Restoring Soils and Producing Food with Livestock
Most of us are familiar with the consequences of livestock mismanagement. Erosion, gullies and damaged riparian areas are typical results of this mismanagement. However, there is a growing awareness among farmers and ranchers that cattle can transform a landscape for the better if they are managed properly. This is accomplished by some form of rotation that allows for a grazing period and adequate rest period that allows the grass and forbs to recover from grazing before being grazed again. In addition to the grazing/rest cycle, another consideration is the type of animal impact that each particular class of livestock will offer the land. Sheep and horses
graze much more closely than do cattle, and poultry can scratch the ground bare quickly. Grazers (horses, sheep, cattle) effectively trample standing dead carbonaceous material to put it in contact with the ground. In combination with the manure and urine they leave behind, this dead thatch builds soil. That’s right! Livestock can be managed to build soil! This means greater productivity,
better water holding capacity and carbon sequestration. In many settings and climates livestock and especially beef cattle are being utilized to reverse desertification and restore unproductive land.
Here at EE we have been experimenting mostly with our dairy cows and flock of laying hens. The initial results have been very exciting. Following are some of the strategies that we have employed. They could be applied on a large or small scale. The land we inhabit has suffered from various forms of mismanagement and was left with very little topsoil and poor fertility. This is not a great situation for feeding dairy cows which have high nutritional demands. The first season that they were here we supplemented with alfalfa hay through most of the year. This has changed. This year (their third grazing season here) the cows have been out grazing since January and receiving only a mineral supplement since late February. They will likely graze this way into May. So, how did we accomplish this? Here in inland northern California we have about six months of dry season. This is a period that the cows get only hay. Rather than keeping them at the barn and feeding them out of a feeder, we have been continuing their rotation and feeding hay on the ground. Using electric fencing, they are moved every 2 to 4 days so that their manure is spread evenly throughout an area. They spill some hay and leave behind a dose of fertilizer. We have established pasture where there was no grass at all and have greatly improved the fertility of degraded grasslands.
Last year we constructed a mobile coop for our laying hens and since then have been rotating them throughout the year. They are also doing their share to improve the fertility of our pastures. Planning for heavy rains that saturate the soils is critical, especially in our climate. During these periods we keep the cows at the barn and move the hens frequently to minimize their impacts on the fragile wet soils. Cattle can be left out and moved frequently, however, dairy cows must return to the barn twice a day which tears up paths in really wet weather. We look forward to extending the season even further in the future and possibly adding other livestock to our rotations as the carrying capacity improves. If you are concerned about the carbon footprint of your diet, consider looking for a farmer near you who is also utilizing these soil building practices. Grassfed animal products offer some of the best nutrition and can be produced with regenerative (carbon sequestering!) practices.