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Cattle and grass form sustainable partnership

Continual improvement of the soil health of grazing land leads to improved sustainability.

Jennifer M. Latzke, Editor

April 14, 2022

4 Min Read
Cattle in field
GRAZING AND SOIL HEALTH: “Take half, leave half” — it’s advice that’s been handed down through generations of cattle producers managing their ranchlands. And it’s a key sustainability measure to show our responsible management of the 654 million acres of grazing lands in the continental United States. Lynn_Bystrom/Getty images

“Take half, leave half” — it’s advice that’s been handed down through generations of cattlemen managing their ranchlands. And it’s one of the many key sustainability measures we tout to show our responsible management of the 654 million acres of grazing lands that make up the single largest land use in the continental United States.

But there’s more that can be done to continuously improve our grazing management, and therefore our sustainability, says Hugh Aljoe, director of producer relations at the Noble Research Institute. And cattle can be the best partners in this arrangement.

Hugh Aljoe, Noble Research Institute, talks about ways to create a strong foundation with the land t

Aljoe spoke at the 2022 Cattlemen’s College on the relationship of livestock grazing and soil health.

Assessment

There’s plenty of buzz in the industry about grazing management strategies. Aljoe advises cattle producers that before they make major changes, they need to first step back and assess their operation’s sustainability measures. Noble worked with the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef to create a self-assessment tool for various sectors of the beef industry.

The tool measures six indicators, including: greenhouse gas emissions; animal health and well-being; efficiency and yield; employee safety and well-being; land resource utilization; and water resource utilization.

Once you have this assessment, you can then create a grazing management plan.

Aljoe and the researchers at NRI focus on regenerative land stewardship for grazing animal production, with lasting producer profitability. And that can be different for every cattle producer, depending on their available land and water, the terrain, soil fertility and forage types.

Adaptive grazing

The goal of adaptive grazing for soil health is to integrate livestock in a way that will help the grass regrow quickly — thus keeping a living root in the soil — and encourage water infiltration, Aljoe says.

“We provide rest and recovery through grazing events, to provide opportunities for soil health to occur, he explains. “Look at the entire system,” Aljoe says. “What’s our cause and effect?”

Black angus grazing

To understand, he advises, take a shovel and dig into the soil.

“I have spent the better part of my career looking across the land and looking down, but I never really looked under the ground until the last few years,” Aljoe says. Healthy soils in a pasture should smell earthy.

An adaptive grazing management plan should account for timing, frequency, intensity and duration, Aljoe says.

  • Timing. Match your grazing plan to the season you’re using the grass, and allow for time for the grass to fully recover, also depending on the season. If you’re grazing hard in the fall, make sure there’s enough left to recover before you graze in the following spring.

  • Frequency. Allowing an adequate opportunity for plants to recover cannot be stressed enough, Aljoe says. That can be from 60 to 120 or more days, depending on available water. If you leave two-thirds of the plant leaves, they can capture energy and stimulate new growth of leaves, that, in turn, can capture more carbon and photosynthesize energy for continuous root growth.

  • Intensity. If you take less than half of the leaf, you can maintain the plant’s photosynthesis, and the plant will never stop growing in the summer. And you’ll have enough growth to last into the next spring plus 30 days.

  • Duration. Moving cattle every three days may not be ideal for every cattleman’s situation, but Aljoe says short grazing periods allow for recovery. You can vary that duration with your plant growth rate.

Stocking density is up to every cattle producer, but consider that larger herds are a lot less selective about the plants that they’ll graze. That’s a useful tool if you’re trying to manage weeds like cockleburs, sunflower, ragweed or others, Aljoe says. Additionally, larger herds can apply a trampling effect to grass material, laying it down to the ground and allowing for organisms at the soil surface to cycle those nutrients.

Aljoe cautions anyone considering a management change to start small, and use their existing resources to see what small changes can do. Then, work up to the whole operation.

“Adaptive grazing management leads to improved soil health and ranch sustainability,” Aljoe says. “Ranch sustainability is continuous improvement in the land, soil, livestock and profitability. We typically see if we focus on the land and soil itself, the others tend to come with it.”

Certified Angus Beef contributed to this article.

About the Author(s)

Jennifer M. Latzke

Editor, Kansas Farmer

Through all her travels, Jennifer M. Latzke knows that there is no place like Kansas.

Jennifer grew up on her family’s multigenerational registered Angus seedstock ranch and diversified farm just north of Woodbine, Kan., about 30 minutes south of Junction City on the edge of the Kansas Flint Hills. Rock Springs Ranch State 4-H Center was in her family’s backyard.

While at Kansas State University, Jennifer was a member of the Sigma Kappa Sorority and a national officer for the Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow. She graduated in May 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in agricultural communications and a minor in animal science. In August 2000 Jennifer started her 20-year agricultural writing career in Dodge City, Kan., on the far southwest corner of the state.

She’s traveled across the U.S. writing on wheat, sorghum, corn, cotton, dairy and beef stories as well as breaking news and policy at the local, state and national levels. Latzke has traveled across Mexico and South America with the U.S. Wheat Associates and toured Vietnam as a member of KARL Class X. She’s traveled to Argentina as one of 10 IFAJ-Alltech Young Leaders in Agricultural Journalism. And she was part of a delegation of AAEA: The Ag Communicators Network members invited to Cuba.

Jennifer’s an award-winning writer, columnist, and podcaster, recognized by the Kansas Professional Communicators, Kansas Press Association, the National Federation of Presswomen, Livestock Publications Council, and AAEA. In 2019, Jennifer reached the pinnacle of achievements, earning the title of “Writer of Merit” from AAEA.

Trips and accolades are lovely, but Jennifer says she is happiest on the road talking to farmers and ranchers and gathering stories and photos to share with readers.

“It’s an honor and a great responsibility to be able to tell someone’s story and bring them recognition for their work on the land,” Jennifer says. “But my role is also evolving to help our more urban neighbors understand the issues our Kansas farmers face in bringing the food and fiber to their store shelves.”

She spends her time gardening, crafting, watching K-State football, and cheering on her nephews and niece in their 4-H projects. She can be found on Twitter at @Latzke.

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