What is Rotational Grazing and Why is it Misunderstood?
Understanding How Rotational Grazing Cattle Impacts the Cycle of Plant Recovery
Reading Time: 5 minutes
With Spencer Smith – Many people want to know what is rotational grazing and why is it misunderstood? Good grazing practices are often thought of as rotational grazing, but this is at best a half-truth. It is possible to use cattle farming as a tool to improve soil quality and forage production. Cattle can create bare land or a thriving grassland ecosystem. The difference comes down to management.
An old saying that we like to quote in our workshops with farmers and ranchers is “that there is a fine line between self-employed and unemployed.” For the purposes of this article, we would like to rework this to say “ there is a fine line between rotational grazing and habitual overgrazing!”
We have had the opportunity to visit ranches all over the world, managed by ranchers who are practicing different grazing strategies, using various beef cattle breeds. Regardless of the continent, land managers want to maximize forage quality and quantity to achieve their lifestyle, profit, and landscape goals.
Many farmers and ranchers are grazing by the book and still not seeing the results promised. Why? The answer to this question lies in the fact that the grassland biome is complex. If we realize that our ranches are complex, we should also realize that no grazing formula will work for all ranchers in all different grazing environments. Again, it is critical to understand that “grazing systems and recipes” do not work the same way in all environments. Rotational grazing in a set pattern each year is no exception.
How Plants and Soil Grow With and Without Rotational Grazing
Let’s look first at how plants grow and then we can dive into why rotationally grazing cattle (or sheep, goats or even hogs when raising pigs on pasture) doesn’t work. Plants wake up in the spring and start to develop leaves that reach out to the sun and start photosynthesis. Through photosynthesis, plants make carbohydrates out of CO2, water, and the sun’s energy. Plants need the carbohydrates for energy to grow more forage, roots and to eventually make seeds for reproduction. If an animal or machinery grazes that plant during this process the plant will exude carbohydrates through the root system. These carbohydrates create a nice meal for microorganisms in the soil. They consume the root exudates and start to multiply. The bigger soil critters eat the smaller ones and the byproduct of this R-rated free-for-all is a flush of plant-available nutrients. The plant then takes the nutrients in and starts the recovery phase — regrowing leaf tissue so that it can replenish its carbohydrate cache for later use.
The problem arises when an animal comes back and “regrazes” that plant before it has had time to store enough energy/carbohydrates. If there are not enough carbohydrates to feed the soil life, then the plant cannot acquire the natural fertility, provided by microorganisms in the soil, that it needs to grow. When we stimulate a plant by grazing it while in its recovery phase and before it has enough sugar to feed the soil (through its root exudates), it is “overgrazed.” The overgrazed plant will be forced to sacrifice root mass to grow more leaf tissue. If we continue to overgraze the grass in our pastures, we will end up with a simplified plant community, instead of a strong, biodiverse plant community. Many plants cannot survive overgrazing. The plants that do survive have short roots that are susceptible to stress, drought, pest, and disease.
What is Rotational Grazing?
Now that we have covered how the plant grows, let’s look at the definition of rotational grazing by Jim Morgan, Ph.D. “Rotational grazing is the practice of moving grazing livestock between pastures (often called paddocks) as needed or on a regular basis. There are many approaches and types of grazing that fall under the broad umbrella of rotational grazing.The simplest is moving livestock between paddocks every set number of days.”
The problem with rotational grazing is “moving livestock between paddocks every set number of days.” Pasture does not respond to grazing the same way throughout the growing season. The time it takes a plant to recover from grazing or mowing will vary throughout the season because of temperature, water, community dynamics of the forages in the pasture, etc. Sometimes plants grow quickly. Sometimes they grow slowly. If you plan a 30-day recovery period for plants in the fast-growth period of the growing season they may have time to regrow. But by the end of summer, when plant regrowth is slow, if cattle or livestock come back every 30 days every plant in the pastures will be overgrazed. The only way to effectively graze a complex farm environment is to plan ahead for extended recovery times and monitor grass recovery closely throughout the growing season. The best way to achieve this is through Holistic Planned Grazing. The Savory Global Network helps land managers plan to get their livestock to the right place at the right time for the right reasons with the right animal behavior to maximize pasture and herd health while increasing soil health, forage production and maximizing profitability. Managing complex ecosystem processes is more involved than moving livestock through pastures every set number of days.
Holistic Planned Grazing vs. Rotational Grazing
Holistic Planned Grazing is different than rotational grazing because it is not a recipe or a formula. Rather it is a planning procedure that has been adapted from 300 years of military history. When holistic managers sit down to plan their grazing season, they are specifically calculating recovery periods for the plants in their pastures. By taking this approach we can isolate the variables in our complex environment as well as our personal and economic priorities. Once we have charted these variables, we plan our livestock moves in a fashion that will give us the best results. We will reference the grazing plan throughout the grazing season against the reality we observe daily on the ground. Then, we can make changes to the grazing plan accordingly. It is a living plan, meaning it changes and adapts.
This proactive management strategy is the best way to realize the outcomes desired on the land. Shooting from the hip, reactionary management doesn’t work, yet too many times in agriculture we take this approach because managing complex systems is hard. Holistic management and holistic planned grazing take into account the complexities (perhaps another word is chaotic) of managing land and animals. It is a process that creates true wealth: healthy land, animals, and peace of mind.
Abbey and Spencer Smith own and operate the Jefferson Center for Holistic Management, a Savory Global Network hub serving Northern California and Nevada. As a Savory Institute Field Professional, Spencer works with land managers, ranchers and farmers in the hub region and beyond. Abbey also serves as the Savory Global Network Coordinator for the Savory Institute. They live in Fort Bidwell, California. The Springs Ranch, the demonstration site for the Jefferson Center, is holistically managed by three generations of Smiths: Steve and Pati Smith, Abbey and Spencer Smith and the main boss of the whole operation, Maezy Smith. Learn more at jeffersonhub.com and savory.global/network.
What is rotational grazing to you? Is it practiced in your region? How could you improve grazing practices by learning about the plants in your area?