Having the right number of cattle on the right piece of land for the right amount of time for the right reasons may be one of the most powerful tools farmers have to ensure the long-term sustainability – both economic and environmental – of their operations, says Donald Nelson, Washington State University Extension beef specialist.

“This is a major paradigm shift,” says Nelson. “We’re using grazing as a tool to create a desirable future landscape and sustainable ecosystems. Planned grazing mimics natural cycles, which typically are most effective economically and biologically.”

Nelson spearheaded Beefing Up the Palouse, a demonstration project in eastern Washington, to develop sustainable alternatives for farmers with land soon to come out of the federal government’s Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Nelson says more than 1.5 million acres in Washington are enrolled in 10- to 15-year CRP contracts. A significant portion of the acreage is nearing the contract end over the next several years, leaving farmers struggling to figure out how to make marginal land profitable. Nelson’s research indicates that science and market conditions now favor several options.

For example, because most CRP land has had no chemical applications for at least a decade, it can be certified organic almost immediately, making it suitable as organic cattle pasture or growing organic hay. Another alternative focuses on rural tourism, such as trail rides, field trials for hunting dogs, or bird or deer hunting preserves. And there is the option of actively using the land to graze cattle, goats or horses in rotation with growing grain or other crops.

All options, however, hinge on improving the land. Because it has been relatively untouched for so long, CRP land often is biologically decadent, having lost some of its ability to store water and support new plant growth. The Beefing Up the Palouse study indicates planned grazing is key to restoring soil fertility, water-holding capacity and wildlife habitat.

Conducted on G & L Farms in Adams County, the project entailed grazing 200-300 head of cattle on three- to five-acre paddocks for 12 hours at a time. The cattle ate about half of the growth and trampled the rest into the ground before being moved to the next paddock. They didn’t return until adequate regrowth had occurred.

“To put it simply, planned grazing means having the right number of livestock in the right place at the right time,” says Gregg Beckley, project co-manager and owner of G & L Farms. “The concept comes from (the grazing pattern) of bison that came across the plains where large, concentrated numbers of livestock would be in places for only a short period of time and not return to that same piece of ground for up to a year. High-density stock rates for short periods of time in conjunction with an adequate recovery period brings the land back to what Mother Nature intended. The grass will flourish.”

Nelson says one of the key factors to high-density grazing is the “graze-trample ratio,” which measures the proportion of forage eaten compared to the amount trampled. “We want the animals to perform well, so the farmer profits,” he explains. “We also want organic matter trampled into the ground to rejuvenate the soil.” In Beefing Up the Palouse, Beckley distributed alfalfa seed in certain areas, relying on the cattle to push the seeds into the ground.

Nelson characterizes knowing when to move livestock from one place to another as “both an art and a science. A lot of it is based on experience, and every piece of land is different,” he says.

But, he emphasizes, “You can’t manage what you don’t measure,” so monitoring the impact of the livestock on the land as well as their overall health is critical to the success of planned grazing.

By measuring the weight of animals before and after they graze, a farmer can monitor cattle performance. Measuring ecosystem processes includes looking at a number of variables, including the depth of root systems, the amount of bare ground, biomass production and plant diversity.

If done well, planned grazing absolutely improves the land, Nelson says. On G & L Farms, it increased the fertility and water-holding capacity of every parcel grazed. According to the project’s final report, that potential for far greater productivity could provide returns greater than the current CRP payments, depending on the availability of water and fencing and the knowledge and skill of farmers using the method.

Restoring the land also can mean restoring rural economies. “A lot of CRP land is owned by absentee landlords or people who have retired off the farm,” he says. “That decreases the economic activity in already struggling communities.” It also means that the people grazing the cattle will probably not be the landowners, and that long-term lease agreements will be necessary to amortize the cost of fencing and water development.

He hopes the project provides a model that farmers will readily adopt. But long-term collaborative working relationships will be key to its success. There are economic, environmental, social and technological components to any sustainable integrated agricultural system, he says, and each of those areas is a complex arena of situations and stakeholders.