”
- Focus on plant diversity – Graze multiple species of animals and diverse mixes of forages in pastures that are alive with micro- and macro-flora and fauna both above and below ground.
- Keep a living root year-round – Increase your actively growing roots by managing for polycultures of warm- and cool-season perennial forages or overseeding with annual cover crops to fill gaps when your primary forage is dormant.
- Follow proper livestock integration – Manage and manipulate the five critical grazing fundamentals: timing, frequency, intensity, duration and rest. Rotational grazing can reduce compaction, increase carbon stores and mitigate climate change.
Successful ranchers know their climate, geography, resources, skills, family dynamics, goals and other factors that influence their operations. They know what’s available to them and apply the rest of the soil health principles to make the most of what they have to benefit their land and profitability.
Organic matter is important to the soil health of your ranch, enabling it to properly soak in nutrients and water. On YouTube’s American Beef Farm, this Idaho rancher shows what happens when organic matter isn’t ideal and talks about optimum organic matter percentages.
In fact, if you could increase your soil’s organic matter by just 1/2 a percent, you could store about 9/10th of an inch more rainwater, according to RealAgriculture’s Peter Johnson, resident agronomist. In that video, he also shares some simple strategies for how you can pump up organic matter levels so your field soil can hold more water and nutrients.
Download the infographic from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that shares more of soil’s important benefits.