Agricultural expansion and overgrazing are globally recognized as key contributors to accelerated soil degradation and surface erosion, with direct consequences for land productivity, and environmental health. Measured impacts of livestock grazing on soil physical properties and ground cover are absent in soil loss models despite significant impacts to surface erosion.
We developed a novel model that captures changes to ground cover and soil properties as a function of grazing intensity, as well as soil clay and water contents.
The model outputs were integrated within Revised Universal Soil Loss Equation (RUSLE) to calculate treaded soil erodibility and grazed cover factors at seasonal timescales (3-month windows) to account for variability in soil moisture content, grazing practices, vegetation growth and senescence, and rainfall.
Grazed pastures and winter-forage paddocks exhibit distinct changes in soil erodibility and soil losses, which are most pronounced for wet soils when plant cover is reduced/minimal. On average, typical pasture grazing pressures increase soil erodibility by 6% compared to 60% for intensive winter forage paddocks.
Further, negligible ground cover following forage crop grazing increases surface erosion by a factor of 10 relative to grazed pastures, which exhibit soil losses comparable to natural uncropped catchments.
Exacerbated soil losses from winter forage-crop paddocks arose from significant degradation of soil physical properties and exposing soils directly to rainfall and runoff. We conclude that proactive decisions to reduce treading damage and avoid high-density grazing will far exceed reactive practices seeking to trap sediments lost from grazed lands.