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

Updated: Feb 5

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.