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Cattle eating pasture on healthy soils.

Using Livestock to Make Healthy Soils

by Ryan Heinen, Land & Livestock Manager | If you have driven by the farm recently you may have noticed a small herd of cows grazing near the old dairy barn. Over the next months and into 2019 we will be in the process of building livestock flocks and herds of sheep and cattle. Their job will be to produce fine grass-fed meat, milk and wool. Livestock will also play a key role in managing the land for wildlife, healthy plants, woodlands, and improving the health of our soils.

Soil health is a popular topic in agriculture these days. It is said that a teaspoon of healthy soil contains more living organisms than there are people on earth. That’s over 6 billion! Soils are very complicated systems, and much is still not understood about them. Four key concepts produce healthy soils. They include: reducing or eliminating soil disturbance, maintaining plant diversity, keeping living roots in the soil as much as possible, and keeping the soil covered at all times.

Well-managed rotational grazing accomplishes all four of these concepts. Perennial pastures, once planted, will rarely be disturbed with tillage. Each pasture is planted with a diverse mix of 15 different species, including grasses, forbs (flowers), and legumes. This does not include the additional species of plants that will naturally come into the pasture over time. The pasture has living roots in the soil at all times. These hold the soil, prevent erosion, and allow rain water to filter into the ground. These roots are also constantly pumping carbon into the soil after each grazing event, helping to mitigate global warming, and increasing soil organic matter.

Pasture plants shade and cover the soil, and when grazed in a rotation, stay vigorous and diverse. Soils are nourished by the nutrients in the manure but also by the diversity of microbial life in the cow’s stomach, which pass into the soil through the manure. By rotating livestock on pasture we can help to build new soil and keep the soil we have fertile and full of life. 

Here is a link to a very good 12-minute video called “The Soil Carbon Cowboys”: http://www.soilcarboncowboys.com/.  It shows how some innovative farmers and ranchers are using cattle to improve soil health on their farms. We will be using some of these same practices on Gwenyn Hill Farm in the future with our cattle and sheep.    

I will close with a quote I like from Clinton P. Anderson, the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in 1948. He said, “Grassland agriculture is a good way to farm and to live, the best way I know of to use and improve soil, the very thing on which our life and civilization rest. Through the foods that come from it, grass can give us better health. It is our alliance with nature. It is a tool against floods and a guardian of the water supplies of cities. It is a source of strength as we face that time when we shall give less emphasis to commodities likely to produce surpluses and instead direct more attention to practices designed to sustain the productivity of our soils… Our land resources will be better used when we can turn more to grass and livestock farming.”

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