Elk Creek, Missouri
Rex and Amy Hamilton live in the Ozark Hills of south central Missouri, where they do what most of their neighbors do: raise cows. The way they raise cows, though, is a bit different than most.
Rex and Amy rotationally graze their cowherd on fescue and warm season grass pastures. They also harvest, clean, and sell native grass and wildflower seed. “We love our diverse native grassland!” Rex told NACD. “We think it is better for the rancher, soil health, and wildlife.”
The couple’s soil health story began years ago during a pasture walk of a neighboring dairy farm. It was a hot, dry month for June and the fine-leafed dairy quality fescue was not growing much. Crabgrass, a shallow rooted annual, needed rain to begin growing, but rain wasn’t in the forecast.
“The toe jerks – a hillbilly name for plantain – were abundant and could be good quality forage, but they were growing slow during this warm, dry period,” Rex added.
That’s when a light came on for Rex. “All of these plants were relatively shallow rooted. Deep-rooted, warm season native grasses like Big Bluestem, Indiangrass, Switchgrass, and Eastern Gamagrass were growing well thru the dry period (because their roots) were finding water stored deep in the soil, (while) the shallower rooted plants respond quickly to a rainfall event.”
So, the couple concluded, the way to ensure healthy forage in warm and dry periods must be diversity.
“We had heard of Dr. David Tillman from the University of Minnesota doing a study on diversity where 16 species of natives produced 238 percent more production than Switchgrass alone. Switchgrass is the biomass kink of the natives. Could we get more production with diversity than with fescue?”
The couple decided to research the positive affects of grazing native grasses and native diversities with a Conservation Innovation Grant from NRCS and additional help from the Missouri Department of Conservation. Amy and Rex planted 99 species of native plants on 60 acres and found:
- The ground is a solar collector. “We collect more of the sun’s energy to grow more forage and more roots with the diversity of cool and warm season plants. Also, grasses grow vertically while forbs have a different structure (varying from horizontal leaves to trailing stems to); this combination collects more of the sun’s energy.”
- The diverse native grassland is better for soil health. “Let’s just focus on the soil moisture as an example. It is important to not only plants, but also soil microorganisms. First, the infiltration of water into the soil seeded with diverse grasses is more than twice as fast as on a similarly managed fescue pasture (read more about our experiment in this article).
Second, the soil under a diverse native grassland has more organic matter in deeper depths and it should hold more of the water for later use by plants and other soil life. The rooting depth, which is important in forming organic matter deep in the soils, is about three feet in the diverse native grassland as opposed to about a foot in fescue pastures.
Lastly, the diverse native grassland has more soil armor (plant residue or thatch) on the soil, which will decrease water lost from the soil to evaporation.”
- Free fertilizer can be produced with symbiotic relationships of plants with soil life. “Legume plants form nodules on their roots, making a home for bacteria, which take nitrogen from the air and give it to the plant. Many native plants have a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi. These fungi bring phosphorous that is tied up in the soil or is too far away for roots to access to the plant. Some plants share up to 40 percent of its sugars as root exudates with soil life in exchange for their services. So while the nutrients aren’t free to the plant as they have the expense of feeding the soil life, they are not an expense in the cattleman’s pocketbook.”
- Speedy nutrient cycling is also important. “Having a diversity of plants means there’s always a green, growing plant ready to use any nutrients freed up by decomposition. If these nutrients are not used by an actively growing plant, they can be leached from the soil and may be below the roots of the plant or carried away by the water.”
To keep up with the Hamiltons’ observations on diverse native grassland and soil health, check out their blog.