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Livestock can be used to optimize disturbance for soil health — here’s how

Weigh the pros and cons of livestock as a tool for soil disturbance on your ranch, and then put the animals to work (for Noble Research Institute).


Soil disturbance doesn’t have to be a dramatic event.


Caitlin Hebbert, a livestock consultant for Noble Research Institute, says producers should minimize disturbances that are not intentionally planned for ecosystem improvements and optimize those disturbances that will have positive benefits to the whole ecosystem.


“These ecosystems developed with disturbance from bison and other wildlife grazing, but also fire, people, predators, floods,” Hebbert says. “One isn’t better or worse than another, it all depends on how it’s utilized.”


She encourages stewards to remember that anything beyond absolute rest can be considered a disturbance, and that disturbance is, by definition, intermittent. This can help them weigh the pros and cons of using livestock to optimize disturbance for soil health, she says.


Here are some of the major pros and cons to consider:


Pro: Biology grows biology

“Whenever you have livestock grazing, you have all sorts of biological responses taking place,” Hebbert says. “Every time they lay a manure pat down, graze a plant or lay down some thatching with their hooves, they’re encouraging complex biological responses.”


Perhaps more than any other form of disturbance, the complex interactions between plants, animals and soil microbes during grazing offers opportunities for optimization.


Even when an intense grazing event may at first seem too disruptive – Hebbert points to high-traffic areas near stock tanks or mineral supplementation – the key to turning it into a valuable disturbance is to evaluate what the animals took and what they left behind.


“You might have a lot of soil disturbance there, but you also got a lot of hoof action and a lot of fertilizer put down,” she says. “If you continue to disturb that area the same way over and over again, it will be a detriment. But, if you give it truly adequate time to respond to that disturbance and to recover, a lot of times, that biology will get to work and help that area come back thicker, more lush.”


Pro: Diversity creates diversity

Using livestock as a tool for soil disturbance directly connects to grazing management principles of timing, intensity, frequency and duration.


“If you’re having the same soil disturbance in the same area, at the same time of year, every single year, that consistency can kill,” Hebbert says. Instead, she recommends adding diversity to the livestock’s timing, intensity, frequency and duration of disturbance to open opportunities for plants and biological responses to flourish.


KEEP READING >>> Originally published in the Noble Research Institute's Noble Rancher newsletter.

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