We have already briefly encountered managed grazing, #19[i] on the Drawdown organization’s top 100 solutions to reverse climate change[ii], in our post on regenerative agriculture[iii]. Managed grazing is one of the four core practices of regenerative agriculture, because it can improve soil health, increase biodiversity and water retention, and sequester atmospheric carbon. In fact, Drawdown predicts that 16.3 gigatons of CO2 could be successfully sequestered by 2050[iv] if managed grazing grows from its current range of 195 million acres to 1.1 billion acres.
Simply put, managed grazing refers to grazing practices that pay close attention to the balance between how often livestock graze in a particular area and how often that land is allowed to rest and regrow. In this post, we’ll examine the three main types of managed grazing and how it’s more sustainable than business-as-usual (BAU) grazing practices.
At the same time, however, it’s important to remember that even managed grazing is not as sustainable as a diet with little or no meat consumption. We therefore still need to lessen the number of livestock we raise for milk and meat as a whole.
The Three Types of Managed Grazing
Drawdown identifies three different types of managed grazing, presented in order of their comprehensiveness[v]:
- Improved continuous grazing, like conventional continuous grazing[vi], lets animals munch on pastureland indefinitely, giving the land no time to recover and regrow. However, it’s more methodical and deliberate than what Drawdown calls a “pasture free-for-all”[vii] because it reduces the number of animals grazing per acre. Essentially, it prevents a pasture from being overgrazed in a short period of time.
- In rotational grazing, animals are systematically moved to fresh pastures to avoid overgrazing, allowing land to recover.
- Adaptive multipaddock grazing—also called “mob grazing”[viii]—refers to the practice of moving animals more often than with rotational grazing[ix], giving the land longer to recover.
Keep in mind that these terms aren’t necessarily universal; the Wikipedia page on “managed intensive rotational grazing” (MIRG)[x] lists numerous other possible terms, including cell grazing and holistic managed planned grazing. Whatever name it appears under, all managed grazing mimics the practices of wild ruminants, which move across different lands to graze.
The Benefits of Managed Grazing
Why is managed grazing more sustainable than conventional grazing? For one, it removes the need for herbicides and fertilizers[xi], which are applied to overgrazed pastures to prevent weeds from taking over lots where the livestock has eaten all the “good grass.”
In addition, giving fields time to recover and regrow improves soil health, thereby ensuring that these lands absorb more rainwater; some farmers have reported[xii] fields absorbing as much as fourteen inches of rain where they used to absorb only one. Healthier soil, of course, also absorbs more carbon—anywhere between 0.5-3 tons per acre[xiii], depending on climate, soil type, and plant species.
The most enthusiastic proponents of managed grazing, interestingly enough, are farmers. It’s the economics of managed grazing[xiv] that attract them; not only do they avoid the costs of herbicides, pesticides, fertilizers, and veterinarians tending to sick animals, but they also find they can put more stock out to pasture—sometimes by as much as 200%.
Moreover, they enjoy the biodiversity that comes back to their farms, too; as North Dakotan farmer Gabe Brown[xv] puts it, “When I was farming conventionally, I’d wake up and decide what I was doing to kill today. Now I wake up and decide what I am going to help live.”[xvi] This anecdotal evidence has been supported by research from institutions like the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), which estimates that managed grazing and other sustainable livestock practices can reduce emissions across production systems[xvii] as much as 30%.
Managed Grazing’s Limitations
That said, any[xviii] article[xix] that presents managed grazing as the best solution to the agricultural sector’s large carbon footprint is neglecting a key fact: eating less meat is fundamental to saving the planet. Drawdown acknowledges this truth by ranking plant-rich diets #4[xx] on their top 100 list. A 2017 study out of Oxford University[xxi] (with the fabulous named of “Grazed and Confused?”) concluded as much, noting that raising livestock contributes 14.5% of all human greenhouse gas emissions per year.
While this rate might be acceptable if they provided most of the protein humans consume, the truth is that 49 grams per person per day comes from vegetables—far more than the 32g that comes from all animal sources combined. The study estimates that managed grazing, at best, could offset only about 11% of yearly livestock emissions.
In conclusion: whenever possible, choose meat that comes from farms that use managed grazing. Nevertheless, it far more important to lower your meat consumption in general, even when it’s grass-fed on carefully managed pastures.
[iv] Drawdown, 74.
[v] Drawdown, 73.
[vii] Drawdown, 73.
[xii] Drawdown, 73.
[xvi] Drawdown, 74.