South Dakota State University (SDSU) Extension recently launched a research project funded by the National Institute of Food & Agriculture's (NIFA) Agriculture & Food Research Initiative, titled "Saving Grassland of the Great Plains: Is Management Intensive Grazing a Socioeconomically Viable Option?"
The project's goal is to provide a comprehensive analysis of the benefits of management-intensive grazing (MIG) across different regions.
"The research project is designed to determine whether MIG is a win-win solution for both ranchers and society, to better understand factors that affect adoption decisions and the proper incentives government may provide," SDSU Extension advanced production specialist Tong Wang said.
Grasslands in the U.S. are threatened by overgrazing, increasingly frequent and severe drought and land use changes, Wang said. Depending on the management strategy they select, South Dakota's grassland managers can maintain resilient ecosystems while optimizing long-term economic returns.
"Appropriate grazing management practices enable maintenance of forage productivity, combat invasion by less-palatable grasses and weeds and sustain higher stocking rates, which, in turn, increases maximum long-term economic profit compared to other agricultural production options," Wang added.
The project will cover North Dakota, South Dakota and Texas, which are located on the northern and southern extremes of the Great Plains, a region with 19% of the cow inventory and nearly one-third of the total grazing land in the nation.
"The overall goal of this multidisciplinary effort is to investigate the economic, environmental and land use consequences of MIG practice in the northern and southern Great Plains of the U.S., as well as barriers for non-adoption and incentives to overcome such barriers, to help ranchers to increase profit from rangeland and pasture while decreasing surface runoff and increasing soil infiltration," Wang explained.
MIG is an intensive form of rotational grazing that generally utilizes at least 20 paddocks with very short grazing periods of one to seven days, followed by a grass recovery period of 60-90 days, depending on the weather conditions.
Why rotational grazing?
On the pasture and rangelands of the Great Plains, continuous grazing is the conventional practice for domesticated livestock production, SDSU said. Under continuous grazing, livestock have unrestricted access to the entire pasture/rangeland throughout the grazing season.
"According to research, rangeland degradation is common under continuous grazing due to the regularly used practices such as pesticide usage and supplemental feeding," Wang said.
In contrast to continuous grazing, rotational grazing rotates livestock through several paddocks, so only one paddock is grazed at a time, while the other paddocks rest. In practice, rotational grazing management has various levels of intensity.
Unlike continuous grazing, intensive rotational grazing usually allows sufficient time for defoliated grass to regrow and, hence, sustains the long-term resilience of grasslands.
"Anecdotal evidences show intensive rotational grazing practice or management-intensive grazing helped ranchers extended their grazing season and reduced purchased forage cost," Wang said.
Research results also indicate increased profitability under MIG compared to extensive rotational grazing.
"In addition, extensive rotational grazing practitioners generally showed more interest in increasing the paddock numbers compared to the continuous grazing practitioners," Wang said.
Despite anecdotal evidence and support from consultants and the government, adoption of rotational grazing practices remains low, SDSU said.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2012 "Census of Agriculture," 288,719 farms practiced some forms of rotational grazing, accounting for less than 30% of all ranching operations in the U.S.
"Most farms adopting rotational grazing are under extensive rotational grazing instead of intensive rotational grazing or MIG," Wang said. "The low uptake likely indicates unfavorable perceptions about MIG among a majority of producers."
To gain a better understanding of why the adoption rate is relatively low, one of the key objectives of this NIFA project is to identify factors that inhibit MIG adoption among beef producers. A survey will be conducted in the northern and southern Great Plains that polls ranch operators on their perception of changes in profitability due to MIG adoption. In addition, how producers' perception, behavior and regional differences play a role in adoption decisions will be investigated.