The Use of Tree Mulch to Increase Native Grassland Pasture Fertility

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2010: $5,817.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: North Central
State: Nebraska
Project Coordinator:
David Hansen
Oak View Beef

Annual Reports


  • Agronomic: general hay and forage crops, grass (misc. perennial), hay
  • Animals: bovine


  • Animal Production: grazing management, inoculants, mineral supplements, pasture fertility, range improvement, grazing - rotational, feed/forage
  • Crop Production: nutrient cycling
  • Education and Training: extension, farmer to farmer, on-farm/ranch research
  • Natural Resources/Environment: carbon sequestration
  • Production Systems: agroecosystems, permaculture
  • Soil Management: organic matter, soil analysis, nutrient mineralization, soil microbiology, soil quality/health

    Proposal summary:

    With the addition of tree claims containing Eastern Redcedar trees (subsequently referred to as cedar trees) and the suppression of prairie fires, the last few decades have seen an explosion of cedar tree growth across much of the central plain region. Pastures that were once a sea of grass are now dotted or completely covered with dense stands of cedar trees. A single, conical-shaped cedar tree in an open pasture can easily attain a diameter of 20 feet across at the base of the tree with the lower limbs making contact with the ground. The soil under a cedar tree is effectively removed from grass production. Under a cedar tree there is no vegetation suitable for grazing, nor is there adequate shade for cattle during the summer months. One hundred thirty-nine cedar trees with a 20 feet diameter removes an acre of pasture from grass production. Less grass means less carrying capacity for the land which directly impacts the ranch's profitability.

    As time and resources permit, we are removing the female trees to slow down the encroachment of cedar trees, thinning thick stands of cedar trees so sunlight can reach the soil and removing the lower limbs on many of the remaining cedar trees so shade is provided for use by the cattle during the summer months. Fat cattle with adequate shade remain cooler and have better daily gains.

    Previously, ridding the pasture of cut cedar trees has been accomplished by burning the tree piles during the winter months. With this grant we would like to investigate the feasibility of chipping the cedar trees and applying the resulting residue as mulch to sandy pasture soil. We believe using the cedar tree mulch will have the following benefits to the environment:

    1) Slowly release carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. Burning cedar trees contributes directly to the atmospheric carbon dioxide level. Directing carbon to the soil will increase the carbon cycle time and enhance the soil's fertility.

    2) Reduce soil temperature and retain soil moisture. Sparsely vegetated soil heats up much more than soil fully covered with vegetation; this causes much of the upper soil moisture to evaporate. Cedar mulch will help moderate the soil temperature and reduce evaporation. This will extend favorable conditions for the soil organisms to reclaim organic matter from the cedar mulch.

    3) Increase soil humus content. With a greater retention of soil moisture the soil fungi and bacteria will be able to decompose the cedar mulch. This increase in biological activity should increase the soil humus content. An increase in soil humus content retains more soil moisture, providing more moisture for plant growth during the absence of rain.

    4) Reduce soil erosion. A slow, soaking rain is easily adsorbed by the sandy soils commonly found in the Nebraska sandhills. As the rate of rain increases, run-off is much more likely to occur. Mulching the soil so all of the ground is covered with organic matter should greatly reduce run-off activity.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.