Farm Viability | Environmental Quality | Food System | Quality of Life

Previous research results on individual aspects of grazing systems indicate numerous advantages from the use of rotational grazing.

Studies have shown rotational grazing is:

  • As profitable (and in many cases more profitable) as conventional methods of milk production.
  • Provides several environmental benefits (i.e. reduction in soil erosion, improved water quality).
  • Offers herd health advantages and improves farmer's "quality of life".

Farm Viability

Most of the economic research done on rotational grazing has shown it to be at least as profitable (and in many cases more profitable) as conventional methods of milk production (Dartt et al., 2000; Winsten et al., 2000; Rust et al., 1995; Elbehri and Ford, 1995). Generally, milk yield per cow is lower on farms using grazing systems than those using confinement-feeding systems (Winsten et al., 2000a). This is a result of additional energy expenditure by the cow in harvesting its own forage from the pastures and difficulty in accurately balancing rations for cows on pasture (Muller and Holden, 1994).

Although per cow gross revenue may be less than that of confinement feeding due to lower milk production levels, increased profitability can result from a greater than proportional decrease in production costs. Following the initial adoption of rotational grazing, variable costs of production can be immediately lowered. The primary areas of variable cost-savings are feed, labor, fuel, and veterinary expenses (Conneman et al., 2001; Winsten et al., 2000; Hanson et al., 1998; Winsten and Petrucci, 1996; Jackson-Smith et al., 1996; Rust et al., 1995; Elbehri and Ford, 1995; Rotz and Rodgers, 1994). Additionally, over time the necessary farm infrastructure and machinery for a grazing operation can be reduced relative to traditional or confinement-feeding systems. This can reduce the investment level required and subsequently reduce the fixed costs of production as well (Winsten and Petrucci, 1996).

For results on farm profitability click here .

The Environment

  • Soil and Air Quality

    The most important environmental benefits from rotational grazing are directly or indirectly a result of improvements in soil quality. A permanent vegetative cover for the soil reduces erosion relative to tillage agriculture (Rayburn, 1993). Additionally, MIG use over time develops a thicker sward of grasses and legumes (Murphy, 1994). As the vegetative sward becomes denser, less soil is lost by erosion. The impacts of this trend are very important for water and air quality, as well as for improved pasture productivity and resulting long-term farm profitability.

    There are several indications that well-managed pasture provides air quality benefits in terms of reduced emissions of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (e.g. CO2 and N2O), and increased carbon sequestration. The ability of pasture soils to hold carbon has important benefits for air and water quality. Additionally, Rayburn (1993) estimated that well managed dairy pasture reduces soil loss by 30% relative to annual cropping. He estimated that grazing systems for dairy use 23-26% less fuel per unit of milk produced relative to confinement-feeding. This results in decreased CO2 and N2O emissions from agricultural production.

    Wildlife Habitat

    Researchers in Wisconsin have found that grazing systems are very advantageous for ground-dwelling birds (Undersander et al., 2000). Although they did find the incidence of some nest trampling, this was not related to the intensity of the grazing rotation. Having permanent vegetative cover was found to be far superior to tillage practices for bird habitat. USDA research indicates that fish numbers tend to be higher in proximity to land used for rotational grazing relative to conventional cropland (Hendershot, 2004).

    Water Quality

    Numerous researchers have reported that well-managed grazing is one of the best ways to protect water quality in mainstream agriculture (Owens and Bartholomew, 1997). A University of Wisconsin study found that well-managed pastures are the best way to reduce phosphorus and sediment runoff from agricultural land (Renfrew and Ribic, 2001). Researchers in Minnesota and Wisconsin have found that fecal coliform and turbidity were reduced with the use of rotational grazing practices (Sovell et al., 2000) and that well-managed pastures acted as very large riparian buffers to protect water quality (Paine et al., 2000).

    For an overview of the environmental results from this project click here.

Food Systems

Several studies available in the scientific literature indicate that the use of rotational grazing can offer herd health advantages relative to confinement-feeding production systems and a plethora of anecdotal information exists in the popular farm press (The Stockman Grassfarmer, 2004; Nation, 2004; Hoard's Dairyman, 2003; Muller, 1996; Murphy, 1994; Brown, 1990). The scientific and popular literature indicate that herds in grazing systems generally have fewer hoof and leg problems relative to herds in confinement-feeding systems (Fitzgerald et al. 2000; Loeffler et al., 1996; Parker et al., 1993). Hoof and leg problems, which seem to be accentuated by prolonged time spent on concrete floors, can lead to clinical lameness and increased culling rates which has become a major problem in the dairy industry (Fitzgerald et al., 2000). The problems of lameness among confined livestock have become a serious animal welfare concern (Wells et al., 1998).

Numerous studies have shown that veterinary and medicical expenses are reduced on farms using grazing systems (Washburn et al., 2002; Conneman et al., 2001; Winsten et al., 2000b). Anecdotal information regarding the herd health benefits of using rotatonal grazing abounds in the popular farm press. A Minnesota survey quotes one farmer as responding “Since I began grazing my cows, I’ve forgotten the name of my veterinarian” (Loeffler et al., 1996).

As rotational grazing improves herd health by reducing the incidence of disease, it also minimizes the need for therapeutic antibiotics (Goldberg et al., 1992). The use of antibiotic drugs in food-producing animals has raised significant concerns about microbial resistance to antibiotic compounds, and the residues of these compounds that find their way into the food supply (National Research Council, 1999). According to the National Research Council report, “The Use of Drugs in Food Animals: Benefits and Risks,” alternatives to antibiotic use for maintaining animal health and productivity must be sought (National Research Council, 1999).

Quality of Life

Surveys of farmers using rotational grazing suggest that the adoption of these systems has been driven as much by consideration of perceived lifestyle and health benefits as the underlying economic competitiveness of the practice (Ostrom and Jackson-Smith, 2000; Hassanein, 1999; Jackson-Smith et al., 1996). Studies of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Vermont grazier networks found that many farmers report improved "quality of life" and a better "lifestyle" since they shifted to grazing systems (Hassanein, 1999). According to a survey of a grazier commenting on his life after adoption, “you can look around a little bit and enjoy life” (Hassanein, 1999). Other anecdotal evidence suggests a greater ability to incorporate children into farming routines and fewer farm safety risks on grazing farms (Dietmann 1996). Results of at least two large random sample surveys of dairy farm operators in 1997 found that fully-intensive graziers were the most likely subgroup to be “very satisfied” with their family’s quality of life (Ostrom and Jackson-Smith, 2000).

Follow-up studies with dairy farmers who have converted from conventional to grazing systems have shown that: (a) they tend to milk more cows on roughly the same amount of acreage, (b) their animals were healthier, (c) they experience stable or increased net farm income, (d) their family members had become somewhat more involved in off-farm employment, (e) they had higher total household income, and (f) they spent less time farming and had time for leisure and vacation with their family (Ostrom and Jackson-Smith, 2000; Costello et al., 1996). In a detailed survey of 30 farmers practicing rotational grazing in New York, 83 percent of the farmers indicated that their quality of life has improved since adopting MIG (Conneman et al., 2001).