Tired pasture? The solution is in the soil

To create a healthy pasture, grazing expert says to start with ground cover, 
plant a diverse mix and avoid disturbing the soil

To get more pasture growth above ground, start by looking below the surface, says Michael Thiele, grazing club co-ordinator for the Manitoba Forage and Grassland Association (MFGA).

“Nutrient levels in the soils across Canada have been greatly depleted since conventional agriculture began and the same nutrient depletion can be seen in the foods we are producing,” Thiele told a Feb. 23 grazing workshop in Brandon.

“Soil with higher levels of organic matter and carbon are able to absorb more water, hold the moisture better and has a stronger root system, enabling the forage to better withstand bouts of drought or flooding,” Thiele said.

The MFGA’s grazing club holds a number of grazing workshops throughout the winter as well as summer field tours where it demonstrates the benefits of focusing on the soil.

Thiele said rotationally grazing cattle is one of the best ways to build soil’s organic matter and sequester carbon.

“Through animal impact on the land, moving the cattle around to let pastures regrow, the soil begins to develop stronger root systems and the forages will flourish,” he said.

Producers who are looking to build up their soils are recommended to allow cattle to graze the forage plants halfway, as this is the optimal point where the root system will be boosted for regrowth.

“When the plant is clipped halfway down, it triggers a regrowth both above and below ground. So, the more we can stimulate this, the faster we are able to develop organic matter,” Thiele said.

Armour coating

The first step in nurturing soil is to armour it by creating a solid ground cover through animal impact.

“That ground cover material has to be in contact with the soil. If it is just flapping in the wind, nothing is going to happen. It will not become food for the bugs,” Thiele said.

“If you keep the ground covered, you keep the moisture in, the temperature down, you feed the biology. Bare ground during hot days will dry out so quickly, bugs die, evaporation happens, all of that soil moisture is gone.”

Thiele said diversity of plant species is also key.

“Every plant species grows differently, requires different growing conditions and develops different root systems. By having multiple species growing together, they will strengthen each other when withstanding less-than-ideal growing conditions.”

Thiele said having several different kinds of root system builds soil nutrient levels and boosts microbial activity. Above ground, multiple species create a variety of leaf shapes and sizes, which promotes more photosynthetic activity.

“We want to capture as much sunlight through these plants as possible. Keep the ground covered at all times. Leave the land as undisturbed as possible and then move cattle through to ignite regrowth,” Thiele said.

Increased insect and earthworm activity are signs of improvement in organic matter levels.

“By feeding the soil you will see so many benefits. Forage quality and quantity will improve, compaction will be reduced, the land will withstand weather extremes better and cattle will be healthier and require less mineral supplements because the soil is providing the nutrients through the plants,” Thiele said.

The MFGA’s grazing club will be hosting a year-round grazing workshop featuring Alberta grazing specialist Steve Kenyon on March 21 to 23, as well as a workshop with North Dakota specialist Gabe Brown in Lenore on April 6.

For further information on the grazing club workshops, contact [email protected].

About the author

Reporter

Jennifer Paige is a reporter centred in southwestern Manitoba. She previously wrote for the agriculture-based magazine publisher, Issues Ink and was the sole-reporter at the Minnedosa Tribune for two years prior to joining the Manitoba Co-operator.

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