(June 26, 2014) — For a long time the main focus on rangeland and pasture management was on the animal that grazed there. Then it shifted to the grass that the animal ate. Now most of the attention is on the soil where the grass grows.
The Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) unrolled its soil health initiative a little more than a year ago with a focus on year-round cropping, including cover crops, with minimal or no tillage.
Charles Kneuper, a rangeland management specialist with NRCS, believes that the importance of livestock is sometimes overlooked when it comes to soil health.
“Livestock integration is key to the overall soil health picture,” Kneuper recently told an audience at the Bell County Conservation Expo in Belton. “And you can integrate livestock without putting an animal on the ground. You can get dairy compost or turkey litter, apply that and get some of the same benefits.”
Kneuper talked about what he calls the “Fab Five” of soil health, with the first four tenets being arming the soil with living plants and crop residue, minimizing disturbances, establishing or allowing plant diversity, and maintaining living roots in the ground all year.
Those first four recommendations are from NRCS, Kneuper said. The fifth one relates to livestock, “because we’ve found that if you remove livestock, the soil is in worse condition than it is with it.”
By grazing livestock wisely, usually in a rotational system, organic matter stays in the soil longer and receives a heavy dose of nature’s fertilizers at the same time, Kneuper explained.
“Livestock bring in all kinds of biology to the soil,” Kneuper said. “You basically graze as many animals as you can in the smallest amount of land you can for as short a time as possible. You have to move them every day. We (NRCS) get people who want to do this, but they’re absentee landowners. That won’t work.”
But livestock is only the fifth principle of Kneuper’s Fab Five, and the rangeland specialist said the others are just as important.
The first one is maintaining organic matter in the soil, which compares to money in the bank in the sense that organic matter increases carbon, and carbon is the soil’s currency. Carbon currency buys a lot of water because just an inch of organic matter can retain 19,000 gallons of rain, Kneuper said. Without it, the water would run into the local waterways, carrying sediment with it.
“You can’t put a number on the value of water,” he said.
Soil with a lot of organic matter needs to be soil that has not been disturbed by physical, chemical or biological activity, and minimizing disturbances is the second of the Fab Five. Kneuper said it doesn’t mean that landowners should stop grazing or using fertilizers — but it does mean they should only do so wisely and in the intended manner.
The third premise of the Fab Five is establishing a diversity of plants consisting of warm and cool season grasses and broadleaves to produce different root structures, including some that can go deep in the soil to find and utilize moisture and nutrients.
Diversity also allows for a living root to stay in the ground all year, the fourth arm of the Fab Five.
The payoff for employing the Fab Five practices is healthy soil with structure, a balance of fungal and bacterial activity, and lots of earthworms. Poor soil will break off into large blocks when it’s dug up, but a healthy soil will be crumbly and hold a lot more water. Soil with blocks instead of crumbles acts more like concrete than soil when it rains, Kneuper said. The healthy, crumbly soil, he added, has probably not been tilled, either.
“Tillage is like adding fuel — oxygen — to a fire,” he said. “When the soil is exposed, the microbes burn up organic matter fast and hot. And then they’re gone. It’s like when the ice cream or the alcoholic beverages are gone at a party — when the good stuff’s gone, the party’s over.”
Kneuper said a lot of landowners tell him they till to loosen compacted soil.
“Tilling doesn’t work to break up compaction,” he said. “It takes time. It didn’t develop that plow pan in a year. It will take time to get the plant community out there to break up compaction.”
To get the most out of his Fab Five, Kneuper urges landowners to start with establishing organic matter in the soil — “armoring,” he calls it — and working down through the rest of the five principles. And take no shortcuts.
“If you start at three and work down, you’ve shot yourself in the foot,” he said.