Most beef producers view healthy cattle and healthy forages as the building blocks of a successful business. But don’t forget the entire process begins with the soil, advises Chad Ellis, pasture and range consultant with the Noble Foundation.
"The management of soil health is of vital importance to producers," he says. "As managers, we often focus on managing the above-ground production in our pastures while paying little attention to what happens below ground. Sound grazing management is the art of capturing sunlight and water while recycling a portion of the above-ground parts of the plant through livestock."
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He offers these five principles for building soil health:
1) Keep soil covered. Bare ground is “enemy No. 1,” says Ellis. “It is damaging because it increases soil temperatures and even kills biological activity. Once soil temperatures reach 140 degrees, soil bacteria die. The soil must be covered through forage and crop residue.”
2) Minimize soil disturbance. Physically disturbing soil by plowing or overgrazing can result in bare ground and compacted soils that disrupt soil microbial activity. Reduced tillage and proper grazing management in pastures will keep soil covered.
3) Increase plant diversity. Plant diversity allows for a more diverse microbial population in the soil. Forage will respond better due to increased biological activity.
4) Keep living roots in the ground all year. Soils are most productive when soil microbes have access to living plant material. A living root provides a food source for beneficial bacteria and promotes the relationship between plant roots and mycorrhizal fungi. “This is aided by increased plant diversity, which can be achieved by incorporating cover crops into your pasture and crop systems,” he notes.
5) Integrate livestock grazing. Grazing improves soil and plant health by recycling nutrients, reducing plant selectivity and increasing plant diversity. But grazing systems must allow adequate rest between grazing for plants to recover.
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