Promoting better forages and enhancing soil health

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Fall is an excellent time of the year for stockpiling fescue for delayed grazing. 

Fescue maintains its quality when exposed to adverse autumn and winter weather conditions, remaining in a vegetative growth state and storing energy in the roots to promote lush spring growth.

Fescue may grow one or more tons per acre of fresh, high quality forage for winter strip grazing. Livestock may graze stockpiled fescue while the ground is frozen in the winter without cutting up the sod and developing muddy areas, allowing the livestock a chance to leave the heavy use area for winter feeding.

Timing is critical in rotational grazing because it impacts soil health and forage production. Grazing cool season forages in the spring may require rotational grazing during the forage growing season, while it is better to pull the livestock from the pastures in the late summer and fall to receive maximum forage growth.

Delayed grazing

Using delayed strip grazing until the grass goes dormant will improve root development for spring growth. Delayed grazing is one of the many ways to enhance soil health. Growing roots help the bacteria, fungi, and microscopic insects survive and build soil organic matter.

In the spring we rotate grazing livestock through pastures quickly and slow rotations as the pastures slow in growth through the summer.

Cool season forages are normally grazed to four inches and warm season forages to six inches, which results in trimming the root length in half. The trimmed roots deposit carbon-rich organic matter. In fact, research reveals that for every one ton of carbon organic matter deposited into the soil more than three and a half tons of CO2 is sequestered from the atmosphere.

Organic matter

Increasing organic matter in the soil is a common goal for forage producers so it’s important to understand how much organic matter the soil contains. One acre of soil six inches deep weighs two million pounds. One acre of soil six inches deep containing one percent organic matter equates to 20,000 pounds of organic matter per acre, two percent organic matter equates to 40,000 pounds, three percent organic matter equates to 60,000 pounds, and so on.

This organic matter has the potential to hold up to 20 percent of its weight in water and nutrients. Soils with one percent organic matter holds 4,000 pounds of water and nutrients, soils with two percent organic matter holds 8,000 pounds, and soils with three percent organic matter holds 30,000 pounds.

Plants use the valuable moisture and nutrients held in organic matter. However, nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium may not all be released and available at the same time during plant growth.

Soil sample results provide the levels of nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, in the soil along with acidity, and the level of calcium. Soil acidity and calcium levels determine the “cation exchange capacity,” or CEC, the plants ability to adsorb or hold nutrients for plants to use.

Improving soil

Testing soil for organic matter content is also helpful in making nutrient management decisions to improve soil health. Organic matter feeds the beneficial organisms in the soil, which are most active at a temperature of about 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Bacteria and fungi feeds on the roots that slough off when grazing livestock shorten the leaves of the forage, releasing nitrogen in the process that the plant needs for re-growth.

Protozoans feed on that same bacteria, fungi, and algae, slowly releasing nitrogen in the process. Mites help break down and shred organic matter, again releasing nitrogen. Worms and nematodes feed on the microorganisms, releasing nitrogen and adding nutrient rich casts beneficial for plant growth.

Earthworms improve the soil further by making lubricated tunnels that builds soil structure and increase the soils’ water infiltration capacity.

Keeping living roots in the soil all year is a major plus for soil health. A combination of a diverse forage species mix covering the ground year-round results in healthier soil.

Those plants not consumed by livestock may be the most important plants in the field. These plants may draw water and nutrients from a depth that other plants can’t reach due to the extended root zone.

The payoff

Investing in soil health pays dividends. Rotational grazing improves soil health, improves water, air, and plant quality, improves yields, improves animal health, and ultimately improves human lives.

There are other ways to improve soil health and maximize forage production. Please check with the local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Office for assistance.

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Troyce Barnett is a grazing specialist with the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service in Ohio. Questions or comments can be sent in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem OH 44460.

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