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Home  > Question of the Week

Question of the Week



Permalink How can I build soil health in an organic hayfield?

Answer: Organic hayfields typically have problems because nutrients are removed from the fields and are not replaced. This doesn't occur as much in fields that are grazing because of the manure and urine from grazing livestock. And if you add a more diverse plant population to your fields, through cover cropping and complex perennial mixes, you add organic matter that builds soil health and resilience.

For example, you might consider rotating your hayfields to cover crops and livestock grazing periodically to maintain fertility levels, preferably every other year. This may necessitate managing the pastures as several separate units to ensure organic hay is produced each year while part of the land is in cover crops and grazing to build soil health.

Consider a crop rotation to build soil health. Three to four years of diverse perennial pasture can be converted to cover crops and grazed for a year. Consider overseeding small grains like annual rye into perennial pasture in the fall to build soil health and add organic matter. You’ll need to use no-till drill for this planting. Check with your local conservation district to see if they have a no-till drill loan program. Many districts have adopted no-till practices and have programs like this for area farmers.

The cover crop will provide loads of biomass and will return a lot of organic matter to the soil, keeping it covered and feeding soil organisms that provide nutrient availability to growing crops and pasture. You can graze the cover crop hard the next year to allow the perennial pasture or hayfield to emerge, or terminate the perennial field by plowing and plant a summer cover like sorghum sudan or buckwheat.

The more diversity you can get into the fields, the better it will be on soil life. It's a cycle—the soil organisms build soil structure and cycle nutrients, which feed the crops, and the crops provide carbon back to the microbes. Then you can go back to a fall cover crop, and then perennial pasture the following year. This kind of rotation provides cover, reduces erosion, conserves water, buffers soil temperature, and adds organic matter. With this, you can start to build a soil that will be productive and much more fertile.

Rotation considerations—consider multiple management units:

• Some units can be in perennial pasture (grazed)
• Some units can be in perennial hayfield (not grazed)
• Others can be in cover crops (grazed)

The rotation for any management unit would look like this:

Perennial pasture (hayed every other year) > cover crop (grazed) > perennial pasture

For the fallow ground: Consider a summer cover crop > fall cover crop > seed to perennial pasture. Graze the cover crop to add biology to the soil and trample in organic matter.

Perennial fields: frost seed or no-till legumes, such a red clover, crimson clover, or alfalfa. This adds diversity and nitrogen fixation. Also, grazing management for adequate recovery will help the stand improve. Develop a livestock grazing plan to manage pastures for optimum recovery period. Plants need time after grazing to fully recover and this is determined by season and moisture. ATTRA specialists can help you determine how many animals your pastures can support and how to rotate them according to recovery time to keep the grass productive.

The bottom line: If your goals are to raise organic hay and grassfed beef, develop a soil health plan first. Concentrate on building soils with cover crops and grazing, and rotate fields out for hay production so you always have several fields in this enterprise. The hay and beef can be thought of as benefits of your soil health plan.

To learn more, visit the Livestock and Pasture section of the ATTRA websiste, where you'll find a bounty of additional resources.

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