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Survey shows ranchers' slow adoption of rotational grazing

TAGS: Conservation
Toby Brusseau A man and a woman kneeling in pasture, inspecting plants
PLANT PROMO: SDSU senior ecologist Steven Apfelbaum (left) and Mimi Hillenbrand, owner of 777 Bison Ranch, inspect the diversity of plant species determine pasture health.
Survey finds ranchers slow to adopt grazing practices despite conservation programs.

For more than 30 years, Mimi Hillenbrand has used rotational grazing on her 777 Bison Ranch to foster plant growth and wildlife species. However, research from South Dakota State University finds the practice stalled in the Dakotas.

Hillenbrand’s 26,000-acre ranch near Hermosa, S.D., is divided into 35 paddocks that are grazed at a stocking rate of 10 animals per acre. Moving livestock through different pastures or paddocks during the grazing season can help minimize overgrazing and more fully utilize forage.

“By managing our grass, we are bringing back plant and wildlife species, building topsoil and improving water infiltration,” Hillenbrand says. “The animals are utilizing the pastures more uniformly and we are getting more pounds of grazing per acre.”

For her, the process is just part of a holistic plan on her farm in southwest South Dakota.

But despite USDA conservation program incentives, Tong Wang, assistant professor at the SDSU’s Ness School of Management and Economics, is finding the number of ranchers adopting rotational grazing has stagnated.

A recent survey of livestock producers in South Dakota and North Dakota found those who do not use rotational grazing identified water and labor as the major barriers to adopting this conservation practice. The survey is part of a $500,000 USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, which began in 2017, also involves faculty from Texas A&M University and Michigan State University. The researchers sent surveys to ranchers who have at least 100 head of livestock on grazing land

Grazing trend analysis

In looking at the data from North Dakota and South Dakota respondents, Wang found more than half of those who use rotational grazing done so for decades.

“The practice has proven beneficial in terms of improving soil and water quality as well as profitability, so the adopters will have good stories to tell,” she explains.

Mimi HillenbrandA wide landscape shot of a herd of Buffalo in an open field

BUFFALO ROAM: These buffalo are being moved to a new paddock on the 777 Bison Ranch near Hermosa, where the use of planned or rotational grazing during the last 30 years is helping improve the forage diversity and soil quality.

Of the 549 North and South Dakota respondents, 356 say they used rotational grazing. More than 84% have been doing so for 10 years or more, while nearly 11% adopted the practice five to nine years ago, and less than 5% began rotational grazing less than five years ago.

Furthermore, USDA conservation programs, such as the Conservation Reserve Program’s CRP Grasslands component established through the 2014 Farm Bill, encourage producers to switch to rotational grazing through cost sharing and low-interest loans.

“This helps pay for water and fencing,” Wang says.

Through the rancher survey, the researchers are identifying other factors influencing adoption decisions.

Barriers to rotating pastures

Although those who use rotational grazing perceived all barriers as less challenging than those who had not adopted the conservation practice, even the adopters chose supplying water to multiple paddocks as their greatest challenge, Wang explains. Providing water to each paddock can mean anything from hauling water to installing water lines.

Allowing livestock to graze the entire season in one pasture, known as continuous grazing, may result in the animals eating only the most desirable grasses, while leaving others untouched.

“This is not only an inefficient use of the vegetation but can lead to the depletion of the best forage plants, invasion by weeds and expansion of bare ground,” he adds.

Specific aspects of the ranching operation also impact the producer’s perceived challenges on rotational grazing. For instance, those who get a majority of their income from raising cattle will be more interested in using techniques, such as rotational grazing, to increase their revenue, Wang says.

“If the focus is on crops, they may be less likely to consider rotational grazing,” she says.

Land ownership also plays a very important role.

“If you don’t own the land, the landlord may not want to change the landscape,” she says. “If you invest a lot in the land and then it’s not yours to rent anymore, that creates uncertainty.”

Identify potential adopters

Overall, Wang found survey respondents “who had better quality soil, owned more land and had a greater portion of grazing land (in their operations) saw the barriers as less challenging.”

Wang proposes a new approach to improving adoption rates.

“We could first identify regions in which cattle producers possess these attributes,” she says.

Those who have already adopted rotational grazing can serve as role models for other ranchers in the area.

Local Extension offices and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Services staff “can help us identify producers whose ranches could be used as demonstration sites for their neighbors — they can serve as good examples based on their successes,” she says.

Finally, Wang recommends disseminating information on rotational grazing through webinars and workshops.

“We want to attract ranchers who are more likely to feel that the changes necessary to adopt rotational grazing are offset by the rewards they will reap — improved forage, stocking rates and profitability,” she says.

Source: The South Dakota State University is solely responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.
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