Each second Tuesday of the month this year, the USDA NRCS will host a webinar on soil health. The topics and geographies covered are varied and broad. This month Stan Boltz, NRCS Regional Soil Health Specialist for North Dakota and South Dakota, explained utilizing adaptive management, particularly adaptive rangeland grazing, as a tool to improve soil health in grazing ecosystems.

Soil health is the continued capacity of soil to function as a vital living ecosystem that sustains plants, animals, and humans. Put more simply, healthy soils are one factor that greatly impacts the long-term sustainability and viability of agricultural operations.  

It is no secret that how land is managed above ground has a direct impact on the land itself including what is beneath the surface, which in turn affects the ability to utilize the land in the future. More scientifically, the inter-workings of the biotic framework affect the biotic foundation, which subsequently affects the abiotic foundation. These three segments of the ecosystem work in equilibrium and are related. 

Because the ways in which land is managed affects the future ability to utilize the land, there's a case to be made to consider adaptive management today to best plan for tomorrow. By definition adaptive management is simply the systematic approach for improving resource management by learning from management outcomes.

Adaptive management is often times counter to the paradigm of just doing what has always been done. Unlike the old paradigm of management or the more hands approach of reactive management, adaptive management is a proactive approach oriented on outcomes with learning as one of the chief objectives. Testing assumptions, adapting and learning are all key elements of adaptive management. 

When applied to grazing, adaptive management is often summarized as moderate, rotational grazing instead of heavy, continuous season-long grazing. Generally, rotational grazing leads to more infiltration, which conserves biology in soil because keeping plants healthy above ground keeps them healthy below ground. The biotic and abiotic are related. 

Adaptive grazing takes the principles of grazing management (proper utilization, adequate recovery periods, and changing season of use) and applies holistic strategies to implement them - strategies that test assumptions and focus on learning.

In his webinar, Stan offered up a list of proposed strategies to consider when taking an adaptive management approach to grazing. His suggestions included: 

  1. Graze cattle 12 months of the year citing that they are much more efficient harvesters than farmers
  2. Incorporating winter grazing on rangeland / pasture
    1. Rotating in winter months
    2. Using bale/swath grazing to restore areas that most unhealthy - This improves health more quickly by getting cattle on the land where grass isn't yet growing.
    3. For more on winter grazing as an adaptive management tool there's an entire channel of first person stories on effective applications and considerations here:
  3. Developing alternative forage sources
  4. Rotating cattle (not a new concept, but a key element)
    1. Changing season of use in rotation is especially important in mixed-grass prairies as plant diversity is big factor for soil health.
  5. Providing flexibility
    1. Consider maintaining a portion (1/4 or 1/3) of herd as stockers/ yearlings 
    2. Stockpiling forage in a field for later use deferment during the growing season as "insurance" 
    3. Running an operation that includes multiple species of livestock
  6. Matching animals to resources/ environment
    1. Thinking of nutrient requirements versus maintenance needs of specific animals or species. 
    2. Weighing the timing of requirements versus the availability with an aim of aligning peak forage quality and sufficient quantity with the time of nutrients are most needed. 

The USDA NRCS offices in each state provide a variety of tools for landowners to analyze, plan and monitoring grazing techniques and soil health. For more information, contact your local NRCS office or tune in for next month's Soil Health Webinar. 

If soil health is of particular interest to you and you can't wait for next month's webinar, check out this video, one of many in the NRCS soil video series.