Surprising Benefits of Livestock Rotation

Lower cost ag is lower risk

No matter what, farming is risky. But the cost of fertilizer, herbicide, and other inputs is both high and uncertain. Livestock rotation reduces input costs by rebuilding soil rapidly. Improving soil health reduces or eliminates the need for synthetic inputs, often without a decline in yields. For beginning farmers, less need for machinery and inputs can make start-up more affordable. For established farmers, lower costs mean more income per acre.

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Healthy soil reduces weather-dependence

Effective livestock management can rapidly rebuild soils. Healthy soils hold more water. In fact, a USDA-NRCS study found that soil with 2% organic matter holds 48,000 gallons less water than soil with 5% organic matter. The healthier the soil, the less damage will come with heavy rains. And the more effectively water can be held and stored during dry periods.

Stephanie Schneider talks about surviving years of bad weather.

Expand the range of market opportunities

Pasture-raised meat, dairy and eggs have both strong and diverse markets. Raising animals this way offers multiple opportunities for sale – the cattle barn, selling to a grass-fed or natural branded program, or any of the many methods of direct marketing. This flexibility increases profitability for the savvy seller.

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Keep little ones busy, learning and interested in farming

Rotating livestock effectively requires regular observation and engagement with the animals and the land. This prompts questions, builds decision-making skills, and gets them out on the farm regularly. It also allows children to start and grow independent ventures. Many a farm child gets their first lessons in business with a hog, a chicken trailer, or a couple of sheep. They can scale these enterprises as a complement to their parent’s on the same acreage.

Reduce the impact of volatile markets and politics

In a global market, factors far outside your control can make or break your business. Energy prices have profound and complex implications for farm profitability. At the same time, Upper Midwest agriculture is in a stalemate with federal and state government over water quality. No one knows when or how this will resolve itself, but it could mean many other interests influencing what happens on individual farms. Rotational grazing reduces the impact of outside forces by reducing input needs, decreasing nutrient run-off and improving the quality of water that does leave your farm.[/vc_column_text]

Local and regional food systems spread local benefit

About 70% of grassfed beef and 50% of grassfed lamb eaten in the U.S. are imported. Meanwhile, demand for locally and regionally sourced food is growing rapidly and both direct and wholesale markets for grassfed or pasture-raised products abound. Local food investment extends the benefits far beyond the farmer and the consumer, generating between $1.30 and $4.00 in local economic activity for each dollar spent according to a literature review done by the Wallace Center. The challenge in the Upper Midwest is not that consumers are unwilling to buy local and regional meats, dairy and eggs; it’s that there are not enough farmers supplying products.

Stacking enterprises opens opportunities in rural areas

The aging of rural America, the huge numbers of young people leaving for cities, and the erosion of vibrant rural economies are daunting challenges. One part of the solution is creating opportunities for on-farm employment and new business development. A single farm can have several profitable enterprises on the same acreage. This creates opportunities for family members, new and beginning farmers, retirees not quite ready to retire, and a wide variety of business partnerships. Another part of the solution is that complementary businesses can flourish with larger, more active populations and healthy soils and waterways. Fishing and hunting businesses, tourism, coffee shops, restaurants and farm supply stores are all likely beneficiaries. It is not an easy or quick proposition to stack enterprises, but it is doable and being done.

Considering stacking? Read about leases and related legal instruments Identify land or potential workers/partners.

Safe drinking water is a fundamental need

Local governments have an obligation to ensure that citizens have safe drinking water. When the water coming off the land or seeping into reservoirs is clean, the government can do this rather easily.  However, upstream agriculture is one cause of waterways exceeding federally set total maximum daily loads (TMDLs). Municipalities cannot have drinking water exceeding TMDL levels and so, if needed, they must invest in expensive cleaning and filtration equipment. The threat or reality of this is endangering the coffers of small towns throughout the Midwest.

A good primer on the Des Moines Water Works lawsuit.

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Healthier foods make healthier communities

There is significant debate about health and nutrition and reasonable people disagree about the place of meat, dairy, and eggs should have within a diet. However science is clear that healthy soils produce more nutrient-dense foods. This is definitely not a silver bullet for the health crises of our time, but it is part of the solution.

Scientific American article on nutrient density in fruits and vegetables.

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Improved water quality

As mentioned before, the water quality impacts of many agricultural practices are creating tension both among states and between farmers and local governments. Farms using well-managed livestock rotation prevent runoff from their fields. Then they accomplish more  edge-of-field testing has shown multiple instances where rivers and streams flowing through pasture-based farms were cleaner when they exit the farm than when they enter it. Voluntary efforts by farmers have improved practices on many individual farms but have yet to improve conditions in the Mississippi River and many of its tributaries.

A National Geographic article that lays out the water quality challenges on the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico.

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Sequestering carbon and other greenhouse gases

Scientists are hard at work determining and debating the extent to which improving soil health can sequester carbon and other greenhouse gases over the long-term, reducing levels in the atmosphere. While the exact scope of the benefit is unclear, there is broad agreement that improving soils is part of the solution and maybe a major part.

The blog of Dr. Christine Jones, one of the key researchers studying grazing and carbon sequestration.

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A video describing a major research project underway at Arizona State to measure the impact of effective grazing on carbon.

Wildlife and fish

Perhaps one of the most surprising benefits of livestock rotation is the impact on wildlife and fish populations.  The disturbance and rest cycle created by the rotation creates variable grass heights that support grassland birds.  Livestock can replace clipping and mowing to reduce brush that overly shades streams and rivers, degrading fish habitats.  Deer, elk and other herbivores as well as many insect-eaters are often reported returning to areas where they weren’t previously after a livestock management change.

More about grazing and wildlife

Pollinators

The collapse of bee colonies is a significant threat to the food industry broadly.  Rotationally grazed pastures tend to have more diverse and nutritionally balanced plant mixes, often including clover, alfalfa, buckwheat, smartweed and rape.  Rotation can also promote the growth of perennials in the below-ground seed bank that have been suppressed by other species, further increasing plant diversity.  Bees and cattle are complementary with each helping to support the nutrition of the other.

More on the pollinator population collapse.

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USDA blog featuring a successful integration in Wisconsin.

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