Adaptive Grazing Rules – Part 2


It is important to note that every living cell and organism has a memory and responds to prior experiences accordingly. So, soil microbes have a memory and respond to prior grazing or other management practices. Plant cells have a memory. Animal cells have a memory. If similar practices are employed year after year, then the memory in the cells of all these organisms responds by telling the organism that it does not have to gain resilience. It becomes accustomed to the practice and basically stagnates.

The cells in our bodies work the same way. If we use an athlete as an example, we know that no athlete can progress if they do the same exercise routine at the same intensity and duration over and over. The only way to progress is to challenge the mind and the body (challenging cellular memory) by significantly altering the exercise routine. That is the only way an athlete gets bigger, stronger, faster, or gains greater endurance. It is also the only way that your soil microbes, plants, and animals will become more resilient.

We have noted repeatedly that when an “accident” happens, such as having livestock in a high stock density paddock during a sudden downpour (thunderstorm), the result can be what appears to be a muddy mess. The paddock can often look like it has been plowed up. The natural tendency is to try and “repair” that paddock by disking it down and planting new seed. However, more than 90% of the time, if we just allow that paddock a long rest, appropriate to the area and context, then it will recover on its own. Not just recover but respond in an exponential way. We have noted as much as a 250 to 300% increase in forage biomass production the following year, with as many as 6 or more additional plant species appearing.

To maximize the impacts of the Rule of Compounding and the Rule of Diversity, we must take advantage of the Rule of Disruption. Without frequent, planned and purposeful disruptions we will not see positive compounding effects or increasing diversity. So, the first two rules are highly dependent on the third rule.

The question becomes, how can we introduce planned disruptions on a routine basis? There are numerous disruptions that can be implemented in any given pasture or paddock on an annual basis to prevent stagnation of soil health parameters and the ecosystem. These planned disruptions include:

  1. Altering stock densities on a routine basis. We also refer to this as “Pulsing of stock density”. To do this properly requires some record keeping so that prior stock density in any given paddock is known. To elicit a positive response from nature, the stock density alteration must be of magnitude. For example, if the stock density in a paddock at the past grazing or grazing season was 20,000 lbs/acre, then increase to 50,000 lbs/acre or more with the next grazing. If it was 100,000 lbs/acre last grazing or grazing season, reduce the stock density to 50,000 lbs/acre or less with the next grazing, or increase to 200,000 lbs/ac or more.

    What are some effective and efficient ways to alter stock density as a disruption? We can move our herd multiple times a day. We can increase the size of our herd by combining herds so that we have a greater biological impact with every move. We can employ a “High Density/Low Density” (HDLD) paddock strategy or a “Paddock within a Paddock” (PP) strategy.

    With both HDLD and PP strategies we are building a larger paddock that can provide the needed forage Dry Matter (DM) for the herd for that 24-hour period. Then, we are building a much smaller paddock at the front of the larger paddock. We turn the animals in to the smaller paddock initially and close them into that paddock for a shorter period of time. The goal would be to have an effective stock density of 500,000 to 1,000,000 lbs/ac in the smaller paddock. At those densities, it usually takes only 30-40 minutes to create a good trample effect and to deposit a significant amount of manure and urine. Additionally, the animals will shed billions of microbes per acre. Once the desired impact is achieved, simply take up the strand dividing the smaller paddock from the larger paddock and allow the animals access to the entire paddock for the remainder of the 24-hour period.

  2. Alter Paddock Configuration. The configuration of a paddock determines the way animals move through the paddock during a grazing event. By altering the configuration of the paddock periodically you influence a disruption. If paddocks were going in one direction in a larger pasture the past time you grazed that pasture, alter their direction the next time you graze that same pasture.

    The shape of the paddock greatly influences the impact that is achieved. Long, narrow paddocks will create a significantly higher degree of trample and manure and urine impact than square paddocks. In a long, narrow paddock the animals move back and forth in a set pattern repeatedly. Therefore, when the goal is to achieve a high fertility and biological impact, plus stimulate the latent seed bank response for greater plant species diversity, a long, narrow paddock is the best option.

    Direction of paddock also must be considered. Not only does shape of the paddock play a significant role in impact, but the direction of the paddock is a legitimate disruption. If paddocks are typically oriented in an east to west direction, alter this occasionally to a North to South direction, or vice versa. Changing direction of the paddock alters the impact on the cellular memory of the soil organisms, plants, and animals.

  3. Alter time of rotations through paddocks. If you routinely have started grazing each spring in paddock A, then moved to paddock B, C, D, and E; start next spring with paddock D and move through in that pattern for a year. Cellular memory plays a big role here. Moving through the farm in the same general pattern each year will reduce desired results and progress significantly. The cellular memory of the soil microbes, plants, and animals will respond favorably to altering this annual rotation across the farm.

    Time of rotation also pertains to utilization of ecological types of your farm. For example, you may have a combination of rangeland, wet meadow, and irrigated fields. There may be significant variations in the rangeland, such as topography differences. Always grazing any one ecological type at approximately the same time each year will result in stagnation of that area and narrowing of diversity.

    Another alteration in time of rotations is to occasionally build paddocks big enough to support all animals within a herd for 2-3 days rather than daily moves. It is important to note that more rapid and significant progress will be made with daily moves but disrupting this periodically introduces another beneficial disruption. This can be strategically implemented when personnel may need time off, around holidays, company meetings, or other significant events.

  4. Alter season/month of the year for first or last grazing in each paddock. For example, if you normally graze paddock C in April and August of each year, wait until June of this year for the first grazing event. Simply altering the time of year a paddock is first grazed or last grazed can profoundly impact the response of both the soil microbial population and the latent seed bank.
  5. Alter grazing forage height on and off a paddock. If you routinely place animals on a paddock when the forage has an average height of 14 inches and graze down to 6 inches, alter the grazing height on or off. For example, start grazing at 8-10 inches and take down to 6 inches. Or start grazing at 18-20 inches and take down to 8-12 inches. This disruption occurred in nature and played a key role in promoting and supporting plant, insect, and bird species diversity. This disruption explains why MiG grazing almost always hits a point of stagnation. Targeting a very similar average plant height before grazing and a target plant height after grazing will produce diminishing results and narrow plant species diversity. You are selecting for the plant species that perform best under those rigid conditions. When you lower plant species diversity, you also lower soil microbial, insect and bird species diversity.
  6. Alter livestock species order when grazing a paddock. If you graze/forage multiple livestock species, then occasionally alter the order that you move the individual species through the paddocks. If you normally start with animals, then sheep or chickens or pigs, start instead with the chickens then move to animals.

    UA realizes that Turner Farms operates almost all the farms with a single livestock species (Livestock), so this disruption may not be an option. However, several of the farms do have large herds of elk and/or deer and antelope. Consider you grazing events based on when there have been significant grazing/browsing impacts by the wild ruminants.

  7. Alter rest-rotation periods in each paddock. If you normally use a rest-rotation period of 60-80 days between paddocks, periodically give paddocks an extra-long rest period. Again, do this at a magnitude difference. That means providing a rest period of 150 days or greater in any given grazing season.

    In arid and semi-arid regions, rest periods need to be significantly longer, especially on non-irrigated rangeland. We have noted that in these regions, even irrigated ground needs longer rest periods. Coming back around every 40-50 days can be too often and result in diminishing returns. On the rangeland, rest periods of 12-14 months can be highly beneficial.

    Planned Burns – Prescribed burns are a valid disruption. Burning can produce significant stimulus to soil biology and the latent seed bank. Incorporating this strategy periodically in any particular area or pasture can produce positive results. However, be careful that burns are not implemented too often within any given area. We recommend burns only every 5-8 years in any specific pasture, but only if needed.

  8. Leader-Follower – Implementing a Leader-Follower grazing plan from time to time can serve as a disruption. In a Leader-Follower system, you would graze one class of livestock on a paddock first, followed the next day by a different class of livestock (i.e., yearlings the first day, followed by cows/calves the second day). An initial grazing followed by an additional grazing can be a significant disruption to the microbes, plants and livestock when they are not used to it. However, care must be taken to not overgraze the pastures where Leader-Follower is implemented. In a typical scenario, the first group (class of livestock) would be allowed to take 20-25% of available forage DM (calculated for the entire grazing event) and the second group (class of livestock) would be allowed to take an additional 25-30%.
  9. Combining two or more Disruptions – Progress can be amplified when you are able to combine two or more disruptions in a single time period. For example, a stock density disruption (especially ultra-high) can be followed by an extra long rest period in a long, narrow paddock oriented in a direction opposite the usual direction. This results in four disruptions all combined into a single disruptive event. Multiple disruptions magnifies results and produces positive impacts in a shorter period of time.

In Adaptive Grazing Rules, Part Three, we’ll explore the important role of observation in putting these powerful rules to work for you.

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