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Great “Grass Farmers” Grow Roots

By   /  November 9, 2015  /  5 Comments

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If you go to enough workshops about grazing, you’re bound to see an illustration that shows how biting off the tops of plants impacts their roots, and how if you graze short enough, the plant won’t have enough roots to rebound and produce more leafy material. In fact, if you’ve been with us at On Pasture for any length of time, you’ll have seen a version of that illustration. It looks like this:


In addition to losing the ability to feed your livestock, short roots can’t hold the soil in place, let alone do their job of feeding soil microorganisms, creating a sponge to hold water, and pulling carbon from the air deep, deep into the soil where it can be sequestered. It’s that depth that makes the difference between carbon that “breathes” back and forth between the soil and the atmosphere, and carbon that is actually held long term.

So what do we mean by deep? Well, it turns out that many plants and icebergs have something in common. What you see above the surface is very small compared to what’s below.  And now, thanks to Jerry Glover, who’s an agroecologist from Kansas, and Jim Richardson, a National Geographic photographer, you can get a good idea of the depths roots go to to do their jobs. You can read about the techniques they used to create these photos here, but what we’d like you to focus on is how far down into the earth you’re managing when you move your livestock across a pasture. Take a look:



Here's Dr. Jerry Glover next to a 14 foot tangle of Indian grass, compass plant, and big bluestem grass he grew.

Here’s Dr. Jerry Glover next to a 14 foot tangle of Indian grass, compass plant, and big bluestem grass he grew.

Missouri Goldenrod…which by the way is quite a nice forage!

Missouri Goldenrod…which by the way is quite a nice forage!

(For more pictures, head on over to the full article.)

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About the author

Publisher, Editor and Author

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.


  1. Ian Mitchell-Innes says:

    Kathy excellent article, well put and good photo’s.
    Can I use some of the photo’s in lectures, I will say
    where they come from?


    • Kathy Voth says:

      The photos are from National Geographic, so head over to their article to get the full scoop and to give credit where credit is due. Glad you enjoyed it and happy to know you’re reading On Pasture too. Thanks, Ian!

  2. Scott says:

    This is a great article. I have tried to explain this to many of those I work with who run cattle. This is straight to the point. Even the most set in their way operators can understand the relationships between the visible part of the plant and the hidden roots.

  3. Paul Sharpe says:

    Kathy, these root’n, shoot’n pictures are awesome. They should be in many textbooks.

  4. Brian Tremback says:

    What a treat to get a good look at the rest of the plant! I’m assuming that the roots are not as vertical in place as they are in the photos. Root depth is limited by lower oxygen and nutrient levels, restrictive soil horizons (like compact glacial till in the north), presence of a water table below which roots would suffocate, etc. Having read that most of the biomass of grass is below ground, it’s nice to see confirmation. And looking at the forbs (compass plant and goldenrod), I’m wondering if the same isn’t true for them as well.

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