Pasture Management

Jan 4, 2014

Desire long-term profits? Look into your soils

Bottom line, to be sustainable in agriculture, you must be profitable.

They go together. From my viewpoint, if you are in the business of making a living from the land, you had better know how to take good care of your soils. Better yet, systematically know exactly how to regenerate and grow more soils.

When I was young and just starting out in agriculture with a few purebred horned Hereford cows, I paid very close attention to the cows, but did not concern myself at all about the health of my soils. Soils were just something that my cows walked on. Little did I know… Now roll the calendar ahead 50 years—a half century— and wow, I am a slow learner. We now test food growing in 100 percent compost and experienced the following results: 1-pound carrots dug from 1,000 carrots growing in one box measuring only 4 feet wide by 8 feet long, a 2.5-pound potato, 1-pound tomatoes, and a rhubarb stock weighing 2.5 pounds. Never had we experienced this kind of production.

The same kind of accelerated production can happen in your pastures. It is called “sheet composting.” Here is a test for anyone to try. It is best to discover these methods on your own.

We have a half-acre patch of grass in front of our home here near Absarokee, MT. I fenced off this small chuck of land and invited the neighbor’s cows over for lunch. Fifty-six cows and 57 calves showed up grazing for only 24 hours. My wife came up with the following saying, “The cows stopped by for lunch and left our place in total disgrace.”

I photographed the before and after effects. There was a stand of longtime un-grazed vegetation suffering from land “idle-it is” (long-term over rest) with old short standing dry smooth brome grass, timothy and red clover forage.

When the cows left, all vegetation was trampled down, some eaten, manure all stepped on and large urine spots visible everywhere. Get the picture? A mowed down, over-grazed looking, tramped vegetation with nothing left standing.

I was thinking, if I worked for the government, I would have had a fit about the looks of this nuked pasture. However, now I am finally learning how Mother Nature grows soils without purchasing re sources.

It takes chopping up of old dry and fresh green grass to make compost sometimes called, “Black Gold.” It’s really the end product that is key to plant health called humus.

Humus is a brown or black organic substance consisting of partially or wholly decayed vegetable and animal matter that provides nutrients for plants and increases the ability of soil to retain water. Nice, as the hooves of the cows acted like a shredder and mixer of this old vegetation. That is the same process used by thousands of gardeners around the world to make compost. The hooves speed up the natural process of chopping and mixing diverse vegetation into sheet compost.

This is carbon loading the soils.

The results of this process— something called Mob Stocking, Herd Effect or Planned Grazing—was phenomenal. By fall, thick dark green grass came back with wide dark green leaves. Then my neighbors even asked if he could fall-graze this delicious looking grass. I said no, as I wanted to see the continued results of my testing on this small pasture come next spring. This is where the real profit kicks in, as I did not have to go to town and buy something to make money. The change all happened in the soil because of positive animal impact.

The following spring, I watched as my neighbor hired a fertilizer truck to spread dry NPK fertilizer on his adjoining hayfield. I was again pleasantly surprised. Without sounding too braggy, our grass was up to my armpits and I have never had this much grass in the chunk of land again. Mainly because I have not had my neighbor’s cows back to stop by for lunch.

The take-home message from this article is to try something different this upcoming year. If you can learn how to grow more soils in your pasture by managing your animals’ hooves, you will end up growing more grass. Your results can astonish you, which I now consider one of Nature’s tools we should master to become more profitable. Give it a try. — Wayne Burleson

(Wayne Burleson is a semi-retired land management consultant and a passionate food gardener, working out of Absarokee, MT. You can visit with him at rutbuster@montana. net.)