Adaptive Grazing

Building on Planned Disruptions

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Allen Williams says there is no strict formula for an adaptive grazing program, but the outcome will be better soils and significant improvements in forage production. (Photo courtesy Allen Williams)

Allen Williams has taken his program for adaptive grazing and soil regeneration across 48 states and into Canada, Mexico and South America. As a speaker and an on-the-ground consultant, he has worked with operations of all sizes and types. He says it's not a question of whether adaptive grazing works in a particular environment, it's about finding the best approach to make the system easy to implement in any given area.

"If someone has 100 to 200 acres and maybe 50 cows, and he's in the eastern U.S., the temperate zone with rainfall—it's easy to do this with Polywire paddocks and moving cattle daily.

"Out on a western ranch, though, where you may be talking thousands of acres or more than a million, it's a very different scenario. You aren't going to see them stringing Polywire. They use cowboys, water and minerals to group cattle into higher stocking densities and move them forward. They can get the same positive impact on that larger land mass and more arid landscape using horse and mineral as we can with Polywire."

Williams says it's not unusual for producers to be able to triple their original stocking rate once they have regenerated soils and altered the grazing program.

"Better soil means significant improvements in forage production," he says. "You coax seed out of the latent seed banks no one has seen for 100 years."


Williams stresses there is no strict formula to the program. The word "adaptive" means just that.

"This requires a person to watch the land and the animals, and respond correctly," he says. Williams adds he sometimes finds that producers who have used some form of adaptive management for years hit a plateau.

"They want to know why they aren't seeing any more progress," he says. "I tell them it's usually because of human nature. We want to settle into a routine and do the same thing the same way all the time. We are comfortable that way. Inevitably, if you do that, then you fail to be adaptive. You have just quit being an adaptive grazer. The day it becomes a system or a routine, you are no longer an adaptive grazer."


Williams advocates good records, and the introduction of what he calls "planned disruptions" when plateaus take over.

"You have to constantly shift and change to keep nature resilient. Without planned disruptions, nature does become stagnant. CRP [Conservation Reserve Program] land is a perfect example. Letting land lay fallow too long does not improve it. It will start to go backwards," he says.

Planned disruptions can mean adjusting stock densities; changing the way livestock are rotated through the farm year to year; altering paddock grazing; skipping paddocks occasionally; and modifying grazing height on and grazing height off. The goal is to keep nature resilient through planned disruptions.


One question Williams gets concerns the safety of cattle ingesting weeds.

"I don't call anything a weed anymore. A weed is something that is highly undesirable. If you're soil-building, or if your cattle can make use of that plant, it becomes a beneficial," he says.

He adds adaptive grazing, because of the competition it creates, encourages cattle to consume a wide mix of numerous species.

"It takes large quantities of some of these forbs to be toxic. On the other hand, many have strong medicinal and anthelmintic properties. So some, in small amounts, benefit the cattle. And based on our experience, the cattle won't overconsume them because they have a strong taste."


As Williams and his clients transitioned poor pastures to adaptive grazing, he says a common concern has been that cows would lose body condition score (BCS). He likes to keep cattle at a 5 to 6 BCS. Formally trained in genetics and reproduction physiology, he says he actually finds it less challenging to maintain BCS in this system than on monoculture pastures.

"In a monoculture system, we were always worrying about supplementing the cows. We needed more protein or more energy to make sure they rebred. That required a number of things, from purchasing the supplements to transporting them, to the labor needed to feed them. If I can eliminate that and rely on the diversity of these forages to do the job for me, I've eliminated the costs and time and worry."


He's also found that adaptive grazing means less need for deworming mature cattle because he's breaking the worm cycle by grazing higher.

"Look at the larvae life cycle. They are 3 to 4 inches up the stalk or blade of grass on a plant. You break the parasite cycle and the fly cycle by grazing higher and leaving more thatch. And by cutting out chemical dewormers, we see dung beetle populations return and grow.

"What you find is the more you have, the more you have," Williams explains. "The more frequently you move cattle and the taller you graze, the more residual you leave and the more biomass each acre produces. The same acre will produce 3 to 4 times the forage biomass that it did under conventional-grazing management. You don't need to buy more land if each acre is producing more total forage biomass."


In a drought, such as the one Williams and many in the Southeast faced last year, the best strategy is to designate a sacrifice pasture.

This is when a little hay supplement, fed early, will allow fields to rest and recover. Those areas can be stockpiled to avoid feeding hay later in the year, when tires rolling across the ground can cause compaction and ruts.


Victoria Myers