On Grass: The Benefits of Rotational Grazing for the Land, the Animals, and You

A few weeks ago we wrote a post about what “pasture-raised” means to our farms, why we implement these standards, and how these practices result in a higher-quality food. Now we want to focus on the critical component in a pasture-based system, the grass.

Because all our animals live outside on pastures or in forests, the health of these ecosystems are critical to the health of the animals. To keep both land and animals thriving, all Grass Roots farms use a system called rotational grazing. This article from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture explains it in detail. Basically, this method involves regularly rotating animals to new paddocks so that they continuously have a fresh grazing area.

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South Pole cattle grazing in one of the lush pastures at Falling Sky Farms. The line at the top of the screen is the fence that marks their current paddock.

Doing so allows the land to rest between periods of grazing, which helps prevent soil erosion, allows for better fertilization, and increases the diversity of plant life. The large animals—cattle and sheep— move over an area first. Their hooves break up the ground, and the trampled grass gets worked into the soil and acts as a mulch. After a period of rest, the chickens move over this same area of land. Because they eat different grasses that the cattle do, a diverse species of plants are able to thrive. The manure from both the cattle and the sheep act as fertilizer. And, after a long period of rest while the animals are on other paddocks, the land healthily regenerates. This study from the University of Vermont details how a rotational grazing system is beneficial to the land, the animals, and foods that it produces.

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Taken at Dettelbach Farms, this photo shows the regrowth that occurs after a rotational grazing cycle. Chickens have grazed in the pasture at to the left of the fence but not in the one on to the right.

In contrast, continuous grazing is the practice of keeping animals in a single pasture for the duration of a grazing season. This system requires little labor—which is a benefit to the farmer—but the pitfall is the wear and tear on the land and the lack of diversity in the diet of the animals. Without a rest period, the foraged plant species are stressed, and there is greater occurrence of runoff (which means the soil doesn’t receive the benefits of the manure).

This article from the University of Kentucky compares the two systems. The biggest disadvantages of rotational grazing practices relate back to the extra work that it means for the farmers who implement them. But because we believe so strongly that that rotational grazing is a more harmonious system, one that actually improves the quality of the land—and, as a result, the health of the animals—Grass Roots farmers are committed to put it into practice.

In addition to rotational grazing, our farmers use a other environmentally friendly techniques to keep their grass fresh and clean. For one thing, the fields are not sprayed. Chemical fertilizers increase the amount of protein in the grass, too much of which is harmful to the animals. A grazing cattle’s diet needs to consist of sugars and carbohydrates; protein is hard to digest, so they need very little of it. The manure from the animals helps keep the soil healthy, so no additional fertilizer is unnecessary.

The choice of species in a grass-bassed system is also important. Most of our farmers raise South Pole cattle because they are a smaller-framed animal that are bred to fatten well on pasture.

Integrating pigs into a pasture-based system is also helpful for its viability. When pigs forage an area, they root and break up the ground. When they have been moved to another paddock, our farmers broad cast rye grass seed. When the rye grows it creates a savannah-like environment, which both prevents erosion and acts as a food source for the cattle that are rotated through after the pigs. You can bet they all love grazing in the shade of a wooded area on hot summer days.

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These hogs have just been moved to a new paddock, land that has rested and regrown and is ready to be grazed again.

 

So what does rotational mean for you, the consumer? Basically, healthy grass raises healthy animals that produce better tasting, more nutritious foods, foods you can feel good about.