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How do grazing management decisions impact soil health?

Holger Leue/Getty Images cows grazing in hilly pasture
SOIL HEALTH: An international coalition co-led by MSU recently announced a $19 million research project aimed at understanding how a farmer’s or rancher’s grazing management decisions impact soil health on pasture and rangeland.
Michigan State University receives a grant to co-lead international coalition on topic.

A new project, with the backing of a multimillion-dollar grant, is aimed at providing farmers and ranchers with tools to simply and accurately measure outcomes of soil health in grazing land environments, and in turn, help guide management decisions and quantify the impact of intentional management.

An international coalition co-led by Michigan State University recently announced a $19 million research project aimed at understanding how a farmer’s or rancher’s grazing management decisions impact soil health on pasture and rangeland (commonly called grazing lands).

Titled “Metrics, Management and Monitoring: An Investigation of Pasture and Rangeland Soil Health and Its Drivers,” the project was announced at the National Grazing Lands Coalition triennial meeting. The Foundation for Food & Agriculture Research (FFAR) awarded the Noble Research Institute a $9.5 million grant to lead the research. The institute is providing $7.5 million to this project, with additional financial contributions by Greenacres Foundation, The Jones Family Foundation and ButcherBox.

The project encompasses 11 nonprofit organizations, for-profit businesses, private research institutes and public universities in the United States and the United Kingdom. Led by the Noble Research Institute, Michigan State University, Colorado State University and the University of Wyoming, collaborators include Oregon State University, National Grazing Lands Coalition, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Savory Institute, Snaplands LLC, The Nature Conservancy and Quanterra Systems.

Pasture and rangeland soils contain about 20% of the world’s soil organic carbon stock but have largely deteriorated in many regions due to poor management, fragmentation or conversion to cropland. As soil health decreases, the land loses its viability to grow healthy plants, maintain flood- and drought-resilience, or filter water.

“Improving the ecological management of these hundreds of millions of acres, farmers and ranchers can be catalysts for sequestering carbon, better managing fresh water, reducing typical greenhouse gas emissions and building soil health, which all benefit society at large,” says Jason Rowntree, C.S. Mott endowed professor of sustainable agriculture at MSU and project co-lead. “In addition, applying these core agricultural principles also helps producers be more sustainable and profitable, ensuring they can leave a legacy of healthy land and brighter futures for their children. It’s a win-win.”

Soil health and profits

For decades, farmers and ranchers who have implemented soil health principles have improved the overall health of their land and have experienced more profitable operations. However, these observations have been largely anecdotal, according to Rowntree. This research seeks to quantify these observations and examine how management decisions on grazing lands are connected to the overall health of the ecosystem, including the social and economic well-being of the farmer, rancher and land manager.

“Enhancing soil resilience and productivity necessitates a major investment in research that provides farmers and ranchers with the best tools and information to make informed decisions benefiting their operations,” says FFAR Executive Director Sally Rockey. 

Measuring soil health requires techniques that are often site-specific and costly.

“Our focus is to develop strategies to increase the value of measurement, reduce the labor and cost of measurement, and increase our understanding of soil health beyond a single site to the ranch as a whole,” says Steve Rhines, president and CEO of the Noble Research Institute. “This information — in conjunction with working directly with land managers — will help us better understand the drivers that inform producers to adopt and implement soil-health-focused management practices.”

The study is unique in that it will focus on the soil health of grazing lands. Most soil health initiatives explore cropland, failing to address the hundreds of millions of acres of degrading pasture and rangeland. These acres are best suited for livestock production and are incapable of sustained production of crops.

Pasture and rangelands are among the largest ecosystems on the planet, covering 70% of the world agricultural area. There are 655 million acres of pasture and rangeland in the United States. This is 41% of the land usage in the continental U.S., making it the single-largest use of land in the nation — more than row crops, cities and timberlands.

The project is exploring why some producers adopt soil health building principles, such as adaptive grazing management, while others do not. It is also examining social and economic sustainability (commonly called producer well-being), which has rarely been studied in agriculture, or in particular, livestock agriculture.

Source: Michigan State University, which is solely responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.







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