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Grazing for Soil Health

Thanks to the folks with NRCS’s “Unlock the Secrets of Soil Health” for their part in developing this article.

The abandoned cotton farm Terry and Deborah Chandler purchased was in need of a lot of care. The fields were  highly eroded, and the top soil was absent. Rebuilding soil health was the first thing on their list, so they recruited the help of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). With technical assistance from NRCS grazing specialist Phillip Brown and financial assistance from the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) the Chandlers began improving the soil base of the farm.

Multi-species forage planting. Hairy vetch was the most successful.

They started with improved grazing management and improved vegetation diversity. “We needed a more diverse forage mix than just annual rye grass or cereal grain,” said Brown. So they added a five species mix of cereal rye, rye grass, hairy vetch, chicory, and red clover in this mix. This provided a strong legume content for high quality grazing, bio-mass production and nitrogen fixation. By adding the multi-species mix, the land is getting more organic carbon back into the soil, which will help feed a diverse microbial population and create better cycling of nutrients throughout the system.  “In the long run this will lead to more profitability and less purchased fertility for the producer,” says Brown.

Rotational Grazing

Next, NRCS staff helped design fencing and a watering system for paddocks so the Chandler’s could start a rotational grazing system.

Terry Chandler

“From a financial standpoint, one of the things we know we have to do to be profitable is to reduce the amount of supplemental feed we provide to the cattle. The more time that they can spend doing their own harvesting of the forage without us having to bring it to them will improve our profitability,” says Chandler. “We learned about intensive rotational grazing as we began to move the farm away from row crop production into pasture production. With rotational grazing, we immediately began to see improvements in forage production, soil health, and animal handling. We actually began re-building soil from the practices we began using.”

Chandler sees many benefits with his intensive rotational grazing system. “The practice is simply putting a lot of cattle in a small space for a short period of time then moving them and allowing the pasture to rest and recover.” The farm is divided into five-acre paddocks. Cows are moved daily, depending on the forage available, from one five-acre-paddock to another paddock close by. When the cows all have calves on them, that’s over 200 animal units (One animal unit =1000 lbs) in a five-acre-paddock.

“You would think that would be relatively crowded but with forage available it’s not. They expect to be moved daily depending on the forage available, it may take 2 days, sometimes in the summer, it may be 3 days. We will move them into stockpiled forage that’s been resting 30, 40 or 45 days. We’ll move them all in and they will non-selectively graze. In other words, they’ll graze everything in a rotational scheme like that. They won’t have the chance to select what they want but they will graze everything,” said Chandler.

He went on to say, “It has changed our perspective on weed control. A lot of the things we used to feel like we had to control chemically, we find that the cattle like. They’re very palatable and the nutritional quality on those is very good as well. So, it’s changed our concept on weed control.”

“And, it’s done a lot from a soil health standpoint. Dunging distribution which sounds like a silly concept but we get good even dunging distribution over the whole paddock when we put that many cattle in a small space for a short time. Grazing animals remove very little phosphorus and potassium, but if grazing is inconsistent cattle will re-locate those minerals to heavy trafficked zones. With heavy stocking rates and good dunging distribution we are keeping P (phosphorus)and K (potassium) in place, so those levels are staying consistent.”

Improvements Are Showing

Phillip Brown looks at soil in one of Terry Chandler’s pastures.

Brown says that building soil health doesn’t come quickly. “It’s a long term effort. Soil health isn’t something that we see change in a day, but it’s a 3-5 year project of changing your management style.”

But these changes the Chandlers have made are paying off with increased forage yield and better soil moisture retention. “We have measured surprising forage yields in the mixed-species plantings we tested,” says Chandler. The number of grazing days has been very impressive. I expect there are going to be a lot of other benefits with the residue we are leaving. We already see better soil moisture retention and a moderating of soil surface temperatures. I expect there will be a lot of positives in microbial activity as well.”

Chandler believes that the grazing days and overall forage utilization has improved considerably over open grazing. Although they  don’t exclusively try to manage for forage utilization, Chandler would like to think that they are getting somewhere around 50 percent forage utilization with the rest of it going back in to the soil.

Better Wildlife Habitat

An indirect benefit of soil health and rotational grazing is the benefit to wildlife. “One of the huge values to the farm from a wildlife aspect, with the rotational grazing that we’re doing, 90 percent of the farm is vacant at any given time. It has been a wildlife bonanza. Deer love it, turkey that we never saw the first 15 years we’ve been here on the farm — we’ve actually counted a flock of as many as 50. But, it’s because they’re not having to compete with the cattle for an area,” said Chandler.

He went on to say, “The areas that we feel are more wildlife sensitive, we still utilize. We may move the cattle down in there. They may be there for a day or 2 days and they’re back out and the wildlife are back there again. Wildlife enhancement has been an added unexpected benefit. Couple that with soil improvement, forage improvement, grazing quality and consistency, animal gains, reduction in winter feeding, and a few others . . . there is a strong case for considering intensive rotational grazing and multi-species plantings!”

How Can You See Similar Benefits?

Let’s take a look at what Terry Chandler did that you can do too.

1) He had goals in mind for his operation.
Terry wanted to build a farm that he could pass on to the next generation. To do that he needed to turn a profit, and to do that, he know he had to quit feeding his livestock, and so he had to provide more and better forage. That meant improving soil health, and that drove the rest of his decisions from setting up a rotational grazing system to planting a forage mix that would benefit the soil and the animals.

Would you like some help thinking about your own goals? Here’s a great article to get you started.

2) He asked for technical assistance.
Sure, you can experiment with paddock design and water set ups. But, like Terry, you might find it quicker and more profitable to have someone with expertise get you started.

This kind of help is available at little to no cost from your local Natural Resources Conservation Service office, a local Conservation District office, and even Cooperative Extension staff. Many of these offices are understaffed so they may send you to a Technical Service Provider or they may need to schedule something in the future.

There are graziers who provide consulting services for a fee as well. Three On Pasture authors come to mind: Greg Judy, Jim Gerrish and Troy Bishopp. If you’d like to contact them, email me and I’ll put you in touch.

You can also search the On Pasture archives for the information you need. We’ve got over 2,500 articles in our library. If you can’t find what you’re looking for, email me and I’ll find it for you, or I’ll find the information you need and write an article.

Don’t go to Facebook for your technical assistance unless you actually know the people you’re corresponding with.

3) He got financial assistance through EQIP.
The Environmental Quality Incentive Program is one of NRCS’s primary efforts for supporting farmers and ranchers who want to improve their operations. Yes, this help comes with strings attached. There’s paperwork, and requirements to do work according to NRCS specifications put in place to make sure money is spent on practices that work for the long haul. Some folks find these strings irritating, but if you don’t, you can certainly get some financial benefit from the program.

Want More?

Take a 4:29 pasture walk with Terry Chandler and Phillip Brown at the Chandler’s Still Water Farm.


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Kathy Voth
Kathy Voth
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.

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