SDSU Extension Study Looks at Socioeconomic Viability of Management Intensive Grazing

BROOKINGS, S.D. – SDSU Extension recently launched a research project funded by National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) Agriculture and Food Research Initiative, titled “Saving Grassland of the Great Plains: Is Management Intensive Grazing a Socioeconomically Viable Option?”

This project aims to provide a comprehensive analysis of Management Intensive Grazing benefits across different regions.

“The research project is designed to determine whether Management Intensive Grazing is a win-win solution for both ranchers and society, to better understand factors that affect adoption decisions and the proper incentives government may provide,” said Tong Wang, SDSU Extension Advanced Production Specialist.

Grasslands in the U.S. are threatened by overgrazing, increasingly frequent and severe drought and land use change. Depending on the management strategy they select, South Dakota’s grassland managers can maintain resilient ecosystems while optimizing long-term economic returns. 

“Appropriate grazing management practices enable maintenance of forage productivity, combat invasion by less palatable grasses and weeds and sustain higher stocking rates, which in turn increases maximum long-term economic profit compared to other agricultural production options,” said Wang.

This project will cover North Dakota, South Dakota and Texas, which are located on the Northern and Southern extremes of the Great Plains (Figure 1), a region with 19 percent of the cow inventory and nearly one third of the total grazing land in the nation. 

“The overall goal of this multi-disciplinary effort is to investigate the economic, environmental and land use consequences of Management Intensive Grazing practice in the Northern and Southern Great Plains of U.S., as well as barriers for non-adoption and incentives to overcome such barriers, to help ranchers to increase profit from rangeland and pasture, while decreasing surface runoff and increasing soil infiltration,” said Wang.

Management Intensive Grazing is an intensive form of rotational grazing, which generally utilizes at least 20 paddocks with very short grazing periods of one to seven days followed by a grass recovery period of 60 to 90 days depending on the weather conditions.

Why rotational grazing vs. continuous grazing?
On pasture and rangelands of the Great Plains, continuous grazing is the conventional practice for domesticated livestock production. 

Under continuous grazing, livestock have unrestricted access to the entire pasture/rangeland throughout the grazing season. 

“According to research, rangeland degradation is common under continuous grazing, due to the regularly used practices such as pesticide usage and supplemental feeding,” Wang said. 
In contrast to continuous grazing, rotational grazing rotates livestock through several paddocks, with only one paddock grazed at a time while other paddocks rest. 

In practice, rotational grazing management has various levels of intensity (Figure 2).

Intensive Rotational Grazing: Resilience towards drought and other benefits
Unlike continuous grazing, intensive rotational grazing usually allows sufficient time for defoliated grass to regrow and hence sustains long-term grassland resilience. 

Based on a recent article from NRCS, a well-managed rotational grazing system fared well during drought and provides better drought recovery due to a better mix of grass and more water holding capacity. 

“Anecdotal evidences show intensive rotational grazing practice or Management Intensive Grazing helped ranchers extended their grazing season and reduced purchased forage cost,” Wang said.

Research results also indicate increased profitability under Management Intensive Grazing compared to extensive rotational grazing. 

“In addition, extensive rotational grazing practitioners generally showed more interest in increasing the paddock numbers compared to the continuous grazing practitioners”, Wang said.

Low Adoption Rates of Rotational Grazing Practice
Despite anecdotal evidence and support from consultants and government, adoption of rotational grazing practice remains low. 

According to the 2012 USDA agricultural census, 288,719 farms practiced some forms of rotational grazing, accounting for less than 30 percent of all ranching farms in the United States. 

“Most farms adopting rotational grazing are under extensive rotational grazing, instead of intensive rotational grazing, or Management Intensive Grazing (MIG),” Wang said. “The low uptake likely indicates unfavorable perceptions about MIG among a majority of producers.”

To have a better understanding of the relatively low adoption rate, one of the key inquiries of this NIFA project is to identify factors that inhibit MIG adoption among beef producers. A survey will be conducted in Northern and Southern Great Plains that inquires on ranch operators’ perception on profit change due to MIG adoption. In addition, the roles of producers’ perception, behavior, and regional differences on adoption decisions will be investigated.