by Doug Warnock
Promoting Healthy Soil
Healthy soil is the foundation of life on earth. It is the basis for a viable, productive agriculture and plays a crucial role in creating a healthy ecosystem.
This December, people from 190 countries around the world will gather in Paris at the United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP21) to discuss what should be done to sustain a livable climate on this planet. They will be focusing on limiting carbon emissions. We will hear many recommendations from scientists and governmental officials at the conference about how to address this issue.
Healthy soil is the world’s greatest carbon sink and reservoir of water. Regenerating and maintaining healthy soil is one of the most important things that can be done to achieve and support a healthy ecosystem.
Grazing managers have at their disposal one of the most effective and productive tools to regenerate and sustain healthy soil, grazing animals. Properly managed, grazing animals will support a living dynamic ecosystem, achieved through healthy soil.
Soil will be at its best when it is covered with growing, healthy plant life and providing a viable home for micro-organisms and is effective in storing moisture. The plants and their residues protect the soil from eroding and provide nutrients and moisture for the many organisms that live in the soil. When the soil is bare, raindrops dislodge soil particles, beginning the erosion process. When the soil is covered with healthy plants and plant residue, it is much more difficult for invading plants to gain a foothold.
The most effective grazing management is a planned, holistic approach to grazing. It includes several key elements: high stock density, limited plant exposure time, adequate recovery time and adaptive decision-making. Higher stock density results in more uniform utilization of the forage, greater animal impact on the soil surface and the plant material and uniform, abundant mineral residues and moisture from the animals’ gut.
By limiting the time of plant exposure to grazing animals, we avoid the possibility of animals biting a plant a second time and insure that adequate plant tissue is left to support plant regrowth. Animals should not be allowed to return to a pasture until the plants have had adequate time to regrow and recover from the last grazing. If animals stay too long or return too soon, the plants can be overgrazed. This reduces plant viability and makes it more difficult to survive. This adaptive management approach must include a process of monitoring to support making wise decisions.
Rangeland and pasture ecosystems are complex biological entities, which are subject to many factors. The manager must be constantly monitoring to know what is taking place and to adjust as needed to keep the grazing enterprise on target and producing the expected results.
With a planned, adaptive management approach, livestock managers will sustain viable, healthy pastures that support healthy soil, which in turn are effective carbon sinks and reservoirs of water. This supports healthy life of all forms, helping to create a healthy planet. Regardless of the discussions and decisions at the Paris conference, planned grazing management offers an inexpensive method to reduce carbon emissions and help restore ecological health.
Doug Warnock, retired from Washington State University Extension, lives on a ranch in the Touchet River Valley where he writes about and teaches grazing management. He is a member of the Pacific Northwest center for Holistic Management.