When we talk about improving soil health in cropping systems, often the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s (NRCS) four principles of soil health come up. If you are not familiar with the principles, they are to maximize soil cover, maximize living roots, minimize disturbance, and maximize biodiversity. Depending on where you look or who you talk to, sometimes a fifth principle comes up: integrate livestock into the system.
Why livestock? When livestock are placed on the land, they can bring multiple benefits to the farmer or landowner. As the livestock move across the piece of land, they naturally distribute nutrients through manure. Their hooves can help naturally stir the soil under the right conditions (though under the wrong conditions, such as wet and muddy soil, compaction can become an issue). We could see an increase in soil organic matter over time on fields where livestock are grazing as they graze cover crops or stalks and return those nutrients back into the same soil from where they came. Soil biological activity in the form of insects, worms, and microorganisms may also increase as they follow the livestock and work to break down manure. While most of us could probably agree that there are benefits to including livestock on the land, there are certainly many challenges as well. You may ask, where do I even start? The Embarras Grazing Partnership (EGP) sought to provide a resource to help farmers and landowners interested in taking steps toward reaching that fifth soil health principle of integrating livestock. The Grazing Cover Crops Checklist provides a set of questions you can think about to help set you up for success before grazing cover crops. See the checklist here!
Owning and raising livestock is a large commitment and may not be everyone’s cup of tea. If you farm row crops and are interested in the benefits of having livestock graze stalks or cover crops on your fields, but do not want to own or necessarily care for the animals yourself, there is an option for you. Check out the Midwest Grazing Exchange (https://www.midwestgrazingexchange.com/), where you can list your land as available for grazing livestock, and a livestock owner can connect with you to arrange an agreement.
I have participated as a founding member of the EGP for a few years now and have learned so much from my colleagues there. The EGP was created to help bring more regenerative grazing education to both farmers and agriculture professionals in the Embarras River Watershed in East Central and Southeastern Illinois. The Embarras is a phosphorus priority watershed for the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy (NLRS), meaning significant amounts of phosphorus are exported from the watershed and eventually into the Gulf of Mexico via the Mississippi River. Efforts to reduce nutrient losses are ongoing statewide, but particularly from priority watersheds because the quickest results can often be seen in watersheds where high nutrient exporting is taking place and conservation practices are implemented. This is where regenerative grazing practices can come into play to help improve water quality, and I hope this new checklist will be helpful for you if you are interested in incorporating regenerative grazing practices in the form of grazing cover crops. If you want to learn more about the EGP and its members, visit https://www.ccswcd.com/egp.