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Pasture field day educates about soil and water

Photo by Jeff Dennis

Photo by Jeff Dennis

A coalition of organizations came together in the Piedmont on April 22 in order to discuss conservation practices for livestock grazing pastures. The stated purpose to lower feed bills for livestock by increasing forage production drew a large crowd of landowners. Other helpful topics benefitting anyone with an interest in their soil quality and how to make their grass grow better came in to the picture as the discussion progressed, just like a free-grazing herd on the move.
Most of the organizations involved are based in S.C. with the exception of the National Grazing Land Coalition, found on the Internet at www.GrazingLands.org, which sent a representative from Texas to the meeting. The Greenville County Soil and Water Conservation District hosted the meeting, in conjunction with the S.C. Forage and Grazing Lands Coalition. The S.C. Cattleman’s Foundation signed on to underwrite the barbecue lunch for everyone, since the workshop raises interest about this important process in the beef industry.
If you own or manage any grazing lands for cows, goats, sheep or other ruminants, it only takes one quarter to get started on a personal assessment on the quality of your forage. The costs do go up from that meager start. Soil tests will cost $5, but so does the fun of farming for livestock. The quarter test requires that you step into a pasture and flip the coin onto the ground and then record what it falls on. So if you are trying to grow grass, but the quarter lands on bare dirt or weeds most of the time, then you have some room for improvements.
Soil testing through the Clemson Extension office is routine for row crop farmers, and even for those who farm for wildlife using food plots. These tests can reveal many things about soils, but the most common is a low PH that requires the addition of lime to the earth. The science of growing grass in pastures is evolving and the health of the subsoil ecosystem is now in focus, and a different soil test to detect organic matter can now be requested.
It turns out that the quickest way to have better organic composition is to think about a diversity of native grasses, which will create roots systems beneficial to worm populations and even drought resistance. Compaction of soils from livestock can make the surface of the earth hard, which doesn’t offer the best protection for this part of our natural resources.
While rotational grazing can be a good solution to prevent this kind of wear and tear on the land, that formula requires extra fencing and a more hands-on management approach. “Planting cover crops that provide a fine root system are a great way to remedy compacted soils,” said John Andrae with the Clemson Extension. “These roots allow rainfall to enter the ground much better than old, crusted-over earth.”
The most informative part of the workshop regarding soil health came in the form of a rainfall simulator test. A rotating shower nozzle set up over four test plots of soil released something close to a 3-inch rainfall, and a row of catch basins measured the amount of that water that ran off the land. If the water runs off, it does not benefit the grass growing there, or the livestock seeking nutrition.
The earth samples included a stand of healthy fescue grass, a heavily grazed section of fescue, a patch of compacted soils recently planted with native cover, and section of earth freshly tilled for planting. The healthy fescue grass was the clear winner, since its root system delivered the water into the soil and hardly let any run off. The heavily grazed section did not fare as well as one would think, given that it still had some green on it. The compacted soil with the fresh native cover performed very well, and the conventional-till earth simply did not accept the simulated rainfall very well.
Any effort to manage grasslands will have an element of trial and error with it. In other words, your particular soil type will behave differently than others and it will take some fine-tuning to find out what works best for your particular area. Keeping records of rainfall amounts and tracking vegetation production with a ruler are just two examples of the common practices that can help you find the keys to unlock optimal pasture land performance.

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at LowcountryOutdoors.com
Jeff Dennis, Contributor (379 Posts)

Jeff Dennis is a Lowcountry native. Read his blog at www.LowcountryOutdoors.com