What is ‘Total grazing’ and will it work in the UK?

A radical grazing technique is gathering pace which claims to maximise grassland production and rumen function by baring off pasture at the 3.5-leaf stage.

“Total grazing” involves moving cattle four times a day, and grazing longer grass than conventional rotational grazing, but shorter than many regenerative approaches.

Advocates say this non-selective grazing method lowers costs, improves animal health, and stimulates humus formation through root exudates.

See also: 5 mistakes when adopting regen farming and how to avoid them

They say the roots are the primary drivers of humus formation and leaf litter is a secondary element.

This clashes with many regenerative systems, which emphasise leaving armour covering the soil, maintaining leaves to drive photosynthesis, and creating humus through trampled leaf litter.

Advisers and researchers are advising a “handle with care” approach to total grazing because it involves a different grazing pressure and management system.

Scientific verification

Total grazing is the brainchild of Jaime Elizondo, a Mexican rancher and consultant now farming in Texas. He has farmed dairy cows, beef and sheep in the Americas.

He claims a growing body of research – including a study in New Phytologist – has given credence to his theory by proving that root exudates are the prime driver of humus production and more stable forms of soil organic carbon, and are two to 13 times more important than leaf litter degradation.

Speaking at the regenerative farming conference Carbon Calling, near Appleby-in-Westmorland, Cumbria, Jaime, of Real Wealth Ranching, told delegates that many regenerative farmers were “years behind”.

“Overgrazing is not how hard you graze but how fast you return,” he said. “If you return before the plant has replenished its carbohydrate reserves, you are overgrazing.

“Total grazing has doubled the stocking rate compared to selective rotational grazing in a variety of environments,” he added. “I ran 700 cows on 300ha with no fertiliser.”

What does total grazing involve?

Some distinctive features are as follows:

Graze the entire plant

Do not leave any leaf (“solar panel”) on the plant as this will shade out growing points at the bottom of the stem. Instead, graze the entire plant, giving the animal more fibre to balance the energy and protein.

This, in theory, removes the risk of low pH in the rumen (from oversupply of rapidly fermentable energy) and low-pH blood (from oversupply of protein to the rumen) and leads to healthier sheep and cattle.

Graze at the 3.5-leaf stage

This means more fibre is present than at a younger stage, but the plant is yet to seed, so quality is sufficient. This more advanced plant can regrow from the energy in its root systems, rather than by photosynthesis.

Law of thirds

Split your farm into three. The first third is the intensively grazed portion for the growing season. The second is buffer to get through droughts. The final third is deferred for grazing in winter and hay cuts if needed.

These can be rotated from year to year as much as possible.

Move stock four times a day

Rumens work on four or five eating events a day (batch rumen process), so shift cattle onto a fresh break four times daily to ensure they are hungry and can eat the sward down. Daily moves will do, but they are not as good.

More moves each day result in more summer rest time (30-45 days) so the sward can reach the 3.5-leaf stage by the time the livestock return.

Adapted genetics

Livestock must be selected and reared in a forage-based environment to thrive.

Trees and livestock

Paddocks are split up by trees (30-40m apart), offering shade, nutrition, and rooting systems under the grassland to help soil biology and mycorrhizas. A savannah should be created, which is 30% trees.

Biochar

Cattle can be supplemented (80-100g a head a day) with biochar (pyrolysed wood or vegetation) to maintain health and help carbon storage in the soil.

Reaction: Pros and cons

Farmers Weekly asked Harper Adams University beef and sheep production lecturer Sarah Morgan, soil adviser Ian Bell of Northern Soil Regen, Glyn Mitchell of the Carbon Farm Hub, and farmers at Carbon Calling for their views and advice.

Points in favour

  • This is another “graze and rest” system just like cell, techno, adaptive multi-paddock and rotational grazing.
  • Moving cattle or sheep four times a day fits with rumen science. Ruminants typically have four to five grazing bouts a day.
  • The system claims to work in a variety of locations. While there is limited research to back up many regenerative theories, what works in practice is important.
  • This is more appealing than wasting and trampling grass.
  • The law of thirds is how many farming systems have been structured. In the spring two-thirds of the farm is shut up for hay or silage and a third is grazed. Then one-third is shut for second cut and two-thirds grazed, and then after second cut it is all grazed. Total grazing works to this rule, but in a good year claims to get by with no conserved forage.

Concerns

  • Moving in time with rumen batches would have more value if you were monitoring the activity of the animals. Daylight length has an effect on grazing, and studies have shown the last meal (about 7pm) is the largest grazing bout of the day. Four times a day is difficult; daily shifts are hard enough to achieve.
  • Grazing the plant as low as is being suggested could be seen as a risk during dry periods. Comparisons with conventional residuals are of limited use due to the diverse species and higher covers used in total grazing, although cattle are being challenged to graze below 4cm (sub-1,000kg DM/ha) to remove all leafy material.
  • Those switching to this method from taller grass grazing may find that, because the growing point of the grass is higher up the stem, stock graze it off, which could slow subsequent regrowth.
  • Grazing more plant and filling the cow with fibrous material could compromise nitrogen efficiency. This is because the leafier parts of the plant may be supplying protein that is not used by the rumen microbes, because the supply of energy from the fibrous grass is too slow.
  • Such extreme grazing may hammer herbal leys and knock out legumes and forbs.
  • The New Phytologist study provides valuable insights into soil microbiology and carbon dynamics, but it may not directly correlate with temperate grassland soils. While the principles of soil microbiology remain consistent, different ecosystems each have unique dynamics.

Advice for farmers

  • Experiment Try total grazing with one mob of sheep/cattle and see how the sward regrows. It is good to borrow from different systems.
  • Consider livestock Use appropriate easy-fleshing genetics (possibly native bred) that forage well and are fertile on zero-input systems.
  • Consider sward Grazing plants tightly may be difficult, depending on the type of sward. Fibrous and tussocky grasses may scratch the noses of livestock, for example, and a more conventional ryegrass and clover ley might not be deep rooted enough to stand a hard grazing in a dry summer.
  • Collect data Dry matter production, technical performance and costings data should be recorded to help analyse the success of the grazing.
  • Expect complexity Grazing is complex, with soil, plant and animal all interacting and biology and chemistry evolving over time.
  • Consult widely Reading the work of scientists and organisations that specialise in grassland ecosystems should help, for example, Christine Jones and the Savory Institute.

Complete our beef farming survey for a chance to win a £50 Amazon voucher.

Help us understand the challenges facing the Beef Sector, now and in the future.
Take survey