Can Grazing Systems Affect Plant Available N and P?


A large percentage of the carbon (C), nitrogen (N), and phosphorus (P) cattle consume is released or deposited as cattle dung and urine.  If we can develop grazing systems that retain these nutrients within the grazing system that is a first step in turning cattle manure into a resource rather than a waste.  The second step is distributing the nutrients to the whole of the pasture.  The third step is making the complex molecules of N and P plant available. The final step is keeping cattle manure in the grazing system to rebuild soil health.  We explored the impact of two grazing systems we named 1) conventional with hay distribution (CHD) and 2) strategic grazing (STR) on  soil C, N, P, bulk density (soil compaction, BD), and cattle density (CD) with the hypothesis that grazing systems can improve soil health and thereby retain and recycle C, N and P. Said more plainly rather than sacrificing areas of the pasture we hoped to regenerate areas that were less productive (cattle camping areas) and make them more productive.

What Did We Do?

We compared a conventional grazing system, baseline (year 2015) factors: C, N, P, BD, and CD to the same factors after two years of CHD and STR. We took soil samples every 50 m at three soil depths (0-5, 5-10 and 10-20 cm) in 2015 (Baseline) and in 2018 (post treatment).  Project design follows:

    • Year 1 – Continuous Grazing in eight ~40 ac (16 ha) pastures
      • Waterers, shade, hay and mineral provided in same location
    • Year 2 and 3 – Improved Grazing systems applied:
      • CHD – 4 of eight in continuous with hay distribution and
      • STR – 4 of eight in strategic grazing
        Mixture of better grazing practices

        1. Manure distribution through Lure management of cattle
          Portable shades, Portable waterers, Portable hay rings
        2. Exclusion of compacted areas vulnerable to nutrient loss
        3. Over seeding of exclusions with forage mix
        4. Flash/Mob grazing of excluded areas for short time
        5. Moderate rotational grazing in the sub-paddocks

What Have We Learned?

We found that both the CHD and the STR significantly increased the amount of N and P in the top 5 cm of soil Figure 1. The increase in plant available N in 2018 (sum of ammonium and nitrate) in the top five cm of soil was 5.6 times more in CHD and 5.8 times more in STR when compared to Baseline (2015) (Dahal et al., 2020).  The 2018 increase in plant available P was 6.1 times more in CHD and 4.9 times more in STR compared to 2015.  We attribute the greater increase in P in CHD to the greater number of hay bales needed during an extensive drought in 2016 (Subedi et al., 2021).

Figure 1. Plant available P (Mehlich-1, left), plant available N (inorganic N, middle), and carbon (loss-on-ignition, right) during Baseline in black and two years after treatments in red.

The impact of cattle management on bulk density varied greatly depending on where you were in the pasture which depended on improved management system.  While there was a slight increase in bulk density in 0-5 cm soil layer from 2015 to 2018 for both CHD and STR the increases were not significant and would not cause any restrictions on forage growth (Figure 2).  In the 5-10 cm soil layer, BDs in both the CHD and STR were significantly reduced.  The STR did reduce BD slightly more than in the CHD pastures. Percent change in 2018 BD for STR was -10.5 and for CHD was -8.6.

Figure 2 Bulk density (BD) for the 0-5 cm soil layer (left) and the 5-10 cm soil layer (right).

The reduced compaction in the improved pasture management systems is important for several reasons but here we will discuss only the importance on root growth and nitrogen availability.  Bulk density or compaction can restrict forage root growth.  During Baseline pastures had median BD values of greater than 1.6 g cm-3 (Hendricks et al., 2019) which can restrict forage growth.  After two years of the improved grazing systems BD was reduced to below 1.45 g cm-3 a value which is usually not restrictive to plant growth. We believe that the decrease in compaction allowed rainfall to move manures into the soil and allow for greater microbial activity.  Above we noted the increase in nitrogen and phosphorus but we did not as yet mention the decrease in the Loss-on-ignition (LOI) carbon.  The LOI carbon is composed of larger molecules and requires a great amount of microbial activity to break down and release the plant available nutrients within the molecule. We speculate with the reduced bulk density and associated greater ability of rainfall to move nutrients into the soil, the N and P associated with the cattle manure was able to be decomposed into plant available forms of nitrogen and phosphorus.  These assumptions are supported with two indicators of soil microbial activity: greater CO2 emissions and an increase in a labile form of carbon (permanganate oxidizable carbon, in 2018 compared to 2015 (Dahal et al., 2020).  The labile form of carbon was also found to increase with depth to 20 cm of soil which suggests that the carbon may not be lost to the atmosphere but maybe moving down in the soil profile.

Take-home messages

    • Cattle grazing can increase nitrogen and phosphorus soil content with improved grazing managements practices: hay distribution and strategic grazing practices designed to distribute cattle dung throughout the pasture and away from areas that are vulnerable to erosion.
    • Improved grazing practices can reduce soil compaction when cattle grazing is well distributed throughout the whole pasture.

Future Plans

We were greatly concerned with the decrease in carbon in both improved grazing systems. However, upon greater analysis of our data (in press) we have found additional information to indicate that carbon (LOI and the labile) is moving down the soil profile.  We are in process of studying the C, N, P movement to greater depths and the impact this could also have on the grazing system to also capture and retain rainfall.


Corresponding and first Author

Dr. Dorcas H. Franklin; Professor; Department of Crop and Soil Sciences; University of Georgia; or

Presenting Author

Anish Subedi; Department of Crop and Soil Sciences; University of Georgia;

Additional Authors

Dr. Miguel Cabrera; Professor; Department of Crop and Soil Sciences; University of Georgia;

Dr. Subash Dahal; Department of Crop and Soil Sciences; University of Georgia;

Amanda McPherson; Department of Crop and Soil Sciences; University of Georgia;

Additional Information

Dahal, S., Franklin, D., Subedi, A., Cabrera, M., Hancock, D., Mahmud, K., Ney, L., Park, C., & Mishra, D. (2020). Strategic grazing in beef-pastures for improved soil health and reduced runoff-nitrate-a step towards sustainability. Sustainability, 12(2), 558.

Subedi, A., Franklin, D., Cabrera, M., McPherson, A., & Dahal, S. (2020). Grazing Systems to Retain and redistribute soil phosphorus and to reduce phosphorus losses in runoff. Soil Systems, 4(4), 66.

Hendricks, T., Franklin, D., Dahal, S., Hancock, D., Stewart, L., Cabrera, M., & Hawkins, G. (2019). Soil carbon and bulk density distribution within 10 Southern Piedmont grazing systems. Journal of Soil and Water Conservation, 74(4), 323-333.


Funding: This research was funded by NRCS-USDA, Conservation Innovation Grant. Grant number 69-3A75-14-251.

Acknowledgments: The authors are grateful to USDA-NRCS for their assistance with the first-order soil survey, and to the Sustainable Agriculture Laboratory team, John Rema, and Charles T. Trumbo at the University of Georgia for their endless help in the laboratory and the field.