Adaptive Management is Key to Grazing Success

Reprinted with permission from Hay and Forage Grower, January 2023.

Interest in controlled grazing management has increased in recent years, in large part due to increased input costs.  The promise of growing more grass with fewer inputs is intriguing, and some would suggest that there is only one way to get that done.  Systems like High-Density/Short Duration Grazing are receiving a lot of attention, and all these systems have the same basic principles.  Frequent movement of animals with a high stock density, resulting in short grazing bouts and long rest periods are key principles.  As you study the current popular press on these topics you will find that these system names and definitions are used very loosely with a lot of overlap.

A recent name for these systems is “Adaptive Grazing Management”.  If you go on the web and look for information on this you will find a lot written about it, but there is little said to define it for what it is.  I found several University and Private resources that state that Adaptive Grazing Management is more or less synonymous with Managed Grazing, Controlled Grazing, etc.   Others state that in adaptive grazing management you need to follow very clear management practices such as very short grazing periods, very high forage mass, low forage utilization efficiency and a high level of plant diversity.  This same system was called “Mob Grazing” a decade ago.

At the Amazing Grazing Program we teach Adaptive Grazing Management to farmers and their advisors, but it is not the same as what is being taught by others that just grabbed this name and used it to describe a specific system.  To better understand what we mean by Adaptive Grazing, lets review the broader concept of Adaptive Management.  Adaptive Management has been used in many industries and in many other settings where there is a lot of uncertainty about many aspects of the system. 

With traditional management, there is a relatively high level of confidence in how different components interact, and many things like inputs (raw materials) can be bought on forward contract.  Managers and employees can do what they are told with relative certainty that the product will be consistent. 

With systems that are more complex and which are impacted by many conditions that are beyond our control those traditional management approaches don’t work very well.  The most effective management for those situations will be more flexible and will involve a lot of thinking and changing of plans along the way to react to changing conditions.  The final goals do not change, but how you get there does.

Grazing Systems don’t do well when implemented as a traditional rigid management scheme.  There is just too much uncertainty about what you will face on any given day.  Whatever you call your system and whatever the guiding principles, you still need to apply Adaptive Management practices.  It is clear that every farmer will have a different ideal system based on their time availability, their interest in spending a lot of time with the livestock, the land resource they have to work with and their production goals. 

Once I was visiting farms in Costa Rica where rotational grazing through multiple paddocks is the prevailing management in many areas.  It interested me that on most farms the workers that moved the cattle  didn’t understand the principles of grazing management but were rather just following orders to move animals to the next paddock once a day.  Some paddocks were consistently overgrazed and some were consistently under grazed.  It struck me that these multi-paddock systems were not working much better than the continuous grazing systems that predominate in the USA.  What is important is that the workers that move the livestock need to be thinking and evaluating the daily outcome of their actions. 

With adaptive management, it is important to set your long-term goals and set up a general approach to reach those goals.  The daily activities that lead you to the right outcome will differ as conditions change and the grazing manager needs to be monitoring components of the system to keep them on the right track.  Setting your long-term goals is critical and should always aim to improve soil health and plant productivity.  However, some may need to target a high level of consistent animal production, such as pasture-based finishing systems that require a high quality product, purebred production, etc.  Others may be relatively unconcerned with individual animal production but will focus more on plant diversity, or other components of soil health.

My colleague Johnny Rogers, the Amazing Grazing Program Coordinator, offered a definition of Adaptive Grazing Management that I think comes closer to capturing what it is than most of the other definitions out there.  “The practice of using proven grazing management principles and practices to meet the dynamic, biologic, economic and social needs of individual grazing operations and their communities.”  This is a little vague and reminds me a lot of the definition of Sustainability, but I think this captures it pretty well. 

The key is there is no exact way you need to do grazing management to be successful.  Don’t think that someone can come to your farm and tell you in a short time how to implement your grazing system.  The key to your development will be to use that reiterative process of trying new practices, and then modifying them to fit your system.  Not all grazing practices will work on every farm but you should be trying new things and evaluating them.  Don’t be stuck in a specific system as it will limit your ability to react to changing market conditions, rainfall (or the lack of it), animal health problems that occur along the way, etc. 

As you develop your grazing management skills, attend grazing workshops and get help from skilled advisors.  Apply what you learn on your farm, and evaluate the outcome.  Beware of folks that say they can tell you exactly what you need to do to be successful. The best manager will never say never and never say always to any practice.  They will be open to new ideas and techniques, and they will critically evaluate every action they take so they can adapt management to reach their long-term goals. 

~ Matt Poore, NC State


The Alliance for Grassland Renewal is a national organization focused on enhancing the appropriate adoption of novel endophyte tall fescue technology through education, incentives, self-regulation and promotion.  For more resources or to learn more about the Alliance for Grassland Renewal, go to www.grasslandrenewal.org

One thought on “Adaptive Management is Key to Grazing Success

  1. Points well taken. I always talked a better job of farming than I actually did but could not be there daily with my day and nite job which I finally retired from and saw the difference. Similar to ur Costa Rica observation. Enjoy ur articles. Temper ur approach that all fescue 31 ain’t gonna be reseeded by nova new just like all electric cars to replace gas but someone forgot to tell us where we gonna get electricity. I am little slow but clover, rotation, weed control and matching numbers to grass goes long way on 31. Baby not out with bath water. Got any good article sources on how nova stands up to eventual abuse of what happens on most our farms compared to 31 as we go forward.
    Glenn R Womack, M D
    Flemingsburg, Ky 41041

    Like

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