Around 68 percent of the world’s agricultural lands (eight billion acres as compared to four billion acres of croplands) are used for grazing. The majority of these landscapes are unsuitable for cropping. They are home to over a billion people who are dependent on the livestock that graze on them for their living. These landscapes are often some of most degraded lands on the planet due to deforestation and inappropriate grazing practices.
The good news is that there are a range of grazing systems that are proven to regenerate these ecosystems, increasing ground covers, biodiversity, soil organic matter, water holding capacity, and production outcomes.
Adaptive Multi-paddock (AMP) Grazing
One of the most successful methods of managing weeds and improving the productivity of pastures is called adaptive multi-paddock (AMP) grazing. In many of the current grazing systems, where the animals are not rotated across pastures and rangelands, the animals tend to overgraze on the species that they prefer and continuously eat them all the way down to the ground, even pulling them out by the roots. This devastates the most nutritious grasses and allows weeds and invasive species to proliferate. Too many grazing systems allow the stock to overgraze, leaving bare, exposed soil that ends up being eroded by wind and water. Much of the environmental degradation in arid and semi-arid areas(which currently comprise 40% of the Earth’s lands) is due to degenerative grazing practices.
AMP rotates a large number of livestock across smaller paddocks or delineating grazing areas for short periods, forcing them to thoroughly graze all the edible plants. Being massed together (mob grazing) forces the livestock to eat all the edible plants, not just their preferred species, resulting in a more efficient use of the pasture.
The higher stock density also ensures that weeds are crushed and trampled and that the manure is kicked and scattered across the ground, fertilizing the soil. The animals are then moved to another pasture or paddock and the process is repeated. There is a continuous rotation of controlled grazing in different pastures, and animals only return to the original paddock when the grasses and groundcover has regrown.
The key to AMP systems is intense, short periods of grazing that ensure that fewer than 50 percent of the available forage is eaten. This means that ground covers will not shed too many roots and will consequently recover more quickly. Research shows that these systems produce much more feed per hectare, are better at efficiently using rainfall, and significantly improve soil health and fertility. Farms managed with AMP systems can carry more stock per acre than those with fixed stocking systems.
Another very important benefit of these rotational systems is better control of internal parasites. Starting with clean stock is important. Most stock get infected from the eggs of the parasites in the bare soil. By always ensuring that less that 50 percent the leaf area is eaten, ranchers can prevent the mouths of livestock from being in contact with the eggs of the parasites. The other important management technique is to know the length of the lifecycle of the parasites and to not return the stock to a paddock/cell until the life cycle has finished. In some cases this will require a period of up to three life cycles to ensure that the paddock/cell is clean.
Researchers have demonstrated that the appropriate time-managed grazing systems will not kill a single plant and will increase the biodiversity of native plants, animals, insects, and microorganisms in the farm ecosystem.
Some of the most successful examples of AMP use multiple species in succession, such as grazing cattle followed by sheep followed by poultry, as each will tend to eat different species.
Rotational grazing is also being use with many poultry species for both eggs and meat. Following cattle with chickens is a great way to spread cattle manure and to reduce pests and weeds, since chickens eat the bugs and weed seeds. Geese can also be very useful in managing weeds. Young Chinese geese can be trained to eat specific weeds by feeding these weeds to goslings when they are very young. They develop a taste for these weeds and they become their preferred forage. The geese will actively seek them out and graze them down.
The published evidence shows that correctly managed pastures can build up soil organic matter faster than many other agricultural systems, and this carbon is stored deeper in the soil.
Research by Machmuller and and others show that regenerative grazing practices canregenerate soil and ground covers in three years. The ranches studied increased their cation exchange capacity (nutrient availability) by 95 percent and increased their water holding capacity by 34 percent.
These grazing systems are some of the best ways to increase soil organic matter levels. Machmuller et al. noted that they sequestered 29,360 kg of CO2 per hectare per year. This is an enormous amount of carbon dioxide being taken out of the air by photosynthesis and converted into organic matter to feed the soil microbiome. Several studies show that the amount of CO2 sequestered from the atmosphere is greater than greenhouse gas emissions from livestock systems showing that scaling up regenerative grazing can help to reverse climate change. There are several soil carbon credit schemes that are paying farmers and ranchers for increasing soil organic matter levels.
Regenerative grazing can turn livestock production from being one of the major contributors to climate change into one of the largest solutions to climate change.
There are many farming and research organizations involved in scaling up regenerative grazing systems on every arable continent. There is now a considerable body of published science and evidence-based practices showing that these systems regenerate degraded lands and increase pasture species diversity thereby improving productivity, water holding capacity, and soil organic matter levels. There are numerous excellent books, websites, online social groups, and organizations that can provide detailed information on the most effective systems.
Some of the resource links are provided below
Acres USA is a great online bookstore for Regenerative Agriculture
Another excellent publisher of books on regenerative and organic food and farming is Chelsea Green Publishers.
Chelsea Green published Ronnie Cummins’ 2020 book on Regenerative and Organic food and farming as a solution to Climate Change: Grassroots Rising: A Call to Acion on Climate, Farming, Food, and a Green New Deal.
Facebook groups - there are many more than these - search to find local groups
Regenerative Agriculture Group
Regenerative Agriculture to Reverse Global Warming
Soils For Life
Innovation in Agriculture
Andre Leu is the International Director for Regeneration International. To sign up for RI's email newsletter, click here.
Ronnie Cummins is co-founder of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) and Regeneration International. To keep up with OCA’s news and alerts, sign up here.