Land management key to successful grazing

A grazing expert considers livestock to be a tool for managing the land and helping rebuild soil and sequester carbon

AIRDRIE, Alta. — Steve Kenyon can teach basic grazing principles, but for him, managing the land goes far beyond running electric wires and moving cows every day.

Livestock are a tool to manage the land and help rebuild soil and sequester carbon.

He and his wife, Amber, operate Greener Pastures Ranching near Busby, Alta., where the main business is custom grazing cattle on leased land using intensive rotational grazing management. The end goal is to enhance pasture biodiversity, soil life and carbon-carrying and water-holding capacity.

“I need to manage the soil to take care of the plants that take care of the livestock,” he told a group of lamb producers during a grazing workshop held last year in Airdrie, Alta.

“My whole operation is about capturing as much sunlight as I can.”

However, before he starts any project, he considers the economics (to determine whether it is profitable) and the finances (to decide if it is affordable).

He practises regenerative agriculture, in which soil is grown from the plants. This can be done on pastures or cropland.

Plants grow from the elements in the air. Photosynthesis pulls carbon, hydrogen and oxygen out of the air and the plants build sugars that get pushed into the soil and glue it together. This works best in a polyculture.

“We need a polyculture of plants to get polyculture of root systems and a polyculture of soil organisms,” he said.

In a monoculture, the plants flower once a year, while a polyculture has plants flowering throughout the season.

Grazing management can be an art. Improperly done, it can also degrade the land.

“Most people do not understand the definition of overgrazing.”

Overgrazing occurs when plants are exposed to intensive grazing for an extended period of time without a sufficient recovery period.

“It is about the timing of when the individual plant was grazed,” he said.

Plant growth occurs in stages.

Stage one is when the plant is small with tiny leaves that do not collect much sunlight.

Stage two is the most efficient stage, in which the plant is actively collecting and storing energy through photosynthesis. However, it cannot be grazed too soon because the plant does not have enough time to build energy reserves for its continued development.

“Overgrazing occurs when you graze in early stage two,” he said.

“If your plants are being grazed at this stage when the root reserves are empty … it has no green matter to collect sunlight through photosynthesis.”

Plants are mature and are starting to go to seed at stage three. Therefore, he wants to hold plants at stage two, where they are actively growing and pushing sugars into the ground.

“If we want to build soil, we want to have more of our plants throughout most of the season at stage two,” he said.

Plant growth needs to be monitored.

Animals may need to be removed in two to three days in the early spring for a short grazing period so the plants have time to regrow. A rest period of 20 days is too short because plants do not have enough time to regrow and replenish the root reserves.

Take half and leave half is common advice. Kenyon said that is a rule of thumb, and more than half the forage may need to be left behind for adequate recovery.

In his environment in northern Alberta, he needs a minimum of 16 paddocks to provide an adequate rest period.

“The drier you are, the more paddocks you need,” he said.

When planning his paddocks, he considers stock density, stocking rate and growing conditions that year. Stocking rate is the number of livestock on the land for the season.

Stock density is the number of animals in an acre or how crowded they are. Better plant utilization and manure distribution occurs if cattle move as a crowd on a frequent basis. Everything gets flattened as they mow off the plants or trample them. Going through before plants go to seed should help control weeds.

Part of the rotational grazing objective is to create animal impact. This is the physical stimulation by the animals on the surface. Their hoofs can help break up the crusted-over surface and help mix in seeds so that they come in contact with the soil.

To encourage animals to move around, a salt block can be placed strategically in certain parts of a pasture where there are undesirable plants. This will encourage livestock to eat or trample them.

In continuous grazing, the livestock move over a broader area and select all the best plants but leave the undesirables behind. The result is that unwanted plants such as thistle get a chance to survive.

What happens beneath the soil surface is also important.

Healthy soil contains active microbial communities. One cup of healthy soil has six billion organisms.

“For every bad critter you have in your environment, there are 1,700 good ones, so be careful what you are doing to control one,” he said.

Kenyon said soil organisms act as employees for those practising regenerative agriculture. Earthworms, dung beetles, microbes, protozoa, nematodes, yeast, fungi and algae break down manure and roots and provide aeration.

Mycorrhizal fungi are important to good soil structure and act like a transportation system in the soil to bring nutrients such as phosphorus and water to the plants. The fungi may grow inside the roots or on the surface.

Tillage can damage the network of root systems. These re-colonize very slowly from an intact colony and may take three to four months to recolonize.

In his system, water is the most important nutrient.

Actual rainfall is measured, while effective rainfall is what plants use.

Water can be lost through runoff, evaporation, infiltration and plant utilization.

If the soil surface is sealed off, raindrops bounce off rather than soak into the ground. Plant residue can act like armour and protect the soil. Rain hits the litter and the drops break down and soak into the ground.

“The number one thing you should be doing when managing is protecting that soil surface by leaving residue,” he said.

Producers tend to graze too hard and do not leave enough residue on the surface. Residue insulates the ground and frost does not go as deep so in spring the soil warms up and the plants emerge sooner.

“If you can see bare soil on your pastures, you are not doing a good job. You have got to cover it,” he said.

When there is extra residue on the surface during the next dry period, that material can be grazed.

“Every year I plan for the next drought. You can’t plan for a drought while in a drought. That is too late,” he said.

Tillage and removing more residue can happen sometimes.

“I am not saying one or two of these practices will totally annihilate all of your population,” he said.

He also advises protecting riparian areas. Besides working as a water filtration system, it provides habitat for wildlife, particularly birds and insects such as parasitic wasps, spiders and dragonflies that prey on unwanted insects.

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