There are 5 principles of soil health as defined by the Natural Resources Conservation District.
- Armor the Soil (keep crop residue on the soil to prevent errosion)
- Minimal Soil Disturbance (No-Till)
- Plant Diversity (Grow more than just row crops, consider cover crop mixes)
- Keep a continual live root in the soil (again cover crops)
But it is the 5th principle of soil health, livestock integration, that often gets over looked. Integrating livestock onto crop residues or cover crops benefits the soil and the animals. Regenerative agriculture includes livestock.
5th Principle of Soil Health: Benefits to the Soil
Crop residues left on fields provide many benefits to soil health including increased water filtration, reduced soil erosion, and no cost of the harvest. Incorporating livestock to graze those residues only increases the exsisting benefits of leaving those residues on the field. Through grazing, livestock speed up the degradation process. Livestock convert the fibrous forage material in to a more balanced C:N product left on the field. Manure speeds up the process to increase soil organic matter.
Furthermore, grazing reduces the need for nutrient export from the field. the crop residue remains on the field and the forage can still be utilized as a feed source by the animals. Therefore, nutrient recycling takes place on cropland. Livestock can utilize the carbohydrates, nitrogen, and micro-nutrients provided by crop residues and leave behind up to 80% of what they consume.
Another benefit of adding livestock to crop land is weed control. Many livestock species will consume at least some of the weeds in the field. Especially if grazing times are strategically planed when weeds are young and palatable. Grazing pressure can reduce weed seed banks.
5th Principle of Soil Health: Benefits to Livestock Production
Integrating livestock on to crop lands can extend the grazing season. This means producers are less reliant on stored forages such as hay or silage to get through winter months. Crop residues are already more expensive to harvest than what they are worth. Grazing harvested crop residues requires understanding animal requirements and knowing what is available in those forages for supplementation. Producers should analyze forages at Ward Laboratories, INC. to determine their best supplementation strategy. Choosing to graze eliminates the time and cost of harvesting. Producers could better use that time collecting a good representative sample.
If cover crops are available for fall grazing on crop land, livestock will certainly benefit. Cover crop mixes typically have some legume species, some grass species and often brassicas. The blend of these forages allows animals to be selective in their grazing strategy. Through selection animals can consume a high protein, high energy diet. The higher plane of nutrition often translates into improved production performance.
As producers begin to practice all 5 principles of soil health, it is beneficial to track improvement of the soil. A soil health assessment can help producers understand the fertility and health of their soil. The soil analysis measures three components of soil health:
Measuring these three components can aid producers in managing their soil for both a healthy soil and productive soil.
In conclusion, the 5th principle of soil health: livestock integration can benefit soil health as well as livestock operations. Although this is the last principle of soil health, it is not of low importance when striving beyond sustainability, but prosperity in agriculture.