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Brown cows graze in a freshly opened pasture that looks healthy with its tall grass.

Adaptive high stock-density grazing. Photo: Pasture Project

By Lee Rinehart, Sustainable Agriculture Specialist, NCAT Northeast

Back in the late 1990s, I was a new county Extension agent in Texas. I met a Brangus rancher who became a friend and demonstration cooperator, and I pitched him a topic that he became immediately interested in. We laid out 11 paddocks and began grazing 24 heifers in a daily rotational system. The lightbulb went on in my head when I looked about the paddock to assess how much they had grazed, and I noticed that all of the curly dock had been stripped bare. What I had observed was a change in grazing behavior, caused by a controlled grazing system that decreased the heifers’ grazing selectivity.

Fast forward to 2020, and the landscape of managed grazing has changed. We understand that we are dealing with a biological system driven by diversity. The powerful principles we learned from management intensive grazing have been refined into an adaptive system of livestock production that can actually regenerate the soil, the water cycle, and the land.

Adaptive grazing improves forage availability and ecosystem functioning, and strengthens grazing landscapes with diversity and resilience. ATTRA has brought together a suite of resources for farmers and ranchers, of all scales and for all species of grazing animals, who are interested in transitioning to an adaptive grazing system.

Consulting the Expert

Black cows move from the right of the photo, which is trampled and grazed pasture, to the left, which is lush and tall grass.

Cows moving to fresh pasture, Sieben Live Stock Company, Montana. Photo: Cooper Hibbard

Dr. Allen Williams, a leading expert in regenerative, adaptive grazing, recommends providing extended periods of rest between short, high stock-density grazing periods on diverse pastures.

This allows for optimum recovery of forages and increases overall forage dry matter production. It also contributes significantly to soil health through the addition of organic matter.

Williams (2019) speaks of three principles that characterize this system:

  1. The Principle of Compounding – our actions result in a series of compounding and cascading events that are either positive or negative.
  2. The Principle of Diversity – highly diverse and complex pastures create positive compounding effects.
  3. The Principle of Disruption – planned, purposeful disruptions build resilient systems with more vigor and diversity and create positive compounding effects.

As such, adaptive grazing is goal-oriented, focuses on stock density and not stocking rate, and is necessarily flexible.

A line of sheep move along a fence through tall, brown grass in front of a mountain backdrop.

Ewes making their way from night camp to the day’s grazing in a dryland meadow. Photo: Dave Scott, Montana Highland Lamb

Rotations, grazing-residue heights, rest periods, and grazing seasonality are never the same throughout the year. This grazing system uses frequent movement and adequate pasture rest for plant root-system recovery, and is highly reliant on temporary fencing (Williams, 2016).

ATTRA Can Help You With Your Grazing System

ATTRA offers detailed guidance on developing your grazing system through instructional videos, podcasts, and in-depth publications.

Videos

Video Series: Adaptive Grazing with Allen Williams

Recorded in November 2019 at the Piney Woods School in Mississippi, Allen Williams leads participants on a pasture walk and discusses the various elements good grazing and pastured livestock production with his engaging style.

  1. Soil evaluation, aggregation, and biology

    Grazing sheep disappear into the tall grass of a Montana flatland with a farmhouse and mountains in the background.

    Stockpiling grass for grazing in southwest Montana.
    Photo: Dave Scott, Montana Highland Lamb

  2. Mycorrhizal fungi
  3. Forage density, paddock size, and animal movement
  4. Forbs and medicinal compounds
  5. Animal density, nutrition, and parasite management
  6. Setting up an adaptive grazing system

Spring Pasture Management series with Margo Hale, NCAT Southeast Regional Director, Prairie Grove, Arkansas.

  1. Winter Paddock Recovery
    Margo Hale provides a short tour of one of her pastures as spring approaches, and discusses how she manages winter paddock recovery after feeding round bales.
  2. Forage Diversity in Pastures
    Hale discusses the importance of forage diversity in pastures to provide high quality forage and to build pasture soil health.

Regenerative Grazing from the Ground Up highlights Greg and Forrest Stricker’s dairy herd grazing and their use of warm season annuals to supplement their herd with high quality forage while building soil health. Filmed at a Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture Field Day at Spring Creek Farms in Wernersville, PA, September 19, 2019.

Podcasts

Allen Williams and Adaptive Stewardship Management Grazing
https://attra.ncat.org/allen-williams-and-adaptive-stewardship-management-grazing-podcast/

This podcast, recorded in November 2019, provides a “big picture” view of pastured livestock production and offers insight on the development of Allen’s techniques.

Regenerative Grazing: Outcomes and Obstacles
https://attra.ncat.org/regenerative-grazing-outcomes-and-obstacles/

In this episode, Dave Scott and Lee Rinehart, both specialists with NCAT’s ATTRA – the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service – have a conversation about regenerative grazing.

Publication

Pasture, Rangeland, and Adaptive Grazing (IP306D)
https://attra.ncat.org/product/pasture-rangeland-and-grazing-management/

This publication, published in 2020, contains an explanation of the principles and practices, and further resources, for the kind of grazing Allen advocates in the videos. It’s a good supplement to the videos for digging deeper into the intricacies of grazing and pasture management.

Nutrient Cycling in Pastures (IP136D)
https://attra.ncat.org/product/nutrient-cycling-in-pastures/

This publication looks at the pathways and drivers that move nutrients into, out of, and within pasture systems. It attempts to provide a clear, holistic understanding of how nutrients cycle through pastures and what the producer can do to enhance the processes to create productive, regenerative, and resilient farm and ranch systems. Effective management of nutrient cycling in pastures is simply understanding how nature cycles nutrients in natural grasslands and then mimicking those processes.

Building Healthy Pasture Soils (IP546P)
https://attra.ncat.org/product/building-healthy-pasture-soils/

This publication is a supplement to ATTRA’s Managed Grazing Tutorial session on Pasture Fertility, and introduces properties of soil, discusses evaluation and monitoring of soil quality, and introduces grazing management principles and techniques that promote healthy soil.

Tutorial

Managed Grazing
https://attra.ncat.org/tutorials/

Have you heard that changing the way you manage your grazing animals can change the condition of your land and finances for the better? Interested in finding out more about how managing your livestock can improve your soil health, your pasture condition and your bottom line? This tutorial features sessions taught by National Center for Appropriate Technology specialists who are also livestock producers. They share years of experience managing their own pastures to inspire you to start wherever you are and build or refine your own managed grazing systems. Detailed presentations and real-world examples will get you on the road to managed grazing.

References

Brown cows grazing a pasture, but their heads cannot be seen the grass is so high. Also visible in the fields is a diversity of plant species.

High stock density removes grazing selectivity thereby utilizing forages more efficiently, and returns large amounts of carbon back to the soil through trampling of uneaten forage. Photo: Understanding Ag, LLC

Williams, Allen. 2016. Adaptive Grazing and Relationship to Soil Health (presentation). www.sfa-mn.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Allen.2017.DirtRich-1.pdf.

Williams, Allen. 2019. Personal Communication.

Adaptive grazing is a regenerative livestock production system that uses multiple paddocks, frequent moving of livestock with short grazing intervals, and long rest periods to provide full pasture plant recovery. It is a proven method of increasing the resiliency of pastures by building soil organic matter, increasing soil water infiltration, promoting water conservation, adding diversity, and decreasing surface runoff.

Dr. Allen Williams travels all over the world to teach about adaptive grazing. A former professor at Mississippi State University, he came to the realization that conventional methods of production were not working for many of the farmers he was trying to help. Farmers were having to use more and more inputs to get the same productivity and were having a difficult time staying profitable. This caused him to rethink his approach. He transformed his own ranch in Starkville, Mississippi, using adaptive grazing and, ultimately, he decided to leave academia to become a full-time rancher and consultant. He has been teaching other producers how to implement adaptive grazing on their land ever since.

In this video series, filmed at an in-person workshop at The Piney Woods School, Dr. Williams discusses and demonstrates the principles and benefits of adaptive grazing.

This video series was produced by the National Center for Appropriate Technology through the ATTRA Sustainable Agriculture program, under a cooperative agreement with USDA Rural Development. This video series also was supported a grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service as part of The Piney Woods School Sustainable Farming Outreach Project. The workshop was hosted in partnership with the Piney Woods School in Piney Woods, Mississippi. ATTRA.NCAT.ORG.

Building on a successful peer-to-peer network of Texas ranchers who are implementing innovative grazing techniques to improve soil health and increase profitability, the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) is scaling up its Soil for Water project to support livestock producers and farmers across seven southern states.

The Soil for Water project grew out of recent droughts, which put a strain on agricultural producers across the country. The effort is combining the use of appropriate technology, peer-to-peer learning, and on-farm monitoring to encourage regenerative agricultural practices across the seven-state project region. For example, through managed grazing systems, livestock have the ability to improve soil health, and healthy soil holds more water.

“Increasing the adoption of regenerative methods could have significant economic, environmental, and social benefits,” said NCAT southwest regional director and project lead Mike Morris. “Economically, regenerative agriculture has the potential to increase forage production, drought resilience, animal health, access to lucrative new markets, and therefore profitability. Environmentally, it has the potential to improve soil health and biodiversity. Socially, it has the potential to facilitate decentralized local and regional food systems by enabling more producers to offer healthy, sustainably-produced products to local consumers.”

By late summer, the project will be available to ranchers and farmers in Texas, New Mexico, California, Colorado, Arkansas, Mississippi, and Virginia. Project investors include grants from the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), $980,000; The Jacob and Terese Hershey Foundation, $50,000; and the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program, $1 million. The Soil for Water project launched in 2015 with support from the Dixon Water Foundation and the Meadows Foundation.

NCAT will lead the expanded Soil for Water project with eight cooperating organizations, including the University of Arkansas, Virginia Tech University, and Mississippi State University.

The effort aims to reach hundreds of small to mid-sized family-owned farms and ranches encouraging them to try land management practices that improve soil health, catch more rainwater in soil, reduce erosion, sustain diverse plant and animal life, and filter out pollutants.

First-generation farmers Jeremiah and Maggie Eubank manage 2,000 acres in Texas Hill Country. They’re raising cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, and ducks on land between San Antonio and Austin. It’s beautiful, tough land that Maggie Eubank says has been overgrazed for a century. They’re working to change that.

“The Soil for Water Project is connecting us with a network of other ranchers who are doing what they can to use animals to grow more grass and keep more water in the ground,” Eubank explains. “Regenerating this ranch is the focus of our job, but we can also show other ranchers and farmers it can be a viable business.”

The high interest in grass-fed, sustainably produced meat and locally grown products is not only an economic benefit to these producers like the Eubanks, but also a quality-of-life benefit to their communities when healthy, locally produced food is available in neighborhood markets.

To learn more about the Soil for Water project, visit SOILFORWATER.ORG.