Understanding soil type and condition

Producers looking to improve forages for their livestock can make big strides by understanding what type of soil they have and knowing its fertility content. As producers face increasing fertilizer costs and other escalating inputs, maximizing their land for grazing and/or hay is key to a successful operation.

Dig into Soil Survey Information: If farmers are looking for in-depth information about their soil, it is right at their fingertips. The USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) operates the Web Soil Survey (WSS), a soil data base with soil information on 95 percent of the counties in the country. Producers can access the information through the WSS website or with the help of a local NRCS representative. 

The soil survey shows what soils are on a producer’s farm and the dividing lines between the different soil types. The WSS information tells landowners the characteristics of the soil, the soil profile, and its drainage features. The data may also indicate the relative productivity between hay, pasture, crops and forestry. The information allows producers to get an idea of what the production capacity of their property might be regardless of the soil’s fertility. For instance, a deep, well-drained soil will have a better capacity to produce forage regardless of its fertility, compared to shallow and rocky soil.

Understanding the different characteristics of soil allows producers to determine which soil on their farm can most effectively produce certain forages and what time of year the soil will perform its best. “It (WWS) really answers a lot of questions, and you don’t have to do a lot of experimentation on your own,” John Jennings, Ph.D., extension forage specialist at the University of Arkansas, said. “You can look that up and really start fine-tuning your management style or practices to match what your resources are.”

Get a Soil Test: Extension experts recommend producers get a soil test at different locations of their property. The soil test will give producers information on the soil’s fertility, and provide farmers with a guide to which fields need to be fertilized and what fertilizer should be used. Due to the rising costs of fertilizer, producers can save a significant amount of money by utilizing information about their soil to target specific areas with fertilizer tailored for that soil’s needs. Jennings encourages producers to analyze the soil survey information and soil test data to assist them with fertilizer decisions. “Producers can look at all the information and decide if I cutback, where can I cutback and still get a decent yield,” Jennings explained. 

Utilizing Soil: Specialists suggest producers implement a management system that gives their livestock something to graze every season. This requires producers to plan at least a season ahead and may require changes in management practices. If a gap between seasons exists, planting cover crops will help fill the forage void. Another management practice that can improve soil quality is rotating where hay is fed. “The more you move it, the more you distribute the nutrients across your farm,” Jennings said.

Jennings suggests producers start feeding hay in the areas with the lowest fertility, then moving on to other parts of the property. “There is roughly the equivalent of 100 pounds of triple-17 fertilizer in every 4-by-5 round bale of hay,” Jennings stated. “So, if they consider it from that standpoint; they can ask themselves, “Where can I spread all these 100-pound sacks of triple-17 fertilizer back on my farm when I feed hay?’” Jennings said. 

Other practices to improve soil quality include spreading poultry litter for fertilizer, stockpiling fescue, and strip grazing. Jennings recommends producers not let their livestock overgraze in the summer, because it can promote weed growth.


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