Moving livestock from field to field to lessen the impact of their grazing practices is slowly taking hold, and some proponents say new federal funding coupled with better outreach could get more producers on board.
More than 40% of U.S. cow-calf operations report using rotational grazing, according to a new study by USDA’s Economic Research Service. The practice is more common in the northern Plains, western Corn Belt and Appalachian regions.
USDA says rotational grazing can protect livestock from heat stress, prevent soil erosion and nutrient runoff, and limit reductions in forage quality due to climate change. The practice gives pastures time to rest and regenerate.
Some producers, however, may find it challenging to install the fencing and find the extra labor and time needed to move the animals from place to place. Producers must also ensure that every paddock provides both shade and access to water, which can be hard to come by in dry Western rangelands.
According to the ERS study, most basic rotational grazing systems use permanent fencing and involve no more than five paddocks, with an average paddock size of at least 40 acres. "Intensive" rotational grazing systems have more and smaller paddocks and a higher stocking density, the study found. About 40% of rotational grazing operations are intensive.
Appalachian producers, in particular, are more likely to use intensive rotational grazing systems. Farms in that region are often smaller in size than operations in other regions, according to Greg Brann, a Tennessee-based grazing consultant and former USDA grazing specialist.
“Smaller farms manage more intensively because they need to get more out of the land,” Brann said.
Rotational grazing, if done properly, can extend the grazing season and allow producers to feed their animals less hay, Brann said. It can also allow producers to distribute manure in different fields, especially if cattle are moved from high-fertility areas to low-fertility areas.
“Any rotation is better than none,” Brann said.
Practices like rotational grazing have also seen increased attention as potential ways to mitigate and adapt to climate change, though there’s still a large amount of research that needs to be done to gauge their effectiveness.
USDA's Partnerships for Climate-Smart Commodities program awarded South Dakota State University an $80 million grant to study market opportunities for beef and bison producers using “climate-smart” grazing and land-management practices, which could include rotational grazing.
Jameson Brennan, an assistant professor at SDSU and extension specialist for livestock grazing, anticipates work on the five-year project will begin in January; researchers are still waiting for the USDA funds to get released.
“There’s a lot of producers out there that are doing great things and managing their land really well, but there’s not always a financial benefit that’s directly tied to those practices,” he said. “So some of the premise of developing this project was, can we help develop that market for climate-smart beef?”
The U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, which is aiming to achieve climate neutrality across the nation’s beef supply chain by 2040, doesn’t endorse a single grazing management style. Samantha Werth, the roundtable’s executive director, said the coalition is not prescriptive with the resources it provides on grazing management and prides itself on being able to work with a wide range of producers.
But one important element of the roundtable’s emission-reduction strategy is to have cow-calf producers write grazing management plans encompassing 385 million acres of land by 2050. These plans, she says, will help them better understand what grazing practices work for their operations and ways that they can improve.
“There’s a lot of evidence that shows that having a written grazing management plan will inherently help producers to take better care of their land,” Werth told Agri-Pulse. “If they have a plan written down, they know what to expect over time and they know how to make adjustments accordingly.”
The roundtable is also looking to work with more universities on research to determine how written grazing management plans tie into efforts like carbon sequestration and water cycling.
Southeast Montana producer Gary Heibertshausen has spent the past year preparing to transition to a rotational grazing system. He and his wife raise around 3,000 head of sheep but have also added around 30 cows to their rotation to consume some of the taller grasses the sheep avoid.
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Heibertshausen says he’s “cautiously optimistic” about the transition. The looming question he will have to confront is how quickly he’ll be able to return to some of the previously grazed pastures, especially during drought conditions. He doesn’t want to be forced to thin his herd, but also doesn’t want to overgraze.
“We’re just looking to get a better, more efficient use of the grass we’ve got,” he said.
Heibertshausen has received some funds through the Sage Grouse Initiative and is using “wildlife-safe” fencing to create some of the paddocks. He also worked with USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service to create his grazing plan.
Heibertshausen said he appreciates the federal programs that are currently available but wants to see more information for producers in his area about the efficacy of certain grazing practices. Additional data surrounding these practices and their impacts, he said, might make more producers in his region interested.
“If you go out and look, you cannot find any information, any history, anything for our area saying whether it works or doesn’t work other than word-of-mouth,” he said. “And right now, word-of-mouth is it doesn’t work.”
The NRCS also helps cover some of the costs of implementing rotational grazing through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program and the Conservation Stewardship Program, its main conservation initiatives, both of which will get increased funding from the Inflation Reduction Act passed last year.
These programs, Brann said, do a “good job” at putting the necessary infrastructure in place. But the effectiveness of rotational grazing plans requires active management from producers, who must open and close the gates and move the animals around.
“It’s hard for them (NRCS) to make the management happen,” Brann said. “That’s really up to the user.”
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