Chapter 21

Soil Management for Pastures and Rangelands

(book excerpts)

Well-managed grazing systems are critical to pasture and rangeland soil sustainability, and necessary for effective resource stewardship. Soil health provides the underpinning for forage production, which in turn supports livestock that graze on pastures and rangelands. Pastures in the narrow sense are enclosed tracts of farmland, grazed by domesticated livestock, such as horses, cattle, sheep, or swine. The vegetation of pasture consists mainly of grasses, with an interspersion of legumes and other forbs (non-grass herbaceous plants). Pastures are distinguished from rangelands by being managed through more intensive agricultural practices of seeding, irrigation, and the use of fertilizers. Pastures are most commonly established on land not particularly suitable for cash crops. Rangelands include natural grassland, savannas, many wetlands, some deserts, tundra, and certain forb and shrub communities. Rangelands are usually diverse and made up of many species of plants. Grazing animals affect soil and vegetation properties through the action of trampling, defoliation, and excretal returns. This may result in soil compaction and/or poaching damage to the pasture, which may recover as a function of the effectiveness of abiotic (e.g., wetting and drying cycles) or biotic (e.g., roots and worms’ activity) mechanisms of structural resilience. In addition, defoliation and excretal returns impact carbon and nutrient cycling in soil, which involve particular responses by soil organisms. Successful land managers must balance livestock’s utilization of plants with ecosystem function, including contributions to and interrelationships with soil nutrients, water infiltration rate and holding capacity, and vegetative growth and production. Managing to optimize these interactions allows farmers and ranchers to improve their grazing systems, simultaneously maintaining nutrients in the soil and influencing soil structure, thereby enhancing water availability and forage production. Grazing management supports healthy pastures and rangelands that persist longer into drought, and rebound more quickly afterwards, improving resilience and sustainability of grazing lands for more consistent livestock production.

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