Pasture Management

Jun 6, 2014

Growing soils is like growing your own money

Handsdown, growing soils is the foundation of good pasture management. I have learned that from the experimentation we have tried in our humanitarian food gardening efforts around the world. The more time we spend improving the soils, the less time spent fighting weeds, sick and diseased plants. Again, bottom line: healthy soils grow healthy plants. When livestock eat healthy plants, they become healthy.

That’s the why behind good pasture management. Now comes the how.

How can you grow healthy soils? The key word in this sentence is “grow.” Anyone can call up your local fertilizer company and buy some pasture health as many ranchers do. However, just like in our humanitarian food gardening effort, we try our hardest to grow good healthy soils using only local resources and not go outside the system and buy the health. We want to use what nature is trying to teach us right under our feet.

This year Montana will go down with some of the heaviest snowfall records seen in decades. Good spring moisture helps soils become biological active. In our garden beds that were heavily laden with carbon last fall, (I added chopped-up fall leaves as a blanket on top of our 16 garden beds), the earthworms are exploding.

I did an inventory of our earthworm population and in our garden beds about the size of a two-car garage (24 by 24 feet) we have an estimated 114,000 worms working nonstop improving and growing our soils. This garden space can produce 1.5 tons of food.

There are so many earthworms that we have renamed them, “Ninja Worms.” Fact: earthworms grow soil. Worms help to increase the amount of air and water that goes into the soil. They break down organic matter, like old leaves and grass turn into humus that plants can use. When earthworms eat, they leave behind castings that are a very valuable type of fertilizer.

Earthworms are like free farm help. They help to “turn” the soil—bringing down organic matter from the top and mixing it with the soil below. The literature says that if there are 500,000 worms living in an acre of soil, they could make 50 tons of castings. That’s like lining up 100,000 one-pound coffee cans filled with castings. These same 500,000 worms burrowing into an acre of soil can create a drainage system equal to 2,000 feet of six-inch pipe. Pretty amazing for just a little old worm, don’t you think?

To me, pastures are just gigantic unguent gardens. Everywhere I place an extra amount of saved organic matter on our own pasture, the grass growth in a circle around these piles of hay, tree leaves or old moldy straw doubles in growth. Dark green, wide leaves start growing within a month or so after I dumped the organic matter in piles for later use in our experimental gardens.

The real lesson learned here is: Keep our soils alive. That is feeding all the invisible and visible critters that live in our soils, which makes them active. Good pasture management is that simple. The more you feed the soils, the more the soils feed you.

Don’t be afraid to leave all that extra hay or other organic matter lying around in your pastures. I was on a ranch in Alberta, Canada where the owner winterfeeds using bale grazing. He just left his round bales in his alfalfa fields, and strip grazed them in the wintertime.

As I walked his alfalfa fields, I noted all the uneaten piles of old rotting alfalfa hay, which to me seemed to be choking out new growth and appeared to be a waste. However, he said, “Just wait a while Wayne, and that too will melt into the soils.”

Changing our agronomic ways sometimes is very hard. But I will say whatever we can do to improve soils is worth the time experimenting in our own backyards.

That is a great way to learn. So take a risk doing something different and you judge the results. Go for the longterm results, not just one year of anticipating cause and effect. — Wayne Burleson (Wayne Burleson is a semiretired Land Management Consultant and a passionate food gardener, working out of Absarokee, Montana. You can visit with him at