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Guest Opinions

Exploring Opportunities to Increase Rangeland Production by Enhancing Soil Health

Written by Brenda Ling
By Brenda Ling, NRCS Wyoming Public Affairs Specialist 

Within walking distance of less than a mile, three holes dug on different spots on Phillip Ellis’ property near Chugwater illustrate the diversity of rangeland soils.

The first stop revealed riparian soil with a dark surface, and Francine Lheritier, a USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) soil scientist from Colorado, observed evidence of a periodic high water table after some analysis. Ellis confirmed Lheritier’s assessment when he spoke of seasonal floods, which provide a seed source for plains cottonwoods.

The Marsh and Ellis Ranch, a cattle operation in Bear Creek Valley, was one of several stops made June 22-26 in Colorado and Wyoming by a group of scientists from NRCS field offices, national headquarters and technology centers; University of Wyoming (UW); Sustainable Rangelands Roundtable (SRR); and the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) to look at rangeland management practices and visit with ranchers about their real world experiences.

“Our goal is to learn what the latest research is telling us but then to temper that research knowledge with a healthy dose of realism as experienced by ranchers,” said Wayne Honeycutt, deputy chief for science and technology with USDA NRCS in Washington, D.C.

The visits to research sites and ranches were coordinated by UW and SRR.

Research sites toured included the USDA ARS Central Plains Experimental Station in Nunn, Colo. and the USDA-ARS High Plains Grassland Research Station in Cheyenne. In addition to the Ellis property, the group visited M&D Land Company/Sun Ranch west of Casper, PH Livestock Co. west of Rawlins, Sims Cattle Co. in McFadden, Clear Creek Cattle Company in Lysite and the Eisele King Ranch in Cheyenne.

Lheritier found at the second Ellis soil pit, soil with a very fine sandy loam surface. Jerry Schuman, a retired ARS researcher estimated the soil to have low organic carbon, based on its inherent sandy surface and periodic droughty conditions of the area. At the third spot, the hole was dug on a hillslope and the soil had erosional gravels on the surface.

Clark Harshbarger, NRCS soil scientist from Greeley, Colo., said, “This has the lowest productivity of the three sites observed on the Ellis Ranch. On the High Plains, soils in general are less productive as we move higher in the landscape due to parent material and landscape position.”

Three different soils, one ranch

The team wasn’t stumped. They were intrigued and wanted more information. Still, many challenges involving rangeland await these USDA and UW experts.

“With such diversity within a small area, what about a ranch with more than 200,000 acres?” said Sid Brantly, national rangeland management specialist for NRCS.

According to Justin Derner, a research leader with the ARS Rangeland Resources Research Unit, rangeland makes up more than 50 percent of the earth’s land area and contains 10 to 30 percent of the global soil organic carbon. Yet, research on how to properly manage rangelands for healthier soils is lacking.

“There are lots of efforts on cropland, but they are not directly applicable,” Derner said.

Honeycutt wants to know how NRCS can help landowners improve rangeland soil health.

“NRCS has programs that can help ranchers manage their rangelands in ways that may increase the level of carbon in their soil,” he said. “Increasing soil organic carbon increases a soil’s water holding capacity and therefore resilience to drought.”

“Of course, increasing a soil’s organic carbon does not make it rain, but it does help the soil make the most of what rain it receives. That’s because when a soil has higher organic carbon, more of the total rainfall can infiltrate into the soil and be stored there for plants to use. This, in turn, can lead to decreased risk and greater plant and animal productivity,” said Bianca Moebius-Clune, director of the new NRCS Soil Health Division. 

The team will be considering how best to apply the scientific findings from ARS and university researchers. For example, Schuman had conducted a successful ARS study involving interseeding a legume into native rangelands. He showed how yellow-flowering alfalfa, a subspecies called falcata, could increase forage production and quality of native plants. Like other legumes, falcata brings nitrogen into the soil, and nitrogen is one of the most-limiting nutrients in native rangelands, Schuman said.

Unlike purple-flowering alfalfa, which has a long taproot, falcata has a shallow, fibrous root system.

Schuman said, “A lot of precipitation in the northern prairies comes in half-inch thunderstorms. That doesn’t help taprooted plants, but it’s perfect for plants like falcata. It would be a major mistake to turn away from this plant just because we’ve had several years of drought.”

Making a living

Located approximately 45 miles west of Casper, the Sun Ranch on Poison Spider Road has been in Dennis Sun’s family since they first homesteaded in the area. The whole ranch is in a sage grouse core area and is a large wintering area for sage grouse.

Sun, like his fellow ranchers in Wyoming, has learned through hard experience what works for these landscapes and what doesn’t.

“We use this ranch only for summer grazing of cattle and sheep. We rotate pastures every year and come back to a given pasture at different times from one year to the next. We graze from May 1 to Oct. 31,” Sun said.

Water, or lack of it, is a key concern for Wyoming ranchers. 

  “It’s an art,” Rob Hendry, of Clear Creek Cattle Company, said about handling the low and uncertain precipitation in his area. “We’re usually a week away from drought.”

As a result, Hendry and his wife Leslie plan accordingly. While this year might be a good year for moisture, drought is always a possibility.

PH Livestock Co. is a cow/calf and yearling operation, and four generations of Niels Hansen’s family have been in the ranching business in Rawlins since 1882.

Hansen said, “Our ranch, like so many others, is a living example of adaptive management. If we had not adapted to the needs of the land, we could not have survived on the same land for 116 years.”

Valuable perspective

All participants agreed that hearing from ranchers about what drives their management decisions provided invaluable lessons. 

“As we embark on our journey in working with ranchers to enhance the health of their soils, and therefore production resilience to drought, I’m sure the insights we gained from these successful ranchers will have its mark in guiding our way,” said Honeycutt.  “We sincerely appreciate the ranchers for sharing their experiences, as well as the leadership of John Tanaka with the University of Wyoming College of Agriculture and Natural Resources and Kristie Maczko with the Sustainable Rangelands Roundtable for organizing this wonderful opportunity.”    

“There is nothing like coming out to the field and talking with people who make their living from the land,” said National Soil Health Team Leader Dave Lamm.

For more information about soil health, visit nrcs.usda.gov/wps/portal/nrcs/main/soils/health.