Grazing Cattle

New study suggests “techno-grazing” approaches can support more cattle in less space without adversely affecting soil structure and function

A new study comparing traditional (set stocked) cattle grazing with a highly-stocked cell-based approach suggests that grassland can recover just as well from the higher density approach, provided the animals are moved on a regular basis.

The findings could have major implications for livestock management, allowing farmers to use less land to deliver similar quantities of high-quality protein without adversely affecting soil conditions.

The study, undertaken at Rothamsted’s North Wyke farm in Devon, compared soil disturbance in traditionally grazed and cell-grazed fields. In cell grazing animals are penned into smaller areas of the field which are then regularly moved to make more efficient use of the land. In this way more grass is grown and harvested, which in turn promotes the recovery of soil structure in the non-grazed areas. This allows for more cattle to be raised on the same area of pasture by making sure all the grass is grazed more-or-less equally.

By measuring soil compaction in both systems over a season, the researchers found that there was no significant difference in how grazing affects soil structure and how well the pasture recovered over the winter break.

“The results suggest that with careful management of cell grazing including appropriate stocking densities and resting periods, stocking rates on grassland could be increased with no detrimental consequences in soil structure beyond what would normally occur on grazed pasture,” said Dr Alejandro Romero-Ruiz who led the study. “This means we can deliver more high-quality protein using the same land - thus contributing to meet the growing demand for animal-origin foods.”     

The data were collected from a permanent pasture of predominantly perennial ryegrass with 5% white clover. The small-scale experiment was setup in enclosed pastures in triplicate with a fixed size of 1.75 ha for open, set-stocked fields and 1.0 ha for cell grazing, the latter of which was sub-divided into 42 cells. For the year of the study, eighteen-month-old dairy beef steers were assigned to either system over 180 grazing days. The open field treatments were grazed with a seasonal stocking rate of 2.3 steers per hectare with the cell grazed treatments at an average seasonal stocking rate of 6 steers per hectare, with a daily allocation of a fresh area across a 21-28 days rotation.

The team tracked the steers’ daily grazing patterns using GPS collars. These were similar in both systems suggesting that the animals’ foraging was not affected by the relatively small size of the enclosures. 

In a perfect system, livestock would graze all parts of a field equally. In reality, the animals tend to cluster around features like water troughs leading to uneven grazing and bare patches. Cell grazing reduces these problems.  The research team developed a so-called “Moovement model” linking grazing patterns with soil structure and soil functions which may have applications to assess the impacts of grazing in other localities. Future versions of this could include the prediction of areas of dung and urine deposition. These can be linked with variations in vegetation and increased number of microbial communities that may represent hot-spots of increased greenhouse gas emissions from the soil.   

“A better understanding of how livestock move and interact with their environment may offer new insights on how grazing practices impact soil and ecosystem functions. This will potentially also offer solutions to reducing the impact of cattle on soil health and the environment,” said Romero-Ruiz.

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Soil is an essential natural resource for all farmers. Over recent years many initiatives have sought to provide information and advice on soils and Soil Health, notably AHDB Great Soils. 

Rothamsted Research is a world-leading, non-profit research centre that focuses on strategic agricultural science to the benefit of farmers and society worldwide.

Dairy production is a critical component of the agriculture industry focused on the sustainable production of milk and milk-derived products.

The livestock industry is an integral part of the agricultural sector, encompassing various aspects of animal husbandry and production. It plays an important role in global food security and supports the livelihoods of millions of people worldwide.

Grass in farming is interconnected with livestock systems for their feed, in the form of grazing, haylage and silage, and is also used as 'leys' (short-term grasslands) to regenerate soil structure and quality.

Good soil structure is vital for optimising water and nutrient use efficiency; and for sustaining profitable cropping systems. Poor soil structure and compaction can reduce yields, restrict access for field operations, increase fuel use and, for high value root and vegetable crops, increase reliance on irrigation. Where there are clear signs of soil compaction, cultivations to remove the compaction may result in a yield benefit. Visual soil assessment is important to assess the extent and depth of compaction and to inform decisions on the most appropriate course of action.  

Beef production encompasses various stages, from breeding and rearing to processing and distribution.