Kevin is a third generation livestock farmer with a passion for sustainable farm management, holistic practices, and multiple enterprises.
A Better Way
It's a common sight: one-inch-tall grass with cattle still in the field. It’s been the normal operating procedure for years, but this wasn’t always the case. Large herds used to roam the grasslands of the world leaving behind great quantities of manure to fertilize the soil, constantly moving and not returning till the food source had replenished itself. With modern farming and attempts to control and improve on nature, we have inadvertently committed long-term damage to what was once fertile soil. There is a better way, though it’s not a new idea.
Increased Soil Microbiology
Perhaps the greatest advantage of any rotational grazing system is the explosion in the population of soil microbes. There are five types of soil microbes hard at work in healthy soil: bacteria, actinomycetes, fungi, protozoa and nematodes. Each microbe has a different function, and knowledge of each is beneficial to the grazer interested in optimization of their soil. The simple answer: these microbes feed on dead organic matter and bring nutrients and minerals back to the root of living plants.
Each time a bite is taken by livestock, roots have to grow a little more to compensate; this creates more root mass. When a weed is trampled this also creates organic matter in the soil. The increased roots create a superhighway for microbes to deliver life-saving nutrients and minerals to the plant.
In addition to soil microbes, there are earthworms and dung beetles in healthy soil. These organisms compost and deliver manure below the surface of the ground where evaporation can not affect it. By doing this they deliver nitrogen to the soil microbes exploding the population. The process also aerates the soil for better drainage and water retention.
Few or No Intestinal Parasites
Overgrazing is a problem in modern-day farming created perhaps for many reasons. Lack of acreage, high cost of fencing, and a poor understanding of soil health are among these reasons. As livestock manure is deposited, eggs produced by adult nematodes are deposited on the ground. These eggs and the larvae are on a time clock before they can affect the cattle. It’s only in the third stage of its life cycle that larvae can attach itself to wet grass. When the cattle eat this grass they become infected and start the process over, every time creating more parasites. Rotating livestock breaks up this pattern; the sun kills the larvae and eventually makes it safe for cattle to return later.
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End of Fertilizer Addicted Soil
Heavily compacted soil, pesticides, and overgrazed, short grass create an environment where soil microbes and organisms can’t thrive. The manure deposited by livestock is either burnt up or not used by the lack of soil microbes left. The solution in modern farming is to add fertilizer. Nitrogen, phosphate, and other minerals can be very expensive and detrimental to the profit margin. In a healthy soil where rotational grazing is implemented fertilizer is not needed. The benefits of rotational grazing on soil microbiology takes time and may not be seen in the first year or two. Once it starts the results can be amazing. Stocking rates can increase dramatically and the need for fertilizer is erased. You sell more cattle and spend less money by letting nature do the work.
Solar Panel and Water Retention
Grass that is allowed rest periods and only eaten down to approximately four inches creates a solar panel and helps to retain water. We all know from elementary science class that photosynthesis requires water and sunlight. The taller the grass the more of the sun's energy can be absorbed and used. This is a free input to your soil and can have dramatic effects which also reduces the need for fertilizer. In addition to the sunlight, water can be stored more efficiently by this taller grass and will not evaporate as quickly. The more sunlight and water the more photosynthesis you have creating taller grass in this endless loop of positive feedback seen at the bank each time your stocking rate increases.
Weeds Become Beneficial
Yes, you read the title of this section correctly. As any farmer that has ever tried to pull up a weed knows, weeds have big roots. When this plant dies these massive roots are deposited as dead organic matter. In an intensely rotated system, these weeds can be trampled killing the roots and pushing the plant into the un-compacted soil leaving behind even more organic matter for the soil microbes. In a multi-species rotational grazed system goats can be used to eat these weeds. The goats process this food and return energy in the form of manure back to the soil; the roots die once again to create organic matter.
Rotational grazing begins a symbiotic relationship intended by nature to sustain itself. Grass benefits the soil microbes and the microbes return the favor. Costs from grazing are dramatically reduced, and more cattle delivered to the market increase the farm's bottom line. I am a firm advocate of this system and use it personally in my operation. Nature was designed to be efficient; we can’t improve on such a well-orchestrated plan.
© 2019 Kevin Howell