Shake up your grazing!

The ‘principle of disruption’ can keep your pastures improving

by Allen Williams, Ph.D.

Progress can be a frustrating thing.

In our search for improved soil health and forage productivity, we look to certain grazing “systems” as the key to improvement. Many of you have implemented some form of intensive grazing — management-intensive grazing (MiG), rotational grazing, mob grazing or even adaptive multi-paddock grazing — in an effort to make progress in building soil health and increasing forage productivity.

However, after a few years of using your new grazing system, you seem to hit a point of stagnation where progress slows to a crawl. You are left asking why things are not continuing to improve. Why have you hit a glass ceiling?

Nature hates stagnation

The answer is simple, yet complex. What I have found is that nature despises stagnation and thrives with diversity and complexity. As my good friend Gabe Brown likes to say, “Nature abhors a monoculture.”

I would take that a step further and say that nature abhors a vacuum. This simply means that if things are done the same way day after day and year after year, progress slows to a crawl and then stops altogether. If continued long enough, the situation actually starts to regress.

We see this routinely with CRP ground. I have worked extensively with numerous state departments of conservation, USDA-NRCS and state DNRs, and what we found is that plant diversity, wildlife populations and diversity all increase in the first three to four years of land being converted to CRP. But after that, the diversity and wildlife population benefits start to decline until a point of stagnation is reached.

No further progress is measured without some type of outside disturbance. As a matter of fact, things start to go downhill. Plant species succession trends toward just a handful of plants, with the only wildlife species remaining being those adapted to that succession.

Too often we see similar effects with our grazing systems. The problem is that we have implemented a “system” where we do things the same way every time.

This is basic human nature. We tend to want a system, a formula, a routine. This is where we feel the most comfortable.

The comfort zone

In this comfort zone we feel like we are accomplishing something good. We make an initial disruption to our old routine by implementing some new intensive grazing system (MiG, mob grazing), and we see fairly immediate results. We figure if a little is good, then more must be better. So we turn the new grazing method into a routine and start doing things the same way every time.

We set up a system of grazing paddocks that are all the same size and of similar layout. Then we graze all the forage to the same height before moving the livestock on to the next paddock, we leave approximately the same residual, and we graze each paddock in the same rotation at the same time of year, every year.

Progress seems rapid in the first year or two, but then starts to slow. Why?

Because our new routine has found its equilibrium. We do not see any new plant species appearing in our pastures, forage dry matter production reaches a peak and starts a slow decline, livestock performance stagnates and, absent outside inputs, we find ourselves wondering what happened.

I started to notice stagnation when I was still a researcher at the university. In order to conduct publication-worthy research, we had to make our trials fit a certain statistical design. This meant controlling as many variables as possible and “doing things the same way” at all times.

This worked well for examining a certain treatment versus a control, but I noticed that after whatever progress was made, an equilibrium point was reached rather quickly. At that point, we would look for external inputs to boost productivity.

The problem with these external inputs? They were costly and often created indirect side-effects.

I was stagnating  

I was seeing similar stagnation on our own farm. Through the years I implemented rotational grazing, gravitated to MiG grazing, then to mob grazing. With each, I made them a routine and hit a ceiling on progress.

We see this point of stagnation in our own bodies with exercise routines. If we do the same exercises each and every day, year in and out, we will reach that same point of stagnation where progress is elusive. Elite athletes and their trainers know this. That is why they constantly change their exercise routines to prevent stagnation and eventually digression.

Change is best routine

Our only routine should be changing our routine frequently. We need this kind of change-up to prevent stagnation in the progress of our soil health and production.

We need to employ what I call the “principle of disruption.” This is a fancy term for changing things up routinely.

It was my grazing “mistakes” that caused me to notice what happens when you introduce disruption. These were the times I left cows in a paddock too long, or made a move to a new paddock too soon, or forgot my rotation schedule and skipped a paddock, thus creating an extended rest period. I initially viewed all of these as mistakes. I had messed up and not followed my routine.

What I found, though, was that every time I seemed to mess up, something different happened with the recovery of that paddock. Usually that something was good in the long run. Nature took my “mistake” and turned it into a positive.

What we have to recognize is that like our own bodies, nature is quite resilient. When a challenge is introduced, nature uses it as an opportunity for growth. Absent the challenge, there is no growth.

One example of a mistake I have made (more than once) was leaving cattle mobbed too tightly in a paddock when a major rain event occurred.

The result was a quagmire with ground that looked like it had been poorly plowed. The first time this happened to me, I thought the paddock was completely ruined and that I would have to replant to have any grass for the future.

In my negligence I failed to get the paddock replanted, and instead just let it rest for an extended period. To my utter surprise this paddock rebounded in a completely unexpected way.

New plant species appeared from the latent seed bank, soil organic matter increased, and forage dry matter production improved to more than 2.5 times the pre-disruption level.
This has since happened to a number of my friends and clients, and I now tell them to just leave the paddock alone and see what nature will produce. Time and again, the results surprise in a very positive way (see below photos).

Photos: Allen Williams The "destroyed" paddock (on left) grew back (on right) after an extended rest period. These photos show the power of disruption.
Photos: Allen Williams
The “destroyed” paddock (on left) grew back (on right) after an extended rest period. These photos show the power of disruption.

How can we introduce new challenges that keep nature on her toes? What can we do to introduce disruption to our grazing systems?

The answer: change everything routinely. Don’t over-think things; just make small changes that can result in big responses. Here are some ideas:

1. Alter paddock rotations. Do not make livestock rotations through paddocks the same way every time. Alter livestock movement so that each paddock is grazed at a different time
of the season each year. Skip paddocks and then come back to them. This simple alteration can have profound impact in terms of what you see coming up from the latent seed bank and in succession of plant species.

2. Alter stock densities in each paddock in successive years and even within the same grazing season. Use lower stock densities with one grazing (below 50,000 lbs./acre), then moderate stock densities with the next (100,000 to 200,000 lbs.), and then ultra-high stock densities with the next grazing (more than 200,000 lbs./acre). Or, go an entire grazing season on a paddock with the same stock density, and then alter it the next season.

3. Alter the forage height at which you begin and end grazing a paddock. I normally recommend allowing the livestock to take no more than 40-50% of the available leaf volume in a single grazing, as this is best for limiting root growth stoppage and speeding plant recovery.

However, there are times when a little shock to the system with more intensive grazing can pay dividends. The practice of grazing tighter needs to be well thought out, and it needs to be done when you have plenty of soil moisture and the temperature ranges that will provide for speedy recovery.

If conditions are dry and ambient temperature is high or low, the paddock may be done for the year if it’s grazed too tight, and subsequent weed growth may be extensive.

4. Introduce multiple grazing species to your rotation. If you are grazing cattle, introduce small ruminants, free-range poultry and/or pasture pigs. Different livestock species have different impacts on plant species and soil health.

5. If you are using multi-species grazing, alter the pattern in which you rotate those species through a paddock.

6. Alter the size and shape of paddocks with polywire and tread-in posts. If possible, go even further by altering water and shade points within each paddock.

7. If you believe you have made a mistake in a given paddock, don’t be too hasty to replant. Instead provide an extended rest period and see what happens. Let nature take her course and prove her resilience.

8. Use winter bale grazing as a soil improvement tool. However, with each winter season you should alter the pastures where bale grazing occurs.

Small and large disruptions
So the key to successful implementation of the principle of disruption is to purposely alter your routine, both with and within each grazing season. Some disruptions should be large, and some small. To be effective with disruption, you will need to keep good grazing records to know what you did in each paddock with the last grazing so you can be sure to alter that management for the next grazing.

By employing the principle of disruption, we have seen continued improvements in soil organic matter, water infiltration rates, soil carbon fractions, microbial populations, forage species proliferation, forage dry matter production and wildlife and insect populations.

Monitoring a must

The final key is to keep track of these changes. Noting them requires that you be very observant. Watch the soil, the plants, the livestock and the wildlife. With the right management, stagnation will be a thing of the past, and the changes will be truly good.

Dr. Allen Williams is president of Livestock Management Consultants, LLC, based in Starkville, Mississippi.