An important part of the regenerative ranching process is regenerative grazing. The use of livestock grazing is an important part of the ecological process to improve soil health and plant diversity. In starting this process, you might be asking yourself “What do I need to get started with regenerative grazing?”
Regenerative grazing is first and foremost a change in mindset from traditional grazing management. Being adaptive, flexible and encouraging change are the main differences between regenerative and traditional grazing management.
The flexibility of an adaptive system allows and encourages changes in grazing management of a property from year to year. These changes include:
- shape of grazing paddock,
- size of grazing paddock,
- stock density (number of animals temporarily grazing an area),
- duration (length of time an area is grazed),
- frequency (how often it is grazed),
- and time of year.
Another consideration is what type of grazing animal species to use (cattle, sheep, goats, etc.).
Your Regenerative Grazing Plan
As your mindset toward grazing becomes more adaptive and flexible, a plan is needed to implement adaptive grazing. The plan is important, because it helps you map the process needed to achieve the outcomes. A regenerative grazing management plan should include:
- Maps (aerial and soil)
- Existing infrastructure (fences, corrals, pond, etc.)
- Existing forage types and production
- Grazeable acres
- Potential stocking rates
- Any additional equipment or infrastructure needs
1. Set Goals for Your Agricultural Operation
Goals are important because they give you outcomes to strive for and they help define the practices that are needed to meet the outcomes. Goals are most impactful when developed with all involved parties on the ranch and written down. In developing the goals, periodic milestones/steps should be laid out. This method allows for many smaller victories, providing encouragement along the way. Common grazing goals include improving soil and animal health, increasing plant diversity, reducing brush encroachment, increasing livestock production and increasing profitability.
2. Utilize Maps and Aerial Photos of Your Farm or Ranch
Maps are an essential step in the process. Aerial photos and soil maps allow you to view the property as a whole. Aerial photos can be obtained online from websites such Google Maps, Google Earth, Daft Logic, etc. There are also numerous apps that can be used on your phone as well. Local USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service offices can also help provide maps.
Soil maps are useful in determining the different soil types on your property and estimating the forage productivity of an area. Soil differences typically explain why some areas of a property are more productive than others. The USDA Web Soil Survey is an excellent source for soil maps.
3. Draw Existing Infrastructure on Your Maps
Now that maps have been developed for the property, draw in any existing infrastructure such as fences, corrals, water sources (pond and plumbed), roads, paddocks, forage types and structures. Knowing these locations helps identify areas that need infrastructure development to improve the utilization of the entire property to meet your regenerative grazing goals.
4. Know the Existing Forage Types on Your Ranch
Knowing forage production from past production records or estimates from the Web Soil Survey and type of forage present is important to determine an appropriate stocking rate. Most pastures have one or multiple species of forages, and knowing the differences between them will help direct your grazing plan. For help identifying plants, use the Noble Research Institute Plant Image Gallery.
5. Estimate the Number of Grazeable Acres on Your Land
Determining the number of grazeable acres is the next step. Grazeable acres are the areas where the selected grazing animal could forage. To do this, use one of the aerial photo websites (preferably Google Earth or Daft Logic) or phone app to outline these areas. If the grazing animal is cattle, outline the areas not dominated by trees, brush, water or other non-grazable cover. If goats are used, the entire property minus water and infrastructure could possibly be used. Once all the areas are drawn, total their areas for the grazeable acres. Overestimating the number of grazeable acres will lead to properties being overgrazed.
6. Determine the Proper Stocking Rate
Proper stocking rate is the most important management decision you can make, regardless of goals. Stocking rate can be defined as the total number of animals that can use the whole grazeable area for the entire grazing period during a year. Stocking rate impacts not only livestock production but every aspect of the operation and property (soil and plant health, wildlife, economics, etc.).
Overgrazing is a significant cause of poor forage and livestock production, wildlife habitat loss, soil erosion, weed problems and lower profitability on millions of acres across the country. A correctly stocked property provides flexibility in operational management, such as wildlife habitat management, prescribed fire implementation, preparation for drought or other adverse weather conditions, or a temporary increase in livestock numbers during years of better-than-average growing conditions. Proper stocking rate varies throughout time due to changes in precipitation patterns, plant communities and other environmental factors. The articles Proper livestock stocking rate supports operation and Stocking Rate: The Key to Successful Livestock Production are good resources in helping you determine the proper stocking rate.
7. Determine New Equipment and Infrastructure Needs
If you are transitioning from a traditional grazing system to a regenerative grazing system, you may already have much of the necessary equipment. In most cases, a system of fences and water sources are already in place. To accommodate higher stock densities commonly used in regenerative grazing, typically more temporary fences are required. These additional fences can be constructed of temporary electric fencing. This could be as simple as a few geared reels with polywire, fiberglass or step-in posts, and a fence charger. A temporary fence can be installed on foot, but it is easier to put in longer stretches from a vehicle. It is also important to have a good fence tester.
In some cases, you may need additional water sources to optimize grazing management. There are often cost-share programs through the USDA or NGOs available to producers to help offset these costs. The article Where to Find Technical Guidance for Land Management and Conservation can help you get started.
In summary, regenerative grazing is a change from the traditional grazing mindset. It is adaptative and flexible, encouraging changes from year to year. You likely already have most of the equipment, so the most important first step is being open to changing the way you think about and implement grazing.
The map in this article was created using ArcGIS® software by Esri. ArcGIS® and ArcMap™ are the intellectual property of Esri and are used herein under license. Copyright © Esri. All rights reserved. For more information about Esri® software, please visit www.esri.com.