One of the fundamentals we discussed was about soil life. The plants above the earth, really are an expression of the soil life below ground, and the management applied to it. In Iowa and much of the Midwest, most of our soil is denuded of soil minerals (at least in the top 6 to 18 inches) and of soil life.
Many deep rooted plants (like many of our native prairie plants and many of our noxious pasture weeds) are deep rooted plants. They are able to cycle nutrients from the lower soil profiles to the surface where they can be put back into the soil. How are they put back into the soil? Either by having the animal eat them and pass them or by having them be knocked down by livestock and added to the littler layer above the soil. This litter layer has two zones that we observed. A primary surface layer, where litter looks like light colored dead vegetation and a second layer where it was not soil and not the light colored surface layer. It was interesting to see the definition between the second litter layer and the soil. Terry took the spade to the ground and cut out a chunk several times so we could see these layers.
The second litter layer was about an inch on much of our unburned and unplowed land. Terry said that is good, considering that much of Iowa has none or has a very thin second litter layer. Part of the reason Iowa has little litter layer is that tillage destroys litter and many of our traditional grazers like their pastures to look like a golf corse (the litter layer is not added to because the grass is never really allowed to grow to any real height). Terry said, that we should aim for this layer to be much larger, say 12 to 18 inches. This litter benefits the pasture by holding moisture, eliminating all most all runoff, by helping to keep the soil cool (soil life starts to dies around 80 degrees), and by serving as great material for many of our predominant cool-season pasture grasses to root into.
Leadplant a Deep Rooted Native Legume in Our Pasture
Soil life ranges from soil microbes, to the various dung beetles, up to badgers. Farmers in this state spend so much of their time killing this life and replacing it with expensive inputs. Anhydrous ammonia is a common nitrogen input that is applied in the fall or the spring by injecting it into the soil. It is used to boost corn (a very nitrogen demanding crop) yields. Anhydrous ammonia kills soil microbial life, the natural nitrogen fixers. You ever wonder why organic research that compares cropping systems on land that has had it soil life killed, makes organics looks do bad? Anhydrous ammonia was originally used to harden the ground so we could make quick landing strips, vegetation also happened to grow back very quickly and the soldiers noted it and took that back to their farms.
On our farm, the one thing we need to be careful of is wormers. All chemical wormers are toxic to dung beetles and we need everyone of those we can get. We did see a few dung beetles in some of our week to two week old cow patties. Dung beetles take dung and roll it into holes in the ground where they lay their eggs in them. Dung beetles are one of the best things you can have for spreading a manure patty around and getting it into the soil, short of another cow's foot.
I learned a few things about the plants on above the soil. I learned that a close graze encourages legume regrowth and that leaving more standing residue encourages grass regrowth. A diverse pasture is a healthy one. This is in contrast with my forages education that says 3 to 4 species is optimal and more then that is not really adding much (I am now unlearning what I leaned in school), but Terry says some of the best pastures he has been in have over a hundred species in them. We are replicating a native ecosystem so we should have as much diversity as we can, especially amongst deep rooted plants. That will promote nutrient cycling, create more efficient layered forage canopies, and promote soil life and wildlife diversity.
I learned how to read a cow patties. The perfect shape is round with a divot in the center. You want it to be able to see the fiber in it and have a deep brownish-yellow color in the center. A greener center is a sign that the animals are getting to much protein and not enough roughage so graze them where they are at longer.
When looking at our farm specially, Terry said, "keep doing what you are doing and be observant." Terry liked that we move our livestock daily, that our chicken pens are like the ultimate pasture rejuvenators, and that we have very diverse pastures. He encouraged me to run my chickens in a mobile coop behind the cattle in rotations, something we would like to do, but are not yet there. I need to be careful that we are giving enough rest time between grazings to some of our less persistent pastures, because regrowth was coming back very very slowly on parts of the north side of the farm. Terry also told me not to worry about the annual weeds I was getting in some of my pastures and were all over in my 12.5 acre planting. We walked the field and many of my seedlings had gone to seed this ear. Terry said, "graze it next June or July so this years seed can get worked into the soil and the stand will be better established." Terry also though the cattle looked good and fleshy on our pastures. It is good to get some good feedback and to know that all the work is paying off. I love the expression Terry used so I wanted to repeat it here, "every farmer has the pasture they deserve."