Beef Notes newsletter
Posted: May 31, 2011
Cattle Pastures May Improve Soil Quality
Decades of plowing throughout the Piedmont region of the United States have degraded the soil, allowing much of it to be washed away and robbing what is left of nutrients and organic matter. Sorghum, cotton, soybean, and wheat are still widely grown in the region which stretches all the way from Alabama to New Jersey. But because the soil is so degraded, growers have allowed much of the land to revert to forests and pastures.
“Growers need guidance on whether keeping the land unused is the best way to restore degraded soils or whether allowing cattle to graze on it is a viable option,” says Alan Franzluebbers, an Agricultural Research Service ecologist at the J. Phil Campbell, Sr., Natural Resource Conservation Center in Watkinsville, Georgia. The center was started in 1937 to look for ways of improving soil quality for farmers in the southeastern United States.
Franzluebbers led a project where researchers planted grasses on 37 acres of rolling, eroded land in northeastern Georgia and allowed beef cattle to graze there to assess the effects on soil quality. Coastal bermudagrass was planted initially and after five years, tall fescue was drilled into it, when the Bermuda-grass was in a dormant winter stage, to extend the grazing season from five months to ten months of the year.
The research team, which included retired Agricultural Research Service scientists John Stuedemann and Stan Wilkinson, varied the number of cattle per acre and over 12 years they assessed how the soils would respond to four different scenarios: moderate grazing (average of 23 steers for every 10 acres), intensive or heavy grazing (35 steers per 10 acres), no grazing and letting the grass grow, and no grazing but cutting the grass for hay. Under each scenario they looked at the amount of soil compaction that occurred, the amounts of soil organic carbon and nitrogen found in the soils, and the amounts of surface plant residues which help prevent erosion. Soil compaction makes it harder to grow crops. They also looked at the effects on the soil of three different fertilizer treatments—inorganic fertilizer alone, organic broiler litter alone, and a mix of inorganic fertilizer and organic broiler litter.
The team found that fertilizer type made little difference but different grazing scenarios produced dramatically different effects. Land that was grazed produced more grass than ungrazed land, and grazing led to the most carbon and nitrogen being sequestered in soil. Sequestering carbon and nitrogen in the soil has become a major goal for agriculture because it reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Whether grass was grazed moderately or intensely made little difference on sequestration rates.
Cutting grass for hay reduced the amount of surface residue and increased soil compaction but didn’t change the amounts of organic carbon and nitrogen in the soil. Land left unused had the highest surface residue and least soil compaction and was better at sequestering carbon in the soil than haying.
From an environmental standpoint, grazing has traditionally been viewed as less desirable than leaving the land unused. But the results, published in the Soil Science Society of America Journal, demonstrate that if growers manage cattle so that pastures are grazed moderately, they’re restoring soil quality and cutting greenhouse gases by keeping carbon in the soil as organic matter rather than releasing it into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
By Dennis O'Brien, Agricultural Research Service Information Staff.
(This research is part of Climate Change, Soils, and Emissions, an ARS national program (#212) described at www.nps.ars.usda.gov.
Do Livestock Need Shade?
There is often debate as to whether livestock should have access to shade. To address this question, researchers in Australia looked at the effect of shade on body temperature and performance of feedlot cattle.
One hundred sixty-four Angus steers were allocated to twenty pens. Ten pens were shaded with an 80 percent solar block shade cloth. Ten pens were unshaded. Water usage and dry matter intake was measured. Average daily gain and gain-to-feed ratio was calculated on a pen basis. Body temperature was determined every 30 minutes via an implanted transmitter. After 120 days, the cattle were harvested and carcass data was collected.
Average body temperature was not affected by shade, except during a 21-day heat wave (8 hr/d of >86 degrees F) when the shaded cattle had a lower body temperature. Dry matter intake, average daily gain, and gain-to-feed ratio were higher for cattle that had shade. The shaded cattle also had heavier hot carcass weights. Shade had no effect on loin muscle area, fat depth, or marbling score.
Shade improved the performance of feedlot cattle, but did not completely eliminate the impact of a high heat load, as during the heat wave, the shaded cattle consumed 39 percent less feed (the unshaded cattle consumed 51 percent less feed).
The Super Connected Consumer
Social media is emerging rapidly as the primary way consumers share their opinion with the world around them. While consumers are interacting with their real-world friends they’re also soliciting opinions from companies and brands. Social media users aren’t held to any ethical standards, which is why it’s crucial for America’s farmers and ranchers to have a strong, truthful and trusted online voice.
Food is a favorite topic online, which is one of the reasons why the beef checkoff has been creating an integrated online web of tools to engage consumers and work to build demand for beef. The checkoff-funded BeefItsWhatsForDinner.com offers many ways for consumers to engage with each other and learn about beef. Users are invited to rate and review recipes as well as discuss changes they made to the recipe.
The "Beef. It's What's For Dinner." Facebook page, @BeefForDinner Twitter account, "Beef. It's What's For Dinner." Flickr group and YouTube channel provide a more relaxed interaction with consumers, where they are encouraged to share favorite beef dishes, cooking methods, ask questions and celebrate their passion for beef.
Farmers and ranchers have a role to play online, by getting involved in the online conversations that take place every day by leaving comments when appropriate, and adding opinions and experiences to the conversation. Sharing details about raising cattle and the commitment to raising a wholesome, delicious product allows consumers to get to know the people behind the meal on their table.
Go to BeefItsWhatsForDinner.com to see checkoff talking points.