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A systems approach to soil health and profitable livestock

Johnny R. Rogers Published on 30 January 2015
steers grazing

Rogers Cattle Company LLC (RCC) is a diversified pasture-based livestock operation in Roxboro, North Carolina. It was started in 2001 by Johnny and Sharon Rogers.

Operating on all leased pasture (350 acres), Johnny and Sharon produce Red Angus and Sim-Angus seedstock, commercial cattle, hair sheep, pastured pork and poultry (broilers and turkeys).

Johnny Rogers

They market their livestock through traditional markets and through local direct markets (farmers’ markets). This presentation by Johnny Rogers was given at the 2015 Virginia Forage and Grasslands Council winter meetings.

Two events have clearly emerged that forever changed the way we approach our activities at RCC. In 2005, I attended the Ranching for Profit School (RFP) administered by Ranch Management Consultants. RFP is often called the “Business School for Ranching,” and I felt like I received an MBA in ranching by the end of the week-long course.

It became clear that most of the good and bad things that occurred in our business were the result of our management.

Of course, outside factors like weather and market conditions can have a negative influence on our operation; however, our success will be defined primarily within the boundaries of our fence and by the decisions we make.

This realization gave me a brief sense of strength that was soon replaced by a tremendous amount of anxiety. There are no excuses, and RCC will succeed or fail based on the management of Johnny and Sharon Rogers.

In 2012, I was serving as president of the North Carolina Forage and Grasslands Council and part of my duties included attending the winter conference series at three locations throughout our state. The featured speaker was Ray Archuleta, a soil scientist from NRCS.

Going into this conference, I thought, “What’s the big deal?” As grass farmers, we need to have a soil test every three years and balance nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K) and pH; pretty simple.

However, Ray showed me that soil was more than chemistry and he discussed the importance of soil biology on the success of agricultural systems.

After hearing this message over three consecutive days, I began to consider the merits of the principles of soil health that Ray introduced.

Katahdin hair sheep

The lightbulb moment for me was when I realized that healthier soil will grow better forages and better forages will grow better livestock. In addition, I realized the soil is the foundation of our society and I have ignored this vital resource for too long.

From that moment I decided to consider the whole pasture ecosystem as I made decisions (soil, forage, animals, etc.). Some practices on our farm were having a positive impact on soil health while others contributed to soil degradation.

Our success would be defined by how we cared for all the resources under our management, which included this strange new world that was under our feet the whole time. We decided on methods to use to improve our soil function.

Keep plants growing all year

The relationship between plant roots and the soil is simply amazing. The zone of soil influenced by roots is called the rhizosphere and it creates a favorable environment for soil microbial activity.

fall-calving pairs grazing

Plant roots provide soil microbes with sugars, amino acids and other compounds while soil organisms will mobilize soil nutrients, making them plant-available. Therefore, it is important to support this system as we plan our grazing programs.

Proper use of management-intensive grazing (MiG) can improve soil health. Grazing paddocks to the correct residual height and providing adequate rest periods will keep more forage growing throughout the year.

Actively growing grass has a thriving root system that will feed the soil biology which will provide plant nutrients. Furthermore, we have used diverse mixes of annual forages that include grasses, legumes and broadleaf species (i.e., brassicas). This not only provides great feed for our livestock but it supplies the soil microbes with a new food source.

In addition, we strategically use fertilizer to increase forage growth during periods when forage supplies could be limited. Stockpiling fescue in the fall for winter grazing is a staple of our operation.

Moreover, applying small quantities of nitrogen (30 units) in the early to mid-summer can stimulate warm-season grasses such as dallisgrass, crabgrass and bermudagrass.

This results in forage during the late summer and early fall when rainfall can be limited. At no point do we add large amounts of supplemental nutrients that could overwhelm the soil microbes. Instead, we supply smaller doses at key times for optimal results.

Plant diversity to increase diversity

Managing our pasture for high levels of living roots increases the population of soil microbes. To further improve the function of the soil system, we need to increase the number of microbial species present.

Pasture taised turkeys

Since many soil microbes are fed by plant roots, supplying a greater variety of food sources stimulates more diversity in the microbial population. This diversity adds strength and resiliency to our grasslands.

The longer rest periods common with MiG systems allow more plant diversity. We have noticed eastern gamagrass beginning to return to some of our pastures after increasing the length between grazing periods.

Frost-seeding red and white clover is highly used in our operation. However, to keep those legumes requires proper residual forage management and adequate rest.

Many soil organisms thrive on decaying organic material and they can build soil organic matter, which contributes to the soil’s ability to support plant growth.

By using high-density (mob) grazing as a tool, we can trample material onto the soil surface for our “micro-herd” (i.e., the “livestock” in the soil). Also, we like to unroll our hay bales when possible to distribute the nutrients in the hay and manure.

Hay not consumed by livestock should not be viewed as waste. Rather, it should be considered feed for the soil organisms. Earthworms need feed too.

The aforementioned diverse annual forage mixtures, with six to eight different plant species, brings tremendous diversity to our soils. Although we have not conducted any objective measurements on the improvement of soil health, we can see the soil changing.

It appears to have better tilth and a darker color. The grasses, legumes and broadleaf plants penetrate to various soil depths, capture nutrients and bring them to the surface. It does not matter if the plant is grazed or trampled, the result is the same as the nutrients are higher in the soil profile. The soil microbes will make sure those nutrients are available for future crops.

Furthermore, the amount of biomass generated by these forage blends is staggering. We could not imagine forage growing 15 feet tall on our highly weathered soils. Some producers would be concerned about the amount of forage our cattle waste while grazing this type of forage.

Remember, we are feeding our livestock as well as our critters below the soil surface, and caring for the soil today will feed our livestock better tomorrow.

Disturb soils less

pasture pork

Soil disturbance in a cropping system is easier to understand, and conventional tillage can cause major changes in our soils. Disturbance of pasture soils may not seem as obvious. However, everything we do to our pastures is a form of disturbance and can affect soil function.

Each disturbance can alter soil chemical, physical and biological properties, which influences its ability to serve as a medium for plant growth. Applying nutrients, spraying chemicals, mowing hay, equipment traffic and grazing are all forms of challenges faced by pasture soils.

Certainly, we cannot eliminate disturbance to our soils, but we must recognize the consequences of our actions. Avoiding management strategies that overpower the soil system should be carefully reviewed before implementation.

Do you really need to apply herbicide to the whole pasture, or would spot-spraying control problem weeds? If you overgraze a pasture, make sure to provide ample rest before returning to that paddock. This principle has caused us to think (a lot) before we act. In most cases, this reflection saves us money and improves our soil health.

Keep soil covered

We have overgrazed on occasion, so we know the issues it creates. Our best results come when we use the standard “take half and leave half” grazing program. By using higher stock density and moving livestock more frequently, we are able to better control the residual forage and animal impact. We use this approach with our perennial and annual forages.

Capturing carbon (in organic matter) and water in our soil has become a major focus for our farm. We believe this will result in better soils, forages, livestock and profits for RCC.

My wife and I have always enjoyed working with livestock and the challenge of making them better through selection. Each fall is like Christmas coming early for us as the new calves are born followed by the lambs in the spring.

We really like our animals and provide them the best care. Our farm has been pasture-based since its inception, and we have continued to develop our skills as graziers. We have come a long way and still have more to learn about efficient forage management. Now, we are taking a much broader view of the operation and are considering the whole system (not just the parts we enjoy).

As we travel to our pastures daily we carry cattle records, temporary fencing supplies and have recently added a shovel. This allows us to look in on our soil’s micro-herd and evaluate their condition. We like animals and now we have billions more to care for than ever before. It’s exciting.

We would like to invite other producers to join us as we continue “digging for answers” in our pasture.  FG

PHOTO 1: Steers grazing diverse summer-annual forages

PHOTO 2: Johnny Rogers of Rogers Cattle Company LLC, Roxboro, NC, discusses using summer annuals during an Amazing Grazing Workshop.

PHOTO 3: Katahdin hair sheep enjoying spiny amaranth pig weed

PHOTO 4: Fall-calving pairs grazing stockpiled fescue

PHOTO 5: Pasture-raised turkeys

PHOTO 6: Pastured pork. Photos courtesy of Johnny R. Rogers.