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With much overlap in the realm of ranching and farming, Montana State University Extension Educator Elin Westover notes that, while many ranchers are farmers and vice versa, producers do not see themselves as experts in both aspects of their operation.

“Similarities in the biological systems of each field mean similar approaches can be used to maximize production in soils and livestock,” Westover says. “Soil functions as a plant’s stomach, similar to the role of the rumen in cattle and sheep.”

Westover further explains that microorganisms, including bacteria, fungi and protozoa, populate both systems, and the health of the system depends on the health of the microorganisms.

“Health and productivity of rangeland and crops, as well as cattle and sheep, can be attained by feeding and managing microorganisms and their environment,” she says.

Who eats first?

In obtaining healthy systems, Westover says, “Rumen microorganisms must eat first, which, in turn, will feed the animal.”

When feed enters the rumen, she explains that microorganisms break it down into useable nutrients, which are then used as energy for the animal.

“For example, rumen microorganisms break down carbohydrates for their use, and volatile fatty acids are an end product,” she says. “In turn, volatile fatty acids are used as an energy source for the host animal.”

As in the rumen, microorganisms in the soil break down material before plants can access the energy available.

“Organic forms of nutrients, such as nitrogen, phosphorus and sulfur are present in the soil, either as crop residues or manure, and must undergo a mineralization process before the nutrients become plant-available,” Westover notes.

Messing with bugs

In the rumen, contents are partitioned based on their density, and specific microorganisms are associated with each layer.

“If rumen contents were vigorously stirred into one homogenous mixture, the animal would not perform normally,” says Westover. “The microorganisms’ environment would be completely disturbed, and it would take time for their environment to be re-established.”

Similarly, soils operate in the same way.

“Management tools, such as tillage, fertilizer and pesticide application and livestock, can be used to improve soil productivity and can be detrimental to soil health if not practiced correctly,” she emphasized.

Improper use of management tools can disrupt soil microbes and force them to readjust to establish a new equilibrium.

“For example, in the short term, tillage helps microorganisms break down organic matter, but in the long term, this loss of organic matter will hurt soil health and crop yield,” Westover says.


In the same idea, Westover notes that because microorganisms require time to adjust to new environments, diet changes should occur slowly – over a period of roughly seven days.

“Livestock producers are encouraged to change rations gradually, by introducing a new roughage or concentrate sources to livestock incrementally,” she comments. 

Slow, incremental introduction of new feeds allow bacteria, fungi and protozoa to adapt to the new foods.

Westover continues, “Likewise, change in soil quality and health will not improve overnight. Time is required for microorganism populations to build to a beneficial level.”

Nutrient ratios

When looking at ruminant and soil health, a proper balance of nutrients is essential, particularly carbon and nitrogen.

“The ‘bugs’ use the nitrogen and carbon from protein to grow, and their waste provides a portion of the essential amino acids the animal needs,” explains Westover. “If there is a shortage of carbon, nitrogen cannot be utilized and is excreted by the animal.”

At the same time, nitrogen deficiencies result in reduced microorganism activity. 

“The carbon to nitrogen ratio is critical in balancing the breakdown of organic matter in a slow-release fashion,” she says. “If the ratio is too high, organic matter is degraded too slowly, and the nutrients do not cycle quickly enough between the soil, plant and microbes.”
An excess of organic matter can also result in lack of nitrogen availability to plants. 

A low ratio of carbon to nitrogen means that nutrients cycle too quickly and plants do not have access to essential nutrients. Soil oxygen may also be depleted. 

“Additionally, when degradation of organic matter is occurring too quickly, soil becomes vulnerable to wind and water erosion, and there is increased evaporation,” she says. 

When looking at managing both cattle and soil, Westover comments that producers can utilize a similar scientific foundation. 

“Managing the soil as microbial habitat is critical to the functioning capacity of the soil, just as managing the rumen as microbial habitat is critical to the health of a cow or sheep.”

This is part one of a two-part article. In the second part, Westover looks at creating the ideal environment, establishing diversity and looking at the biology of organisms to manage soils.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..


Private exporters reported to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that export sales totaled 110,000 metric tons of hard red winter wheat for delivery to Egypt during the 2012-13 marking year, which began June 1.


Setting priorities for 2018 has been top of mind for many agriculture advocacy groups in the final days of 2017.

Concerns at both the federal and state level will continue to be prominent.

Wyoming Farm Bureau’s (WyFB) Ken Hamilton says, “Our priority will continue to be to protect private property rights.”

While the upcoming budget session has consumed much time for ag groups, their focus for the year will lie in interacting with the federal government.

Wyoming Association of Conservation Districts will remain engaged on the federal level for the new year, notes the organization’s Executive Director Bobbie Frank.

“We will remain involved in waters of the U.S. issues, and we hope, with congressional efforts, to see movement and modernization of the Endangered Species Act (ESA),” she says.

Hamilton agrees, adding that removal of gray wolves and grizzly bears from the endangered species list has been accomplished, but WyFB is looking forward to seeing improvements to the ESA to improve that process.

“Unfortunately, the real solution lies with Congress and the close margins between parties,” he says. “This may be a long time coming.”

Further, Frank looks forward to engaging in federal land planning and implementation for local conservation districts.

For Scott Zimmerman and Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, passage of a new farm bill is a top priority in 2018.

“Our current farm bill is just not meeting producers’ needs when it comes to a safety net in times of low commodity prices,” he explains. “Although we are concerned about whether the passage of a farm bill can be accomplished in an election year, we still plan to make it our main focus.”

As another hot topic, Hamilton explains that the Wyoming Public Lands Initiative has spurred discussion about how to reform how wilderness designations occur.

“When Wyoming has the largest percentage of Forest Service lands in wilderness of any state in the nation, designation of more wilderness is troubling, as is the fact that, once identified, this land is managed for wilderness characteristics until Congressional action is taken,” he says. “The unfairness of this situation is apparent.”

“Depending on the outcome litigation, the trespass to collect data litigation legislation will continue to be a priority to ensure integrity and respect of private property in data collection,” Frank adds.

As they look forward, all of Wyoming’s agriculture industry organizations agreed that 2018 will be another busy year, especially as it relates to interactions with the federal government and the upcoming state election cycle.

Saige Albert is managing editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Tree windbreaks can provide valuable protection for livestock, crops and the family homestead. However, many trees within the windbreak may be damaged after the drought in 2012. 

Nebraska Southwest District Forester Rachel Allison urges producers to assess their tree windbreaks and consult with a district forester to repair the damage. 

Some things to evaluate include the age of trees in the windbreak, whether the trees are a single species or multiple species mixed with hardwoods and conifers, what the windbreak used for and does it protect livestock, a farmstead or fields. Producers should also count how many trees were lost.


“General decline symptoms of the trees may not be that noticeable,” Allison said. 

If the windbreak is becoming low density, it may indicate decline. Other symptoms are tufts of growth at the tips of the trees and grass moving into the understory. It may also no longer provide good wind protection. 

“Some of this decline may have occurred over several years and just wasn’t noticed,” Allison said. “But, suddenly there is a lot going on. It is a good idea to walk the entire length of the windbreak and note its condition.”

Several changes can be made to the windbreak design to improve it. 

“The design element is important. Plan for moisture, understand the growth of the trees that are being planted and select different varieties for plant diversity,” she said. 

It is also important to stay true to evergreen or hardwood rows, work with volunteer trees if they can be used and continue to plan for maintenance of the windbreak.


Allison said some producers may chose to completely remove the windbreak, which leaves no protection. Instead, she recommends leaving standing dead trees and replanting the windbreak with seedlings. 

“Even a standing dead tree can provide protection to get the new seedlings started,” she explained. 

Other options are multiple or single row removal, planting new rows within the windbreak to maintain wind protection from older trees, supplemental rows added to the north or west, which is the windward side during the winter, and hand planting individual trees where needed. 

“If a producer considers supplemental row planting, I would urge them to consider the space needs for the remaining rows when they are planting new trees,” Allison said. “Look at how the new trees will affect the mature trees and make sure they won’t be crowded and all the trees will receive enough moisture.”

Other considerations

If the windbreak is too thick, Allison said the narrow spacing could be thinned to reduce competition. She recommends selecting the superior trees to keep in the windbreak. 

“Complete rows could be removed if they are too close to each other,” she said. “These trees could be transplanted to vacant spots if needed.”

Because of the direction of the wind, Allison said north and west rows of trees should be maintained if possible. 

“It is better to remove more trees from the south or leeward side,” she said. “The best case scenario is a multi-aged forest. Plant multiple rows and mix hardwood and evergreen species.”

“Once the windbreak is established, re-evaluate if it is providing the cover and protection needed and if that protection is needed in other pastures or in a new rotation system,” Allison continued. “Lastly, remember to work with the wind and determine potential winter and summer moisture patterns when setting out new rows. Try to provide some type of watering system, if it is needed.”

Gayle Smith is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..