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Adaptive Grazing: So Old It's New

November 15, 2016


Dr. Allen Williams Ph.D.Written By Dr. Allen Williams, Ph.D.
A champion of the grass-fed beef industry as well as cutting edge grazing methodology, Allen helps restore natural soil water retention and reduce runoff, increase land productivity, enhance plant and wildlife biodiversity, and produce healthier food. He also serves as Joyce Farms' CRO (Chief Ranching Officer). Learn more about Allen


Soil and GrassWe have talked about what is happening in agriculture — the dichotomy between farmers seeking ever higher yields to fix their financial woes, and those higher yields influencing lower prices. I also mentioned what has been happening with our soils and my concerns over what we are finding, with the caveat of hope. This month, I will set the stage for explaining where we are, where we’ve been, and where we need to go.

First, in agriculture, just like in broader pop culture, we have been seeking instant gratification. We have become similar to a lot of today’s kids. They have smart phones, tablets, iPads, etc. at their disposal 24/7 and are seeking instant gratification. If anything takes some time to learn, they become discouraged and often give up on it.

The advent of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, fungicides, supplements, etc., has taught us to anticipate and expect almost instantaneous results. We think if we do not see visual results very quickly, then what we are doing is not working. So, what do we do then? We get upset and anxious and say to ourselves, “Well that didn’t work, so I’m going back to what I know works”. In the process of doing this we are giving up on biology and trying to work solely through chemistry.

In essence we are destroying biology in favor of chemistry because we believe chemistry works better and we are seeking instant gratification. We are thinking singularly.

I will say this, if what you are attempting to achieve through biology isn’t working, it is not the fault of biology but the fault of management. If one method isn’t working, don’t give up on biology, simply try another route. You need to constantly ask yourself questions about what you are doing and it’s potential impact, all the while being highly observant.

Observing Soil Health

The problem with being highly observant is that it takes time. Time we think we don’t have. In talking with a large, respected Midwest farmer the other day, he told me that farmers are so busy simply trying to keep their heads above water that they don’t have time to “waste” trying to figure out all this cover crop and adaptive grazing stuff. He then went on to say that “if it worked so well, why haven’t all farmers already adopted those practices?” We’ve all heard that statement before and we all inherently know it is not a reasonable question. In fact, I could actually reverse the question back to the farmer and ask, “If what most farmers are doing now is causing them to lose money, why are they still doing it?”

In an October 13, 2016 article in Beef Producer, Alan Newport posed the question, “Can Ultra High Stock Density make 10x stock rate?” Interesting question. We know from experience and data that we can certainly see stocking rates increase two to four times within just 5 years when making the switch from conventional grazing to higher stock density adaptive grazing. In several of my past articles, I have detailed many of the benefits of adaptive grazing. Once again though, we have that pesky question, “If it works so well, why isn’t everyone doing it?”

The simple answer is they either don’t know about adaptive grazing or they don’t know how to implement it. Even those who are interested worry about how to initiate it without negatively impacting their financial positions. Many farmers and ranchers are so heavily in debt that they worry about doing anything differently. The truth is very few will suffer financially by better grazing management and moving their livestock more frequently.

Now that we see where we are, lets dive into where we have been and where we need to go. When our forefathers first settled on the eastern shores and then moved across the continent, they were looking primarily for fertile lands for agricultural purposes. In most instances they found them, but the fertility often played out within just a few short generations. Why? Tillage and a tendency towards monoculture agriculture. This manifested itself in a continuous westward migration, as settlers searched for more fertile lands to replace the land they left behind in the east. What nature had built up over thousands of years, we destroyed in a very short period of time.

How did nature build that initial fertility? One of the primary ways was through herds of large wild ruminants. According to a July 2015 article in The Wildernist, bison were a significant factor not only on the western plains, but all the way to the east coast of the present day U.S. Fossil records show that bison were quite common in the Southeastern U.S. from 200,000 years ago or more. The earliest known species of bison in North America was the Bison latifrons, a long-horned species that weighed up to 3000 pounds and had horns that were 6 feet long. At the time of their existence they had to contend with predators such as saber-toothed cats, giant lions, and dire wolves. These bison preferred an open woodland habitat which was common in the Southeastern region at that time.

American Bison

Somewhere around 24,000 BP (before present time), the Bison latifrons was supplanted by the Bison antiquus, a smaller species weighing up to 2500 pounds with horns intermediate in size between the Bison latifrons and the modern bison (Bison bison). It is thought that the Bison antiquus was more of a migratory animal than the Bison latifrons. The Bison antiquus disappeared due to overhunting by man (early Native Americans). The Bison bison evolved from the Bison antiquus as a smaller species that was more agile and able to migrate over longer distances to escape the pressure from man and from apex predators.

Due to hunting pressure and the tendency to overhunt, North American bison populations fluxed in both total population size and by region. There was a period of time where bison were far less prevalent in the eastern U.S. and much more prevalent on the western plains. However, in the 1500s, Europeans (primarily Spaniards) visiting eastern regions of present day U.S. introduced infectious diseases that decimated Native American populations. As a result, the bison returned to the eastern portions of the U.S. They repopulated rapidly on the abandoned Indian farmland and grassy prairies of the east, feeding under the trees of the open woodlands. They made good use of the grassy understories and the mast crops. They also favored the canebreaks that were prevalent along the many river and stream bottomlands before wholesale clearing of bottomlands by the European settlers wiped out most of the canebreaks.

The Eastern bison were plentiful in the longleaf pine savannas, alkaline cedar glades, bluegrass savannas and woodland, the coastal prairies and marshes, and the Black Belt prairies of Eastern Mississippi and Western Alabama. Bison bones dating to the 1600’s and 1700’s were plentiful in Indian mounds located in Georgia, Florida, the Carolinas, Kentucky, Alabama, Mississippi, etc. Evidence of old “buffalo licks” still exists around the Southeast.

As the European settlers moved westward from the extreme east coast, they eagerly hunted the eastern bison as a source of meat and for their hides. By the late 1700’s, when the American Revolution was taking place, bison were already a rare commodity in the east. Most written records show that the last remaining eastern bison were killed in the eastern U.S. between 1775 and 1825. In Pennsylvania the last known bison was shot in 1801, in Louisiana in 1803, in Kentucky in 1820, and in West Virginia in 1825. Many of the trails used by the settlers were originally bison trails. These early trails have become modern state highways.

When the bison were exterminated from the Eastern U.S., we experienced a significant loss of ecological diversity.

The bison, as large ruminants, were able to maintain open areas in the eastern U.S. through their high stock density grazing and resultant trampling, eating acorns along the way and reducing tree germination. Due to the impact of the bison, as a large ruminant, habitat for a multitude of species was created. Their impact was key in the creation of soil organic matter and fertility. They encouraged plant species complexity and diversity through their grazing actions, and through seed dispersal as a result of their migratory habits. Many plant species that are rare, or even extinct, today were common when the bison roamed the eastern grasslands and open woodlands. They are not prevalent today because they depended on heavy grazing and trampling by large ruminants to reduce their competition. Bird, animal, amphibian, and insect species that used to be prevalent in the eastern U.S. due to bison presence included many species of insects that are unknown to modern man, toads, ground squirrels, burrowing owls, eastern prairie chickens, bobwhite quail, meadowlarks, and upland sandpipers.

Adaptive grazing, as we interpret it today, is simply a form of biomimicry. We are mimicking what the bison and other large ruminants used to provide in terms of biological and environmental impact.

We may be missing the eastern bison today but we can use our cattle to simulate the positive effects the bison had on our environment.