Healthy soil lifts animal weight

Managing soil by well-designed grazing is key to an animal’s growth and wellbeing shows new research linking soil health, pasture value and sustainable production.

Individual pastures on livestock farms yield surprisingly dissimilar benefits to a farm’s overall agricultural income, and those differences are most likely attributable to the varying levels of “soil health” provided by its grazing livestock, reveals a study published in the journal Animal.

The study, produced by an interdisciplinary team of 13 scientists and two PhD students from Rothamsted Research, Bristol Veterinary School and University of Exeter, evaluated how efficiently nutrients are used on a livestock farm, on a field-by-field basis for the first time, and links soil health to animal growth.

The team has developed a method to derive the contribution of individual fields to an animal’s growth and, in the process, has opened up the possibility of using field-scale metrics as indicators of animal performance and agricultural productivity.

Dr Taro Takahashi, an agricultural economist at Rothamsted’s North Wyke Farm Platform (NWFP) in Devon, and senior lecturer in Sustainable Livestock Systems and Food Security in Bristol Veterinary School at the University of Bristol, who led the study, said: “The prospect that commercial livestock producers could improve their productivity by purely changing rotational patterns is exciting. Unlike many alternative technologies, this will not require any capital investment.”

The majority of livestock farms in the UK operate rotational grazing, which involves moving animals from one field to another. While this practice supplies more fresh forage to animals throughout the season, it makes farming systems more difficult to monitor and optimise.

The NWFP team found that animal performance on individual fields was positively associated with the level of soil organic carbon, a common measure of “soil health” for sustainable farming. The team also discovered that fields grazed more intensively had healthier soils and were less prone to water and nutrient losses.

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