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Beefs and Beliefs

Cover-crop farmers still missing the boat of livestock value

When managed properly, beef cattle and other livestock can build the soil more quickly than cover crops alone.


I learned quite a bit at the Southern Soil Health Conference last week in Fort Worth, Texas.

First, and possibly most important, I learned that many farmers still don't understand the value of livestock in developing soil health. In reality, I already knew this but it was blatantly reinforced and clarified for me last week. Of the eight farmers who spoke at the conference, only three were actually using livestock in their rotations of cover crops and traditional crops. One had decided, it sounded like reluctantly, that he would have to use livestock. Only two were using high-stock-density grazing.

Second, I learned once again that most folks don't begin to realize how important high stock density grazing is to soil health. Only two speakers out of seven mentioned this immutable truth during the two-day conference. Of course, Gabe Brown from North Dakota was the main one. Jonathan Cobb of Rogers, Texas, was the other.

It's probably worth mentioning here the five principles of soil health which NRCS has laid out, and upon which the conference was built. These principles are preached by Brown and it has been well documented these things have taken his family far in the direction of healthier, more productive soils and much higher profitability.

1. Keep the soil covered
2. Minimize mechanical disturbance
3. Maximize living roots
4. Energize the life cycles with diversity
5. Integrate livestock

Although these principles are often taught to crop farmers in conjunction with cover cropping, they are completely applicable to grazing grassland, as well. In fact, I won't go into great detail about it here but these are the principles which naturally built the great grasslands of North America in prehistoric times, as well as all other grasslands around the world. We'll go into more detail about this in the June issue of Beef Producer when we devote the entire issue to soil health.

Brown likely pioneered HSD grazing on crop ground and says he began to use that management tool after spending time in 2007 with Neil Dennis in Saskatchewan. He says at first he couldn't see the difference between moving cattle once per day, as he was doing, and moving them multiple times each day, which Dennis was and still is doing. A shovel changed his mind.

He and Dennis dug in those soils and nearby soils that had less animal impact, such as under permanent fence lines, and the darkness and composition of those HSD-grazed soil made the sale. Darker-colored soils generally indicate higher organic matter. Crumbly, blocky soil structure is also a sign of health, whereas tight, dense uniform-blended soils indicate the opposite. These differences convinced Brown that livestock grazed at high stock density as the missing link in his building soil health in his soils.

Since that time the Brown family has used HSD grazing quite a lot and has increased stock densities on grasslands also, though Brown told me recently they have put more high density onto crop ground than onto pasture.

Usually they use highest stock densities in the growing season and moves of four to six times per day. In the winter it's more common for the Browns to graze standing cover crops at lower densities that allow for cattle moves about every two days. They also tend not to graze cows with calves at very high stock density because it seems to stress the calves.

Livestock at high stock densities have many advantages besides the inherent way they increase soil microbial activity, as Brown laid out in his talk.

• They help him terminate cover crops.
• They can be timed to consume only about 25% of the crop and lay most of the rest on the ground to feed soil microbes.
• They turn cover crops into profit centers.
• They can stay off pastures longer, giving grassland more recovery time.

Brown says his soil organic matter, which is the currency of soil life and the biological capital we can store in the ground, began to increase more rapidly once he began using livestock more effectively under high-stock-density grazing.

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