Tallgrass Summer Management: Workshop and Tour

September 3, 2019 – Collinge Ranch – Eureka, KS

TO RSVP: CONTACT LINDSAY SHORTER prior to Aug 26
(620) 583-7455 or email Lindsay here.

Registration will begin at 8:30 AM, tour departs at 9:00

  • Tour of summer burned pastures with discussions about associated weight gains and effects on nuisance plants – Mike Collinge
  • Water developments, management, and effects on land and livestock – Bob Culbertson
  • K-State research on summer fire as an alternative management technique – KC Olsen
  • Discussion and demonstration (weather permitting) of drones to locate and target invasive Sericea Lespedeza – Kelsey Porter
  • Effects of summer burning on Old-World Bluestem – Bill Edward

Free picnic lunch (provided by Greenwood Co 4-H) & range plant ID walk

Organization Meetings following lunch: KGLC, SRM, TLA, and GC Cattlemen Toronto Lake

Brought to you by the Collinge Ranch, Greenwood County Conservation District, and many others!

New Site: Healthy Watersheds

We just launched a new website! Healthy Watersheds in Kansas offers details about all the parts of a watershed, from streams and wetlands to wildlife and fish migration. We can’t wait to show it to you, so here’s a preview:

Screenshot of the website “Healthy Watersheds in Kansas.”

We like the clickable watershed maps, and you’ll love the real-world examples from the South Fork Cottonwood River and King’s Creek. Finally, don’t forget to check out the beautiful figures and diagrams created by Julie Benyshek, Master’s Candidate in Regional & Community Planning at Kansas State University.

This project was funded in part by The Kingsbury Foundation. We appreciate their generous support in our work towards improving the health of Kansas watersheds.

Building a better solar panel: grazing management for soil health

By Tom Parker

By understanding—and utilizing—the natural processes that enable life on earth, graziers and ranchers can not only revitalize depleted soils, restore degraded wetlands and riparian areas, increase animal production, reduce inputs and maximize profits, they can also help turn the tide of global climate change. It doesn’t matter where you live, it doesn’t take a lot of equipment, it doesn’t require much fuel.

Implementing the principles, however, will require a quantum change in how graziers view their lands. Rather than seeing them as interconnected segments of divergent landforms, every square acre and every square foot should be understood as a component in a giant solar panel.

We can think of plants as the “original solar panels.”

“Every day, what we do affects how effectively we capture solar energy,” Jim Gerrish said. “When you start bringing your thought processes down to how much solar energy you’re capturing, it will change the way you do business. How good is your solar panel?”

Gerrish, author of “Management Intensive Grazing, the Grassroots of Grass Farming,” “Kick the Hay Habit: A Practical Guide to Year-around Grazing” and numerous other articles, spoke to a group of graziers and ranchers in Blaine, Kan., during a five-stop tour through the state in September with his workshop, “Grazing Management for Improved Soil Health.” His experience includes over 20 years of beef-forage systems research and outreach while on the faculty of the University of Missouri, as well as 20 years of commercial cattle and sheep production on the family farm in northern Missouri. He currently ranches in Idaho with his wife, Dawn.

Only four ingredients are necessary to produce meat, milk, fiber and grass—sunlight, water, minerals and carbon dioxide. “These are the components of photosynthesis,” Gerrish said. “Ranching is about managing those components to capture solar energy, maximize photosynthesis, and convert it into a sellable product.”

For photosynthesis to occur, there must be enough plant matter to capture solar energy. Fields that are overgrazed or mowed too short take longer for new growth to sprout and also allow sunlight to hit the surface of the soil.

“Bare soil does not catch solar energy and make cow food,” he said. “It’s a pound of meat you don’t have to sell. It’s a lost opportunity, and we’re not going to get it back.”

Mature plants don’t make good solar panels, either, he said. Only green growing leaves carry out the photosynthesis required for virtually all lifeforms on earth. In short, it takes grass to grow grass.

And animals need grass.

There are three phases of growth and yield with grass, he said. The first phase involves spring growth when there is very limited green leaf area and most of the growth comes from stored carbon in the roots. Ruminative animals love to eat phase one grass because it tastes good, but it’s hard on the plant because there’s not enough leaf surface to capture solar energy. Growth speeds up as leaf surface expands and more solar energy is captured. Phase two grass is the most nutritious and productive of the three phases, and is commonly stocked the most intensively.

Phase three is when grass blooms and reaches its tallest growth. “We call it hay,” he said. “And because hay is cut short, it moves from phase three to phase one.”

Deciding when to allow grazing depends on several factors. If there’s been a hard winter and no supplemental feed is available, allowing animals to graze makes financial sense. If supplemental feed is available, it’s probably best to wait a week or two. “We have to be flexible when deciding when to graze early season,” Gerrish said.

It also depends on the type of animal, he said. Cows shear off the entire plant, leaving only stubble, but sheep nibble leaf by leaf. While sheep can be let out earlier in the season than cows, it’s best to adopt a policy of “take a bite and leave,” preserving enough growth to capture solar energy and maximize growth.

Conventional wisdom considers this a waste of good grass, Gerrish said—something he likens to an addiction.

“Our addiction is the fear of wasting grass,” he said. “That’s not wasting grass, it’s building soil and productivity. The majority of organic matter in the soil is built from underneath. Remember: grass feeds the grass, grass feeds the soil, then grass can feed the livestock.”

Rotational grazing allows pastures to maintain a base level for faster recovery, he said. It also increases plant diversity. More diversity means greater and more uniform seasonal forage production, more balanced nutritional composition and better wildlife habitat.

“You need to steer the composition of the plant community,” Gerrish said. “Nature does not like simplicity. You can see diversity, you can increase diversity, if you manage for it. When we have diversity above ground, we have diversity under ground in the root systems.”

Managing resources for livestock also means managing for the birds and bees and the pollinators and every other creature that makes a contribution to seed regeneration, mineral cycling and insect control. “When that happens,” he said, “we have ecological stability.”

Water is another essential element that will require a different approach, he said. Traditionally, graziers think of water two different ways: as stock water that animals drink, or water that falls from the sky or comes from a sprinkler to make grass grow. Similar to seeing the land as a solar panel, graziers should imagine every acre as a water catchment basin.

“Our daily decisions in grazing management largely determine whether water runs off the land, infiltrates the land, doesn’t evaporate away or is used for plant growth,” he said. “Whenever you’re out walking, driving or riding through your pastures, think about how effective your water cycle is.”

The best time to do that is when it’s raining, he added. Only when it’s raining a can you see where the water is flowing, how the water is moving, and how the soil is reacting to its presence.

Capturing and retaining water is the foundation of a healthy water cycle, he said. When flooding occurs, it diminishes root systems, causes erosion and washes away organic matter. “What’s the solution?” he asked. “Start at the top of the list: get more cover out there. Build a better solar panel.”

Doing so doesn’t require a lot of equipment or fuel, he said. On his farm in Idaho he uses one ATV to manage 450 pivot acres, 100 acres of flood ground and several hundred acres of desert rangeland. Once a year he brings in a backhoe for irrigation projects, but usually only for a day.

“We don’t use much iron and oil to produce beef,” he said. “What you need is animals.”

(continued in Grazing for Better Soil Health: Livestock Management)

This article is a result of soil health and grazing workshops KAWS held in 2018 across the state. Funding for the workshops was provided by the North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Project partners include the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, NRCS-Kansas, Kansas Water Office, K-State University, Kansas SARE, No Till on the Plains, Kansas Dept. of Health and Environment, nine Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy groups, Kansas Grazing Land Coalition and Friends of the Kaw.

Grazing for Better Soil Health: Livestock Management

By Tom Parker

In 1997, a distant relative from Argentina flew to St. Louis, Mo., and spent most of the summer with Jim Gerrish and his father on their farm. The rancher, like all ranchers in Argentina, raised grass-fed beef. The Gerrishes grew crops and hay. What little they knew about livestock production was from their neighbor’s fields, mostly weedy, overgrazed and eroded. It wasn’t a pretty sight.

In Argentina, they did things differently, the rancher told them. Pastures were deep and lush with alfalfa, trefoil, clover and other vegetation, and cattle were moved every day. Grasslands were intensely managed to ensure maximum resilience and growth. Finished beef sold at 16 cents per pound.

Gerrish was astonished. He asked the rancher how he could afford to be that labor intensive at such a low price.

“How can I afford not to be?” the man answered.

“Those people had one resource—grass—and they learned how to use it and use it very effectively,” Gerrish said. “He called it controlled grazing.”

What he didn’t know at the time was that it would become his own driving mantra.

Gerrish, author of “Management Intensive Grazing, the Grassroots of Grass Farming,” “Kick the Hay Habit: A Practical Guide to Year-around Grazing” and numerous other articles, spoke to a group of graziers and ranchers in Blaine, Kan., during a five-stop tour through the state in September with his workshop, “Grazing Management for Improved Soil Health.” His experience includes over 20 years of beef-forage systems research and outreach while on the faculty of the University of Missouri, as well as 20 years of commercial cattle and sheep production on the family farm in northern Missouri. He currently ranches in Idaho with his wife, Dawn.

Workshops were sponsored by the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams (KAWS) through funding from North Central Extension Risk Management Education and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Project partners included the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, NRCS-Kansas, Kansas Water Office, K-State University, Kansas SARE, No Till on the Plains, Kansas Dept. of Health and Environment, nine Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy groups, Kansas Grazing Land Coalition and Friends of the Kaw. Other locations included Emporia, Eureka, Jewell and Salina.

What’s in a name? The idea of rotating livestock through a sequence of small pastures or paddocks isn’t new, Gerrish said. It’s been called rotational grazing, rational grazing, controlled grazing, holistic planned grazing, adaptive multi-paddock grazing, mob grazing, grazing tall, and short duration, high intensity grazing, but the concept is largely the same. Controlling time spent in one area allows for pasture, water and soil recovery in all other areas.

“These methods all involve a higher level of management rather than turn them out in the spring and round them up in the fall,” he said. “Cows intensively graze. People intensively manage. Management is what’s being intensified, not grazing.”

Ranching, he said, is really about managing ecosystem processes—solar energy flow, the water cycle and the mineral cycle—and then creating biodiversity across the land. “You always get what you manage for,” he said. “Manage for what you do want, not what you don’t want.”

Both the length of time and the timing of grazing are critical management factors, he said. Seasonal timing determines how much impact we have on soil conditions, diet selection and the physiological state of the livestock, all of which are manageable.

Time also plays an important role in the recovery process. For the most part, the longer pastures are spent in recovery, the more productive they become, but if recovery periods are too short or too long, there can be serious ramifications.

Overgrazing, while a concern to many ranchers and graziers, is often confused with overstocking, Gerrish said. Overstocking is having more animals than resources can support. By his estimate, far more ranches are understocked than they are overstocked, and while it often leads to overgrazing, almost all ranches are overgrazed because they’re not managing time.

“You cannot reduce overgrazing by reducing the number of animals,” he said. “It’s a time function, not necessarily an animal function.”

Care needs to be taken before laying out paddocks for rotational grazing, Gerrish stressed.

“One of the worst things you can do is start putting in permanent fence, because things will change,” he said. “Start with portable fences, figure out what works best, then develop a comprehensive plan.”

Working with the terrain rather than against it is important. When Thomas Jefferson adopted the rectangular survey system for the United States, it was one of the worst things that could happen in terms of land resource management, Gerrish said. “In flat country it almost works, but in rolling country there are fences in the stupidest places,” he said. “We need to be willing to put our fences into contours.”

Because water accessibility determines where cattle spend most of their time, locating existing water sources as well as stock water availability are essential for grazing cell planning, and should be completed prior to arranging both permanent and temporary fencing. Cattle tend to overgraze near water sources, leaving more distant areas undergrazed.

Gerrish cited several recent studies on the importance of water and how it influences grazing. One Wyoming by a Wyoming scientist who opposed rotational grazing nevertheless found a beneficial correlation between frequent rotations and shortening the distance to water sources. Another from South Texas found that water tanks were beneficial if cattle had to walk more than three-quarters of a mile to water.

Depending on ponds can be risky, depending on circumstances, Gerrish said. Ponds might not be at the most favorable location, and pond water quality is typically on the low scale. In wet conditions, cattle can get bogged down in muddy areas, and in dry years water supplies might not be reliable. Stock tanks fed by pipeline are more dependable and provide better water, he said. Tanks should be positioned as high in elevation as possible.

His preferred type of stock tank, a tire tank with a float, is relatively easy to install and virtually freeze proof. Instead of placing tanks in the center of pastures, they should be used as a pivot point serving two to four pastures. More than that can lead to compaction and trampling damage, he said.

He also uses moveable water tanks with 180 gallon capacity. Any size tank is beneficial in the heat of summer, he said, as long as you can refill the tank before it runs dry. He’s watered 180 head of cattle on a 20-gallon tub during a hot, humid Missouri summer. Portable tanks should be placed against a fence line so cattle can’t come at it from all sides, plus it makes it more difficult to turn over.

Adding pads beneath the tanks saves cattle from foot rot and other complications, he said. Pads should be at least one foot above the surrounding ground level and extending at least 15 feet from the tank.

While it might seem daunting to convert from a traditional grazing system to a management-intensive grazing system, it’s important to note that a slower, more methodical pace will garner the most benefits, he said. The thing to remember is that it’s all about the grass.

“Grass feeds the grass, grass feeds the soil, and then grass feeds the livestock,” he said. “Make sure the grass is taking care of itself first.”

This article is a part of several soil health and grazing workshops KAWS held in 2018 across the state. Funding for the workshops was provided by the North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Project partners include the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, NRCS-Kansas, Kansas Water Office, K-State University, Kansas SARE, No Till on the Plains, Kansas Dept. of Health and Environment, nine Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy groups, Kansas Grazing Land Coalition and Friends of the Kaw.

Pasture Management based on Four Ecosystem Processes

Jim Gerrish American GrazingLands Services LLC jrgerrish@americangrazinglands.com 208-876-4067

Do you ever stop to think how simple this business of farming and ranching can be?

There are only four necessary ingredients needed for producing meat, milk, and fiber: Those are carbon dioxide, solar energy, water, and soil minerals. We as humans have worked for centuries to make it increasingly complicated. In the process we have made farming and ranching much more expensive and much less sustainable. All we need to do is look at the few remaining natural ecosystems around the world and the wild animals that come into our backyards.

Natural systems operate just fine without human intervention or costly inputs. The elk and deer produce high quality meat that is tasty and nutritious. The cow elk and white tail doe produce milk and raise their babies. The soil is healthy and the plant community is diverse. Beef, lamb, and dairy production could be just as simple if we bring ourselves back to the idea of four basic ingredients needed to produce our products.

Those four ingredients flow and cycle within our agricultural ecosystems just as they do in natural ecosystems. The only problem is we have screwed up the processes on most of our farms and ranches through our well-intentioned interventions. Much of what we do in our day to day management is counter to healthy ecosystem processes.

What do we mean when we say ‘ecosystem processes’? There are four key flows and cycles we should all be aware of and we should build our management strategies around these processes. Solar energy flow involves the capture of carbon dioxide and formation into plants sugars through the process of photosynthesis. Water is a key component in the photosynthetic process as it is drawn from the soil, cycles through the plant, and is released back to the atmosphere as water vapor. Nitrogen and soil minerals are combined with the simple plant sugars to form complex molecules of protein, enzymes, vitamins, and an almost unimaginable array of plant compounds. All of these mineral-containing plant compounds are ultimately consumed by other life forms and the minerals cycle through plants and animals in our ecosystem to ultimately be returned once again to the soil. We need a diverse plant community through the different seasons and across the diverse landscape of our farms and ranches and we need diverse animal life to keep the flows and cycles moving along.

The remainder of this talk deals with the four key ecosystem processes: 1) solar energy flow, 2) water cycle, 3) mineral cycles, and 4) biodiversity.

1) Build a better solar panel: Farming and ranching is really the business of capturing solar energy and turning it into a salable product. Nowhere is this more apparent than in pasture-based agriculture. If you think of every acre you manage as a 43,560 sq-ft solar panel, you easily begin to see how to improve your operation.

First think about what makes an excellent solar panel when it comes to maximizing photosynthesis. It is green growing leaves. Bare soil does not capture solar energy. Dead, brown plants do not capture solar energy. Only green, growing leaves take solar energy and make it into livestock feed. If you are using permanent perennial pasture plants, look at how much of the soil surface is covered by green leaves on any day of the year. In an irrigated situation, an excellent pasture should have at least 90% of the ground covered by green growing plants. If you are raising annual pasture crops, think about how many days the soil is left bare during the year or between crops. Timeliness of farming operations and rapid establishment are the key to successful annual pasture crops.

For many farmers and ranchers, the breakdown in the solar panel comes from leaving livestock too long in the same pasture and allowing it to be grazed too short. There are a few key management strategies we can use to increase ground cover in pasture and rangeland. The first is leave ample post-grazing residual. This is done far more effectively by managing the time livestock are on a particular grazing unit than by reducing numbers. Reducing numbers only shifts the pattern of patch grazing. It does nothing to improve solar panel effectiveness. The second strategy is to increase species diversity. This is best accomplished through varying the season of use so that different species are targeted for grazing while others are allowed recovery in seasons when they were previously targeted. Providing appropriate recovery periods is the third key. In a high-rainfall or irrigated environment, the recovery period may be just a few weeks in the peak of the rapid growth season while it might be as long as 60-90 days in slower growth periods. In once-a-year grazing scenarios as we practice in the high desert Idaho environment, providing 14 months recovery rather than 12 months ensures each pasture will not be grazed at the same time of year for several years.

Bare soil means lost production and provides opportunity for weed invasion in both permanent and annual pastures. The most common cause of thin spotty pastures is grazing too short while staying on the same pasture too long. Leaves are the photosynthetic factory of the plant. If excessive grazing removes too many leaves too frequently, the plant cannot support itself and must either reduce its size or die out completely. All across the world, grass farmers lose significant production potential because they keep tearing down their factory. In most of North America, I believe many farmers and ranchers are losing 50% or more of their production potential due to grazing too short and not providing adequate recovery periods. Key principle is it takes grass to grow grass.

Letting pastures get over-mature is another significant loss of photosynthetic efficiency on irrigated pastures. While it might seem contradictory for what appear to be two opposite trends (grazing too short vs. pastures getting to tall) to be such significant problems, the two trends often occur in the same pasture side-by-side. An individual blade of grass may only have 3 to 5 weeks of effective solar capture. Letting perennial plants in a high rainfall environment continue to grow much longer than five weeks without grazing lowers photosynthetic efficiency. Stockpiling pasture or range for dormant season grazing is the only time we should let pasture plants reach full maturity.

Other tools for keeping your pasture an efficient solar panel include seeding only adapted pasture species, appropriate nutrient management, and timely weed control. Choose species and varieties that are proven in your environment. There are very few real wonder grasses. Don’t expect a plant developed in a totally different climate to do well on your farm. Take care of the fertility needs of your pasture to keep green leaves growing vigorously. Soil testing is a critical tool for pasture management. Take care of your pastures and weeds will not be a problem. Remember weeds are opportunists that invade unhealthy pastures. If you do have a weed problem, deal with it promptly by changing the management that created the problem.

2) Capture more of the water that falls on your land: Making more efficient water use should be an objective that graziers think about every day and your daily management decisions should help create an improving water cycle. What are the key factors to be monitoring and what are the adjustments that can be made?

Keeping the ground covered is the number one consideration. Keeping the ground covered entails both the living, growing material as well as the dead plant litter on the soil surface. Obviously, the more new green material you can grow, the better the cover will be and the greater the opportunity to create plant litter. Almost every aspect of the water cycle comes back to this key point.

By leaving taller post-grazing residuals in both perennial and annual pastures, plants grow back more quickly thus creating new cover and leaving more material to ultimately become litter cover. One of the huge benefits of maintaining cover is keeping the soil cooler. Very often in midsummer, the soil temperature at 2″ depth can be 20o cooler under sod compared to adjacent bare ground. This greatly reduces evaporative water loss from the soil.

If you use annual pastures and are not already doing so, consider using no-till seedings or interseedings to establish the annuals. Every time the soil is tilled not only does it cause evaporative water loss but it also collapses soil structure resulting in reduced infiltration and increased runoff. Water that leaves your farm as runoff is missed opportunity for growing more pasture. If you follow some fairly basic guidelines, no-till pasture seedings are just as effective as conventional tilled seed beds and come at a much lower equipment and labor costs as well as being much better for the soil and water cycle.

Soils with adequate available nitrogen and mineral content make much more efficient use of water than do soils with chronic nutrient deficiencies. If soil minerals or N is limiting productivity, then each inch of water will give you less forage yield. You can also think about this conversely, applying nutrients as fertilizer, manures, or feeding hay for soil enrichment only pay if you have a healthy water cycle.

Generally I do not advocate the use of iron and oil in grazing management. One of the exceptions I will consider is what is known as keyline plowing. If you have a landscape plagued by fast runoff and water rapidly moving into draws and ravines and flushing out of the system, keyline plowing is a way to correct that problem with mechanical intervention until the natural water

cycle is working more effectively. The most common keyline plow is the Yoeman Plow which is essentially a deep shank ripper. By ripping on what is known as a key line, both surface and subsurface drainage patterns can be altered to give more uniform water distribution across slopes and variable landscape. A key line is the least dropping contour line that allows water to move laterally across a slope rather than vertically downslope. It is a relatively expensive process, but the benefits can be tremendous.

3) Maintain dynamic nitrogen and mineral cycles: Nitrogen is usually considered to the first limiting element for growth in most grassland ecosystems. It is the most mobile nutrient with many pathways for loss so we need to have the N supply in our soil being continuously recharged. From 1950 to late in the 20 century the solution seemed to be just keep pouring on the N fertilizer and th all would be well. As we came into the 21 Century, reliance on nitrogen fertilizer to support pasture st production was found to be unaffordable as fertilizer cost increased at a much faster rate than the value of our products. Negative effects on biodiversity and nutritional value of forage also emerged. We found N needed to come from somewhere other than a bag.

Establishing and maintaining legumes in pastures is a far more cost effective means of providing N for pasture growth than is fertilizer. Almost all natural grassland systems contain N-fixing legumes. University studies from as diverse environments as Texas to Oregon to Vermont have all shown cost per lb of gain on beef animals to be lower on grass-legume mixtures than grass + N fertilizer pastures. In the 22 years on our farm in Missouri, there were only three occasions that we ever used any N fertilizer. The rest of the time we ran on legume N and an effective N cycle while carrying twice the county average stocking rate.

Almost all legumes thrive in well managed pastures. Lime, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, and other micronutrients may need to be increased to have legumes prosper, but those tend to be nutrients that will stay put on your farm compared to highly mobile N. A phosphorus molecule applied as fertilizer today may still be working in the same pasture 20 years from now, while the majority of N applied as fertilizer will be gone from your farm in a single season.

As the organic matter content of a soil increases, the pool of N in the soil also increases. Because of the opportunity to lose N through ammonia volatilization from urine, denitrification from microbial processes, and leaching of water through the soil profile, even high organic matter soils still need the regular infusion of new N into the ecosystem.

Minerals through animals with only minimal amounts retained in the animal’s body with the majority excreted through either urine or dung. Mobile minerals such as N and K tend to flow predominantly through urine while immobile minerals like P and Ca are found in dung. Mobile nutrients flowing through urine tend to be readily available for plant growth as they are returned to the soil. Because most immobile minerals end up being bound in plant fiber, they are released from the dung only through microbial degradation of the dung pats or pellets. Elements like P can be held unavailable for extended periods of time if the decomposition process is slow.

Decomposition rate of manure is affected by temperature, moisture, microbial life, and degree of disturbance. Because pastures consistently left with taller residuals can maintain better litter cover on the soil surface they tend to remain cooler and wetter which help accelerate decomposition of manure. These same conditions encourage more insect and bird biodiversity which increases the likelihood of physical disturbance of the manure. All of the pieces fit together to help maintain the dynamic mineral cycle.

Biodiversity: Biodiveristy is more than just having several different plant species in your pasture. It refers to the overall breadth of life forms in your ecosystem. We see it most visibly manifested as diversity of plant species and functional groups. In ecological terms, plants perform different roles and functions in the environment. Plants performing similar roles can be grouped into a specific functional group. For example, tall fescue, orchardgrass, and redtop are all perennial cool-season grasses. They grow at a similar time in the and have similar nutrient and water requirements. They are nitrogen users and fibrous rooted. In contrast, red and white clover are perennial cool-season legumes with similar growth requirements. They are quite different from grasses in growth form but also in that they are N-fixers as well as users. Crabgrass and barnyardgrass are warm-season annual grasses so they have different growth requirements and characteristics compared to the two prior groups. Each of these categories of plants form different functional groups. When it comes to diversity in pasture, we want multiple functional groups not just different species.

Here is an example from our pastures in north Missouri describing the species and functional groups present there.

Microbial, insect, avian, and mammalian diversity will all broaden and increase as plant community becomes increasingly diversified. All of these animal life forms also influence the water and mineral cycles in positive ways. Biodiversity is a reflection on the overall health of all cycles and flows.

Balancing use and recovery in the pasture is one of the strategies we use to enhance the effectiveness of each of the processes we have discussed above. Continuous use of the same area by a set number of livestock for an extended period of time will almost always results in the eventual breakdown of the ecosystem. Nature is a dynamic system and must always ebb and flow. When we begin to too tightly constrain those ebbs and flows, the system fails. Thus the need for balancing use and recovery of the plant and soil communities when we assume management of the ecosystem.

We all know pastures need to be rested to restore CHO storage and plant vigor, but is that all the recovery period provides? In reality, most forages rely on residual leaf area for regrowth, not stored CHO. The recovery really is a time allowing new leaves to grow, which in turn supplies excess CHO for storage and helps maintain vigor and root growth. Determining appropriate recovery period length is a challenge graziers face on an ongoing basis. Animal and plant needs must always be balanced. Longer recovery periods provide healthier plants and ample forage, but reduced forage quality. While shorter recovery periods may supply high quality forage, they may stress plants and also leave forage supply short. Changing growing conditions dictate recovery periods need to be lengthened or shortened. One thing for sure is leaving more residual increases flexibility in recovery management while lower residual reduces management flexibility.

Soils that are severely trampled during wet conditions recover their tilth much quicker if animal pressure is removed and plant roots begin to rapidly grow back. Allowing adequate recovery period helps reduce soil compaction. A four-year study at the University of Missouri – Forage Systems Research Center found soil bulk density tended to be lower for rotationally grazed pastures compared to continuously grazed pastures for low to medium stocking rates. At high stocking rates, compaction was equally severe for both grazing management regimes but tended to be less for rotational stocking as recovery periods were extended.

The required recovery period may be as short as 20 to 25 days in springtime on high natural rainfall or irrigated and fertilized grasses during their peak growth period. The same species may require up to 45-60 days recovery during hotter, drier periods. Recovery requirements for tall grass prairie sites may vary from 30 to 120 days depending on growing conditions. In semi-arid rangelands, a single grazing period per year may be all that is appropriate followed by a full year’s recovery. Recovery management cannot be calendar-based, but must be planned in response to growing conditions and planned use patterns.

Complete removal of grazing animals from a grassland ecosystem generally does not result in improved grassland condition. While some short term gains may be seen initially, long term livestock exclusion generally leads to downward trend in grassland condition. This is because grasslands evolved with grazing animals and almost all grass species require some degree of grazing to remain healthy. In a five-year research project in Missouri, we found stocking rates below the recommended level resulted in more rapid deterioration of grassland condition than stocking rates above the recommended range. To be healthy, grasslands must be utilized.

Several environmental and wildlife benefits can be attributed to providing planned recovery periods. Both stream bank stability and bird nesting habitat were improved in pasture areas when planned grazing systems were implemented according to research conducted in both Wisconsin and Oregon.

Several studies in the western US have shown notable stream bank improvement where planned grazing systems have been implemented. It is the continuous presence of livestock in riparian areas that creates problems, not the managed use of a site by livestock. Native plant species tend to increase when appropriate recovery periods are provided. Appropriateness includes both timing and duration.

This article is a part of several soil health and grazing workshops KAWS held in 2018 across the state. Funding for the workshops was provided by the North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Project partners include the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, NRCS-Kansas, Kansas Water Office, K-State University, Kansas SARE, No Till on the Plains, Kansas Dept. of Health and Environment, nine Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy groups, Kansas Grazing Land Coalition and Friends of the Kaw.

Yes, Everything is Connected

By Jim Gerrish, American Grazing Lands Services LLC

I grew up in a time when we all believed we were smarter than Mother Nature. We all subscribed to the notion of ‘Better living through Chemistry’. We could isolate any question and address it through the scientific method. We had firmly established that we as human beings were separate from nature and that we were above nature. We ruled the Earth. We could control weeds in our fields with a simple, safe chemical. Our scientists assured us these chemicals affected nothing else besides the target weeds. I watched my weed science professor drink Atrazine to assure us of its safety. He long since died of lymphoma. We could eliminate parasites from our livestock with a simple pour-on chemical.

There was only one problem.

We were mistaken.

We found we could also eliminate over 800 soil organisms with that same pour-on. We have found hundreds of manufactured chemicals touted as being safe are far from it. We have found out we do not rule the earth.

As the years have gone by we have been brought back to the reality that we are a part of nature, not apart from nature. We cannot isolate our actions from the eternal ripple effect. The reality of Mother Nature has come home to roost. Thermodynamics says for every action there is an opposite and equal reaction. That is a law of physics and is generally related to concepts of energy and force. Biology is infinitely more complicated than physics, the reaction is not always opposite and sometimes it is not remotely equal.

Everything is connected at the physical, chemical, and biological levels. The response to our actions in the ecosystem are not simple and linear. They are multidimensional and may either gather additional energies through synergy or they may rapidly fizzle to nothing as all energy is rapidly expended.

I went to college and then graduate school and became well indoctrinated in the methods of reductionist science. Even though I worked at a place called the University of Missouri – Forage Systems Research Center, the longer I was there the more I realized I knew and understood less and less about the soil-plant-animal interface. We designed and executed research projects geared towards development of ‘forage-livestock systems’. After 22 years 3 months on the MU faculty, I came to the realization of the validity of a certain piece of Eastern philosophy that I have carried with me ever since that time.

Do not speak an answer until you understand the question.’

What I learned in two and a half decades of academic agricultural research was that I didn’t understand the question. Sadly, I don’t think many of my colleagues understood the question either.

So what is the question? Unfortunately, it is not so simple as Douglas Adams presented it in ‘Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy’ and the answer is not so simple as ‘42′.

The question as I see it today is where do we as a species fit into the linkages of the total ecosystem. That is a large question beyond the scope of my time here today. That is the cop-out way of saying it is really beyond my scope of knowledge and understanding, but I keep working on trying to figure it out.

Today, I want to look at a small piece of that overall linkage. That is, where do we as land managers have opportunity to control, manipulate, or tweak the linkages among the soil-plant-animal interface to benefit ourselves as individual farmers or ranchers but also to leave an intact planet for our descendants.

I have spent most of the last 35 years working in the realm of grazing and my favorite genre is perennial pastures whether that be as seeded pastures or native rangeland. Even though I grew up a crop farmer, not a livestock farmer, I have moved farther and farther away from any agriculture that involved disturbing the soil. Coming back into the crop circles (no pun intended!) via the no-till farming movement has brought me back to the notion that crop farming and soil health can occur simultaneously. That is a real positive in my view.

Because of the destructive nature of tillage on soil structure, biological life, and the propensity to create soil erosion, the removal of all conventional tillage from farming systems is one of the first steps towards creating a more sustainable food system for our species. Elimination of tillage is the first step towards restoring biological life to the soil. Permanent grasslands are the most sustainable form of food production in my view largely because of the elimination of tillage. Fortunately, we could exist entirely on an animal-based diet, so we could get everything we need from these grasslands.

The second critical step towards restoring overall ecosystem health, humans included, is the elimination of the use of all the x-cides in our operations. With all the products that are designed to kill something – herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, parasiticides – how could that possibly be good for us or the world around us? Remember, for every action there is a multidimensional response and, for the most part, we really have had very little idea of the degree or direction of those responses.

There are certain aspects of the soil-plant-animal relationships of which we do have a decent understanding. Those are the areas where we need to focus our management attention as that is where we can make the greatest progress. These are all relatively simple concepts, but often overlooked because they are so simple.

Most cropland soils in the US have undergone severe organic matter depletion in the last century. Both graziers and no-till farmers share the goal of restoring organic matter to pre-Industrial Revolution levels. There are few key concepts to keep in focus.

1) The more above-ground growth you can create, the more below-ground growth there will be. Soil organic matter is build from the bottom up, not the top down. I am not discounting the critical importance of plant litter or crop residue on the soil surface. For purposes of soil protection and enhancing the water cycle, surface litter is of utmost importance. But most stable organic matter is created from the decay of root material, not surface litter.

2) We always say that what goes on below ground is a reflection of what is going on above ground and vice versa, but it is rarely a 50:50 correlation. Perennials in general put more CHO flow below ground than do annuals. Why? Because long term survival is dependent more on roots and crowns than on elongated shoot growth. Annual crops have no need to plan for long term survival, so annuals can put more energy into top growth. The drier the environment, the greater the percentage of CHO flow from ongoing photosynthesis to root growth and storage organs.

Relatively speaking, perennials will build more deep profile organic matter for you while annuals proportionally can contribute more to the litter layer development. The historic problem with conventional tillage is we destroy more organic matter than we can develop annually even with high crop yields. Take tillage out of the equation and building organic matter becomes a much more realistic proposition.

3) The combination of annual cover-crops seeded into perennial pastures can provide both deep root development and rapid accumulation of surface litter. Timing of seeding of the annual crops to be least competitive with the perennial forage base and vice versa is a key component for this strategy. With improper timing, both the perennial and annual can suffer and no added value is gained with the annual crop interseeding.

4) Livestock grazing of no-till cover crops and crop residues has several benefits including creating an additional revenue stream, accelerating the rate of nutrient cycling, and inoculation of additional microbes to the soil via salivation and manure excretion. Annual cover-crops offer the grazier opportunities to provide high quality forage for high performing livestock classes at a time in the year when they might not typically have it if using only perennial pastures.

High stock density grazing can be used to terminate the growth of a cover crop prior to seeding the next row or small grain crop. This is the time when we may want to indulge in grazing part of the crop and trampling the reminder to create a mulch layer to trap water for the newly seeded crop. There may be rare instances when we actually graze the cover crop so severely there is little to no residue remaining. If the seeded crop is susceptible to particular soil insects or slugs, we might need to minimize the protective cover. When these issues may arise is when using longer crop rotations with more years of perennial pasture may be particularly valuable.

5) The most effective way to keep the pasture solar panel functioning at top efficiency is to allow it to grow to the high Phase 2 level, which generally corresponds with 4 to 5 1⁄2 leaf stage, and then grazing it at about 50% utilization. Sometimes a little more and sometimes a little less, but a 50% utilization rate generally leaves the pasture in a low Phase 2 state. This degree of grazing will cause a certain amount of root sloughing, but active root growth returns fairly quickly.

This is what is generally referred to as pulsing the pasture and is a technique to stimulate photosynthetic activity. While generally done several times a year with perennial pastures in high rainfall or irrigated situation, pulsing can also be used with annual pastures to extend the productive season on the annual pasture crop. The greater the diversity of your cover-crop mix, the more beneficial pulsing the solar panel is more likely to be.

6) Crop farmers frequently have concern about potential soil compaction from grazing livestock on their fields. Many have the idea that if they spread the livestock out over a larger area, there will be less compaction occur. That is exactly opposite of what actually happens. Grazing livestock at a low stock density allows them to travel over greater distances every day resulting in more hooves hitting the ground. As this force is delivered over a longer period of time, the soil has less opportunity to recover from the pressure and compaction builds.

One of the classic studies of soil compaction relative to grazing methodology was conducted by Michael O’Sullivan at the Johnstowne Castle Research Center in Ireland in the late 1970s. This study compared the daily travel distance in either set-stocked or rotationally grazed paddocks. What they found was cattle in set-stocked pasture consistently traveled a greater distance than did cattle concentrated in smaller paddocks. The shocking part of it was once feed supply became limiting in the set-stocked pasture, the daily travel distance was 4X greater than in the rotational paddocks.

Since degree of compaction s determined by the combination of soil type, soil moisture, and physical force applied to the soil, increased travel distance means more total hooves hitting the ground every day. In the grazing world, the potentially compacting physical force applied to the soil is hoof beats.

Recovery from soil compaction is through biological activity and the soil and freeze-thaw process. The more biologically active the soil, the more rapidly the soil will recover.

The deeper we delve into the soil-plant-animal interface, the more we begin to understand that we are all inextricably linked in the web of life. We need to think in terms of multidimensional response to our management decisions rather than the overly simplistic ‘If I do this, I will get this.’

Going back to that Kung Fu wisdom, seek to understand the question before you speak the answer.

This article is a result of soil health and grazing workshops KAWS held in 2018 across the state. Funding for the workshops was provided by the North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Project partners include the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, NRCS-Kansas, Kansas Water Office, K-State University, Kansas SARE, No Till on the Plains, Kansas Dept. of Health and Environment, nine Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy groups, Kansas Grazing Land Coalition and Friends of the Kaw.

Grazing cell design: Fixed vs flexible design

When it comes to making fence and water developments, we have two basic approaches to setting up a grazing cell. I like to refer to them as fixed or flexible designs. A fixed design is built using permanent fence and water installations to create the grazing cell while a flexible design relies on movable fence and water for paddock subdivisions within a framework of permanent fence and water installation. Then, there is a wide range of combinations of the two.

Cows graze in a green pasture behind a barbed-wire fence.

Deciding which approach is right for your operation depends on a number of factors. Flexible designs allow much more fine tuning of the pasture-animal balance so if you need tight management control, a flexible design might be right up your alley. Fixed designs require less daily labor so, if you’re short on time, a fixed design might suit you better. Any kind of fence or water development costs money. Fixed designs are better suited for large operations where paddocks are large enough that development costs can be spread over many acres. If you’re short on capital, starting out with a flexible design might be more affordable. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach.

In a fixed design, all subdivisions are made with permanent fence. My definition of a permanent fence for any class of cattle is a single strand of electrified 12.5 ga hi tensile wire on solid corners with line posts the wildlife don’t knock the wire off. In very dry conditions, a two-wire fence may be necessary with one strand hot and one strand grounded. For sheep or goats, three strand fences are most commonly used, although some people do alright with just two wires.

Watering points in fixed designs are commonly either the water source itself, such as stream, spring development or pond, or has water delivered to a tank via buried pipelines. Tanks are typically large, often containing a full day’s water supply or more. Pipe flow can be pretty slow and the water supply will still be adequate. The negative effect is watering activities always occur at the same locations in fixed designs.

Fixed designs have a number of advantages, particularly on large operations. Because the expensive part of fencing is in energizers, ends and corners, and gates, the more acres you can spread those costs over, the lower the cost per acre. Ultimately it is animal product sold per acre that pays the bills, so lower cost per acre yields higher gross margin per acre. Picture this. It takes the same number of end assemblies and gates to create ten paddocks on 20 acres as it does to make ten paddocks on 200 acres. However, cost per acre is going to be much lower on the 200 acres compared to the 20.

On most days, the labor requirement on a fixed design consists of opening the gate and letting the stock to the next paddock. Use good quality material for the fence and water designs in the first place, install it properly, and maintenance on the grazing design is pretty minimal. The initial investment may be higher up front, but operating costs on a fixed design can be quite low.

The main disadvantage to fixed designs is that management flexibility is limited. As growth rate changes through the season, you can adjust the length of the grazing period but you cannot change the size of the pasture allocation without resorting to temporary fencing. If paddocks are less than

ten acres, efficiency of any mechanical operation is also diminished. On smaller operations, the cost per acre can be substantial because of limited number of acres over which to spread costs.

Flexible designs require more management and more daily labor to use effectively, but offer several important advantages. The primary advantage is increased management flexibility from both grazing and mechanical harvest perspective. The ability to flex paddock size and forage allocation as conditions change offers greater management control.

Labor requirements in a well-designed flexible design can be fairly minimal. Getting an easy working design requires setting up the permanent framework to enhance your time efficiency. Laying out the grazing design as a series of near-parallel grazing corridors is the starting point. I generally recommend keeping corridor width to less than 1000 feet to accommodate easy use of fence reels and step-in posts.

My personal preference is to space permanent fences at 660 feet with a water line along alternating fence lines. Why 660 feet? Because each 66-ft allocation equals one acre. Install your permanent line posts at 66-ft spacing and you have a built in paddock measuring device. It makes it very easy to keep track of what you are allocating and give instructions to kids and hired help doing chores for you. Most layouts do not lend themselves to such an ideal layout. Generally we try to keep the grazing corridors in the 500 to 1000 ft range. This is a reasonable amount of movable fence to work with each day. It would typically take me 15 to 25 minutes to take up one fence and set up another with these distances.

Even though the daily labor requirement for operating a flexible design is greater than labor in a fixed design, the time needed to move fence and water is pretty minimal if you are using the right equipment and have set the design up as described above. Over the last 20 years I have timed myself and other people working with portable fence and water designs. Day in and day out, it takes me less than 15 minutes to take down a 660-foot section of polywire on step-in posts and reset it for the next grazing strip. Using a 50-gal plastic tank and quick coupler valves requires about five minutes to move. In most situations it takes longer to get from the house to the paddock than to make the paddock shift.

During one five-year research project at FSRC, we had eight herds rotating in flexible designs. I could typically go out and move all eight herds in about two hours including walking from pasture to pasture. The lengths of fence ranged from 330 to 600 feet and the water tanks were 25 gallon plastic tubs. Set it up right, use the right equipment, and it doesn’t take much time at all.

A water line along each alternating fence allows two corridors to be watered from each line. The spacing of the water outlets depends on expected herd size and the needed allocation area. The key factor to making portable water tanks work is high recharge rate in the delivery design. Whereas water tanks in fixed designs can be large and rely on slower refill rates, flexible designs must be installed with high flow capacity to get rapid refill so that stock can never drain the tank. Some people think this means high pump pressure but it is actually much more related to pipe size. Just increasing pipe size from 1″ to 1.25″ increases water flow by more than 50%.

Even if you install appropriate sized pipe for the main line, water flow can be restricted by using a small diameter delivery hose or a tank valve that restricts water flow excessively. Hydrants and quick coupler valves are the first point of restriction from the pipeline. Use larger diameter hydrants and valves wherever possible. If you put in a one inch hydrant, don’t lose that advantage by running a half-inch hose to the tank, particularly if using hose lengths greater the 20 to 30 feet. Larger diameter hoses cost more but deliver a lot more water. A one inch hose delivers four times as much water as a half-inch hose.

So how do you decide whether to use a fixed or flexible approach? As a general guideline, I suggest flexible if your operation is less than 160 acres. If you are managing over 1000 acres in a single grazing design, fixed may be a better option. In between those two benchmarks, a combination design is likely to work best. Having said that, I know operations in excess of 1000 acres that are almost entirely flexible and I know 40 acre farms set up with fixed facilities.

Dennis McDonald, an early pioneer of controlled grazing in north Missouri, originally set up all of his farms as fixed designs. Dennis runs several hundred head of cattle on over a thousand acres. After 10 to 12 years of grazing successfully in those fixed designs, he converted all of his farms to flexible designs because he saw even more benefit to tighter control and found the flexible design easier to manage. Dennis is a full-time farmer who markets his labor through cattle production. The additional time he spends managing in the flexible mode has increased his output per acre so it is time well spent.

Jim Twesten is a custom stocker grazier in who works off the farm and has very limited daylight hours on his home place. Jim typically runs around 300 head of yearlings on his 320-acre home unit in a fixed design consisting of about 20 paddocks with permanent water tanks. Because time is his most precious commodity, Jim prefers to minimize his daily labor at home and uses a well designed fixed design.

Eric Bright operates a 60-cow pasture-based dairy and runs a very intensive flexible design to maximize grazing intake of his dairy cows. Moving fence and water every 12 hours requires using the right tools to do it efficiently. Eric uses some annual crops such as ryegrass and brown midrib sorghum so the flexible setup allows him to no-till drill the annual crops in long corridors rather than in small blocks.

Three graziers with three different sets of goals and you get three different designs. Your design needs to be a reflection of your goals.

This article is a result of soil health and grazing workshops KAWS held in 2018 across the state. Funding for the workshops was provided by the North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Project partners include the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, NRCS-Kansas, Kansas Water Office, K-State University, Kansas SARE, No Till on the Plains, Kansas Dept. of Health and Environment, nine Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy groups, Kansas Grazing Land Coalition and Friends of the Kaw.

Grassroots of Grazing: Flexible grazing cells work almost anywhere

by Jim Gerrish

We use two basic grazing cell designs in our grazing management efforts all around the globe. The fixed design is the one most people are familiar with. This is where individual paddocks are created with permanent fences and water troughs or drinkers are installed in permanent locations. The paddock size is ‘fixed’ as are the fence and water locations. The alternative approach is the ‘flexible’ design which uses movable fences and water tanks within a framework of permanent fences. We are increasingly using flexible designs in much larger applications and on much more diverse landscapes.

Cattle graze behind a 4-strand electric fence.

When I use the term ‘permanent fence’, I am still referring to electrified hi-tensile fencing. With all classes of cattle, either a single wire or two-wire permanent fence is all we typically use. With sheep or goats, the fence may be three or more wires. Rarely do we ever use a barb-wire fence in any application. Perimeter fences for sheep and goats may still be woven-wire to keep those wily rascals on the property.

Flexible grazing cells generally consist of a series of long narrow pastures that we describe as ‘grazing corridors’. The grazing corridors are further subdivided using movable electric fences. The fences can be placed anywhere within the corridor to create paddocks of varying sizes. We are using ‘flexible’ fences to create ‘flexible’ sized paddocks so that we have ‘flexible’ management.

We like to place the permanent corridor fences as near to parallel as possible to make distance of portable fences used fairly similar and keep those distances to comfortable working lengths. A common example would be a quarter-section of land which is a square 160 acres divided into four 40-acre strips. Each strip is 660 ft wide and a half-mile long. In this case the corridors are obviously rectangular. Another example is a standard quarter-section center pivot set up with a near-circular fence located half way between the pivot center and the outer reach of the sprinklers. In this case we have two corridors, also 660 ft wide. They just happen to be round rather than rectangular.

For corridors less than 66o ft wide, we can either use full-size geared reels or the so-called ‘mini- reels’ that comfortably hold up to 660-ft of polywire. For corridors in the 660 to 1320 ft width, we generally use a standard geared reel holding up to 1320 ft of good quality braided polywire. These are the type of flexible grazing cells we have worked with for many years.

As the interest in high stock density grazing on rangeland has increased, so has the use of flexible grazing cells on much larger scale landscapes. In some parts of the US and Canada, ranchers speak of how many sections or how many quarters they are grazing. It wasn’t very many years ago that the idea of using polywire to manage a 10-section ranch (6400 acres) was almost unthinkable.

Thanks to grazier innovation and expanding opportunities with mechanized retrieval and dispersal systems, we see larger and larger landscapes being managed with movable polywire fencing. I recently saw an ATV-towable cart for dispensing and retrieving polywire fencing on a large ranch in Alberta. This unit allows a rancher to put up one mile of portable fence in as little as an hour. The

fence can be reeled up and posts retrieved in an hour also. Suddenly the idea of going out and splitting a one-section pasture into four paddocks for more effective grazing is no longer a daunting task. Ten sections can easily become 40 or more paddocks.

For sheep and goats, many graziers still prefer using electric netting rather than multi-strand polywire or tape fences. To accommodate flexible use of netting in flexible grazing cells, we generally use three-strand fences for the corridor boundaries and place them a distances that are incremental to the netting rolls. For example, if you were using the 164 ft (50 meters) rolls, we would set our corridor fences at 160, 320, or 480 ft. Generally we limit a corridor to no more than three rolls wide. If corridors need to be any wider than that, maybe you should reconsider using multi-reels of polywire.

I might also report I am meeting more and more graziers who are using just a single strand of polywire to control sheep or goats. Train the critters well in a corral, keep the power level high, and don’t let them get hungry. Those are the keys to successfully working small ruminants with just one wire.

The grazing cell also needs to accommodate portable stock water as well as portable fence. Our most common stock water strategy is placing a pipeline along every other fence line to allow access from the corridor on either side of the fence. We try, as much as possible, to design systems with pairs of corridors rather than having an odd number. Odd number of corridors leads to a higher investment cost per acre served.

Pipelines may be installed either above or below ground depending on climate, season of use, and water source. In the North pipelines are buried to prevent freezing while in the South they may be buried to keep water cooler. We install various types of quick-attach water access vales all along the pipelines to accommodate movable water troughs. Usually we also put in a few strategically located year-around drinking points.

In a strictly seasonal grazing operation, burying lines isn’t really necessary even in extremely cold climates. Using burst-resistant HDPE (high-density polyethylene) pipe instead of PVC almost eliminates the threat of broken pipelines, other than at weak fittings. Draining the pipe at the end of the grazing season protects fittings as well. Many outfits in the North use this policy to avoid the costly burial of pipelines to 6-8 ft necessary to get it below the frost line.

If abundant spring or lake water is available, running a continuous flow of water through the pipeline will prevent freezing even at very cold winter temperatures. You just need to make sure the system doesn’t get plugged up.

If you have wondered how large of a property you can manage with a flexible grazing cell, the answer is probably much larger than you ever thought. Proper layout of the permanent fence and stock water infrastructure and using the right portable tools allows more effective management of ranches measured in tens of thousands of acres.

This article is a result of soil health and grazing workshops KAWS held in 2018 across the state. Funding for the workshops was provided by the North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Project partners include the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, NRCS-Kansas, Kansas Water Office, K-State University, Kansas SARE, No Till on the Plains, Kansas Dept. of Health and Environment, nine Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy groups, Kansas Grazing Land Coalition and Friends of the Kaw.

Dirt clods, mud pies and other insights in soil sustainability

By Tom Parker

Like most farmers, Doug Peterson’s concepts about farming and soil management were founded on the experiences and teachings of his father and grandfather. The knowledge they imparted was taken as gospel truth, inviolable and immutable. A college degree reinforced those ideas, and a career as an NRCS field specialist let him put those ideas to work. By his 20th year on the job, he felt he knew about everything there was to know about soil—how to use it, how to take care of it, how to improve it.

Doug Peterson and Candy Arnold pour water over soil samples demonstrating how tilling practices affect infiltration and stability of soils. Photo by Tom Parker
Doug Peterson and Candy Arnold pour water over soil samples demonstrating how tilling practices affect infiltration and stability of soils. Photo by Tom Parker


He was on top of his game. Which was why, when he was asked to evaluate a workshop on soil health for possible inclusion in Missouri NRCS programs 10 years ago, he attended with some skepticism. “What else could it teach me?” he wondered, and sat there in utter disbelief as the instructor, using dirt clods and mud pies to illustrate complex biological processes, methodically and systematically dismantled his understanding of soil.

Everything Peterson thought he knew about soil was based on a world that no longer existed. Since the first farmer broke the soil in Mesopotamia 20,000 years ago, an unimaginable transformation had altered not only societies and cultures but the very fabric of existence of life on earth. Nothing was spared, not the air, not the water, not the soil.

So revelatory was that simple demonstration that Peterson, an NRCS Soil Health Specialist for Missouri and Iowa, now uses it as an opening act for his Soil Health Sustainability in Cropland workshops. Joining him for five such workshops across Kansas in mid-July was Candy Thomas, NRCS Soil Health Specialist for Kansas and Nebraska. The workshops were sponsored in part by the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams through funding by the North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Locations included Iola, Parsons, Clay Center, Stull and Lansing.

Peterson, like most farmers and soil specialists, wasn’t blind. Most of his work dealt with mitigating changes in the soil, in the water, in the climate, but the changes were both resistant and resilient. They could also be oddly contradictory, such as when the Missouri River flooded while two-thirds of the river’s watershed were in drought. Farmers were losing ground, literally and figuratively, and conventional farming practices only seemed to make matters worse.

Whatever underlying causes were wrecking such havoc had to be related to the water cycle, he thought. “If you have flood warnings and drought conditions in the watershed at the same time, how much infiltration is occurring? Not much,” he said. “And we’re not talking 15-inch rains, but three-inch rains that cause flooding like we’ve never seen before. We have to understand water.”

More specifically, we have to understand how water interacts with soil. Peterson took two virtually identical dirt clods, or aggregates as he preferred, and placed them in a matching pair of glass beakers. As he poured water over them to replicate a heavy rainfall, one clod, taken from a field where no-till was practiced, retained its shape while allowing most of the water to filter through; the other, taken from a field under long-term tillage, disintegrated within seconds.


“The most limiting natural resource in crop production is water,” he said, “and the most important part of the water cycle is infiltration. It’s critical to understand how the ability of soil to hold together impacts infiltration.”

The no-till aggregate was held together by organic matter and soil organisms such as fungi, arthropods, worms, millipedes, bacteria, nematodes and protozoa, he said, while the other had little more than sand, silt and clay to bind it.

For infiltration purposes, the most important part of the soil is the nothingness, the cracks, the voids, he said. Water cannot pass through solids. In no-till fields, rain slowly percolates through root channels, cracks, wormholes and other minute openings, while in tilled fields the upper layer of topsoil has little organic matter to glue it together. The entire structure can collapse during even moderate rain events.

“Erosion doesn’t start with a big chunk washing away,” he said. “It starts when individual particles break loose from the aggregate.”

In healthy soil, the combined biomass of soil organisms is staggering. An acre of soil contains more than five tons of organisms such as fungi, arthropods, worms, millipedes, bacteria, nematodes and protozoa, many of them microscopic. Earthworms mix and move residues in the soil, creating large pores that are nutrient rich and filled with microbes. These pores create air and water flow and allow roots to grow and take advantage of resources.

“Pore spaces are the lungs and circulatory system of soils,” Thomas said. “They allow the soil to breathe.”

Not so with soil that’s been tilled. Studies show that long-term tillage drastically reduces soil organic matter. One study conducted in a soybean field showed a 63 percent loss of soil organic matter after 17 years of tillage.

Much of that loss can be attributed to disturbance. Tillage adds oxygen to the soil, which in turn induces bacteria to consume carbon. Half to two-thirds of our soil’s carbon has been lost through tillage, Peterson said. Surface temperatures play a critical role in soil organisms, too, especially in grass systems.

“When we mow hay off on the sunniest days, we jack up soil temperatures 40 degrees or more,” he said. “What happens to soil moisture? We eliminate it. Earthworms go deep, but most of bacteria and the fungi will grow dormant or die.”

Add fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides to the mix and even more damage occurs.

Why then, Peterson asked, if we know that tillage degrades the soil, why is it so ingrained in our society?

Because it was efficient. Whether the first farmers broke the soil in Mesopotamia or, 4,000 years later, in the Midwest, the underlying soil teemed with life. “It had crazy high organic matter, high biological activity, high aggregate stability,” Peterson said. “But after years of tillage, what happened to organic matter? It declined. What happened to aggregate stability? It went down. What happened to production? It went down.”

For early farmers, their only recourse was to break new ground and allow the old ground revegetate. A similar pattern took place in the United States, he said. Settlers tilled areas for crops and left grassland for their livestock. Once the soil became less fertile, they rotated to other sections while the land healed. Then came the 1940s and mechanized equipment. Suddenly, farmers didn’t need extra land to regenerate. They added nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to the soil and called it good—but they didn’t put back organic matter.

“The reason we’ve been taught that tillage is beneficial is because historically, except for the last 50 or 60 years, it was based on soils with high organic matter, biological activity and aggregate stability,” Peterson said. “Is that the kind of soil we have these days? No. Tillage doesn’t get you the kind of soil that we once had.”

Add overgrazing, overuse of pesticides and herbicides, haying and other sources of soil disturbance, and it seems as if we’re actively trying to get rid of water, he said.

It’s not too late to restore the ecological balance, Peterson said, but it won’t happen overnight and it won’t be easy.

“Change is hard,” he said. People make changes when their backs are against the wall. If you think it’s hard for a farmer to change from tilling to no-till, how much harder is it for the government to change everything its practices are based on?”

Achieving soil health requires utilizing a number of practices that include the use of diverse and strategic cover crops, crop rotations, adapted nutrient management, integrated weed and pest management, and no-till. “Soil health is not a destination, it’s a journey,” he said. “Managing for a living ecosystem is the key to optimum production.”

From a resource concern standpoint, producers should design for what they don’t have. “What does your soil need? Get your shovel out and start digging,” he said. Crop diversity cannot be ignored or overstated. Plants were created to grow in diverse ecosystems. Nature doesn’t have a monoculture.

“If we put these principles to work, we can make huge changes in our fields,” Peterson said. “The last 100 years have been a mining operation. We mined organic matter just like they mined oil and minerals. It was an extraction operation, and all of us are left with something less productive than it was. But we can change it. We have the answer right here. We can improve production and profitability and solve all the issues. We can’t hit the easy button as Candy said, but we can push the start button.”

Funding for the workshops was provided by the North Central Extension Risk Management Education Center and the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Project partners include the Kansas Alliance for Wetlands and Streams, NRCS-Kansas, Kansas Water Office, K-State University, Kansas SARE, No Till on the Plains, Kansas Dept. of Health and Environment, nine Watershed Restoration and Protection Strategy groups, Kansas Grazing Land Coalition and Friends of the Kaw.