Regenerative Grazing

"If we had viewed Earth from space for thousands of years, we would describe humans as a desert-making species." - Prof Elisabet Sahtouris

What it Regenerative Grazing

Let's start with conventional grazing.  In large part conventional grazing is simply turning your animals out in to a camp to graze your grasslands, pastures or crop residues where they like and as frequently as they like. On the best farms each herd of animals on the farm is generally rotated through 3 or 4 camps, with the animals grazing in a camp for a month or so before being moved.  While in the camp the livestock are in charge of the grazing.  The result is that animals spending an enormous amount of time in certain parts of the camp and precious little in others, spending most time at the water and supplementary feed troughs, to the degree of causing erosion.  The livestock unevenly graze the available plants, with the palatable species being overgrazed and the less palatable undergrazed.  Finally there is an extremely uneven distribution of dung and urine spread across the camp.  

Regenerative grazing is managed grazing where the farmer decides where and for how long the animals graze a particular patch of grass.  Using this tool the farmer is able to manage the under/over grazing issue and evenly spread herd impact. The idea is to mimic nature whose grasslands evolved in a symbiotic relationship involving four players - ruminants, predators, grasses and the soil microbiome.  The result of this symbiotic interaction was that the grasslands became one of the dominant biomes of the world and the soils below the grasses the most carbon rich soils on the planet.  Grass and soil health were maintained by migrating herds of grazers with the herd effect of the ruminants' - hooves, mouths, dung and urine - stimulating and fertilizing the plant-soil ecosystem.  

Conventional grazing is highly selective grazing and high quality, palatable forages suffer under repeated grazing events without time to recover.  This is known as the second bite, when recovery from root reserves takes place for a second time before those reserves have had a chance to recover.  Over time this results palatable species dying back and being dominated by the less palatable grasses and the plant-soil ecosystem function spiralling down.  By stopping selective overgrazing of palatable species and allowing grasses appropriate rest periods it is possible to increase the ground cover, the diversity of plants, the organic matter in the soil, the amount of photosynthesis per square meter and consequently the biomass per square meter.  All of which improves ecosystem function.

For years livestock have been blamed for desertification of landscapes but modern evidence does not support this accusation. If you look at both conservation areas and plots of land that have been fenced off for research, desertification continues without the presence of any livestock.  Desertification is not about the presence of livestock or too many livestock but about how those livestock are managed by humans.  Indeed it is with livestock and planned grazing that land managers have been able to reverse desertification.

"The [South African] veld is overgrazed and understocked" John Acocks

Historically large grass eating ruminants, their predators and grasslands evolved side by side. The predators hunted the ruminants and as 'safety in numbers' was the best survival strategy the ruminants bunched together in tightly packed herds.  Because they were packed together they quickly ate, trampled and fouled the grass with their dung and urine, so they kept moving to get a new supply of fresh grass (actually a mix of grass, forbs and legumes). The end result - migrations with tightly packed herds constantly on the move.  They would head off to greener pastures, leaving their dung and urine to stimulate the soil microbiology and they would only return at some distant date having given the grass time to recover.  Together they created an ecosystem that covered 30% of the earth's land mass, maximised the photosynthetic capacity of that land and sequestrated significant carbon in the soil, creating in the process the world's most productive soils.  Many of these soils subsequently became the breadbaskets of the world and today those soils are seriously degraded.

It is this situation that Regenerative Grazing is mimicking. Using the electric fence to create a tightly packed herd on a camp that is large enough to provide the forage the animals need for the period they are in it (generally a day but some farmers move their animals multiple times a day). The animals then move to their next camp only to return to the same camp when the grass has had sufficient time to recover and replenish its root reserves.  A similar impact can be achieved with herded animals instead of portable electric fences.

"Non-selective grazing is simply Nature's method of grazing" John Acocks 

Regenerative Grazing results in improved ecosystem function

It does this by:

1. Stopping Overgrazing - stops the 2nd bite by removing the livestock form the a grazed grass within 3 days and allowing sufficient rest for that grass by only returning to a camp once the plant has had sufficient time to regrow their leaves, photosynthesise and build up their root reserves.

2. Herd Impact - livestock have the following impacts - grazing, trampling, hooves cutting soil, and fertility (dung & urine). Under conventional grazing these impacts are not evenly spread over the camps with significant concentration in some areas and almost no impact in others. With Regenerative Grazing the whole grazing area receives this positive impact evenly.  The more frequently you move the herd the more even the animal impact.

3. Reduced Medication - by continuously moving livestock away from their dung rather than forcing them to live in it animal disease loads decrease meaning their need for medication to keep parasites in check also decreases.  This enables the stopping of routine dipping and medication and the return of soil biology crucial to proper plant-soil ecosystem function, like the dung beetle.

As farmers get experienced they achieve better results with shorter duration, higher density grazing - with the animals packed tightly together - and some farmers change camps 6+ times a day.  The rest periods differ significantly depending on the distribution and quantity of rain - in areas with low rainfall and long dry seasons (brittle areas) each area is only grazed once a year or year and a half, in some areas with high rainfall the camps can be grazed every 30 days in the growing season.  This process needs to be managed with observations and replanning depending on what is being observed.

The results that have been achieved with Regenerative Grazing, in incredibly diverse environments, are remarkable. From lush paddocks in England to desertified woodlands in Zimbabwe and the arid regions of Mexico and the Karoo in South Africa. The growth of the grass, the density of grass plants, the soil cover and the soil organic matter all improve, maximising photosynthetic potential and in many cases farmers have been able to more than double their stocking rates.  This is challenged by many who have not done it.  But by merely evenly distributing water and therefore grazing evenly across a farm about 30% more grazing is made accessible. That's 30% without even improving biomass production.

If you want to start Regenerative Grazing do a course, read widely, watch YouTube videos and plan meticulously.  The most frequently asked and unanswerable question is "How big must my camp be?"  Thats like asking how long is a piece of string.  The answer to the camp size question is entirely context specific and only once all the details that go to make up context are known can an answer be given.  Each grazing plan is context specific but basic starting points to plan around are:

1. Best results are achieved with 30+ camps per herd (this enables the farmer to allow for sufficient recovery time for the grasses). With portable electric fences or herding it possible to increase this to 100s of camps per herd with even better results.

2. Animals should not be in a camp for more than 3 or 4 days or they will start going back to the re-growth (2nd bite) and the camp is too big for effective and even Herd Impact.  Daily moves is where change really starts happen.

3. Don't return to a camp unless the grass in it has had a chance to get to the end of stage 2 of growth (stage 3 is when flowers start to emerge).

The boundary fence on Norman Kroon's Karoo farm is an iconic example of the potential power of Regenerative Grazing

Here is another boundary fence image this time from a farm in Padua Park Station in Australia

Video: Fat cows moving camps

Cows, Carbon Cycles and Carbon Emissions 

All of biology, all of life, is carbon cycles. Carbon like all matter cannot be created of destroyed it can only be converted from one form to another. The carbon in the grass came from the carbon in the atmosphere via photosynthesis, the carbon in and from the cow came from the carbon in the grass as did the carbon in the soil.  A continuous cycle.

Today as the heat around climate change rises cows are now being increasingly blamed for heating the world with their burps and manure. This reductive outlook, that views cattle as not being natural and focuses purely on their emissions, does not take into account that herbivores eating grass are part of a biogenic carbon cycle rather than a dead end emission like the exhaust of a car.  Ruminants eating grass is an entirely natural process that evolved with its own carbon cycle, this process is not a net emitter of carbon into the atmosphere.  Thats not how nature designs things. Had ruminants up-cycling grass into protein not been part of a balanced carbon cycle the ruminant experiment, like many before it, would have crashed.  Evidence shows that if cattle are grazed in a regenerative manner they balance out the greenhouse gasses they emit with the CO2 that is captured during the photosynthesis of the grass that they eat. That as these ruminants and grasslands co-evolved they sequestered loads of carbon into the soil below those grasslands. 

Much is made of the methane that ruminants belch as they break down plant cellulose but that is part of the natural carbon cycle. There have been 100s of millions of ruminants on the planet emitting methane for millions of years and they never increased up greenhouse gas concentrations. Interestingly atmospheric methane levels have only begun rising since industrial times, only since we started burning fossil fuels. Nature had evolved mechanisms for dealing with natural methane emissions, such as the hydroxyl radical (OH) in the atmosphere that breaks methane down rapidly into CO2 and H2O.  But vast, unnatural emissions from fossil fuel use have overwhelmed nature's ability to scrub all the atmospheric pollution.

Soil is about so much more than just producing food, we literally can't live on the planet without the other ecosystem services it delivers and the focus of our concerns around food production should be on production systems that build rather than deplete soil.  But dues to multiple vested interests the conversation is stuck on meat vs plant based, manufactured foods.  If we don't heal our soils we can't live on planet Earth, it's as simple as that.  Without appropriately managed livestock integrated with our crop production and on our grasslands we can't heal the billions of hectares of soil that need to be healed to give us functional soil ecosystems.

Regenerative grazing, by fixing the carbon cycle, also helps to fix the water cycle by improving the infiltration rates and water holding capacity of the soil.  Through fixing the carbon and water cycles photosynthesis potential is maximised and this contributes to cooling the planet via transpiration.

It is clear that the only conceivable safe and long-term solution for our environmental problems is ecosystem restoration at a global scale. This will include forests and wetlands, but particularly, also, grasslands, including prairies, savannas, and croplands (ex grasslands) and livestock will be needed on those grasslands and croplands.

If we look at the 5 principles of soil health how well does Regenerative Grazing stack up?

  1. Minimum disturbance - tick , no ploughing or chemicals required
  2. Armour - tick, well managed grasslands cover the soil with plants and litter at all times
  3. Diversity - tick, a well grazed grassland has a healthy mix of grasses, forbs and legumes and can have bushes and trees
  4. Living root - tick, grasslands have living roots in the soil at all times
  5. Integrate animals - tick

Aside from improving the grasslands, decreasing erosion, increasing carbon sequestration and increasing water infiltration Regenerative Grazing is also good for wildlife. The diversity of the grasses, the longer rested grasses, the productivity of the soil microbiology, the increased insects and the increased flowers for pollinators all combine to improve the environment for the local wildlife.

Other names for Regenerative Grazing:

  • Holistic Planned Grazing
  • AMP - Adaptive Multi-Paddock Grazing
  • High Stock Density Grazing
  • Management Intensive Grazing
  • Mob Grazing
  • High Intensity Grazing 
  • Ultra High Intensity Grazing
  • Planned Rotational Grazing

Video:  Regenerative Grazing


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