What is regenerative grazing and why does it work so well?
Can we graze livestock in a way that repairs, rebuilds, revitalizes, and restores ecosystem function?
Regenerative grazing - also referred to as adaptive grazing, multi-paddock grazing, management-intensive grazing, holistic planned grazing, mob grazing, cell grazing, and rotational or controlled grazing - is a system that producers use to accomplish a variety of management goals.
Early adopters describe it simply as becoming professional grass growers.
Noble Research Institute describes it as the mindset to proactively plan and actively manage grazing events: “grazing the appropriate amount of leaf production at the optimal time, encouraging the grazing livestock to uniformly utilize the pasture or paddock, and managing grazing to maintain ample residual and allow full recovery of grazed plants before the next grazing event.”
Regenerative grazing ultimately is a process that ranchers continuously adjust, based on conditions and time, and daily activity to ensure that the grazing impact synchronizes with the environment, climate, and ecosystems of their ranch.
Dr. Allen Williams of Understanding Ag says, “It begins with the life of the soil and then translates to life above. I first think: ‘How I am feeding the microbes underneath my feet?’ because they’re critically important to me and my success as a rancher.”
“Then, I'm thinking about the plants: Am I grazing in a way that's going to benefit my plants and allow them to recover more rapidly from the grazing impact? So we can have optimum nutrient cycling and facilitate the water cycle through those plants while maximizing photosynthetic capture?”
How is this different than traditional, continuous grazing systems?
Traditional systems are often a one-size-fits-most, prescription, meaning that many farmers repeat the same practices day in, and day out.
But nature isn’t static. Everything is constantly changing and shifting. Implementing a generalized prescription in a literal field of nuance limits forage production, ecosystem biodiversity, the ability to continuously build carbon and organic matter in our soils, and our ability to absorb and retain water from natural precipitation or applied irrigation.
Conventional grazing practices often cap the total potential for biomass production, leading many ranchers and farmers to apply external fertility to increase forage. With regenerative grazing, however, land stewards can steadily and incrementally improve and increase forage biomass production without buying and applying fertility because it is applied through the very animals that are actively grazing in a manner that nature does it with wild ruminants (e.g. grazing animals in grasslands).
Compared to a continuous grazing system where livestock have free access to an entire pasture, livestock graze their favorite forages and leave other ones ungrazed. Similar to you and me, livestock have favorite foods. A pasture isn’t just a monoculture of a single grass species - it’s many different species of plants. When given continuous access to an entire pasture, they will overgraze and kill their favorite plants, and avoid the ones they dislike. Many species will diminish and even drop out of the ecosystem entirely.
“A crucial aspect of growing grass in the desert is the increased microbial stimulation resulting from the large grazing ruminants and the fertility they apply through their manure and urine,” says Alejandro Carrillo, a regenerative rancher regenerating 30,000 acres of the Chihuahuan Desert. “This fertility helps stimulate the soil biology and, in return, stimulates the growth of new grasses from the latent seed bank.” Regenerative practices have also increased his “ranch’s water infiltration rate to 18-20 inches per hour; the neighboring ranch has an infiltration rate of only two inches per hour.”
Why does regenerative grazing work so well?
In short, adaptive graziers aim to take no more than the top half of the existing forage in each paddock and leave the remaining half. Since plants rely on photosynthesis to grow. The more leaf surface area that a plant has, the faster it can regrow after a grazing period. By ensuring that the cattle only take the top half of a pasture, producers can ensure that those plants will rebound during the rest period. As plants photosynthesize sunlight, they expand their root systems. Healthy root systems help those plants transmit nutrients into the soil to feed microbial life. The more abundant a root system is, the healthier the soil will be, supercharging the plant’s ability to sequester carbon.
Plants use photosynthesis to pull carbon out of the air and turn it into simple sugars that feed the plant, its roots, and the surrounding soil microorganisms, mainly soil fungi, and to a lesser extent, bacteria, protozoa, and nematodes. These microorganisms “lock up” the carbon in the soil in the form of recalcitrant organic matter or they store it within their bodies, such as in fungal networks.
Regenerative grazing spreads manure more evenly through a pasture as cattle graze through each section in a controlled manner. Manure and urine feed microbial life in the soil, supporting healthy soil and better plant growth. Healthier plants absorb atmospheric carbon and pump it down into the soil where it can be stored for hundreds to thousands of years by soil microorganisms, as described in the diagram below.
A common question in regard to alternative grazing methods is whether or not it requires more or less land for the same amount of cattle.
“Regenerative grazing doesn't require more land. We are actually far more productive on the same acres,” Williams says. “Over time, it requires less land without all of the purchased and added inputs.”
Many regenerative graziers also report that it takes far less time to rotate animals to new pasture than most people think. With portable, temporary fencing options like those from RangeWard, graziers can more easily turn cattle out onto fresh pasture. Livestock quickly adapt to the new grazing system and often line up, eagerly waiting to move to the next pasture. It’s a low-stress environment and once they become accustomed to working with people, the livestock are less flighty than in continuous grazing operations.
While regenerative grazing alone is not a panacea to mitigate climate change, well-planned grazing, which incorporates perennial plants and allocates time for the plant to rest, contributes to increased soil organic matter and soil carbon storage. This makes regenerative grazing a powerful, natural climate solution. Beyond carbon drawdown, regenerative grazing improves ecosystem function and provides other ecosystem services including water filtration, improved nutrient, and water cycling, increased habitat for wildlife, and more.
Top 5 Questions Answered About Regenerative Agriculture - Allen Williams by the Noble Research Institute. “Allen Williams answers 5 of the most frequently asked questions he receives about regenerative agriculture. With regenerative agriculture practices growing across the world, we wanted to provide some answers to what comes to most farmers' and ranchers' minds when thinking about making changes to a more regenerative approach.”
RangeWard helps farmers and ranchers save time and money while making regenerative grazing easier. They offer all-in-one machines that are easy to use and give producers a variety of fencing options. For example, the Razer Grazer is two tools in one. Producers can use the entire machine to fence an area, then remove the Power Arm to cross-fence. Their portable electric fencing tools help producers read their grass and animals and more easily manage their pastures’ grazing and rest periods. Check out their suite of tools here.
How can we as individuals support farming practices that protect and nourish people while restoring the planet? Find a regenerative farm near you. Buy food from them, get to know the farmers, and take advantage of volunteer days. Learn about where your food comes from and different production systems. Help get the word out about the benefits of regenerative agricultural practices. Spend as much time as you can outside. Build your own relationship with the land around you.
“Restoring land without restoring relationship is an empty exercise. It is relationship that will endure and relationship that will sustain the restored land.” - Robin Wall Kimmerer
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Thank you for this column! I hope you won’t mind my pointing out a few mischaracterizations/conflations which I offer in the spirit of clarity and findings solutions that work for a wide range of producers who operate in highly variable contexts.
Firstly- The different grazing systems/approaches listed in the substack column (regenerative, multi paddock, etc) are not all the same and should not be used interchangeably.
Also, my training is as a restoration ecologist and range management professional. In my experience, as a discipline and professional practice, range management has always utilized and advocated for site-specific and adaptive management planning and decision-making that takes into account the natural environment and climatic conditions, livestock health, and social/cultural and business needs/context, resulting in very different "prescriptions" for stocking rates, timing/density of animal movement, kind/class animal, etc. Not even close to a one-size-fits-most approach, as the column suggests. There is always room for improving and updating a field and practice like range management, and restoration, as we understand more and as societal changes occur- but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Finally, there are sometimes tradeoffs between different goals that should be taken into account, and that may vary depending on the operator's needs and context. In some ecosystems, for example, rare annual wildflowers and native annual grasses which may be important for biodiversity, nutrition, or even regulatory purposes, are outcompeted by perennial grasses due to increases in soil nutrient and water availability. Hard choice for some managers!? Infrastructure like fencing (even temporary) may also be undesirable in some contexts, which would constrain the density or timing of herd moves. In other words, mob grazing and perennialization is not always the right solution, just as season-long low-density grazing is not the ideal management approach in every location.
Thank you again!