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UW research project works to understand rangeland soil health

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Laramie – On Dec. 7, the University of Wyoming (UW) announced their participation in a $19 million research project to understand how a farmer’s or rancher’s grazing management decisions affect soil health on pastures and rangeland.  

UW Rangeland Extension Specialist Derek Scasta has extensive knowledge in rangeland health and is ecstatic Wyoming will be a part of this study.  

Project partners  

Several universities will be involved in the upcoming project, including the Noble Research Institute, UW, Michigan State University and Colorado State University.  

“The project began with some conversation with the Noble Research Institute, which is based in Ardmore, Okla. and is one of the largest private agriculture research entities,” said Scasta. “The research institute was started to support farmers and ranchers in terms of sustainability.”  

Through the years, there has been a lot of emphasis on range and pasture lands – the U.S. has nearly 650 million acres in total. Until recently, conversation has been focused on doing more for ranchers in terms of soil health, Scasta explained.  

For many years, farmers have considered soil health practices, and for the state of Wyoming, many of these practices don’t apply to rangelands. For example, in Wyoming it is uneconomical and impracticable to plow or fertilize large areas of rangeland compared to the Midwest, and for Wyoming, current soil health recommendations are not suitable for ranchers, mentioned Scasta. This is the reason most rangelands have stayed rangelands rather than be converted to crops. 

The goal of the research program is to better understand how rangeland soil health practices can be better utilized on ranches.  

UW research program 

The project will bring UW’s McGuire Ranch online as a top-tier research resource by adding needed fencing and water resources in order to conduct applied research, he shared. UW is excited to update the ranch in terms of a research location.  

“It will allow for the dissemination of resources around the state with producers to create a pipeline of soil, forage and livestock-focused information,” said Scasta in a UW press release. “In addition to the Wyoming specific-work, this funding will also position UW among a group of research collaborators around the world to enhance our understanding of sustainable ranch practices.”  

UW will also be working with interested ranchers and producers throughout the state and region in an effort to provide better sourced information. 

“The time is right for a big effort like this,” said Scasta. “There can be a variety of scrutiny and challenges that affect agriculture, but the reality is, ranching keeps these spaces open, stores carbon and is environmentally friendly.”  

UW is working to better understand rangeland soil health and tell the story of agriculture in the West. The project will provide tools which will assist in accurately measuring outcomes of soil health in terms of grazingland environments and guided management decisions.  

Research timeline  

The project is expected to be a five-year project, and this is a big deal, he shared.  

“Usually when funding is obtained for research projects or consultation, it’s never granted in five-year sums,” Scasta said. “It comes in one-, two- or three-year research timelines, so UW is working on getting all of the paperwork signed now, but it is official, and expected to start in 2022.”  

Factors affecting soil health 

There are several limitations which affect rangeland soil health in Wyoming and the western U.S., mentioned Scasta.  

“Rangeland soils tend to have restraints that keep them as rangelands,” he continued. “Soils are shallower with not as much soil depth.”  

Other limitations include precipitation, fertility and the chemical profile, including salt content and the pH level, which is an indication of how acidic or basic the soil is.  

“Salinity can be another major issue that hinders crop production,” said Scasta. “Here in Wyoming, some rangeland communities have plants that can tolerate saltier soils.”  

Overall, Wyoming has a lot of shallow and rocky soils, which are really only suitable for livestock, explained Scasta.  

Soil health considerations 

There are several considerations for rangeland soil health. A major component of soil health is the importance of retaining perennial plants – plants that live more than two years. Another important consideration is keeping some plant cover on the soil surface, he shared. 

“One of the things the research team is thinking a lot about is organic matter,” said Scasta. “Organic matter helps water infiltrate soil better, allowing soil to hold more water.”  

There is evidence to believe as organic matter goes up, that grass production could also increase, allowing ranchers to accommodate more livestock. Through this research, UW plans to develop further resources for Wyoming ranchers.  

“The time is right for ranchers to think about soil health,” Scasta concluded. “In many cases, ranchers are already doing a great job and are good stewards of the lands, it may be just quantifying what they are already doing.”  

For more information, e-mail Derek Scasta at 

Brittany Gunn is the editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to  

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