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Cattle Can Help Restore Degraded Soil

Soil degradation is a common result of decades of field plowing and often the depleted land reverts back to forests and pastures. The soil in these discarded plots is robbed of nutrients and organic matter.

A study funded by the USDA – Agriculture Research Service has tested cattle grazing on degraded soil to determine if the activity would have any effect on restoring depleted nutrients. During a 12 year period, 18 paddocks were used to monitor the soils response to different land management practices.

In the end, the paddocks with medium to heavy grazing proved to be the best way to sequester nitrogen and carbon in the soil. Nitrogen and carbon soil sequestration improve soil fertility and reduces the emissions of greenhouse gases.

“Land owners need guidance on whether keeping the land unused is the best way to restore degraded soils or whether allowing cattle to graze on it is a viable option,” says Alan Franzluebbers, the author of the study and an ecologist with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service at the J. Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Resource Conservation Center in Watkinsville, GA.

Franzluebbers and his team of researchers used four different management techniques to arrive at their conclusion. Paddocks were either moderately grazed, averaging 5.8 steers per hectare; heavily grazed, with 87 steers per hectare; not grazed, but the grass was cut and used for hay; or not grazed or harvested.

Land that was unused and not harvested had the highest surface residue accumulation, which is essential to prevent erosion, but it did not sequester carbon and nitrogen as well as grazing. Land that was not grazed but harvested for hay resulted in little nutrient retention and was prone to erosion.

In recent years, the sentiment has been that letting land go unused was more environmentally responsible than having cattle graze on it. Franzluebbers evidence discredits this assumption.

“From an environmental standpoint, grazing has traditionally been viewed as less desirable than leaving the land unused. However these results demonstrate that if producers allow cattle to moderately graze pastures, they’ll be restoring soil quality and cutting greenhouse gases by keeping carbon in the soil as organic matter rather than releasing it into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide,” he says.

The study is available in the November/December 2010 issue of Soil Science Society of America Journal.

The full article is available for no charge for 30 days following the date of this summary. View the abstract at

Soil Science Society of America Journal,, is a peer-reviewed international journal published six times a year by the Soil Science Society of America. Its contents focus on research relating to physics; chemistry; biology and biochemistry; fertility and plant nutrition; genesis, morphology, and classification; water management and conservation; forest, range, and wildland soils; nutrient management and soil and plant analysis; mineralogy; and wetland soils.

The Soil Science Society of America (SSSA) is a progressive, international scientific society that fosters the transfer of knowledge and practices to sustain global soils. Based in Madison, WI, SSSA is the professional home for 6,000+ members dedicated to advancing the field of soil science. It provides information about soils in relation to crop production, environmental quality, ecosystem sustainability, bioremediation, waste management, recycling, and wise land use.

SSSA supports its members by providing quality research-based publications, educational programs, certifications, and science policy initiatives via a Washington, DC, office. Founded in 1936, SSSA celebrates its 75th Anniversary this year (2011). For more information, visit or follow @SSSA_soils on Twitter.

Sara Uttech | EurekAlert!
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