The author is an extension ruminant nutrition specialist at North Carolina State University.
Interest in controlled grazing strategies have grown in recent years. This has largely been due to higher input costs. The promise of growing more grass with fewer inputs is intriguing, and some would suggest that there is only one way to get that done. Systems like high-density/short duration grazing are receiving a lot of attention, and all of these systems have the same basic principles — frequent movement of animals with a high stocking density, which results in short grazing bouts and long rest periods. As you study the current popular press on these topics, you will find that these system names and definitions are used very loosely with a lot of overlap.
A recent name for these systems is “adaptive grazing management.” If you go on the web and look for information on this, you will find a lot written about it, but there is little said to define it for what it is. I found several university and private resources that state that adaptive grazing management is more or less synonymous with terms such as managed grazing and controlled grazing. Others state that in adaptive grazing management you will need to follow very clear practices such as short grazing periods, high forage mass, low forage utilization efficiency, and a high level of plant diversity. This same system was called “mob grazing” a decade ago.
In the Amazing Grazing Program, we teach adaptive grazing management to farmers and their advisers, but it is not the same as what is being taught by others that just grabbed this name and used it to describe a specific system. To better understand what we mean by adaptive grazing, let’s review the broader concept of adaptive management, which has been used in many industries where there is a lot of uncertainty about many aspects of the system.
With traditional business models, there is a relatively high level of confidence in how different components interact. Many things like inputs (raw materials) can be purchased on forward contract, and employees can do what they are told with relative certainty that the product will be consistent.
With systems that are more complex, and which are impacted by many conditions that are beyond control, those traditional management approaches don’t work very well. The most effective management for those situations will be more flexible and will involve a lot of thinking and changing of plans along the way to react to fluid conditions. The final goals do not change, but how you get there does.
Grazing systems don’t do well when implemented as a traditional management scheme. There is just too much uncertainty about what you will face on any given day. Whatever you call your system and whatever the guiding principles, you still need to adapt and be nimble. It is clear that every farmer will have a different ideal system based on their time availability, their interest in spending a lot of time with the livestock, the land resource they have to work with, and their production goals.
Evaluate outcomes daily
Once I was visiting farms in Costa Rica where rotational grazing through multiple paddocks is the prevailing management in many areas. It interested me that on most farms the workers that moved the cattle didn’t understand the principles of successful grazing but were rather just following orders to move animals to the next paddock once a day. Some paddocks were consistently overgrazed, and some were consistently under grazed. It struck me that these multi-paddock systems were not working much better than the continuous grazing systems that predominate in the U.S. What is important is that the workers who move the livestock need to be thinking and evaluating the daily outcome of their actions.
With adaptive management, it is important to set your long-term goals and have a plan to reach those goals. The daily activities that lead you to the right outcome will differ as conditions change, and the grazing manager needs to be monitoring components of the system to keep them on the right track.
Setting long-term goals is critical and should always aim to improve soil health and plant productivity. However, some may need to target a high level of consistent animal production, such as pasture-based finishing systems that require a high-quality product, purebred production, and so forth. Others may be relatively unconcerned with individual animal production but will focus more on plant diversity or other components of soil health.
My colleague Johnny Rogers, the Amazing Grazing program coordinator, offered a definition of adaptive grazing management that I think comes closer to capturing what it is than most of the other available definitions. He suggests: “The practice of using proven grazing management principles and practices to meet the dynamic, biologic, economic, and social needs of individual grazing operations and their communities.” This is a little vague and reminds me a lot of the definition of sustainability, but I think this captures it pretty well.
Not a single recipe
The foundational point is that there is no exact way you need to do grazing management to be successful. Don’t think that someone can come to your farm and tell you in a short time how to implement your grazing system. The key to your development will be to use that reiterative process of trying new practices and then modifying them to fit your system. Not all grazing practices will work on every farm, but you should be trying new things and evaluating them. Don’t be stuck in a specific system, as it will limit your ability to react to such things as changing market conditions, rainfall (or the lack of it), and animal health problems that occur along the way.
As you develop your strategic grazing skills, attend grazing workshops and get help from informed advisers. Apply what you learn on your farm and evaluate the outcome. Beware of folks that say they can tell you exactly what you need to do to be successful. The best manager will never say never and never say always to any practice. They will be open to new ideas and techniques, and they will critically evaluate every action they take so they can adapt practices to reach their long-term goals.
Principles of adaptive management
- Evaluate resources
- Set system goals
- Develop an initial management plan
- Implement the plan
- Evaluate short-term outcomes
- Modify the plan
- Continue to repeat Steps 3 to 5
This article appeared in the January 2023 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on pages 18-19.
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