By Hannah Packman, NFU Communications Coordinator

Here on the Climate Column, we have covered a number of conservation practices, many of which are specific either to cropland, such as alley cropping, or to livestock, such as waste management. One approach that incorporates both livestock and land is prescribed grazing, which, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) describes it, is “the controlled harvest of vegetation with grazing animals, managed with the intent to achieve a specific objective.” This is achieved by regulating the frequency and intensity of grazing, as well as the density and placement of livestock. The aforementioned “specific objective” varies from operation to operation, and could encompass both conservation and economic goals.

One of the primary conservation benefits of prescribed grazing is enhanced soil quality. By controlling the location, concentration, and duration of grazing, farmers can prevent soil compaction due to trampling. This, in turn, can improve both the water infiltration and drainage of the soil, which can decrease the risk of water runoff, soil erosion, and water contamination. Farmers can go one step further in preventing erosion by protecting sensitive areas, such as riparian zones, through adequate soil coverage as well as the restriction or elimination of grazing or browsing in those locations.

Although prescribed grazing is often cited for its conservation benefits, it can also be a lucrative choice for farmers. By keeping animals on pasture, farmers can save the input costs of nutrients that are provided directly by manure, and the time otherwise required to raise, harvest, and store animal feed. What’s more, prescribed grazing can also increase profits. When executed correctly, the method increases forage quality and quantity, which consequently improves animal health and increases yields, and grants added conservation benefits, such as carbon sequestration and wildlife habitat.

To fully realize the potential advantages of prescribed grazing, a carefully-planned prescribed grazing schedule is necessary. This will stipulate the number and density of animals as well as the location, timing, frequency, and duration of grazing or browsing. A prescribed grazing schedule will depend on a number of variables, including type and quantity of plant and animal species, desired objectives, topography, climate, and season. Additionally, farmers will likely need a contingency plan that both predicts potential climatic issues as well as provides a guide to adjust the schedule to ensure conservation and economic goals are still achieved.

Do you use prescribed grazing on your operation? Why or why not? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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