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Regenerative Grazing: How Sustainable Livestock Management Restores Ecosystems

Did you know that in parts of the US, you can rent goats to cut your lawn or clear out invasive plants like ivy? While you won’t likely have to deal with the effects of overgrazing with a goat or two, it’s a big issue on much of our nation’s farmland.

Those of us with an interest in fighting environmental degradation and preserving biodiversity have turned to regenerative focused farming as a sustainable solution. 

Regenerative grazing refers to different methods of managing livestock that use the natural relationship between animals and plants to build soil health and improve ecosystems, while running an efficient and sustainable farm. For consumers, it means better quality meat, dairy, and eggs, without the environmental footprint of industrial farming. 

By bringing animals and the environment into balance, dedicating more land to regenerative grazing could dramatically reduce the impact of large-scale farming operations, like CAFOs

As we’ve seen on our own farm, regenerative grazing can heal damaged ecosystems, produce hardier livestock, and benefit surrounding communities.

But to appreciate its full potential, it’s important to understand how regenerative grazing works.

The Basics of Regenerative Grazing

When it comes to livestock management and grazing, there are two basic types: 

  1. Continuous grazing: This type of grazing is when animals graze and roam freely in a single open pasture area exclusively. This allows the grazing animals to come back and regraze pasture areas before the forages have had adequate time to recover.
  2. Rotational grazing: This form of grazing is when animals are constantly on the move, going from one pasture area to another, allowing adequate rest periods of 60-90+ days between grazings.

Regenerative grazing is a form of rotational grazing – more specifically, managed rotational grazing. 

Instead of moving grazing animals randomly, farmers plan where the animals will go. This gives vegetation time to bounce back. As the animals move from one section of pasture to the next, the sections where no animals are grazing have the opportunity to recover and even improve.

regenerative grazing cows

Continuous grazing has obvious benefits for farmers, namely that fencing off one area is cheaper than managing many separate sections. But it comes with significant drawbacks as well. 

Continuous grazing leads to overgrazing, especially when drought conditions make it harder for pasture plants like grasses to grow back. Overgrazing causes soil erosion and a host of other problems:

  • Decreased water retention: Soil erosion allows more water to evaporate out of the soil, and more water to end up as runoff in rivers, lakes, and streams. This leads to dry soil, making it more difficult for plants to thrive.

  • Lower biodiversity: Only the hardiest plants can stay alive in dry, overgrazed land. That means only the animals and insects that rely on those plants will stick around. Plant diversity in a pasture supports a host of beneficial insects, pollinators, songbirds, and wildlife.

  • Higher soil temperatures: Fewer plants lead to more exposed soil (poor solar canopy), which takes in more heat from the sun. The additional heat dries out the soil, causes water to evaporate, and can ruin root systems. This negatively affects the biodiversity of the soil.

  • Less photosynthesis of the plants in the pasture: Stressed, weakened plants don’t convert sunlight into fuel as efficiently. This causes reduced growth of plant life and, ultimately, makes the pasture less productive.

  • Slower ecosystem processes: Gaps in the ecosystem and stress on plants and animals reduce the efficiency of the whole system. The land then supports fewer grazing animals – reducing yield for farmers unless they supplement with other feed and or fertilizer.

Regenerative grazing, on the other hand, allows the ecosystem of the pasture to function as closely as possible to nature. This balance benefits animals, farmers, the community, and the planet. 

grazing chicken

The Benefits of Regenerative Grazing

“How does regenerative grazing affect the environment?” 

A system in which animals and plants interact naturally will result in less depletion and harm. However, regenerative grazing doesn’t just reduce the environmental impact of large-scale farming – it reverses damage and helps depleted farmland regenerate.

Environmental Benefits: Carbon Sequestering and Soil Health

When land is overgrazed, it contains less organic matter (leading to fewer nutrients for the animals) and sequesters less carbon. Besides contributing to enviromental degridation, it requires the addition of commercial fertilizers, increasing the risk of contaminating streams, wetlands, and lakes.

Studies demonstrate the benefits that regenerative grazing can have on the environment, and at Seven Sons, we’ve seen the results for ourselves in improved soil health

When we started the transition to regenerative grazing 20 years ago, we saw counts of about five earthworms per cubic foot of soil. Our most recent counts show 20 to 30 earthworms per cubic foot. 

For every 10 earthworms per cubic foot, there are up to 160,000 pounds of earthworm castings per acre every year. These castings are a rich source of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium for the soil – no fertilizer needed.

In fact, we’ve seen a massive increase in organic matter overall, from 2-4% at the beginning, up to 4-6% today. For every 1% increase in organic matter, the soil contains 2,000 pounds of nitrogen per acre and stores 20,000 gallons of water per acre. 

Best of all, for every 3% of organic matter, the soil sequesters an extra 30,000 pounds of carbon per acre.

Economic Benefits: Higher Yield and Quality

At Seven Sons, our regenerative grazing techniques boosted production from three tons per acre of dry plant matter to five tons per acre. All without needing to spend money or time on synthetic fertilizers.

We’ve also seen a dramatic increase in the quality of the plants growing in our pastures, resulting in nutrient-dense grazing for our cattle. We track this using a measure of dissolved nutrients called brix. Regenerative grazing practices boosted the alfalfa brix scores of our plants from 13 to 20.

Higher quality food for the animals leads to higher quality food for consumers.

grazing pigs

Social Benefits: Healthier Communities and Livestock

Because sustainable grazing practices directly affect the quality of forage, the biodiversity of pastures is improved, and in turn, animal health is increased.

Our grazing ruminant animals – cattle, sheep, and bison – are free to follow their natural instincts, eat a foraged diet (no grain), and live outdoors all of the time.

In addition, since there is more direct oversight of the livestock, more opportunities are created for young people to get started in agriculture. Regenerative farms support their communities by providing more living wage jobs and local economic benefits.

This contrasts the agribusiness track record of buying up smaller farms, devastating local economies and ecosystems. 

These practices also provide cleaner environments that are more in sync with nature and benefit everyone.

The Science of Regenerative Grazing

Although regenerative grazing practices come from the natural interaction between plants, insects, and animals, it’s based on more than a desire for natural harmony. In fact, the shift to this practice by farms like ours comes directly from science. 

Enviromental degridation is being hastened by global beef production, but the majority of the impact is due to the inefficient and unsustainable use of land. Poor land management in the form of mono-cropping, high tillage, and overgrazing, degrades soil health – so farmland is less productive and sequesters less carbon.

Studies demonstrate that regenerative grazing improves carbon sequestration by allowing pasture plants to grow back stronger and develop deeper, more efficient root systems. We’ve seen improved carbon sequestration on our farm, as well. 

Regenerative grazing also improves the nutrient cycle that keeps the ecosystem ticking. Moving herds between different paddocks, along with high-density hoof impact works to incorporate plant matter into the soil surface, making nutrients more available to plants, and long-term nutrients available to the animals occupying the area. 

Because the nutrient cycle functions more efficiently, regenerative grazing also improves soil biodiversity. Multiple studies, and observations on our farm, show that regenerative farming makes for a larger, more active biomass, meaning there are more organisms living in the soil. And those organisms don’t just live; they thrive. 

grazing bison

Implementing Regenerative Grazing

Switching from continuous grazing to regenerative grazing isn’t as simple as moving fences. Shifting to a rotational grazing system means changing how the farm itself operates, and learning about ecology.

The Regenerative Grazing Learning Curve

A key component in setting up regenerative grazing is understanding grazing management techniques. Farmers have to decide how to rotate grazing patterns and then how to appropriately move animals around.

  • High-density multi-paddock grazing involves using a relatively small paddock, with a large number of animals, for a short period. The small paddock size and the quick movement of animals mean that each section receives equal attention from the animals grazing there.
  • Rotational grazing is a broader category of managed grazing, and farmers can accomplish it in a few different ways. The workers move herds from one paddock to another, but the animals stay in one place for a longer period, and the paddocks are larger. 
  • Adaptive & holistic grazing is a practice that attempts to recreate the natural environment as closely as possible. Farmers and workers adapt the movements of the herd based on the health of individual animals as well as the season, growing patterns, and plants available. 

Investing in Regenerative Grazing

Farms wanting to transition to regenerative grazing practices need to invest in the right equipment and technology to make the change. 

Breaking up a pasture into multiple paddocks and ensuring that each one has the right conditions for animals and the existing ecosystem requires more equipment.

For example, we use portable fences to contain the animals in a particular paddock. Each paddock needs a water source, which can be a water line running throughout the pasture or a portable water source you can move with the rotation. 

Farmers also need to monitor each paddock, as well as the animals, which requires some specialized equipment to do correctly.

It’s been worth it for Seven Sons and our partners.

cow grazing in the winter

Challenges and Limitations of Regenerative Grazing

Implementing regenerative grazing is less challenging than you might think – and seeing the results is incredibly motivating for farms that take it on. But there are still many challenges in making the process mainstream. 

Transitioning to regenerative grazing can be an expensive initial investment, since sustainable grazing methods require workers, equipment, and testing. 

Policy also presents a hurdle. Although the USDA has taken an interest in sustainable grazing and farming practices, there’s still little policy on what constitutes regenerative grazing.

Two of the main limitations we see are:

  1. Farmers cannot implement what they do not understand: We need better education via the private sector, trade schools, and through NRCS & Land Grant Universities.
  2. Conventional and regenerative agriculture aren’t on equal footing. We need to stop subsidizing conventional agriculture as it gives it an unfair advantage and masks the true cost.

The Future of Regenerative Grazing

Regenerative grazing practices have the potential to improve not only the lives of the animals, but also the ecosystems of the farms where they’re raised. Because it is such a new technique, the biggest impacts are still to come.

One of our primary concerns at Seven Sons is that without enough action and investment, regenerative agriculture could become just another buzzword. Food labels like “free-range” and “organic” are examples of good ideas that are no longer meaningful for consumers as a measure of sustainable and ethical products.

When the concept of organic farming first gained popularity at the mainstream level, the spirit of what it meant to farm organically broke down over time. Without a lot of care and integrity, the same could happen to sustainable practices like regenerative grazing.

For regenerative agriculture to avoid that fate, farmers and consumers alike have to make the right choices. Consumers have to demand clear regulations and strict policies to qualify for regenerative food labels.

Farmers have to hold themselves to higher standards, and develop their farm operations with transparency. We’re proud to show off our farm and explain how our practices work, and we believe that’s how all farmers should feel. 

Regenerative Grazing Benefits the Entire System

Although shifting to regenerative grazing systems comes with a lot of added responsibility and care, we at Seven Sons believe it’s the best way forward for farmers, consumers, and animals.

We know that regenerative grazing improves the lives of our animals and the ecosystem of our farmland because we’ve seen the results. To learn more about regenerative agriculture, check out our resource page.

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