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.