As the saying goes, there are two types of cattle producers: One grows beef, the other grows grass. Allen Williams manages cattle across 1,000 acres of pasture. But he grows soil.
Based near Starkville, Mississippi, this sixth-generation farmer has shifted paradigms. An acre of pristine, green fescue isn't nearly as exciting to the longtime commercial cattleman as an acre of mixed forbs and forages that might best be described by someone who didn't know better as a field of weeds. He calls it "regenerative agriculture."
Williams has become a well-known pulpiter for regenerative agriculture and adaptive grazing within beef's grass-fed community. Not surprising given the methods he exhorts can triple the biomass an acre of ground produces, in turn increasing carrying capacity. He has consulted on more than 4,000 ranches and farms in the U.S., Canada, Mexico and South America -- all with the goal of changing a generationally created mindset about how cattle have to be raised to be profitable.
"It doesn't take long to create a desert out of something that was once a paradise," he says. "Look at the Great Plains. After a few years of putting plow to soil, we created the Dust Bowl. In 50 years, we went from a vibrant ecosystem that was highly fertile and productive for thousands of years to a Dust Bowl."
Williams, who holds a Ph.D. in genetics and reproductive physiology from Louisiana State University, as well as a Bachelor and Master of Science degree in animal science from Clemson University, approaches regenerative agriculture with the mindset of a researcher. He uses data to support the idea that through adaptive forage and grazing management, producers can take a monoculture environment and greatly enhance its productivity with more plant species. It all starts with the soil.
Williams had a unique opportunity to see the regenerative agriculture system he teaches others transform a new farm that business partner Al Smith purchased in northeast Mississippi in 2009. Early photos show overgrazed pastures of bare dirt and a few weeds. Williams says the property had been almost continuously farmed for more than 150 years, much of that time to cotton. This was the starting point.
On Day 1, Williams collected data. What he found on average was soil organic matter at 1.3 to 1.6%, a water-infiltration rate at less than ½ inch per hour, and a Plant Brix* score of about 2%. He notes this isn't enough to put gain on cattle without supplementation.
As for forage species, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and Mississippi State Extension forage specialists counted four. They estimated a stocking rate of 6 acres per animal unit (AU), which is 1,000 pounds. Average daily intake for a beef cow is 2.6% of her body weight, or 26 pounds of forage.
The first winter Williams says they bale-grazed the land, feeding hay just to get organic matter on the ground. That initial spring grazing season was marked by an emphasis on high stock density, short-duration grazing and rest periods for the ground. The initial stock rate was about 6 acres per AU, on target with NRCS estimates.
"The set of cows we dropped in there are the same ones on the land today," Williams says of the approximately 120 head they moved to the farm. "We didn't destock, but we did add cattle over the four years."
The cow herd was not used to eating the forbs and forages available in these new pastures. They were pregnant and due to calf in the spring. It was touch and go initially.
"We had fields of weeds. Ironweed, pigweed, ragweed, sumac," Williams says. "Our environment is conducive to weed and brush growth. Some neighbors said we were going to starve them, but we looked at what we had, and we started to move them across that landscape."
Williams says by creating a competitive feeding environment among the cattle with intensive grazing, they were able to change behaviors. The cattle learned to eat the weeds. They would strip leaves off of ironweed and ragweed plants. It wasn't pretty.
"But what we found is that during that time, even through calving and lactating, those cows were gaining body condition," Williams says.
Plant-tissue analysis and Brix scoring revealed the weeds to be highly nutritious. Williams explains part of the reason is because they were more deeply rooted than the monoculture grasses and forages that had grown there before. While those had mined out the top strata of soil and nutrients, the weeds filled the void when the monoculture crops disappeared and reached deep to pull up mineral stores.
By Year 2, there were still plenty of weeds, but there were more forages, too. There was little chemical or mechanical intervention, or planting of forages. The majority of the response generated from the latent seed bank was simply due to the stimulation of soils caused by high-intensity grazing.
As Year 4 came around, Williams revisited the data. Using livestock and high-intensity grazing, they were generating newer and more-productive growth each year. The numbers verified that a significant change had taken place under the hooves of those cattle. Their impact had, in fact, grown the soil.
Soil organic matter, once under 2%, was 5.2 to 5.6%. There were now 43 forage species, not four, some of them natives. Plant Brix readings averaged 15 to 22%, up from 2%. Water infiltration was at 10-plus inches per hour, not ½ inch like before. And stocking rate increased nearly threefold, effectively tripling carrying capacity of the ground.
Adaptive grazing also gave soils more ability to sequester carbon. Sampling every 6 inches into the soil down to 3 feet, Williams says adaptive-grazing areas held 51.41 tons of carbon per acre compared to 28.71 in a continuous rotational-grazing system used for comparison.
Beyond the data, Williams observed a significant increase in earthworms, soil level insects, pollinators and wildlife.
"All of it just exploded. Animal performance increased, because it now takes fewer total bites of dry matter to achieve the same nutrient density and satiation," he explains. "What we found is that diversity and complexity are the keys to animal performance and health. Everything else comes with that. It's all in the same package. If we have diversity and complexity above the ground, we have it below the ground."
This turnaround has resulted in a mix of grasses, legumes and forbs. Williams says they rarely spray pastures, adding the forage mix creates a "thriving environment with primary nutrient compounds and secondary nutrient compounds that allow animals to have selectivity as they eat."
NO SET PLAN
Don't ask Williams to give a step-by-step outline of how to graze cattle in this system. It's called "adaptive" for a reason, and it's all about reading the situation and responding correctly.
He does advocate stockpiling warm- and cool-season perennial paddocks, allowing cattle to graze these areas in the winter months. He has moveable fencing to allow him to shift cattle efficiently and easily. A pasture map that works on Williams' iPad or iPhone allows him to synchronize grazing records and pasture photos to monitor conditions.
His job, though, isn't so much to plan as to respond to the conditions Mother Nature creates -- and to do so in a way that maximizes what's available to the herd. It's not an overnight cure, but the return comes sooner than one might expect.
"We took decades to destroy our soils. Think about 150 years. That's a long time. The good news is we can rebuild our soils much more rapidly than we ever thought. That allows us to have a profound impact for the good -- not just locally, not just in our pastures or on our farms, but I believe globally."
*Plant Brix is a measure of the carbohydrate (sugar) level in plant juices using a refractometer. Low Brix levels are often linked to high nitrate levels in plants.
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