Maintenance of the soil resource is an essential element of sustainable grazing practices because the water and nutrients stored in the soil are the foundation for the production potential of the site. The type and depth of soil are a reflection of the environment in which it was formed. Large herbivores were part of most ecosystems prior to human settlement; therefore, the presence of the existing soil resource implies that grazing practices can be compatible with soil conservation. Indeed, nutrient cycling and maintenance of desirable forage composition can be enhanced by grazing practices if the use patterns are compatible with sustaining the ecological equilibrium necessary for conserving the soil resource.
Regardless of the type of grazing system that is implemented, the relationship between large herbivores and soil conservation can be anticipated by understanding the degree to which the grazing practice alters the structural characteristics of the soil (erodibility) and the amount of kinetic energy acting on the soil (erosivity). The erodibility of a soil, within a similar soil texture, varies with the organic matter content and the biological activity within the soil. The erosivity of the site is influenced by direct raindrop impact on bare soil, runoff, wind speed at the soil surface, and hoof impact. These factors that influence the erodibility and erosivity of a site can all be altered by the degree to which grazing practices affect the species composition of the vegetation community and the amount of cover that it provides.
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