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Animal Health Notebook

Why do cattlemen lack interest in soil health?

Why do cattlemen lack interest in soil health?
Healthy soil is the key to profits and ease of operation; we should embrace it completely.


September 1976 was an exciting yet nervous time for me and my family. I was getting into the short rows of finishing veterinary school, and the beef cattle business was moving at a snail’s pace from the market crash of September ’73. I drove north and west to look for a 10 week internship. Money was short, real short. I had completed all but the final two quarters of formal veterinary schooling. I had been engaged in vet medicine since age 15 and now was being turned loose to conquer the world or sink. Almost no one was begging for another cow doctor. It would not be a cake walk.

It was my first lesson about the fickle economics of modern agriculture.

Healthy soil is full of roots and has an active organic layer on top to protect it. It also provides its own nutrients and holds more dramatically more water than low-organic matter soil.

Four decades later I will promise you that several of us have been nearly exhaustive in our efforts to stay up close to the cutting edge of the animal kingdom and life. There have been plenty of wrong roads, mistakes, frustrations and several wrecks. The 1980s wreck lasted 10 years. I have lived through several since then.

The natural principles have not changed. In the 70s we heard very little of these principles and it cost us dearly. I am thinking that little has changed. Today our industry still is searching for silver bullets rather than adapting to nature and His laws.

The soil-plant-animal complex is a key natural principle and model, and in its fully functioning beauty and production is hard to find in North America. Plants require animals to grow and remain highly functional, productive and alive.

High-health animals require a hugely diverse number of plants growing and harvested from an environment that is far better than the soil under most of our pastures.

Quality pastures are highly profitable. Quality soil is highly profitable. Quality cattle can be highly profitable. The truth is, all three are required and almost nobody chooses to manage for them on an ongoing daily basis.

When in place and functioning and being managed properly the soil-plant-animal complex successfully cushions the effects of weather extremes. Very hot, very cold, very dry and very wet are not actually abnormal since they happen with regularity.

Healthy people are dependent on a healthy vibrant soil-plant-animal complex. A handful of plant scientists, agronomists and animal scientists have figured this out and are becoming husbandry-men and -women. It is overdue.

Quality soil demands feed from animals and plants. Quality plants demand the result of timed animal presence. Healthy people require and should demand quality beef harvested from quality forage grown on quality soil. The very old and the young of our species are even more in need of the best.

Everything written above is factual. History proves the points as does good science and medicine. Yet the truth is that most cattlemen are not interested in soil health. Row crop farmers are now talking and studying soil health. Hopefully they will soon be fencing their fields and reintroducing livestock to restore much of what has been lost. They have tried about everything else.

North Dakota’s Brown Ranch at Bismarck has been building quality soil by using multi-species cover crops and true not-till farming successfully for better than 10 years. Gabe Brown tells me that forward progress is well over twice as fast when they include cattle grazed at high densities.

They are growing 118 bushel-per-acre corn without chemical or purchased fertilizer. These farmer/ranchers are not only building soil in their high desert environment but they are keeping it at home and multiplying soil under even drought conditions as well as floods. They are making considerably more money than they are spending on production. They spend time on a real regular basis looking down and monitoring and tweaking management practices based on the soil-plant-animal complex.

Why are cattlemen lacking interest in soil health?

Age and apathy are excuses I often hear. A friend of mine told me a while back that he was too old to look down and change his grazing plan and add complete plant recovery.

He had just finished complaining, “GMO corn and bean meal is not resulting in the same positive kick in our cattle that it did 30 years ago and I’m having to feed at least twice as much these days.”

Then he started in on the weather  and the cattle market. I might shouldn’t have done it but I told him that if he didn’t change his attitude the county might just end up being forced to pay for his funeral. He promised to sell the place for a retirement community before going completely broke.

Soil health should be a cattleman’s dream.

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