Monday, December 26, 2011

Forage Facts: Soil Health Important Factor in Forage Production

I was asked to write a small piece about the pros and cons of irrigation, its input costs and benefits and I have struggled with this topic because irrigation, though beneficial in the right circumstances, is not always the answer to the problems associated with forage production. I think of irrigation as an enhancement to an already good forage production program rather than a cure-all for survival-which it is not.

That being said, I think that soil condition is the most ignored and the most limiting factor to a productive forage stand, because how your soil interacts with nutrients, water, air and microbial activity is the basis for a better understanding of root development and plant growth.

The forage producer must have a basic knowledge of soil profiles, soil types, soil composition, soil fertility and soil tilth.

Soil tilth is defined as the "harmony" between the basic soil elements, which are: mineral, air, water, and organic matter. The correct balance of these elements boosts soil productivity by allowing the efficient interactions of all these soil systems. Plain and simple, air and water balance, in the soil profile, is the key to good root growth; the precursor to optimal forage production.

Before getting involved in irrigation; which is an enhancement to an already good program; I believe that by "fixing" known deficiencies, we can improve our productivity and spend less money, time and effort doing it. This is what we did, years ago, before getting into irrigation.

One other very important aspect of forage production improvement; and sadly, much overlooked, is the self-inflicted limitations brought on by soil compaction.We can have soils with an optimum pH, N; P, K and micro-nutrients, but if compaction exists, many detrimental scenarios arise.

Soil specialists are in agreement that the physical condition of the soil is a key factor in this biological and chemical harmony, which further determines the amount of biomass our forage plants can produce. Compaction stresses our forage plants by removing air and water from the soil profile. The biological and chemical system that depends on this interaction becomes constrained; root growth weakens and production suffers.

Compaction affects both wet and dry soil conditions, equally; as it reduces the water holding capacity making drought conditions worse and inhibits drainage to make wet conditions more difficult. Correcting compaction makes a dramatic improvement in soil tilth. By fracturing the soil both vertically and laterally; air infiltration increases, root development improves, water and nutrient holding capacities improve and microbial activity increases.

After aerating our pastures and hay meadows, for two years, we could see a 40% increase in the biomass produced in the perennial warm season grasses. This made a huge difference and we were able to increase our stocking rates and/or bale more hay.

Three Main Causes of Compaction

Tractors and farm equipment break down soil particles and they bind together, which reduces the space needed for air and water movement within the soil profile. In wet conditions this is made worse, because soil particles move unrestricted.

There has been much confusion about livestock traffic; it is true that the grazing of livestock can break up the soil surface crusting, but deep soil compaction does develop over time, which is highly detrimental to air and water movement.

Heavy rainfall disturbs the smallest particles (clayey soils) on the surface and forces them together, creating layers of crust increasing run-off.

The Solution: Aerated Soils

Since soil compaction is a physical problem, the best solution is mechanical aeration. We aerate our pastures every 90 days from March until October.

The Benefits

Increased pore space in the soil profile for air movement

Efficient nutrient and water infiltration

Improved root penetration

Improves drainage and reduces erosion

Increased microbial activity within the soil profile

Less nutrient leaching due to less run-off

Rapid crop emergence and better crop stands

Well developed plants with better root systems

Better drought tolerance and an improved soil-borne disease resistance

Increased yields

Fix the land, first; then enhance it with irrigation.

Here, we strive to produce the best possible forage, year-round, in order to limit those costs associated with supplementation. Optimal forages begin with the "land" (soils) and is the first building block of the cattle business. Productive soils are proving that an optimal forage base and health program is increasing cattle performance:

- In '08 - '09, cows and first-calf heifers bred back in a 58-day season.

- In '09 - '10, cows and first-calf heifers bred back in a 36-day season.

- In '10 - '11, cows and first calf heifers bred back in a 36-day season.

Pasture Maintenance and Management

- Our pastures are aerated 3 times per growing season

- Aeration invigorates the growth of warm season perennials like Bermuda grass

- The tools, we use in land management practices, are simple, inexpensive, yet effective

- Air and water balance is the key to good root growth

- Rotational grazing, Limit Grazing, Creep grazing

For more articles related to soils, hay, forages, cattle, ranching and the ranchlife; read them through these reliable authors:

Pearl Snaps' Ponderings and The Seedstock Producer.

About Me - I have been in the purebred cattle business, now, for 29 years raising Simmental, Angus and SimAngus. I started this business to provide both the seedstock producer and the commercial cattleman/woman a resource for better than average breeding stock. Over several decades of genetic improvement and harsh culling practices; today, our cattle rank in the top 5% nationwide. We also run some commercial cattle for a beef business we began several years ago. My education includes a B.S. in Wildlife/Fisheries Biology and Management and a M.S. in Animal Science/Reproductive Physiology. With the advent of social media; which, for me, hasn't been that long ago, I started a website, then recently, a blog to share information and ideas with others that are interested in this business. I believe that the best information will always come from those that have actually done it or do it on a daily basis.

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