Be a successful adaptive grazing manager

By Matt Poore
Matt Poore

The author is an extension ruminant nutrition specialist at North Carolina State University.

Matt Poore

There is a lot of discussion these days about building soil health using improved grazing strategies. The currently popular approach is being called “regenerative grazing,” and the focus is to improve soil and animal health. Key principles for regenerative grazing include short grazing periods, diverse forage species, a high level of residual forage after grazing, and long rest periods.

In the Amazing Grazing program, we have focused on what we term “adaptive grazing management.” This is a little different than the regenerative grazing approach in that we believe there are many ways you can achieve better soil health and optimal system function. Adaptive management is a little hard to explain, but the adaptive grazing manager understands the basic principles of grazing management and soil health, then uses a variety of practices while constantly monitoring the outcome of their efforts. They adapt their management to improve their system based on observations.

Try new approaches

In my experience, successful adaptive graziers have some general characteristics in common. If you are working to improve your grazing skills, then knowing the attributes of these successful individuals may be helpful.

Successful adaptive managers keep an open mind. As they hear about new practices or ideas, the adaptive manager will give them a try. Being reluctant to try new things will lead to stagnation and boredom with your system. Trying new approaches will keep you thinking and motivated, and the worst thing that can happen is that a new idea or practice does not fit with your system. Not every practice is for everyone, but how will you know if you don’t try?

Adaptive grazing managers clearly understand the basic principles of grazing and soil health. Avoiding overgrazing is critical, and the best way to prevent it is to move animals frequently and protect the area just grazed to stop regrazing new growth.

The principles of soil health include keeping the soil covered; keeping live roots in the ground year-round; diversifying plant species; minimizing major disturbances such as tillage, high levels of fertilizer, or frequent use of pesticides; and understanding your context. This latter point includes your environment, your livestock, and your personal goals.

Indicators of soil health include a dark color, a high level of biological activity, a good smell, strong soil aggregation and structure, and ease of root penetration. Being observant of these basic indicators is something an adaptive grazing manager does constantly. More objective methods of assessing soil health through soil testing are being developed.

Most adaptive graziers use temporary electric fence. While it is possible to apply adaptive management skills to a system with all permanent fences, the use of temporary fence makes the job much easier and deserves strong consideration.

An adaptive grazing manager needs to maintain flexibility. Being too strict on what you do makes it difficult to continue a long-term grazing system. For example, an adaptive grazier who moves animals at least once a day will occasionally need to give more than a one-day allocation of forage.

Perpetual improvement

Critical thinking is the key to adaptive management and is something that helps ensure success no matter what you do in life. As day-to-day decisions are made, rarely are things done just right. This is okay as long as you evaluate everything you do and think about how it could be done better. Whatever you do, make it a reiterative learning cycle. Do what you think is best, evaluate the outcome, and learn.

Adaptive grazing managers don’t lock themselves into a short-term plan or to a “system” of doing things. While planning is critical for the long-term, in the short-term, sticking to a specific plan may keep you from making the most of your system.

Some people are “planners,” others are not. You can spend so much time planning daily activities that there isn’t time to carry out what was planned. When you have helpers on the farm, it is critical that they also be trained in adaptive management. Simply doing what you ask them to do will not be as beneficial as encouraging them to critically evaluate and adapt how they apply your instructions.

While there are short-term benefits to adaptive management, the big benefits come after a long time of applying the principles of grazing management and soil health. The benefits of each individual action stack up over time, and the outcome of each decision is influenced by all that you have done in the past.

Over time, soil health will improve, your livestock will adapt to your system, and you will get better at the daily tasks. Being tenacious and persistent for several years is the only way you will see the big benefits that many adaptive graziers have achieved.

Do what you enjoy

Embrace the joy of being on the land and a part of the ecological system. Adaptive management can be addicting, and a successful adaptive manager is happiest when they are on the land with the livestock and are in tune with the system. If your system excludes things you really enjoy, or includes things that you don’t like, you are unlikely to persist long enough to see the long-term benefits.

Over time, the adaptive manager begins to look at their farm as one system rather than a collection of the many pieces. Don’t reduce thinking to one specific thing. Go to the pasture and take time to make observations about the soil, livestock, and pastures without focusing on each specific one. If you can observe the whole scene and see a problem without looking at each individual component, then you are making progress. An experienced adaptive manager sees problems without having to look for them.

Adaptive grazing management can help you work effectively with what is a very dynamic system. Be open minded, flexible, and tenacious as you apply the principles of regenerative grazing and soil health. This will help you build a system that is unique and focused to your specific goals.

Keys to adaptive grazing

• Keep an open mind.

• Be flexible.

• Understand major concepts of grazing and soil health management.

• Critically evaluate everything and learn from your mistakes.

• Don’t be too tied to one “system” or a plan.

• Stay interested in the complexity of the system. Learn all you can.

• Keep on. Be tenacious. Don’t give up.

• See the whole without looking at the parts.

• Enjoy and appreciate the day-to-day activities.

This article appeared in the January 2022 issue of Hay & Forage Grower on pages 20 & 21.

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