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Rotational Grazing: A Win-Win Practice for Rancher’s Bottom-line and the Environment?

Updated: Feb 5, 2021

By Hongli Feng, Yuyuan Che, and David A. Hennessy

If someone views a technology as both profit increasing and environment friendly, will they adopt the technology? For many ranchers, the apparent answer seems to be no in the context of grazing management.

Grazing management practices have important economic and environmental consequences. Large portions of the United States are grazed. As shown in figure 1, rangelands and pasturelands cover 625 million acres (or 27%) of the U.S. surface area. Different grazing strategies have evolved or been developed, each with distinctive grass productivity and ecological consequences. Sound grazing management protects land quality, conserves wildlife habitat, and can—where relevant—keep prairie healthy.

Land use in US. Midwest is cropland, east coast and south are forest land, southwest is rangelands, and pasture land appears in pockets toward the middle of the country
Figure 1: The distribution of the four primary rural land types (pasturelands, rangelands, croplands, and forests) across the United States, among which rangelands and pasturelands are concentrated in the Great Plains and middle regions. (Map source: USDA-NRCS, Soil Science and Resource Assessment, Resource Assessment Division, Beltsville, MD August 2018)

Traditional ranching involves continuous grazing by which livestock have unrestricted access to the entire pasture throughout the grazing season. A herd that grazes continuously, though, will eat the most desirable species first, leaving behind plant species on which livestock do not thrive. If the area is grazed hard without time to recover, then forage quality and ranch production will decline. Grazing land degradation is also common under continuous grazing, due to erosion in areas where animals congregate and proliferation of exotic species where land is stressed.

Rotational grazing can address many of the concerns arising from continuous grazing. Under rotational grazing, pastures are divided into multiple paddocks. Livestock are rotated through paddocks with only one paddock grazed at a time while the other paddocks rest. Due to higher stocking density on each paddock being grazed, the livestock are forced to be less picky and will graze a higher proportion of the less preferred plant species. The practice protects the species that are more productive and so improves ranch productivity. Beef production per acre has been shown to increase with more divided paddocks, so that nutrient inputs used and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions will decline per unit of beef produced. However, additional costs are involved because rotational grazing often requires additional fencing, water supply infrastructure, labor input, and management skills.

Government agencies promote rotational grazing. For example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) adapted components of a major conservation program in 2015 to support working grasslands—including rotational grazing—through rental payments and cost-sharing subsidies for fencing and watering infrastructure. University extension services and conservation groups also promote the use of rotational grazing.

Despite the potential benefits and various efforts aimed at promoting adoption, the most recent data reveals that the average adoption rate among ranchers is just over 30 percent. Given the apparent benefits of rotational grazing—both environmental and economic—the low adoption rate is puzzling.

Shares of rotational grazing are highest in the northeastern part of the country along the coast.
Figure 2: hare of rotational grazing in all grazing for cattle, goat and sheep operations at the county-level (USDA NASS; 2017)

Researchers at Michigan State University and other collaborating universities wanted to shed light on this puzzle. In early 2018 they sent out a survey to beef operators in eastern North Dakota and South Dakota and Central and North Texas. Among the 874 responses, 59% of respondents were currently practicing rotational grazing, who we call adopters. Adopters and non-adopters were asked whether rotational grazing was a “win-win” practice in terms of its effects on both the environment and the operator’s bottom-line. They were also asked why they did or did not adopt.

(1) Is rotation grazing a “win” for the ranchers’ bottom-line?

Although adopters and non-adopters expressed diverse views on the profit effects of rotational grazing adoption, the majority in both groups were of the view that rotational grazing is a profit increasing practice as shown in figure 3. Indeed, 57% of non-adopters perceived that the practice would increase profits. There could be several reasons why these ranchers do not choose the practice. One possibility is that the relative benefits of rotational grazing over continuous grazing may be limited for small farms. Another is the perceived greater amount of labor required for the rotational grazing practice. A greater proportion (83%) of non-adopters thought that rotational grazing would increase the required labor and management time than did adopters (61%), also shown in figure 3.

Profits increased for adopters while labor decreased
Figure 3. Adopter and non-adopter opinions about the effects of rotational grazing adoption on the ranch profit during the first five years, and on the needed labor and management time.

But different perceptions about grassland productivity impacts also explain the less enthusiastic views about practice profitability among non-adopters. Fewer non-adopters reported that rotational grazing would prolong the grazing season, increase stocking rate capacity, increase livestock weight gain, and improve livestock health than adopters, as can be seen in figure 4.

Adapters tend to experience more benefits than non-adopters
Figure 4. The potential benefits associated with rotational grazing practices among adopters and non-adopters

(2) Is rotation grazing a “win” for the environment?

Most adopting (99%) and non-adopting (89%) respondents agreed that rotational grazing would improve the environment by increasing desirable grass production, decreasing runoff and erosion as well as improving drought resilience and recovery. A greater proportion of adopters regarded the above environmental benefits to be significant when compared with non-adopters. Table 1 shows that perceptions about economic and environmental effects align well. Most adopters (76%) regarded rotational grazing as a “win-win” practice. Among non-adopters, about 57% thought rotational grazing to be a “win-win” practice.

(3) Why many ranchers with a “win-win” view of rotational grazing did not adopt rotational grazing?

It is intuitive that a rancher seeking to stay in business may not adopt a practice if environmental gains are not accompanied by profit. However, the finding that many ranchers viewed rotational grazing as both profit-increasing and environment friendly yet did not adopt goes against basic economic reasoning. We conjecture that the reasons for these non-adoption decisions reside in each individual’s personal circumstances. Among respondents in the “win-win” groups, non-adopters are found to be older, have ranched for more years, and have relatively lower education levels. The percentage of total household income obtained from ranching is also smaller among non-adopting “win-win” respondents than among adopters in the set. They also managed a much smaller ranch. These are observations from our data; further research is needed to understand which, if any, personal circumstances are more likely to result in non-adoption despite “win-win” views.

The phenomenon that many conservation practice non-adopters view the practice as “win-win” is not unique to rotational grazing. A similar phenomenon exists in the energy sector, where a large literature documents the “energy efficiency gap” (defined as the difference between actual energy use and optimal energy use). This literature suggests that we first need to understand whether a conservation practice is actually “win-win” for individual decision makers. If the practice is known to perform well only under certain conditions—such as on relatively flat land or given sufficient water sources—then the potential benefits of the practice may not be achievable for a ranch not satisfying these conditions. We also need to consider whether constraints exist on the investments in management skills and equipment needed to support the practice. A rancher who is unwilling to invest because of looming retirement or worries about uncertain future returns may not adopt.

By expanding what is known about decision maker’s circumstances to complement what is known about the rotational grazing technology, policy makers may be able to identify targeted, effective policies that promote the practice so as to ultimately realize the “win-win” possibilities for more ranches.

Hongli Feng is an Associate Professor at AFRE of MSU. Feng has published extensively on economic issues that are pertinent to the agricultural sector, the environment, and the interface of the two. She currently works on a few projects that apply experimental and behavioral economics to current issues concerning agriculture and conservation.

Yuyuan Che is a PhD student in the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics (AFRE) at Michigan State University (MSU). She is currently analyzing the psychological, cognitive and information dimensions of farmers’ production and risk management choices. The objective of her research is to provide information that improves farm income and environmental management outcomes.

David A. Hennessy is a Professor at AFRE of MSU. His research, teaching and outreach interests concern production agriculture and its interfaces with finance and risk management, industry organization, downstream food processing, and the environment, emphasizing animal health management, cropping systems and technology adoption, land use decisions and policy, crop insurance and behavioral economics as it applies to on-farm choices. Named a Fellow of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association in 2010, he is a past editor of the American Journal of Agricultural Economics.


Financial support for this work was provided by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, U.S. Department of Agriculture, under award number 2017-67024-26279.

Photos courtesy Hongli Feng

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