Hugh Aljoe is the director of producer relations at Noble Research Institute (NRI), Ardmore, Okla. Steve Smith is a wildlife and fisheries consultant at NRI.
In this three-part series, we’ll be discussing specific steps you can take to use regenerative grazing to achieve certain goals. Regenerative grazing is a set of practices, guided by ecological principles, that uses the benefits of grazing livestock to rebuild soil health and can help diversify the enterprises and income a farm or ranch produces.
As we make the transition to regenerative grazing on our ranches at Noble Research Institute and talk to producers who have switched their thinking and tactics from conventional to regenerative, the word “mindset” comes up as the biggest first step. It’s a mindset that looks at the operation as a whole system — made up of the soil, water, air, plants, animals, and themselves — and makes decisions for the whole, not just one part of the enterprise. It is a “holistic” mindset.
It means managing for life in the soil as well as above it by keeping the ground covered with a diversity of plants and animals; minimizing disturbances, such as tillage; and keeping living roots in the ground to feed and exchange nutrients with soil microbes. It may mean reducing the size of a herd to better match the forage production (carrying capacity) of the available grazing area and allowing the land to heal. It may also mean cutting back on inputs such as synthetic fertilizers and pesticides for the good of insects, pollinators, soil microbes, and plant diversity.
A regenerative mindset means you must be flexible, adaptive, eager to learn new things, willing to ask for help, and not afraid to fail by embracing trial-and-error. It helps to be curious, observant, humble, and most of all, open and willing to change. Spend time with other producers who practice regenerative ranching to gain ideas and see what your success can look like.
Lastly, it’s important to start small in an easy-to-manage area, using your existing pastures and grouping your cattle into a single herd (as few as can be managed) to facilitate a good grazing rotation. This greatly enhances the odds of success when adopting regenerative practices for the first time.
Have a plan
A regenerative grazing management plan helps you map your existing resources, determine potential stocking rates, and identify future infrastructure needs. A comprehensive plan includes:
2. Maps (aerial and soil)
3. Existing infrastructure (fences, corrals, pond, and so forth)
4. Existing forage types and production
5. Grazeable acres
6. Potential stocking rates
7. Any additional equipment or infrastructure needs
Establish goals: Think about why you want to try regenerative grazing and discuss what you want to achieve with all involved parties in your operation. Common grazing goals include improving soil and animal health, increasing plant cover and diversity, reducing brush encroachment, improving livestock production, and enhancing profitability.
In our August 2021 Hay & Forage Grower article, “Start with these soil health principles,” we discussed the six soil health principles, beginning with “Know your context.” As we set goals to restore degraded land, it’s valuable to look back at what your land was like in presettlement days so you know how much potential it has.
Develop and write down your goals to guide your steps and inform what you will measure and record to track your progress. You’ll likely be tracking many new metrics.
Map the big picture: Aerial maps help to view your property as a whole, and can be retrieved online from websites such as Google Maps, Google Earth, or Daft Logic, as well as from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. Soil maps help determine the different soil types and estimate the forage productivity of an area. Soil differences typically explain why some areas of a property are more productive than others. The USDA Web Soil Survey is an excellent source for soil maps.
Infrastructure in place: Once you have developed maps for your property, draw in any existing infrastructure such as fences, corrals, water sources (pond and plumbed), roads, pastures, forage types, and structures. Knowing these locations helps identify areas that may need infrastructure development to improve the use of the entire property to meet your regenerative grazing goals. It will also guide pasture and eventually paddock plans if you move into full adaptive multi-paddock (AMP) and/or high stock density grazing.
Forage inventory: Take stock of your own history of forage production and the types and health of your soil. Inventory the species of forages in your pastures and know the growing seasons of each species to help develop your grazing plan and stocking rates. Make a spreadsheet with entries for each pasture and consider coding your map. Forecast what your pastures can produce and how many cattle they can handle without using as much hay or substitute feeding to get through the winter.
Grazeable acres: Determine the number of grazeable acres that are in the areas where the selected grazing animal could forage. To do this, use one of the aerial photo websites (preferably Google Earth or Daft Logic) or a phone app to outline these areas. If the grazing animals are cattle, outline the acres not dominated by trees, brush, water, or other nongrazable cover. If goats are used, the entire property minus water and infrastructure is fair game. Once all the areas are drawn, total them for the grazeable acres. Be conservative because overestimating the number of grazeable acres will lead to properties being overgrazed.
Stocking rate: Proper stocking rate is the most important management decision, no matter your goals. Defined as the total number of animals that can use the whole grazeable area for the entire grazing period, typically estimated per year, it impacts not only livestock production but every aspect of the operation — soil and plant health, wildlife, economics, and so forth. Each year is different, so forage production varies considerably from year to year. Therefore, proper stocking rate varies annually and should be adjusted according to forage production, unless very conservatively stocked.
In working with ranchers who are using continuous grazing, we observe there’s a great tendency to stock more livestock than their pastures can handle without feeding hay or doing a lot of substitute feeding. It’s not unusual to be aggressive with stocking rates and less proactive in adjusting rates relative to forage growing conditions.
When overstocking results in overgrazing, the whole system suffers. Overgrazing is a significant cause of poor forage and livestock production, wildlife habitat loss, low rainfall infiltration, soil erosion, weed problems, and lower profitability on millions of acres across the country. It’s simply not conducive to successful regenerative grazing.
Setting the right stocking rate, and adapting it as conditions change, provides flexibility in wildlife habitat management, prescribed fire implementation, preparation for drought or other adverse weather conditions, and allows room for a temporary boost in livestock numbers during years of better-than-average growing conditions. For regenerative grazing, it also allows for the intentional feeding for other organisms near the surface and in the soil, which contributes to their rebuilding.
As you move to higher stocking densities that are often used in regenerative grazing, you’ll likely need more temporary fencing and possibly additional water sources to optimize grazing performance results.
In future issues:
Part 2: Moving cattle, resting grass, and AMPing up
Part 3: When to consider and use high stock density grazing
This article appeared in the March 2022 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on pages 18 and 17.
Not a subscriber? Click to get the print magazine.