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

In large part conventional grazing is just turning your animals out onto your grasslands, pastures or crop residues and letting them graze where they like and as frequently as they like. There are generally 2 or 3 camp rotations with the animals grazing for a month before being moved.  The result is that animals spend an enormous amount of time at the water and supplemental feed troughs, to the degree of causing erosion and there is an extremely uneven distribution of dung and urine on the soil across the field.  Regenerative grazing is managed grazing where the farmer decides where and for how long the animals graze a particular patch of grass.  The idea is to mimic nature whose grasslands evolved in a symbiotic relationship involving four players - ruminants, their predators, grasses and the soil microbiome.  The result of this symbiotic interaction was that the grasslands were maintained by moving herds of grazers, the ruminants' hooves, dung and urine stimulated and fertilized the soils which in turn fed the plants, together they created the most carbon rich soils on the planet.  

Conventional grazing is highly selective grazing and high quality forages suffer under repeated grazing without sufficient time to recover, resulting in less palatable grasses dominating.  By stopping selective overgrazing of palatable species and allowing grass appropriate rest periods it is possible to increase the cover of the grasses, the organic matter in your soil and the amount of photosynthesis per square meter.

For years livestock have been blamed for desertification of the countryside but the 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 overstocking but about how those livestock are managed.  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

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 they 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, tightly packed herds that were 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 sequestrating carbon in the soil, creating in the process the world's most fertile soils.

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

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 only return to the same camp when the grass has had sufficient time to recover. 

Another amazing benefit of this constant movement is that they always put space between their dung and themselves. So when parasites emerged from the ground to find a host animal there were none to be found, resulting in the parasite dying and the cycle being broken. The same applies to ticks that fell from animals to lay their eggs.

Each grazing plan is context specific but basic starting points are: 

1. animals should not be in a camp for more than 3 days (or they will start going back to new growth) 

2. best results are achieved with 30+ camps (this ensures sufficient rest and recovery time for the grass, in brittle environments each camp is only grazed once a year / year and a half).  

As farmers get experienced they achieve better results with higher densities - with the animals packed tightly together - and some farmers change camps 4+ times a day.

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 New 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.

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. Today as the heat around climate change rises cows are now being blamed for heating the world with their burps and manure. This reductive science that focuses purely on emissions does not take into account that herbivores eating grass is a biogenic cycle rather than a dead end emission.  Cattle 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.  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.  

Much is made of the methane that ruminants belch as they break down plant cellulose but this is part of a natural cycle. There have been 100s of millions of ruminants on the planet for millions of years and they never pushed up greenhouse gas concentrations. Interestingly atmospheric methane levels have only begun rising since industrial times. Nature evolved mechanisms for dealing with natural methane emissions, such as the hydroxyl radical (OH) in the atmosphere that breaks methane down rapidly.

Indeed as these ruminants evolved with the grasslands of the world exactly the opposite happened, together they sequestered the mass of carbon that was once in the soil below those grasslands, the carbon that our tillage has now released into the atmosphere.

The real discussion should be around regenerative versus degenerative agricultural practices but Industrial Agriculture has shifted the conversation to meat vs plant based diets.  As with cereal the profits on processed plant based foods are huge, highly processed foods are monuments to man's hubris.  So the conversation is now meat vs plant rather than what real nutrition any of these processed foods actually contain and how destructive their production processes are to the environment and soil.

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 via transpiration this contributes to cooling the planet.

It is clear that the only conceivable safe and long-term solution for carbon drawdown is through global ecosystem restoration. This will include forests and wetlands, but particularly, also, grasslands, including prairies and savannas, where carbon is sequestered through the roots of perennial plants and bound in organic soil compounds.

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

  1. no disturbance - tick , no ploughing or chemical disturbance of the soil and its biology
  2. diversity - tick, a grassland has a healthy mix of grasses, forbs and legumes
  3. living root - tick, grasslands have living roots in the soil and the grasses have leaves for photosynthesis at all times
  4. armour - tick, well managed grasslands cover the soil with plants and litter 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 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 or Ultra High Intensity Grazing
  • Planned Rotational Grazing

Video:  Regenerative Grazing


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