It All Depends on the Soil

Husker Home Place

Whether it is caring for row crops or assisting a Sandhills pasture in recovery from drought stress, soil is the key.

Published on: December 4, 2012

When I attended one of Pat Reece’s grazing strategies sessions last week in Bloomfield as part of Reece’s four-day tour of Nebraska, I asked the well-respected grazing consultant a question that I guessed might be on the minds of many producers.

“If I pulled my cows off pasture in July, having grazed every conceivable blade of grass out there, and if I have received basically no measurable precipitation this fall and if there is zero grass regrowth visible in that pasture, how do I help it to recover?” I asked Reece if there were any ways to help the pasture grow new plant material, by interseeding, for instance.

Reece answered by saying that it depended on the soil. The soil and the conditions decide whether an agronomic approach or an ecological approach was the best. I hadn’t thought about that part of the equation. The farmer in me figured that I could till something up, plant something in there, and the work would reap some benefits, improving organic matter and building up some residual plant material.

BENEATH IT ALL: Beneath grazing cows and grass is the soil.
BENEATH IT ALL: Beneath grazing cows and grass is the soil.

But Reece, in no uncertain terms, made it clear that agronomic methods would not work to help native pastures recover. Growing on mostly fragile soils, in a dry and fragile climate, native pastures should never be tilled or interseeded with anything, Reece told the group.

The only ways to assist overgrazed native pastures are to rest them and give them time to recover. Delaying spring turnout and destocking the herd were the methods he talked most about. It struck me that his entire answer was hinged on the soil.

Living in the eastern part of the state, where precipitation is normally plentiful and soil types are fairly forgiving, I probably wasn’t off base to at least consider interseeding planted cool season or warm season pastures that had already been tilled farmground at one point in time and had already been reseeded to grass. Normal rainfall, coupled with deeper, darker soils, might make a pasture renovation work, especially in pastures damaged by drought stress and overgrazing.

But, on native pastures that had never seen a plow or disc, patience and time are really the only methods acceptable for recovery. It will take time, management and a little help from Mother Nature.

And, at the base of everything is the soil. Reece made a point to say that if farmers and ranchers care for the soil, everything else will work out. Farmers in general are coming to recognize this more and more. They save soil through no-till or reduced tillage. They plant cover crops. They manage residue and plan their grazing to leave residual plant matter in the pasture. All of this is done because we realize the importance of the soil.

Animal performance is key. Grass and herbage are crucial. But, underlying it all, the soil is the most  important component.

Be sure to watch and read our upcoming print issue of Nebraska Farmer for more about Pat Reece’s Nebraska tour, as well as news, information and tips on meeting the challenges of drought. Your best online resource for drought information is the Farm Progress drought site at