soil health is important for your cowherd

Soil Health Comes First, Then Grass & Livestock

In recent columns, I’ve touched on the following topics:

Empowered people, because everything in our businesses happens because of and through people – usually those closest to the business, land and livestock.

Sustainability, because it’s such a buzz word and people outside of our business will have an impact, whether we like it or not. Also, ranchers don’t know all we should about the environment, particularly the ecosystem – its complexity and interconnectedness, and how it reacts to our management actions.

Planning strategically first, and then developing tactics and operational schedules and methods to accomplish the strategic objectives. Too often, we do it backwards – starting with operations, then tactics, letting strategy be determined by default – with tactics defining our strategy.

If my writings do nothing more than confirm your current thinking, I’ll have failed. My aim is to, respectfully yet somewhat vigorously, challenge your current view of a cattle ranching business and lead you to some new thoughts, approaches and methods.

I’m reminded of my first meeting with the late Bud Williams – the best, in my opinion, of many gurus of stockmanship. After about 10 minutes of my questioning him, Bud stopped me and said that we needed to change the rules of the conversation.

He then pointed out that I was looking for things I did similarly to how he did them. He told me that I would likely find some and, when I did, “you will think you’re as good as I am, and you’re not.” He then said that for the rest of our conversation, I should only look for things (ways of handling livestock) that he did differently and ask why.

That very short exchange changed the way I have tried to learn from others ever since. Now, when I occupy the role of learner, these are my questions:

  • What are you doing?
  • Am I seeing it correctly?
  • Why do you do that?
  • Why do you do it that way?

A change in management approach

With that background I want to suggest another change in our approach to management. After working with a number of clients, talking to ranchers following some of my speaking engagements, and thinking about my own past approach, I’m convinced that most ranchers give their cattle the highest priority, followed by grass; little thought is given to soil.

I suggest that is backwards. We should think soil first, as all life springs from the soil. Our livestock can be a powerful tool to improve or damage the soil, and too many of us don’t think about which we are doing.  We just graze cattle. Of course, we like to think we’re not “overgrazing;” but do we really know what “overgrazing” is?

We usually do our grazing for the benefit of the cattle, and maybe the grass, with little attention to the effect on the soil. Do you know how to use livestock to improve soil organic matter, increase water infiltration rates, improve soil moisture holding capability, and improve nutrient cycling?  This can be done, and then grass productivity improves.

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In addition to seeing our livestock for their endpoint value, we need to see them as a powerful tool for soil improvement and then grass improvement. (In this context, when I talk of grass, I am including anything that livestock and wildlife will eat – grass, forbs and shrubs.) When a short period of grazing is followed by an opportunity for the grazed plant(s) to fully recover before being grazed again, and when the animals help to lay litter on the soil surface trampling some into the soil, and when animals spread their dung and urine on the very areas they graze, soils begin to improve.

As soils improve there will be an increase in biodiversity above and below the soil surface. There should be a greater variety of plants with different depths of rooting. Some will grow early and some will grow late, while others will grow when it’s hot. There also will be an increasing variety of soil micro-organisms and animal life. This complex web of interdependency, if properly managed, will continue to improve the soil and its ability to feed your livestock.

While I want herbicides and pesticides in my tool box, I want to use them as sparingly as possible, as no poison kills only the target organism. Sometimes the net effect is good, but we often fail to see the unintended consequences because they aren’t quite so obvious to the impatient, untrained eye.

I often wonder, when using pesticides and herbicides, what have we killed that is important to soil building and nutrient cycling or to a balance in predator-prey relationships. My preference is to manage as much as possible “for what you do want” instead of “against what you don’t want.” And I want healthy soils with much biodiversity above and below the soil surface.

Cattle endpoint value

While we should manage cattle for their endpoint value, we must put it in appropriate context. If soil building and soil protection isn’t one of the first considerations in developing our strategic plan for the ranch, it will probably be ignored.

Cattle operations must be flexible to accommodate good grass and pasture management. This often means that the same event (calving, breeding, branding, weaning, etc.) won’t happen in the same place each year, but the end results for cattle can still be good. In addition, the people involved must learn to be flexible and understand that nature likes a little chaos. Livestock management must fit the grass management, and the grass management must fit the objectives for soil health and soil improvement. 

We must always remember that our livestock are a powerful tool for management of the soil. They can be used for improvement or regression.  By thinking “soil” first, we can still allow for excellence in cattle management. So, let’s change the paradigm from livestock-grass-soil to soil-grass-livestock.

Burke Teichert, consultant on strategic planning for ranches, is retired as vice president and general manager of Deseret. He resides in Orem, UT, and can be reached at [email protected]

The opinions of Burke Teichert are not necessarily those of beefmagazine.com or the Penton Farm Progress Group.

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