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Prevent soil erosion with cover crops and grazing management

Progressive Cattleman Associate Editor Carrie Veselka Published on 25 July 2017
cows in pasture

Floods, wildfires and high winds are all recognizable as natural disasters that can cause damage to both land and livestock. Something a little less prominent and a little easier to prevent is soil erosion.

Soil erosion, whether it occurs from wind or water, is a less noticeable but equally serious problem to floods, wildfires and the rest. Although the effects of soil erosion might take time to appear, they can impose lasting consequences. 

According to Dennis Chessman, a soil health specialist with the Kentucky Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the most important thing to do to prevent or rectify soil erosion is to keep the ground covered. 

“It’s incredibly hard to erode covered soil,” he says. “The covering could be living plants or even dead plants in some cases. From there the question is, ‘How do you do that?’ and the best way would be to have a forage that’s there during the times of the year when the soil might erode and then managing that forage in such a way that it does what it’s supposed to do, which is feed animals, but also keeps the ground covered.”

Marlon Winger, regional NRCS soil health specialist for Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, compares soil cover to armor. “The soil armor is supposed to be there, it’s like a skin on Mother Earth,” he says. “When you look at native systems, Mother Nature keeps the soil covered, so what we’re trying to do is emulate as many of these principles as is practical.” 

Cover crops

Cover crops are another good choice for situations where cropland is used as pasture, especially to provide feed during a nontypical growing season like post-summer harvest or summer slump. “You get erosion control benefits, so that time of year when soil might be uncovered and exposed to wind and rainfall, it’s not; it’s got something growing on it that time of year, and then you get all these other benefits like growing organic matter faster by growing a cover,” Chessman says. 

Chessman says cover crops provide typically higher-quality forages than what is often found on pasture land. “The annual cereal grains or the annual grasses or the legumes are typically pretty high-quality, depending on when you raise them, so there’s that advantage as well for the livestock person – to be able to have more grazing acres of normally higher-quality forage,” he says.

Planting a diverse selection of cover crops is the best way to take advantage of a cover crop system. “Mother Nature does not flourish in a monoculture system,” Winger says. “So in our crop rotations or in our pasture planting or in our range plantings, we try to increase diversity – forbs and grasses and legumes, etc.” 

Winger says cattle tend to respond well to mixed cover crops. “They do just fine on it,” he says. “It’s like a teenager going to an all-you-can-eat buffet.” 

Winger says cover crops tend to perform well in most regions of the country. “When I first started learning about cover crops, I was really scared to death because I thought it would take a lot of time to figure out what cover crops work in each part of the nation, but we grow a lot of the same cover crops in Alabama, California, Idaho and Montana,” he says. “There are some slight differences, but we can plant the same similar 10 or 13-way cover crop mix in Idaho as we do in Wyoming as we do in Nebraska.” 

Range management

Chessman says careful management of rangeland is also important to preventing erosion.  

“A lot of things that we see in the East sometimes is that grazing lands can erode but it’s typically when it’s overgrazed, and it’s so short that it’s not doing a good job of covering the ground,” he says. 

Chessman says erosion should be easier to manage on rangeland than cropland or other pastures where the forage rotation only lasts a few years at time. “Erosion should never be an issue on any ag land but particularly on grazing lands, because you should be able to manage your grazing in such a way that you can keep forage on the soil.”

He says the amount of precipitation in an area is one of the deciding factors in plant selection and establishment for pasture forage, cover crops and even rangeland. “When you get out to the rangelands, it becomes a bit more of an issue,” he says. “But even then, you have to manage grazing and rangeland in more arid parts of the country in such a way that you’re not destroying the soil structure with animal impact and grazing to such a high degree that you’re removing vegetation that can intercept wind and raindrops. The principles really work whether you get a 50-inch rainfall or 15.” 

Producers can contact their local NRCS offices for more advice and information on forages and grazing management specific to their area.  end mark

PHOTO: Winger recommends a multispecies cover crop to provide a wider variety of forages for cattle to enjoy. These cattle are grazing a cover crop mix of triticale, forage peas, turnip and daikon radish. Photo by Lynn Jaynes.

Carrie Veselka
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