Our Journey with Rotational Grazing: Challenges, Joys, and a Steep Learning Curve
Over the last four years we have been using rotational grazing, a practice of regenerative agriculture with many benefits, to feed our livestock. The learning curve has been steep.
It was a bright, sunny day and thirty other agriculturally oriented people were sitting, like me, on itchy straw bales under a tent. We were semi-circled around a New Zealand agroecologist named Nicole Masters who was holding clumps of earth in her hands and begging us to call it “soil” instead of “dirt.”
"Dirt,” Masters explained, made the earth under our feet sound worthless. “Soil” was a much better word. She shared her belief that instead of solely focusing on raising healthy livestock, ranchers should also focus on raising healthy soil, and that doing so we can provide myriad benefits to our flocks, all while spending less money. Win, win.
Masters can read soil like a map. She pointed out spider web-like fungal chains and worm burrows and root systems. She taught us what dandelions signify in a field and how to do a water infiltration test. Numbers and scientific names and data and statistics flew around me and I sat there, overwhelmed but intrigued, trying to take as much in as I could.
One of our curious ewes on pasture
What I took away from that soil seminar - several years ago, now - is that not only can livestock on the land to incredible things, but that livestock are in fact the best (and in some circumstances, only) tool to build topsoil and sequester carbon quickly, naturally, and at scale.
The long and short of it is this: carbon is stored in soil, and much of the world's soil has lost its carbon over the last several centuries. Responsible grazing builds top soil, pulls carbon back into the soil, and regenerates the land. I should say - grazing does all those things if it's managed closely. Without strong management? Overgrazing, erosion, and depleted land. There are some who think that grazing of any kind is detrimental, but it couldn't be further from the truth. There is even evidence to suggest that ruminants co-evolved with grasses due to their mutual benefit. As the livestock graze, they fertilize and spread the seeds of the plants the ingest. Another win-win.
What is rotational grazing?
Here's the crux of rotational grazing, and what it is trying to replicate:
Historically, massive herds of bison (60+ million of them, estimated) grazed on grasses through the Great Plains. (For context, the US currently has around 93 million cattle.)
They moved quickly, eating everything in sight and then did not return for a long time. Their grazing cleared the land of overgrowth and encouraged beneficial grasses to grow, and their manure fertilized as they went. Within weeks of the bison’s departure the land was much stronger. Over time, the layers of manure and composted grasses built rich topsoil, creating what is now some of the best farming soil in the country from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico. Their range was called “the great bison belt.”
The concept of regenerative grazing focuses on this ancient bison pattern but condenses it to build topsoil FAST. Whereas the bison did this work over millennia, modern ranches can make real progress in their lifetimes. Month by month or season by season we can move our livestock quickly through pastures, concentrating manure and lightly clearing the grasses. Trampled forage and manure feeds the soil’s microorganisms, who build topsoil over time. The more topsoil we have, the more carbon we can store.
In the years since attending Masters' seminar, I have deepened my knowledge around pasture management and soil health in our region. In fact, I'm something of a soil health evangelical, touting the benefits to anyone that will listen. We've certainly seen remarkable things first hand in the short time that we have been implementing these methods, such as doubling our stocking rate in one year simply by using cell grazing. However, the learning curve has been steep, and the labor has been significant.
The simple truth of rotational grazing is that you have to learn what works best on your pastures, and there is no book that can truly tell you best practices.
You can learn rules of thumb, but they may not always hold true for you. Everyone's soil, seed bank, and climate is so different that we even practice different management within the same field. Despite reading and attending every seminar I could, there were mistakes I had to make for myself to learn what worked for us. For example, the first year we overgrazed in the fall. The second year we spent a significant investment broadcasting a diverse array of pasture seed, almost none of which germinated. This year we face the challenge of how to contain our livestock guardian dog in our pastures, which will require extension electric fencing and constant checks at the beginning.
Traditional, continuous grazing is so much easier and less labor intensive. But we believe the effort will pay off in the long run.
We move our livestock as often as we can between pastures. The sheep may move between every 2-7 days, whereas the cattle move less often but across much larger pastures in the Montana high country. No matter how long they are in a pasture, the idea is to rest it for as long as possible behind them so the grass can recover. This means that our livestock are constantly exposed to fresh tall grass, have diminished exposure to parasites, and encourage biodiversity and wildlife in the pasture. Just the other day I found a Killdeer bird's nest in our pasture, and it made me smile. That would not be found in a pasture that was continuously grazed.
Our transition to rotational grazing has not been seamless, and has had hidden financial costs.
The learning curve to any new system is steep, and I spent much of last summer adjusting our grazing plan as we went. We ran out of grass early because I failed to account for several factors, and had to pull the sheep off pasture sooner than I wanted so they didn't overgraze and kill our grass.
There is no "one size fits all" regenerative grazing method for every ranch. That is the beauty and the struggle of it; you have to learn your soil, you grass species, and your animals. The regenerative movement is adaptable and promotes progress over perfection. It often takes 5+ years to truly transition into regenerative models and see the benefits to your plants and your animals.
Regenerative practices are becoming more and more common - across all types of agriculture. And some "regenerative" practices have been ongoing for a very long time. Many ranchers implement rotational grazing or strip-tilling simply for economic reasons without identifying with a movement of any kind, because the case for regenerative agriculture can be made convincingly on the finances alone. As I've educated myself on these practices I've learned how important it is not to generalize between different farms, and instead to listen to farmers and ranchers when they explain why they do what they do.
Going into the grazing season ahead, we are seeing the past several years work add up to benefit us. The grass is coming up strong with plenty of little seedlings among mature grasses. We hope to keep out sheep on grass even longer this year, well into the fall. Ultimately - regenerative agriculture and sustainability in general are central to Little Creek's mission, and our herd and the land they graze will be the better for it. And so will the meat for our customers!