What Farmers Can Do About Climate Change: Grazing


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Hannah Packman | Communications Coordinator | National Farmers Union | @nfudc

Tom Driscoll | Director of Conservation Policy | National Farmers Union | @agtogo


Elements of this piece previously appeared here, here, and here. It appears here under an agreement with the National Farmers Union

[EDITOR: The National Farmer’s Union has been running a series on their Climate Column on What Farmer’s Can Do About Climate Change. We’re going to be collecting some of those posts and organizing them by theme. In our first installment, we’ve gathered three posts related to grazing techniques to deal with or address climate change.]

Prescribed Grazing

One approach to responding to climate change that incorporates both livestock and land is prescribed grazing, which, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) describes it, is “the controlled harvest of vegetation with grazing animals, managed with the intent to achieve a specific objective.” This is achieved by regulating the frequency and intensity of grazing, as well as the density and placement of livestock. The aforementioned “specific objective” varies from operation to operation, and could encompass both conservation and economic goals.

One of the primary conservation benefits of prescribed grazing is enhanced soil quality. By controlling the location, concentration, and duration of grazing, farmers can prevent soil compaction due to trampling. This, in turn, can improve both the water infiltration and drainage of the soil, which can decrease the risk of water runoff, soil erosion, and water contamination. Farmers can go one step further in preventing erosion by protecting sensitive areas, such as riparian zones, through adequate soil coverage as well as the restriction or elimination of grazing or browsing in those locations.

Although prescribed grazing is often cited for its conservation benefits, it can also be a lucrative choice for farmers. By keeping animals on pasture, farmers can save the input costs of nutrients that are provided directly by manure, and the time otherwise required to raise, harvest, and store animal feed. What’s more, prescribed grazing can also increase profits. When executed correctly, the method increases forage quality and quantity, which consequently improves animal health and increases yields, and grants added conservation benefits, such as carbon sequestration and wildlife habitat.

To fully realize the potential advantages of prescribed grazing, a carefully-planned prescribed grazing schedule is necessary. This will stipulate the number and density of animals as well as the location, timing, frequency, and duration of grazing or browsing. A prescribed grazing schedule will depend on a number of variables, including type and quantity of plant and animal species, desired objectives, topography, climate, and season. Additionally, farmers will likely need a contingency plan that both predicts potential climatic issues as well as provides a guide to adjust the schedule to ensure conservation and economic goals are still achieved.

Rotational Grazing

Rotational grazing is one of the most common forms of prescribed grazing. Under rotational grazing, as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) describes it, “only one portion of pasture is grazed at a time while the remainder of the pasture ‘rests.’” Before incorporating rotational grazing into their management plans, producers must use fences to partition their grazing land into smaller subdivisions, known as “paddocks.” Livestock are then herded from paddock to paddock and allowed to graze for a specified amount of time, allowing the rest of the land to rejuvenate during that period.

USDA: otational grazing along the Creeper Trail, South Fork of the Holston River Project. Virginia.
| Wikicommons | CC License

By allowing the forage to regrow, rotational grazing offers a number of conservation benefits. For one, it can decrease the risk of soil erosion. Healthy and robust forage has a deep root system, which can stabilize soil, as well as vegetative cover, which can protect soil from wind and water. Furthermore, moving livestock frequently can prevent soil compaction, which in turn increases the soil’s infiltration capacity. This provides additional conservation benefits; greater infiltration capacity inhibits the occurrence of runoff, which may carry plant nutrients, manure, and pesticides into nearby land water. Ground water quality may benefit as well; rotationally grazed land does not require as many nutrient inputs, and deeper roots can absorb nutrients further down in the soil, both of which decrease the quantity of contaminants entering ground water.

Rotational grazing does not merely offer conservation benefits. Many producers choose to implement the practice because of the economic efficiency it affords. Forage raised in this system is typically healthier, more resilient, and more abundant than those grown in a continuous system, which can save farmers money on feed and other inputs. Additionally, the start-up costs and maintenance expenses are low, as are the time requirements, when compared to a confinement system that necessitates significant infrastructure and time spent feeding livestock. And wildlife can benefit as well; like many conservation practices, rotational grazing can bolster wildlife habitats by allowing native species to grow undisturbed.


Growing trees on farmland allows producers to store more carbon while simultaneously achieving other advantages for their farms’ productivity. The National Agroforestry Center (NAC) shares information on such practices, which can benefit crop growers and livestock producers alike. Silvopasture is one practice that allows folks engaged in grazing to enhance the climate resilience of their operations.

USDA: The Gibson Farm in South Carolina
The Gibsons have practiced silvopasture for years, and have found that it helps their livestock maintain their body weight by continuing to graze under trees during the day, rather than in open pasture at night when it’s cooler. | Flickr | CC License

Silvopasture, as described by NAC, “combines trees with forage and livestock production.” Trees can be managed for timber, fruit or nut production, or ornamentation markets, such as Christmas trees. In addition to diversifying farm income, trees also provide shade. In many climates, shade can both improve forage growth and provide shelter for grazing animals, which in turn can decrease heat stress and increase yields.  Furthermore, trees incorporated through silvopasture can add value to an operation by augmenting wildlife habitat that supports biodiversity and its associated ecosystem services.

Further reading:
• Plant Scientists Must Play a Role in Climate Smart Agriculture
‘Meating’ in the Middle on the ‘Meat vs Vegetarian’ Climate Change Diet Debate
• We Need Your Data on Conservation Ag Practices

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