In our perennial grazing fields this means allowing adequate time to rest and let the species recover and rebuild. The grasslands across the US evolved under grazing animals. As an animal takes a bite of a grass it must sluff off roots to concentrate energy to help recover the lost biomass. Sluffed roots feed soil biology and improve organic matter. If grasses are left ungrazed, the old material can shade out the leaves of new grasses over time decreasing the availability of sunlight available for the new plants. If grasses are grazed too frequently the sluffed root growth cannot keep up with the plants’ regrowth demand and the grasses diminish. In our farmed fields we are trying to leave the soil intact by planting without tillage when possible. Soil is composed of aggregates, which is comparable to a brick building. Sand, silt, and clay particles are spaces, leaving spaces like rooms in a building called pores. These pores hold water, air, and nutrients for the plant roots and other soil biology. Tillage or compaction from over grazing can crush these pores leaving the soil biology behind to pick up the pieces before they can begin to be productive in the plant community again.
Keep soil covered
Especially in our dry climate, soil cover is extremely important. Soil cover reduces evaporation from the soil surface, just like we would hang out under a tree on a warm day. In addition to helping store soil moisture for the plant, it aids in water infiltration and reduces erosion. When a raindrop comes crashing down at about 20 miles per hour to the soil surface, it can dislodge some soil particles causing them to block pore spaces. If the soil is covered by residue, it acts as a cushion reducing the impact of the raindrops allowing water to infiltrate. Finally, the residue on the surface is more available for the soil biology to use it as food and begin to cycle it back into the soil.
Maintain living roots
We all understand that plants use the process of photosynthesis to create their energy, but what is not as well known is that the energy plants create is also used by the soil biology. Sugars and other compounds produced by plant are exuded out through the plant roots to feed the soil biology. Like the mob, the plant pays in advance for the services from the underground organisms. These “bugs” cycle and provide nutrients to the plant and often their sheer numbers prevent pest species from chomping on their roots. Perennial grass grows year round, plus the full season cover crops we have added, increase the time frame during the year that we have living roots growing.
In a healthy teaspoon of soil there are more “bugs” than people on the planet and upwards of 50,000 different species. This leads to a lot of hungry mouths to feed. While one bug may step up to a plate full of broccoli, the next may be craving something different.With billions of hungry mouths to feed it is important to provide a balanced and diverse diet to ensure you have the bugs present to perform the jobs you need done. Our crop rotation includes alfalfa, potatoes, wheat, and now multispecies cover crops that we graze. On our grazing land we graze to retain and improve diversity.
Livestock improve the operation in many ways. They help the pastures continue to improve and add another aspect of diversity to the operation. Their hoof impact makes a difference in nutrient cycling. Intense impact brings more of the crop residue in contact with soil surface so it can be used by the soil biology. Some of the bugs from the cows’ mouth or backside inoculate the soil. Grazing cows excrete 90 percent of the nitrogen from grazed plants back into the soil. If a crop were hayed or exported off the field all the nitrogen would leave with it, but grazing keeps most of the nutrients in the fields.
All of these practices play a role in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This occurs mainly through the process of photosynthesis which combines carbon dioxide and water with sunlight to produce sugars and oxygen. The sugars and other phytochemicals in the plant are carbon based. They feed soil biology, and in time turn into more complex carbons as organic matter resulting in long term storage of carbon sequestration. We work with agronomist Kate Vogel of North 40 Ag out of Ballantine, MT to ensure we are meeting our regenerative goals. With their help we have made some adjustments to operation and now really focus on the principles of soil health and improving our overall practices. If you would like more information on soil health practices, you can visit their website.