The right forages can help improve nitrogen, improve soil aeration

Taking care of soil is critical to the success of agricultural endeavors, and one of the best tools producers have for improving soil health is their forage.

“Forages that are on the ground give your soil the right mix of nutrients to grow more,” said Daniel Boenkamp of Hillside Bison in Mountain Grove, Mo.

Understanding and properly structuring your forage program can help you achieve this on your farm.

Testing Your Soil

To understand what needs your soil has, it’s imperative that you conduct a soil test.

“Obtaining a quality soil sample is vital for receiving accurate nutrient recommendations for your field,” said Jill Scheidt, Agronomy Specialist for the University of Missouri-Extension.

The Extension recommends farmers and ranchers test soil.

“Farmers should have at least one sample per field or pasture,” Jill explained. “Ten to 20 cores of soil that are uniformly 6 to 8 inches deep, taken in a zigzag pattern across the field is recommended.”

Once the cores are collected, break up and mix the cores and remove any rocks, sticks or grass. You want to send as much soil as possible. To gather soil samples, you’ll need a soil probe, a bucket, plastic bags and a permanent marker to label the bagged soil samples.

The composition of your soil and what nutrients it needs, you can decide which forages you want to plant.

For example, if your soil is in need of nitrogen (this is common), pick some legumes such as clover or forage soybeans to add to your forage program; legumes have nitrogen-fixing bacteria that grow in nodules on their roots. If your soil is heavily compacted, consider planting a cruciferous root crop like forage radishes.

“Radishes and turnips can break up the soil so it’s not as hard,” said Hickory Ridge Hunting Ranch Marketing Director Joshua Jones from Lamar, Okla., “Plus they add nutrients.”

You’ll also want to consider the goals of your forage and soil health program based on the results of your soil tests – this will help you determine whether you need to select annual or perennial forages.

Understanding the Benefits

While you might not notice a change in your soil from above ground right away when you implement a solid forage program, you can be sure that there is plenty of action going on below.

Alan Scarrow of Ozarks Natural Foods in Rogersville, Mo., said he allows the forage his cattle graze to stay as tall as possible – the taller the grass, the deeper the root system, and the deeper the root system is, the more nutrients and minerals are drawn back up into the top soil where they are needed.

The root mass and the manure on top of the soil from grazing livestock also adds organic matter back to the soil – according to an article by Farm and Dairy, organic matter has the potential to hold up to 20 percent of its weight in water and nutrients. Soils with one percent organic matter holds 4,000 pounds of water and nutrients, soils with two percent organic matter holds 8,000 pounds, and soils with three percent organic matter holds 30,000 pounds.”

By making your soil health a priority, producers can ensure lasting benefits on your farm, and know that your end product will be the best it can be. “We believe that the soil feeds the forage that feeds the cattle that feeds the soil,” Scarrow said. “And our product will never be better than what the soil is.”


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