Cattle at Water Trough
  1. Regenerative Agriculture

3 Ways Ranchers Can Optimize the Water Cycle

Drill down into how to help your soils use and hold onto precious precipitation.

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According to Noble Research Institute’s Wyatt DeSpain, soil health directly affects how your ranch captures and uses precipitation. Healthy soil also plays an environmental role by reducing soil erosion and nutrient-laden runoff.

In particular, he says, soil aggregates, or stable units of soil particles that provide structure, directly affect the amount of water soil can absorb in a set period without any runoff, known as the soil’s infiltration rate.

If a rancher is trying to improve their water cycle, DeSpain says the best thing they can do is try to improve the infiltration rates in their soils.

Soils’ ability to absorb and maintain water significantly impacts ranchers’ bottom lines.

Recall your days making mud pies to better understand how soil structure affects water infiltration. Soil that is too loose with no structure, such as sandy soil, lets water pass through without retaining much moisture. Soil that is too dense or compacted doesn’t let the water penetrate, so most water runs off.

But, healthy soil rich in aggregates allows water to enter the soil and then holds onto the moisture. DeSpain says this type of soil is the perfect combination of clumping together and crumbling apart, and can maintain plant life even in droughts due to its higher water content.

Soils’ ability to absorb and maintain water significantly impacts ranchers’ bottom lines. According to DeSpain, this will become even more critical as the climate models predict the weather will continue to shift toward patterns of drought and extreme precipitation events.

He offers these three tips to improve soil infiltration rates and make the most of water on your ranch.

Wyatt DeSpain working at ranches
Wyatt DeSpain digs soil at one of Noble's ranches as part of long-term project to monitor water infiltration and earthworm counts.

1. Use Less Fertilizer

While fertilizer may make plants grow, it also can cause imbalances in various ecosystems.

Manufactured fertilizer topples the delicate balance of microbes and fungi that helps form soil aggregates, DeSpain says. Soil health is all about balance, and when it comes to aggregate formation — using less man-made fertilizer is a worthy goal.

Not to mention, all water eventually makes its way into streams and oceans. Runoff from fertilized land has very real effects downstream. Fertilizer and chemical runoff disrupt ecosystems in streams, rivers and oceans, such as causing an overgrowth of blue-green algae (actually cyanobacteria) in water environments, which is harmful to many aquatic creatures.

And, as DeSpain reminds us, fertilizer that is washed away as runoff also sends precious dollars downstream, another negative factor amid rising input costs.

Tractor spraying nitrogen fertilizer
Fertilizer must provide a production benefit that exceeds any temporary negative impact on soil biology. If a fertilizer application will cause a long-term negative impact on the soil’s biology, it should NOT have a role in regenerative agriculture.

See also: Does Fertilizer Have a Role in Regenerative Agriculture? »

2. Practice High Stock Density Grazing

While synthetic fertilizer can work against the goal of healthier soils, natural fertilizers, such as cow manure, can work for you. Strategic use of high stocking rates of grazing animals is another way to optimize the water cycle on your ranch, DeSpain says.

High stock density grazing, also called high intensity grazing – larger numbers of livestock grazing a set area over a shorter period – can improve soil health by naturally disrupting the soil in a way that discourages runoff while promoting healthy aggregate formation.

“Getting the hoof action in there breaking up the soils gives us a chance to restart,” DeSpain says. “With the accompaniment of the natural fertilizers that the cows are putting on the land, having this high stocking density essentially breaks open the soils and jumpstarts the systems with the nutrients. Then, those aggregates get reformed.”

While grazing animals disturb soil in a healthy way, soil disturbance with manual tilling has the opposite effect — making land more vulnerable to both erosion and compaction by changing the soil structure.

Cattle leaving behind trampled pasture after mob grazing
The natural breakup of soil that occurs when cattle are in a pasture is one of the many benefits of high stock density grazing.

3. Keep Ground Covered

It may seem counterintuitive, but keeping your ground covered with growing plants is also a great way to retain valuable water on your ranch. Vegetation helps minimize water evaporation from your soil by providing shade.

“You’ll be looking at less direct sunlight hitting your soils, which means less evaporation from the soils from the top layers,” DeSpain says. “Those are going to be the same layers that your plants are drawing your water from, so keeping more water in the soil is a good thing.”

Plant roots also discourage soil erosion and help ensure that any ranch runoff is clean. Additionally, growing deep-rooted cover crops can help ranchers break up hardpan layers of soil that negatively affect infiltration rates.

Good ground cover
Good ground cover prevents soil erosion and ensures less water evaporation from the top layers of soil.

Ranchers should be mindful of the water cycle on their ranch because water is the most precious resource on the land. It sustains the pastures, which serve as food for grazing livestock, ultimately impacting producers’ profitability. But, beyond the ranch gate, the health of the water cycle has long-lasting impacts on the world around us.

“The hydrological cycle doesn’t just stop on their ranch,” DeSpain says. “It extends so much further. The hydrological cycle essentially starts and ends at the ocean. Anything you’re putting on your ranch will make its way back to the ocean. The healthier that we can all be on our properties is not just good for us, but good for the world as a whole.”

Katie Miller is a freelance writer residing in Lebanon, Indiana. She holds a bachelor’s degree in agricultural journalism and a minor in animal science from the University of Missouri. When she’s not writing, Katie enjoys spending time with her husband and two cattle dogs, driving ponies or visiting her family’s cow-calf operation in central Missouri.