Beef cattle that graze on grass can help put nutrients back into the soil. (Photo courtesy of USDA National Resources Conservation Service)
Farmers have been taking care of the land for centuries. Whether farmland provides the seed bed for grains or vegetables, or pastureland for cattle, land is critical to the business of farming.
And while farmers cultivate the land, they look for ways to improve their businesses and simultaneously protect the land that provides them with their livelihoods.
You may have heard the terms “no-till” and “rotational grazing” thrown around, but they might not mean much.
A centuries-old traditional farming method involves turning over the soil and burying the previous season’s crop residue to control weeds and prepare the soil for planting.
But over the past 40 years, more and more farmers have begun practicing no-till methods in which they don’t till up the land between plantings. Instead, they leave the stalks and plant roots in place in the fields. No-till farming reduces erosion, which means that less soil washes away, while less fertilizer or pesticide potentially ends up in nearby waterways.
Additionally, no-till farming improves soil quality by rebuilding organic matter. That improves the soil and allows it to hold more rainwater, which is better for crops.
Other farmers are using their animals to help manage their land, and in the process are making a positive impact on the environment.
By rotating the pastures on which cattle graze, farmers can reduce feed costs, protect the environment and save time and money. “Cows are more efficient harvesters than equipment,” said J.B. Daniel, a Virginia grassland agronomist with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.
And farmers limit their grazing area before moving them to other pastures, which gives each area time to recover. Resting grazed lands allows the soil to be replenished and the vegetation to rebuild.
“It’s economical and it’s sustainable,” said Robert Shoemaker, who rotationally grazes 300 head of cattle on his farm in Fauquier County. The practice puts nitrogen back into the soil without chemical fertilizer.
And when a cow grazes on pastureland, she returns 70 percent of what she consumes back to the soil. You could say she self-fertilizes the soil.
You can’t get more environmental than that.
To hear stories of real Virginia farmers who are practicing no-till farming and rotational grazing, visit the natural resource service’s GainingGroundVirginia.org.