MANY ranchers view livestock as their base crop, but others view grass as the foundational crop from which the cattle grow.
While healthy cattle depend on healthy forages, the entire process begins with the soil, according to Chad Ellis, a pasture and range consultant with the Noble Foundation in Ardmore, Okla.
"The management of soil health is of vital importance to producers as it is the dynamic resource," Ellis said. "As managers, we often focus on managing the aboveground production in our pastures while paying little attention to what happens below ground. Sound grazing management is the art of capturing sunlight and water while recycling a portion of the aboveground parts of the plant through livestock."
Ellis outlined five principles for building soil health:
1. Armor the soil. Bare ground is enemy number one because it increases soil temperatures and even kills biological activity. Once soil temperatures reach 140 degrees F, soil bacteria die. The soil must be covered with forage and crop residue.
2. Minimize soil disturbance. Physical soil disturbance such as plowing and overgrazing can result in bare ground and compacted soils that disrupt soil microbial activity. Incorporating reduced tillage methods in cropping systems and proper grazing management in pastures will keep soil covered.
3. Increase plant diversity. Increasing plant diversity above ground allows for a more diverse underground community. The more diverse the microbial population in the soil, the better the forage will respond due to increased biological activity.
4. Keep living roots in the ground all year. Soils are most productive when soil microbes have access to living plant material. A living root provides a food source for beneficial bacteria and promotes the relationship between plant roots and mycorrhizal fungi. This is aided by increased plant diversity, which can be achieved by incorporating cover crops into pasture and crop systems.
5. Integrate livestock grazing. Grasses evolved under grazing pressure. Soil and plant health is improved by grazing, which recycles nutrients, reduces plant selectivity and increases plant diversity. The most important factor in grazing systems is to allow adequate rest for the plant to recover before being grazed again.
"Our land's condition is characterized by the functioning of both the soil and plant communities," Ellis said. "Following these principles will allow the site production, health of the soil and mineral and water cycles to greatly improve, resulting in an increase of forage production and animal production."
Indeed, the U.N. Food & Agriculture Organization (FAO) said more attention to the health and management of the planet's soils will be needed to meet the challenge of feeding a growing world population while coping with climate change and increased scarcity of natural resources.
"The importance of soil for food security should be obvious. From the origins of civilization in early farming communities up through today, we can see how societies have prospered thanks to healthy soils and declined when their lands became degraded or infertile," FAO deputy director-general Maria Helena Semedo said Dec. 5 at a conference marking World Soil Day.
Healthy soil is not only the foundation of food production but serves other functions as well, she noted. For example, soil is critical to the health of ground and surface waters and ecosystem health and sequesters twice as much carbon as is found in the atmosphere.
Heading into the winter months, cattle producers should give careful attention to adequate nutrition of beef cattle, according to Texas A&M AgriLife Extension Service beef cattle specialist Jason Cleere.
Cleere told producers at the recent South Central Texas Cow-Calf Clinic in Brenham, Texas, to monitor the body condition of their cattle to ensure that those cows will raise a healthy calf and properly rebreed.
"Cattle markets have been phenomenal, and things are green and the outlook is great," Cleere said.
However, lack of nutrition is one of the main causes for cattle not breeding, he said.
"Nutrition is extremely important to the cow/calf operation," Cleere said. "The way we manage cattle to calve at two years of age and have a calf every year, you've got to have some nutritional management out there for them."
Cleere said one of the most important things producers should do is look at the body condition of their cows.
"The other thing is (to) look at manure," he said. "It varies, but it tells us what is going on with those cattle, what they are eating and the quality of their diet."
Body condition scoring is a numerical system for evaluating the condition or fatness of breeding cattle. The system ranks cattle from a score of one (very thin) to 10 (very fat). Cattle in average condition would receive a score of five. Cleere said cattle will first put on fat in the brisket area, then behind the shoulder and onward towards the rear of the animal.
"The effect of body condition score on pregnancy rates is significant," he said. "Research indicates that cows should be at least a body condition score of five at calving to achieve optimum rebreeding rates.
"However, the best time to be looking at body condition scores would be when you wean your calves so that nutritional management decisions can be made prior to calving," he said. "You should look at it year-round, and especially during the winter feeding period to make sure the cattle are being supplemented properly."
Cleere said body condition scores also affect how much money cull cows will bring in when sold. He calculated that a cow with a body condition score of two will have a value of $50-60/cwt., while a cow with a body condition score of six will have a value of $75-85/cwt.
"If we compare the two values on these cows, it equals $920 to $495 in difference between the cows," Cleere said. "The heavier cow weighs 1,150 lb. versus 900 lb. on the thin cow. When it comes to making culling decisions due to drought, if we let those cows get too thin and calve, it's going to hurt reproduction rates. If it didn't rain and we had to sell, we (would) have animals a lot less valuable if you let them get too thin. Some tried to squeeze the value out of their cows and skimp on feeding."
Cleere advised monitoring cows throughout the year to not only optimize reproduction but to have cattle in condition to bring added dollars if producers are forced to decrease cow numbers due to dry conditions.