Pasture degradation hinders livestock production and ecosystem services that support rural smallholder communities throughout Latin America. Silvopastoral systems, with improved pasture cultivars (especially Brachiaria spp.) and multipurpose trees, offer a promising strategy to restore soils and improve livelihoods in the region. However, studies evaluating the impact of such systems on pasture productivity and soil health under realistic smallholder constraints are lacking. We evaluated the impact of improved pasture grass and tree establishment on a suite of soil health indicators in actively grazed, low-input, farmer-managed silvopastoral systems. In August 2013, paired pasture treatments (improved grass with trees vs. traditional pastures) were established on nine farms with similar land-use histories near Matagalpa, Nicaragua. On each farm, one treatment was left as traditional pasture with naturalized grass (Hyparrhenia rufa), while the adjacent treatment was sown with the improved grass (Brachiaria brizantha cv. Marandu) and planted with tree saplings without fertilizer. In August 2015, we measured standing biomass and a suite of chemical, biological, and physical soil health variables. Improved silvopastoral systems with B. brizantha produced more standing grass biomass and supported higher levels of earthworm populations and permanganate oxidizable carbon (POXC) compared to the traditional control. Correlations suggest that earthworms and POXC were associated with incipient improvements to soil aggregate stability and water holding capacity. We report measurable improvements to soil health just two years following the establishment of improved pasture systems under common smallholder management practices and suggest that these systems, even with minimal fertility inputs, have the potential to enhance regional sustainability.
- Brachiaria brizantha
- Pasture degradation
- Permanganate oxidizable carbon
- Silvopastoral systems
- Soil health