By Thomas Driscoll, NFU Director of Conservation Policy and Education

Since October, when the Climate Column started featuring ways farmers can address climate change, we have primarily discussed practices to build climate resilience in crop production. There are, of course, many things livestock producers can do about climate change as well. Livestock producers often have the opportunity to enhance soil quality through management practices. Healthy soil not only reduces the impacts of climate change by storing atmospheric carbon in agricultural land, but it also makes that land more resilient to weather events such as drought and extreme precipitation, which are expected to increase in frequency and intensity as a result of climate change. Forage and biomass planting is one practice livestock producers can implement to improve soil quality.

The United States Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA NRCS) defines forage and biomass planting as “establishing adapted and/or compatible species, varieties, or cultivars of herbaceous species suitable for pasture, hay, or biomass production.” The roots of the forage and biomass plants promote soil health by building soil organic matter, increasing soil nitrogen, retaining soil nutrients, and improving water infiltration. The observed benefits are directly proportional to the depth of the roots and the amount of time they remain alive and in-ground. The cover provided by these species also prevents soil erosion, one of the greatest threats to soil health.

When planting forage and biomass, it is critical to consider the species or mix selected. This will depend on climatic conditions and whether the planting is intended to produce biomass or forage. For the latter, the decision must also take into account the nutritional needs of the livestock bound for the pasture in question, as well as the avoidance of selective grazing.

In addition to improved soil health and climate resilience, advantages may include reductions in airborne particulate matter and waterborne nutrient runoff. This practice may also be a perquisite to prescribed grazing, another practice that contributes to climate resilience.

Have you planted forage or biomass to establish pasture? Have you considered producing livestock with the practice? Why or why not? Please share your thoughts and impressions on this practice in the comments section!

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