Livestock Improve Soil Health

Planting Grazing Crops, Running Cattle Add Missing Nutrients to Soil

Russ Quinn
By  Russ Quinn , DTN Staff Reporter
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Cattle grazing can improve unproductive soils and increase soil health. (DTN file photo)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Improving soil health on farms is a process some believe takes decades to accomplish. However, growing forage crops and grazing livestock on those crops can help speed up improving productivity of soils.

This was the conclusion of a recent webinar titled "Working with Neighbors to Integrate Livestock and Improve Soils" put on by the Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI). Tom Wind, who farms near Jamaica, Iowa, hosted the webinar from his Greene County farm.

IMPROVE THE SOIL

For years his farm, which has been in his family for 145 years, has had spots with poorer soils. He speculated these spots were not there when the prairie was plowed but over the years topsoil was lost, causing soils to become less productive.

Wind joined PFI in 2014 and learned much about soil health. He learned soil can be regenerated in a much shorter time than he thought.

"The important things to remember are to keep soil covered, minimize soil disturbance, increase diversity of plant life, keep roots in the soil as long as you can and put livestock on the land," Wind said.

After producing no-till corn for 10 years, he took 50 acres of the poor soils on his 160-acre farm out of crop production and planted spring annuals. Working with neighbor Jim Funke, who has a cow/calf herd, they began to graze cattle.

After a couple of years of planting annuals, Wind no-tilled a permanent pasture mix into these acres. Today the pair are in their second year of rotational grazing.

While these fields are not planted to corn or soybeans, like much of Iowa is, the soils are much more productive than they were before, Wind said.

"These areas now produce forage versus nearly nothing like they did in the past," he said.

Wind said The Haney Test for Soil Health calculation in these spots has increased from around 7 to 15, thanks to these practices. The calculation combines various measurements of nutrients in soil to generate a number between 0 and 50. The goal is to see an increase in the number over time.

GRAZING HELPS SOIL

Funke, who lives 2 miles east of Wind, said they use rotational grazing to feed his herd and to help restore the soil. Wind has invested money in running water lines out to the pasture as water is a key component of rotational grazing, he said.

"We move the water every day as we move cattle into different paddocks," Funke said. "You can't keep water in one spot for much longer than that."

The pastures were seeded with a mix of eight different plant species. Among the plants was red clover, which grew so well in the most recently seeded pasture this spring that they mowed it as they had concern about the cattle bloating.

Wind and Funke also instituted a cafeteria style mineral program for Funke's cows. A larger mineral feeder is available to the cattle with different minerals in each compartment within the feeder.

Cattle will alter their mineral consumption depending on what they are grazing on, whether it be grass pastures in the summer or corn stalks in the fall. If the cattle are getting enough nutrients from grazing they will not consume much of the provided mineral, he said.

Funke said cattle are moved through the paddocks of the pasture daily. The goal is to eat about half of the grass and leave the other half.

POULTRY MANURE TOO

In addition to grazing cattle, Wind also works with another neighbor to incorporate poultry manure into his soils.

Conner Allender, who will be a senior at Greene County High School in nearby Jefferson this fall, lives two miles west of Wind. Allender has layer chickens and a fledging business of selling eggs.

Wind approached Allender about partnering to allow Wind to take advantage of poultry manure to help improve the soils on his farm. They refurbished an old livestock trailer into a mobile chicken house complete with nests, roosts, waterers and feeders.

The trailer's floor is somewhat open to allow the manure to fall onto the soil underneath. But it still must support the trailer and protect the chickens from predators. The mobile chicken house is moved regularly to allow for even distribution of manure, she said.

The pair's partnership is a year old now. Allender, who is involved with FFA at school, said she would like to expand her business from the 38 chickens she has now to maybe around 100 laying hens.

"My clients really like these eggs over the store-bought eggs," Allender said. "I think many people want free-range eggs."

FUTURE IDEAS

Wind said he is accomplishing his goal of improving the soil on his family's farm, but he is getting more out of these partnerships with his neighbors. He understands many farmers are not willing to take this path on larger farms but for him his soils are alive again and the farm itself is also alive with activity.

"It has brought life to not only the farm but the community," Wind said.

Wind said possible future ideas for his farm include grazing sheep with the cattle to aid in weed control. Another possible idea might be to graze broiler chickens as well, he said.

To listen to the webinar go to https://practicalfarmers.org/….

Russ Quinn can be reached at russ.quinn@dtn.com

Russ Quinn