When thinking about rangeland management, some people think about cattle and plants. The root of what produces these great natural resources is soil. Soil science – what a silly thing, right? There is more to it than just dirt.
A healthy soil can reduce compaction, improve water and root infiltration, improve water-holding capacity and increase microbial activity. Characteristics of a healthy soil can promote plant growth and help to create a landscape more resistant to drought. To manage for healthy soil means being aware of soil organic matter (SOM) and its effects on the landscape.
Soils rich in nutrients are dark in color and are often what we think are best for gardening. The dark color has been developed by SOM and is made up of nutrients broken down from decaying plant and animal matter. In the arid portions of Sublette County, rangelands don’t have as much SOM due to the lack of precipitation and reduced vegetation production on these lands. In contrast, the rangelands in the higher elevations of Sublette County are richer in SOM due to additional precipitation and greater vegetation production.
SOM is important because helps regulate the amount of water held in the soil, promote plant growth and advance nutrient cycling. For these reasons it is important to manage for what SOM there is on rangelands. Soil organic carbon (SOC) is the amount of carbon stored in a soil, which is a measureable unit of SOM. Microbial communities in the soil help to break down SOM and SOC into forms of nutrients that are more readily available for plant growth. Proper amounts of vegetation left on the land can improve soil quality, decrease erosional effects and help to continue nutrient cycling for plants.
Managing lands through timing of grazing and distribution of cattle can lead to increased plant productivity and building a healthy soil. Grazing during peak plant growth is the most efficient for plant growth and animal production. This makes sure the most profit is made while also managing for soil communities. Livestock distribution can influence soil communities through distribution of manure, thus increasing nutrients available for soil microbial communities.
Soil management is a proactive way to manage these landscapes by thinking of what the soil microbes will continually need to provide for the plants. An ongoing amount of SOC can create buffers for drought and increase plant productivity for the longevity of production off of the land.
If this topic intrigues you, find more information at http://cesanluisobispo.ucanr. edu/files/136179.pdf and https://www. agric.wa.gov.au/measuring-and-assessing-soils/what-soil-organic-carbon.
– The Sublette County Conservation District provides its monthly column for the first Sublette Examiner of each month.