cows in field

Maintaining Healthy, Productive Pastures

By Neal Kinsey

Added August 11, 2010. What does a statement like the title above bring to mind for those who have livestock? Something like, “Pipe dream!” Or, “My pastures are already as close as they will ever be to that.” Maybe even, “I wish it were possible, but it would likely be far too expensive.”

Some years ago a good friend who had “beautiful” pastures wound up with blackleg in his cattle. Nothing seemed to work and his problem got worse. He had an “undeveloped” woodlot that was fenced off separately. When he opened it to the cattle they went right in and began eating there and that ended his losses from blackleg – even one animal that seemed so sick it might not be able to get to the gate finally did make it and recovered.

Which of these two areas was healthy productive pasture? In fact, neither one was. The undeveloped area solved the problem, but was not productive enough as such to sustain very many cows for any significant period of time. It just provided the “natural cure” those cows needed. When sick, most readers of this publication would likely look for something natural like herbs, plant extracts or tinctures to help solve the problem where possible, but would
not expect to survive on those alone for very long.

The “developed pastures” looked good and produced more forage, but did not contain the nutritional value the cows needed to fight the disease. It was considered as productive, but was not really
“healthy” in the way needed for the livestock forced to live on it. So then, what can livestock producers do to makes the soil both healthy and productive.

One approach may work for one pasture or farm and not for another depending on the circumstances. But there are some basic considerations that need to be made by livestock farmers in order to make the best choices for their soil and their stock.

First of all, it should be noted that a healthy soil is a vibrant living soil. The soil is alive and that life needs to be encouraged. Every grower of whatever plants or crops has to feed the equivalent of one average sized cow per acre in living organism beneath the soil surface in addition to whatever is being grown or produced there per acre. The soil is the plants stomach. And as such, the life in the soil will eat at the first table. What is left over or “utilized, processed and discarded” by what lives in that soil is the available “food” for the plants striving to grow on that land. There is a foundational principle for natural and organic production that must be considered in this regard. Feed the soil and
let the soil feed the plant! How well would our natural health be without properly feeding the organisms in our stomach? The same applies to healthy, productive pastures.

It is not natural to leave the soil to itself. In the Book of Genesis Adam was told to “dress and keep” the garden. Soil was not made to do its best when left alone. To do its best, the soil must be cared
for just as much as our stock needs to be provided and cared for to do its best. The soil, when just left to natural forces, actually deteriorates over time. To the extent that life survives in and on the
soil actually determines how well it will produce. Without proper care the productivity of a soil goes downhill.

Soils just left alone will generally grow “something” but they must be properly managed in order to be both vibrantly healthy and extremely productive at the same time. And this type of management
is only possible when it can be measured and properly evaluated. You can’t manage what you can’t measure. So then how do you measure in order to manage for healthy, productive soil?

One measure is the biological aspects of the soil. Some consultants advocate adding various microbes to the soil to increase soil life. The soil is alive but not always with sufficient amounts of the organisms needed to best provide for the plants growing there. But others point out that when living conditions are right for soil microbes they will be able to properly propagate and continue to provide the desired beneficial results. How does a producer manage that on their own property if they do not have access to a soil microbiologist?

Another measure is the physical structure of the soil – the amount of air and water that occupies the pore space in each soil as compared to the mineral and humus content. For the ideal
healthy productive pasture, this would approximate to 45% mineral content, 5% humus, 25% air space and 25% water. Heavier soils generally tend to hold more water in relation to air and
compact more easily due to trampling. Sandy soils tend to have too much air space and may dry out too quickly.

This air and water is dependant on the porosity of the soil – too much space means too much air in relation to water, and too little space means too much water in relation to the available air. The physical structure is the “house” for the microbes and other living organisms that make up the weight of that “average sized cow” that must be fed on each acre before the pasture growing there can receive the nutrients it needs to do its best. But if the soil does not already have this proper physical structure, then how can it be attained?

Once the characteristics from the amount of sand, silt and clay in a soil have been taken into account, the nutrient makeup of each soil then determines how much pore space that soil contains. In general, any soil with an overabundance of calcium will have too much air space and lose moisture more quickly. Soils with excessive potassium – most likely where large amounts of manure is continuously applied - tend to run together and keep water on the top of the soil making it more prone to runoff when bare from tillage, etc. Excessive sodium can cause similar problems. Soils with excessive magnesium tend to exhibit extreme hardening when dry, and in clay soils it makes them extremely sticky when wet and more prone to deep wide cracking when dry. And here is the key to vibrant healthy productive pastures and vibrant healthy productive livestock. Using the laws of chemistry to correct and manage the proper amount of each soil nutrient determines the physical structure of every soil which in turn determines the quality of the environment for the life in the soil - “the house” required for the biology.

Such can be accomplished by taking soil samples properly for analysis and recommendations. However these determinations are not made based on the number of pounds of each nutrient a soil may contain. It is only determined by measuring the percent makeup of each nutrient in terms of the soils total nutrient-holding capacity. If there is an excess of one or more of the elements
mentioned above there will be a deficiency of one or more of the others. This is the true meaning of balanced productive soil. Supply what is deficient to control what is excessive.

Proper interpretation and use of such information is the key to productive and healthy pastures for healthy productive animals.

Kinsey Agricultural Services, Inc.
297 Co Hwy 357 – Charleston, Missouri 63834
Phone: 573-683-3880 – Fax: 573-683-6227