Cowherd grazing

Good grazier? Most ranchers aren't there yet

In spite of much research and knowledge about good grazing practices, we’re still losing topsoil at an alarming rate. How do we stem the loss?

Most farmers and ranchers would not harm their land on purpose. Most will state that their intent is to leave the land better than they found it. Yet we are still losing soil at a rapid rate. Tons of soil flow down our rivers. There are still “dirt banks” as in Dust Bowl days following big wind storms just like the snow drifts following a winter blizzard. I don’t mean to demean or belittle anyone’s good efforts. But, except for a few, we are not yet good stewards. We are still degrading the resources under our feet.

A good friend, Gabe Brown, gets upset when people talk of sustainability and he asks a very important question, “Why would we want to sustain a degraded resource?” He strongly encourages us to become engaged in “regenerative” agriculture.

It’s not that any of us are intentionally harming our ranches. Most of us simply don’t know what good grazing is or what it looks like. It is not just reducing stocking rate. And improper implementation of rotational grazing can result in severe overgrazing and/or over-resting— both are often found in the same pasture.

To truly become good graziers and to start to regenerate soils, plant communities, biodiversity of all kinds, and animal health, to name a few. We must understand ecosystem processes and learn to recognize their healthy and unhealthy function. We need to recognize that the things we do with machines, chemicals, fire and our livestock cause a reaction in the soil and plants that will either be positive or negative. The reaction to all but our livestock will usually be negative in more ways than it is positive. And our past management of livestock, much of which continues to this day, has also had a negative effect on the soil.

Only a few of the many ranchers in the U.S. have begun to use some form of rotational grazing in place of season-long continuous grazing. And some who have started to rotate move from low country to high country and back in the same pattern each year. Others rotate from the calving pasture to the breeding pasture to the preconditioning pasture to the weaning pasture to the early winter pasture to the feeding pasture. They follow the same rotation on the same schedule every year.

Again, I don’t mean to offend, but that is not good grazing. In spite of the number of good graziers being a small percentage of all ranchers, the actual number of good graziers is growing rapidly. Successes are common and information and learning is shared freely within this group.

So, where do we start? Most of us need some instruction to help us understand ecosystem processes—water cycle, mineral cycle, sunlight energy flow and succession—and to recognize good and poor function of these processes. We then must learn how time and timing of grazing events along with animal impact through varying stock densities can have positive or negative effects on the land, the soil and all the creatures that depend on them. “Time” is how long do we graze and how long do we rest a paddock. “Timing” is the time(s) of year or time(s) of the season when the paddock is grazed.

Last month, I presented a number of names by which good grazing can be known. I then pointed out that I had gravitated to the term multi-paddock, adaptive grazing. I have used the word adaptive for some time, but another friend, Allen Williams, linked it to multi-paddock.

Good graziers use multiple paddocks for a number of reasons:

  • There are two ways to overgraze. You can stay too long in a paddock and regraze fresh regrowth long before it is ready. Or you can move through all the paddocks too fast and return before plants have sufficiently recovered from a previous grazing; I often see this in areas with less than 20 inches of annual rainfall or where the stocking rate is higher than the ranch will support. With multiple paddocks, it is much easier to control length of the graze period and length of the recovery period.
  • More paddocks for each herd make it much easier to control stock densities and use animal impact for many desired results. A few of the desired results are trampling seed into the ground, trampling undesirable plants into the ground to feed soil microbial populations, increase uniformity and efficiency of grazing and to encourage a greater variety of plants and thus total biodiversity. 
  • With an appropriate number of paddocks it is much easier to avoid using the same pasture in the same way each year or in each successive graze period.

We call it “adaptive” because good graziers are continually adapting to many different circumstances—typical weather, this year’s weather, seasonal differences in plant growth rates, drought, snow, previous year’s improvements, successional changes which are the changes that occur in the plant, insect, large and small animal community as a result of changes in your grazing practices, etc. We make changes; then the land, soil and plant community changes; and then we make more changes. The situation before us is always changing. Therefore, we continuously make changes to adapt to the new circumstances.

Grazing must be tailored to fit where you are; and yet it is not a prescription. Nature causes and seems to thrive on chaos. You want your grazing practices to not be predictable to the plants or insects. Variation in your practices will cause greater variety and health in the plant community which will be followed by increases in all types of biodiversity—soil microbes, insects, birds, small animals, wildlife and whatever man adds to the list.

I am afraid I have made this sound complicated. Even though we are managing complexity and diversity, the basic principles are easy to learn and understand. Acquiring good observation skills will enable you to become very good at applying the principles.

You want to have short graze periods followed by lengthy recover periods; but you don’t want that to be a recipe either. I have seen, on the same ranch, graze periods of one day followed by recovery periods of 28-45 days in the irrigation and growing seasons, and graze periods of 10-30 days followed by recovery periods of more than one year—even up to two years—on expansive, unirrigated areas with low rainfall.

Our minds struggle with this, but don’t get into a pattern. The recovery times won’t always be the same even for the same season and circumstance. You may have a different class of cattle and a different set of objectives for the cattle or for the land.

This is a distinct mix of art and science. To effectively employ the art, you will need to develop very good observational skills. My friends, Steve and Judy Freeman from Missouri, usually spend some time each week observing what’s happening to the farm. They look at the paddocks ahead of the cattle and the paddocks behind the cattle. They then make decisions on speed of movement, stock density, recovery times, etc. Most of this had been planned well in advanced, but now they are making in-course corrections to ensure that objectives are met.


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