Improving Soil with Cattle and The Best Green Manure Crops
What is Holistic Grazing and How do Cattle Improve Soil?
By Heather Thomas, Salmon, Idaho
Holistic grazing and the best green manure crops naturally improve soil. Add legumes or rotational cattle grazing to revitalize land.
Many of our crop and pasture lands have been depleted of soil nutrients, due to continuous cropping or grazing without adding organic matter back into the soil.
Malcolm Beck, who has a farm near Selma, Texas and consults with farmers about soil health, says that learning about holistic management has helped many farmers and ranchers regain productivity on their land, without expensive inputs of inorganic fertilizers.
“They divide their farm or ranch into smaller pastures and crowd the cattle together, rotating through the pastures. When cattle are crowded together, they graze competitively, and eat on every plant. They also trample what’s left, creating litter that adds organic matter to the soil,” he says.
“If there are just a few cattle in a larger area, they walk around and eat their favorite plants and leave the rest, and overgraze the favorite plants. The idea is to move them from pasture to pasture in a hurry,” he says. Then they also leave a lot of manure and urine in each small area, which serves as nutrients for the soil.
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“I’ve learned to listen to old-timers. They rotated livestock with crops, to keep the soil fertile and more productive for the next crops,” says Beck.
“Today I mostly work with gardeners and some farmers. Allan Savory came up with the idea of intensive rotational grazing, and it works.” The trampling effect and getting more organic material into the soil keeps it productive and gives the other small pastures a chance to fully regrow before you use them again.
“If you want to start improving your soils, the first thing you should do is get a good soil test, then you’ll know what micronutrients are missing, and you won’t be just guessing, or wasting your money on fertilizer you don’t need,” he says.
The important thing for the health of soil is a proper population of microbes, including bacteria and fungi. If there is some soil litter (old grass, etc.) there will also be certain fungi, which are instrumental in restoring soil health because they feed on dead organic matter. “This breakdown of organic matter, plus the bodies of the fungi when they die, adds more to the soil, along with the nutrients the fungi collected,” says Beck.
“Many plants have a deeper root system than most grasses. This is why I like to use legumes in a pasture. When I came to my present farm, at Bracken, Texas (near Selma, east of San Antonio) the soil was completely worn out and it wouldn’t grow anything but bitterweeds and stickers—pioneer plants that come in to help cover bare land when nothing else grows,” he says.
“I wrote to Douglas King Seed Company to see what I should plant and they said I needed a good soil test so they could look at it. When they saw my soil test they told me I needed a legume—and that for my area the best legume would be Hubam clover (a white-flowered sweet clover). I got the scarified seeds—scratched-up seeds—so they would all germinate and grow. They also gave me an inoculant to put on the seed, to help the plants make nitrogen nodules to fix nitrogen from the air,” he says.
The best green manure crops include legumes such as clover, beans, and alfalfa. Rye and buckwheat also revitalize soil and can be some of the best winter cover crops. Other cover crops for gardens and pastures include hairy vetch, lupines, and cow peas.
“That clover didn’t quit growing until it got eight feet tall. I hired a guy to come with his brand new John Deere combine to harvest the clover seed. He took a look at my crop and said he couldn’t go in there because it would just plug up his machine. So I offered to follow him in my pickup and clean out his machine every time it got choked up, and I’d back up the flywheel for him. So that’s what we did, and he’d never seen that much seed come off a place before. I stored it in a shed with a concrete floor, and people came from everywhere to buy my clover seed. That’s the most money I ever made farming.”
A college professor came out to his place and documented the height of the clover. “Then he told me this was the last time I could grow a clover crop that big, on that piece of land. He didn’t know why, but said that’s what the old-timers had told him. But I thought I could grow it again like that, and found out the professor was correct. I never did have that tall a crop again,” says Beck.
“That Hubam clover root goes down six to eight feet, bringing minerals up to the top of the ground. All the biomass on top of the ground, when the clover plant is tromped down and decays, is feeding the microbes and the earthworms,” he says.
“In nature, native plants have a way to ensure their survival. The seeds at the top of the seed head will be slightly coated with a shellac-like coating. Farther down the seed head, the heavier the coating is. The seeds at the bottom, with the thickest coating, won’t sprout unless environmental conditions are perfect for them—microbial activity, weather, moisture, etc. This way, Nature never puts all of her eggs in one basket,” he explains. Some of the seeds won’t germinate and sprout right away, but they will still be there on the ground waiting. They may sprout next year or 10 years from now, or later. It may be many years before those sprout, ensuring survival of that species of plant.
“It took a few years to get my soil in good shape on my place, then I went into truck farming. I had some good help, and we made some money, but it’s lots of work. I kept the soil healthy and fertile by rotating. I’d do 30 rows of cash crop plants, 30 rows of cover crop, 30 rows of cash crop, etc., and then rotate those the next year. This way I always had a patch getting ready, instead of planting the whole thing to cash crop or cover crop. I made more money by doing it in strips across the field, and the reason I did 30 rows was because that’s how far my sprinklers reached,” says Beck.
This is exactly like doing rotation grazing with cattle, but doing it with the best green manure crops instead.
Have you incorporated holistic grazing or the best green manure crops to improve your soil? Tell us your story!
Originally published in Countryside March/April 2013 and regularly vetted for accuracy.