Grazing terms get coined, used and abused, but the technology and its benefits have been advancing dramatically over the past 30 years or so.
One rancher recently mused: “There’s a new term, adaptive grazing, and I wasn’t sure what it meant. Then I realized that over the years I’ve actually been doing this. Grazing management has to be flexible.
"Every year, I’m looking at pastures and deciding which one to use next, and figuring out my strategy. How long am I going to hold the cattle on this paddock? What’s still ahead of them?”
A successful pasture manager is always juggling, planning, adapting his/her grazing strategies to fit the terrain, forage, weather, livestock needs, and many other factors.
Many producers are starting to look at a bigger picture, understanding that cattle production and grass production should actually be symbiotic, and even recognizing cattle are not only quality human food but a tool to help heal/improve land and pastures.
The conglomeration of all the years of grazing management is becoming known as adaptive, multi-paddock (AMP) grazing. At its core, the methods often center on high-stock-density grazing. This concentrates the herd in a small area for a short time and then moves on. The high stock density is realistically only achieved with temporary electric fence, although many graziers use some subdivisions of semi-permanent electric fence as the base. They usually aim for a consumption of the available forage between 40% and 70%, hope to trample much of the leavings down close to or onto the soil surface, and then often though not always defer future grazing until the plants are fully recovered, sometimes with the most-valued plants actually into the reproductive phase.
With this type of grazing there should not be any bare ground or short, overgrazed grass. The plant roots and soil tilth should improve so every drop of rainfall up to significant rainfall events of several inches is captured and doesn’t run off. These areas are still green and growing, holding soil moisture, while continuous grazed pastures (perhaps right through the fence on a neighboring farm or ranch) are brown and dry in a drought, suffering wind and water erosion.
Richard Teague, rangeland ecology and management scientist for Texas AgriLife Research and Extension at Vernon, Texas, says his goal in research has always been to discover what kind of range management results in the best ways to restore ecological function and farm livelihoods. He grew up in Africa and did his doctor's degree work there.
“Native grazers and grasslands around the world developed together, and because of large herds moving around the landscape, grasslands are very adapted to and need this periodic disturbance," he explains. "Grazing is a natural part of the whole system and the way plants and the soil microbiota they partner with operate synergistically.”
“What drives an ecosystem is the [solar] energy captured by the plants, which feeds the soil microbes, and they feed the plants with the minerals they pick up. It’s a mutualistic, self-supporting system,” Teague says.
When grazing managers mimic the way animals grazed in large herds, which included staying together as protection against predators, it seems to work best for the plants.
“If a [large] herd grazes in one spot for even half a day, their excrement discourages them from eating where they just pooped, so they keep moving. They graze that area quickly and move on,” he explains.
However, their urine and feces added fertility to the soil, and the recovery period before the animals returned again to that spot allowed the plants and soil life to thrive. Then the herds came back to graze again.
“Most rangelands are moderately to extremely dry, so whatever rain you get, you want all or most of it to get into the soil instead of running off," Teague continues. "In rangeland ecosystems, maintaining normal soil and ecosystem function and healthy watershed is possible only if there is adequate plant cover with varied species to prevent soil loss and maintain the conditions for soil microorganisms to thrive.”
This combination of concentrated fertility, forage trampling and other hoof action, and complete plant recovery improves nutrient cycling and solar capture and the water cycle, he explains.
The amount of carbon in soil, contained in living soil organisms and plant roots and other organic matter, when managed correctly will cycle upward in a symbiotic relationship with plants. Also, water-holding capacity is increased in direct proportion to the amount of organic matter in the soil. Arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi are particularly important, as they provide soil nutrients and water that plants cannot access without their help.
The capture of energy, infiltration and retention of rainfall, and cycling of nutrients is what makes the ecosystem tick, Teague says.
“For it to tick as well as it can in a particular environment you have to manage grazing," he says. "Good grazing allows you to use the plants to feed the animals, give them recovery time, and then graze them again.”
“That’s what we do with mob grazing, now called adaptive multi-paddock grazing," Teague says.
You must adapt grazing density and timing, simply put, that's what the large herds dis. Also, as growth rate of plants change you change the period of grazing and the period of recover. Generally speaking slower growth of plants calls for slower movement of the herd, although that may be changed by the adaptive manager depending on the multitude of factors the manager is juggling.
The big plus is that forage production increases along with cattle performance. Before long, stocking rate also can increase.
The old adage that a blade of grass growing is a blade of grass wasted is now thoroughly disproven. Neither is grass left behind or trampled wasted. It serves as mulch and helps feed soil life and contributes to greater future production. Cattle used as a tool to improve the land can eliminate the need for commercial fertilizer and chemical weed control so everything is healthier and more productive. Healthy, multi-species grass stands outcompete annual weeds and pretty much every other form of grazed forage.
In studies of ranch/rangeland in northern Texas, Teague actually documented positive results for long-term maintenance of resources and economic viability for ranchers who use adaptive management and multi-paddock grazing, compared with those who practice continuous season-long grazing.
Read more about the history and terminology of grazing management tomorrow.