Grazing improves farm resilience
by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
Far more than just providing fodder, grazing can help a farm improve its resilience to future calamities. Regenerative grazing specialists Linda Poole and Justin Morris presented “Grazing for Resilience: Bouncing Forward from Catastrophic Events” as a webinar hosted by Food Animal Concerns Trust.
“Can we use catastrophes to help us move forward and improving rather than just going back?” Poole asked. The idea is to improve the farm rather than to return to its baseline after a catastrophe.
“The one thing that we’re really trying to keep in mind here is how we can use a natural disaster or catastrophe and how we can use that as a way to create the type of change we hope to be able to provide in the future,” Morris said.
He believes that the ability to recover a pasture after a drought, flood or other natural disaster is the baseline health of the pasture before the event. But that doesn’t mean that a poorly performing pasture cannot improve.
“No matter what state your pasture is in, whether it’s a healthy state or an unhealthy state, no matter where you’re at, if you’ve been decimated … there is a way forward,” Morris said. “There is a silver lining, even in the face of when your fields and pastures are decimated … With the right approach, we can create a future that’s more resilient than what we’re currently seeing.”
Where Poole farms in Montana, they’ve been seeing drought conditions since June 2020. Some experts estimate it’s been the worst farming situation in 1,000 years. Her strategy has been to supplement her pastured sheep’s grazing with bale grazing and sell livestock as needed, as the drought was followed by grasshoppers.
“Are we almost done? Are we halfway through? Are we just getting started?” she asked. “The uncertainly weighs heavy.”
Morris said the first step of effective grazing is stock density. “Livestock directly affect plants because of the growth they leave behind, whether intact or trampled to the ground.” This is important because leaves are critical to photosynthesis. The impact of an animal grazing on plant root growth is notable. Morris said with 60% of top reduction, 50% of the roots are not growing by day three after grazing. But if the top is reduced by 80% or more, none of the roots grow. That effect lasts 12 to 17 days for the most severely reduced plants. Reducing root growth can affect overall plant vigor, especially considering other plant stressors.
Longer roots mean better growth and less dormancy during a drought. “They can be continuing to be green and growing even after the rain shuts off,” Morris said.
The health of grazing plants is important in other ways. “One of the most incredible processes in nature is the relationship between roots and soil life. They release sugars and other compounds in the soil for bacteria and fungi,” Morris said. “In the process of soil life gathering nutrients plants need, soil particles clump together, leaving spaces in the soil. It allows more moisture to be held in the soil for future use.” It also allows carbon dioxide to escape. Morris said that crumbly soil structure that looks like chocolate cake is an indication of good soil health, as it allows moisture to infiltrate the soil. The deeper the crumbly structure goes, the longer the growth will continue in a drought. Bacteria and fungi are the bridges for nutrient absorption.
Plants also need a lot of carbon dioxide. As carbon dioxide within the soil increases, it makes plants healthier as plants absorb it. In turn, this increases photosynthesis.
“As plant health and growth are improved, the quality of the forage improves,” Morris said. The animals who consume that forage therefore require fewer supplements and are subject to fewer diseases. “It begins with the grazier managing the livestock and plants and ultimately to the soil. It helps the grazier become more successful than before the catastrophe.”
Every pasture suffers after a catastrophic event; however, Morris said healthier pastures experience smaller fallout and much faster recovery. But the soil type, nutrients, plant types and stocking density all make a difference in how long recovery takes.
The response of the farmer matters too. Morris said some will graze their animals on a drought-stricken pasture until nothing is left instead of using hay to avoid losing condition or selling or moving livestock.
The location of the farm also matters, as pastures in warmer climates can recover in shorter times than cooler ones because the soil is more active.
Many think the only way soil can be disturbed is repeated foot impact, Morris said. While trampling the pasture near the water tank or the laneway makes a difference, he said that overgrazing can be a greater soil disturbance.
“Don’t allow livestock out until plants have reached the elongation stage, phase 2 or longer,” Morris said. And phase 2 is also better for animal health. It allows plants to produce seeds to grow more plants.
“It’s not really about what we allow livestock to take through grazing but what we allow livestock to leave behind,” Morris said. “Leave at least 50% of more of the above-ground plant canopy intact and in a dry environment, that will go up significantly to minimize the bare soil and reduce raindrop impact.”
He advised leaving enough paddocks per herd for a three-day graze period during fast growth and a five-day graze period during slow growth. To do this, farmers need to monitor pasture growth rates to adjust how fast or slow livestock are rotating. He stressed the importance of not bringing animals back onto a pasture that is not ready for them yet. Plants should have no evidence of previous grazing, dark green color and browning among the oldest leaves attached at the bottom.
Poole likes to view catastrophes as opportunities for improvement. “Sometimes when we are trying to think about how to get off a plateau, it’s hard to be brave enough to change up things,” she said. “That’s when nature throws you a curveball. Is there a way to use that catastrophe to improve your situation? It depends upon your holistic goals and your context. Talk with your family, Extension agent, NRCS agents, university. How can this be something that helps me prosper rather than something that puts me out of business?”
She does not think of the current drought as temporary, but as a “new normal,” which helps her think of more long-term solutions. She stressed the importance of plant diversity since some plants tolerate different conditions better than others.
“You can pivot the livestock you raise,” Poole said. “If your forage situation has changed, maybe there’s a better species suited for your forage. Our grass is in tough shape … Maybe this is a time to have a few goats.”
Improving the herd may also help an operation, looking at quality instead of quantity – or consider higher-vigor hybrids instead of purebreds.