Ardmore, Okla. — Many ranchers view livestock as their base crop. Other ranchers view grass as their foundational crop from which the cattle grow.

While healthy cattle depend on healthy forages, the entire process begins with the soil, according to Chad Ellis, Noble Foundation pasture and range consultant.

“The management of soil health is of vital importance to producers as it is the dynamic resource,” Ellis said. “As managers, we often focus on managing the aboveground production in our pastures while paying little attention to what happens belowground. Sound grazing management is the art of capturing sunlight and water while recycling a portion of the aboveground parts of the plant through livestock.”

Ellis outlined five principles for building soil health:

Armor the soil

Bare ground is enemy No. 1. It is damaging because it increases soil temperatures and even kills biological activity. Once soil temperatures reach 140 degrees, soil bacteria die. The soil must be covered through forage and crop residue.

Minimize soil disturbance

Physical soil disturbance such as plowing and overgrazing can result in bare ground and compacted soils that disrupt soil microbial activity. Incorporating reduced tillage methods in cropping systems and proper grazing management in pastures will keep soil covered.

Increase plant diversity

Increasing plant diversity aboveground allows for more diverse underground community. The more diverse the microbial population in the soil, the better the forage will respond, due to increased biological activity.

Keep living roots in the ground all year

Soils are most productive when soil microbes have access to living plant material. A living root provides a food source for beneficial bacteria and promotes the relationship between plant roots and mycorrhizal fungi. This is aided by increased plant diversity, which can be achieved by incorporating cover crops into your pasture and crop systems.

Integrate livestock grazing

Grasses evolved under grazing pressure. Soil and plant health is improved by grazing, which recycles nutrients, reduces plant selectivity and increases plant diversity. The most important factor in grazing systems is to allow adequate rest for the plant to recover before being grazed again.

“Our land's condition is characterized by the functioning of both the soil and plant communities,” Ellis said. “Following these principles will allow the site production, health of the soil, and mineral and water cycles to greatly improve, resulting in an increase of forage production and animal production.”

The Samuel Roberts Noble Foundation, Inc. (, headquartered in Ardmore, Okla., is an independent, nonprofit institute conducting plant science research, plant breeding and agricultural programs to enhance agricultural productivity, which influences agriculture regionally, nationally and internationally. The Noble Foundation also provides grants to nonprofit charitable, educational and health organizations.

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