A recognition of the importance of soil health is growing. Soil scientists and hydrologists are finding that healthy soils can help prevent or diminish the effects of major natural disasters like floods and droughts. Healthy soils are able to soak up more rain during a storm event and are less prone to erosion. They also help producers increase production per acre, which allows smaller farming operations to support next generation or first-time farmers that would otherwise not be able to afford a large farm.
The connection between grazing and soil health goes back centuries to a time before European settlement when American bison trampled their way across the tall-grass prairie, naturally fertilzing the land and creating rich soil in the process.
Today, the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) has scientifically documented the benefits of grazing for increasing soil health, specifically, how “well-managed” grazing systems change soil health. ARS researchers tested four different scenarios on previously heavily eroded cropland. They studied two pasture plots with different grazing intensities and compared them to a plot with grass cut for hay and a control plot with grass left untouched (as would occur with government set-aside programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program). Their findings indicated that the best thing for the land in terms of soil health and pasture growth was grazing. The two pastured plots yielded healthier, thicker grass and sequestered the most carbon and nitrogen. From a conservation standpoint, the study argues that managed and moderate grazing is better than leaving it unused.
This research has major implications for increasing the soil health in Northeast Iowa, where much of the soil is shallow, rocky and lacks the organic matter found in Iowa’s rich plains. Grazers from this area are noticing the benefits of increased soil health in their own pasture management, reporting that well-managed, intensive grazing practices extended their grazing windows by weeks on both ends of the season.
For some producers, soil health was the impetus for introducing grazing livestock on their farms. Nick Carstens from Allamakee County, an area with especially shallow bedrock, began grazing primarily to improve soil health. He notes that, “For us, all other reasons for grass-based production are somewhat negliible because without soil health there is no animal health and no human health.”