by: Heather Smith Thomas

Grasslands are healthiest when grazed. The periodic mowing stimulates new growth, and manure/urine from the grazing animals (and trampling of grass to provide litter) adds the necessary nutrients to the soil to make the grassland more productive.

Throughout the history of agriculture, livestock production and pasture management have made a viable combination, keeping grasslands in a healthy state. Grazers complement the production of grass and other crops. The manure produced by the animals is the best and most natural kind of fertilizer. It provides essential soil nutrients that plant compost cannot provide, and a longer-lasting effect than commercial fertilizer. Cattle are a way to produce food or make a profit on whatever type of land you have.

Sustainable agricultural systems depend on using the resources at hand without purchased input like feeds, fertilizers, chemicals. Grass (or hay grown on your place) is a renewable resource that can be fertilized and harvested by cattle. In return, cattle provide food (meat and/or milk) and useful by-products, often on land not suited for field crops.

Thus cattle do not compete with production of human food crops, but complement them. Marginal farmland is better used for pasture or semi-permanent forage crops (not needing to be plowed up), reducing erosion and soil degradation. Manure increases soil fertility, and well managed grazing can make these marginal lands more productive as well as more environmentally healthy.

Kevin Fulton, a cattle producer in central Nebraska, uses mob grazing to improve his pastures—with a large herd in a small area and moving them to a new portion several times a day. He occasionally rotates crops on those areas after mob grazing. “We planted organic wheat after three or four years of intensive mob grazing, and got 100 bushel to the acre when our neighbors were getting 50. We've increased the fertility of our ground just with mob grazing and no added inputs except seed—no purchased fertilizer, and we didn't even haul out any manure,” says Fulton.

“There are big benefits to mob grazing if you use it in conjunction with crop rotation. Some people don't think we can farm sustainably or feed the world with organic farming, but we can--if we alternate livestock with crops. On our farm, we produce as much beef (grass fed) on one of our irrigated acres of pasture as we could if we had a corn/soybean rotation and harvested it and fed it to animals in a feedlot. We've cut out about 10 steps in the middle and a lot of costs. We're not hauling the manure back out on the pasture or hauling the grain to the feedlot,” he says.

Letting livestock harvest the feed saves those steps and avoids some of the environmental and animal welfare issues if you can leave the animal on grass its whole life. Fulton says cattle producers need to go back to some of these methods, without depending on so much fuel, machinery and the other costly inputs.

“Since we didn't use any chemicals in producing our wheat, when we had rain soon after we harvested that crop, we had a flush of regrowth of wild grasses. We later grazed that field and figured we had about $100 worth of grazing value per acre after harvesting our wheat. Our two neighbors across the fence got half as much wheat, and nothing else came up because their fields were sterile. All they had was wheat stubble until they planted a different crop the next year. By contrast we double-cropped our fields. Livestock are the key to sustainable farming,” says Fulton.

He used to farm conventionally, raising crops without livestock. About 10 years ago he started to get back into livestock and moved toward grass-based farming and eventually organic and grass-finished beef. The people who think livestock are harmful to the environment need to take another look at their beneficial potential. We need livestock for sustainable farming.

“Mob grazing works to advantage in several ways. One, the plants get more rest and recovery. Secondly, you are increasing organic matter because the cattle are eating a certain percentage of the forage and trampling the rest, which is incorporated into the soil. Every one percent increase in organic matter is equal to about 40 pounds of commercial nitrogen,” says Fulton.

Doug Peterson, NRCS State Grassland Conservationist in Missouri, says mob-grazing is now recognized as a way to restore soil health and plant vigor. “I was a soil scientist with NRCS for a while and have a strong interest in soils. About seven years ago Ian Mitchell-Innes (from South Africa) and Chad Peterson in Nebraska were both starting to get folks following their ideas about higher density grazing.”

He saw incredible results. “This is a phenomenal tool to heal and build up our worn out and degraded soils in this country. Here in northern Missouri, historically (pre-European settlement) our soils were probably close to 8 percent organic matter. Now, due to farming and continuous grazing, most soils are down to two percent. We have sucked organic matter out of these soils. Cropland is down to about 1.5 percent and well managed pastures about 2.5 to 3.5 percent. We have a long way to go, to correct this,” says Peterson.

“In my training, in agronomy and soil science, we were taught that it takes hundreds of years to build or restore soil. But we started seeing some interesting things with intensive grazing and trampling, adding carbon to the surface of the soil, feeding the soil biology. We now know that we can do this a lot quicker,” he explains.

“So I went on a quest to learn everything I could about soil health, the water cycle, mineral cycle, soil biology, etc. and came across a number of people who were making incredible improvements in soil health. I recognized this as a tool to restore the land and productivity of the soil,” says Peterson.

“Some producers have restored their soil organic matter to six, seven and even eight percent in just a few years. Along with that comes a tremendous increase in productivity. The trampling is a way to purposely feed the soil biology. Farmers feed their cows but don't always think about soil needs. Any time we do something to remove the soil's food source (crops or haying), we have taken something away. Even if we feed the hay back on the same land, we don't get the full benefit. We might keep the minerals in the same field, but there's no way we can spread it across that field as uniformly as by grazing it, to feed all the soil biology. If we don't leave nutrients for the soil biology, we can't keep them functioning optimally.”

The grazing animals eat the tops of the plants, trample the rest, and move on—coming back the next season to a very healthy pasture that benefited from the grazing, trampling, natural reseeding and deposits of manure to supply the necessary nutrients for future plants.

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