BILLINGS, Mont. – Scientists researching grazing operations in the Upper Great Plains are looking for ranchers who practice Adaptive Multi-Paddock (AMP) grazing – grazing cattle in small paddocks at high densities for short durations.

The study of the technique – also known as planned grazing, mob grazing, cell grazing or holistic management – is to understand what grazing methods work best for livestock well-being and rancher soil health and income.

Researchers from seven universities, the USDA Agricultural Research Service, private industry and philanthropic groups will study ranches in Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming, western Minnesota and Iowa and eastern Montana. They will examine soil carbon storage; water infiltration; soil microbial ecology; biodiversity; and methane, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide cycling.

The research team is beginning the selection process this spring using a short online survey to be completed by March 31. If selected, the ranch will be visited by a small team next month to further discuss management practices. The survey can be found at https://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/4877516/Grazing-Research-Survey-Upper-Great-Plains.

In addition, a film team may film researchers and conduct interviews with ranchers. It’s all part of a short film series about soil health that grew out of Carbon Nation, a 2011 documentary about climate change. The 10 short films feature cattle ranchers across the United States, Canada and United Kingdom who have changed the way their cattle graze. The Soil Carbon Cowboys films can be seen at www.soilcarboncowboys.com.

AMP grazing is a management system that purports to mimic the natural system created when large herds of ruminants roamed the Earth’s grasslands. The idea is that by grazing cows briefly but intensely in small paddocks, grass grows more readily, which means more carbon in the soil root zone and greater plant and microbial diversity and complexity. This builds soil organic matter that is both porous and permeable and allows more water to infiltrate. More water means more grass and so on, creating a cycle: better soil, better grass and better beef.

“What we're calling Adaptive Multi-Paddock grazing has a spectrum, but it's folks that are moving their animals usually once a day or more. They're keeping their animals in one herd for the most part. The size of the herd, the size of their paddocks, the size of their ranch is all up to their own specific needs,” said Peter Byck, Soil Carbon Cowboys filmmaker and professor of practice at Arizona State University’s School of Sustainability and the Cronkite School of Journalism. “It seems to be able to turn around land quickly. It works in Mississippi. Does it work in Texas? Seems to. Does it work in New Mexico during a drought? Well it seems to. How about South Carolina and Georgia, Kansas, Missouri? It just seems to be working everywhere.”

The films are funded in part by a $4.5 million matching grant from McDonald’s, one of many companies seeking to appeal to consumers concerned about the environmental impact of cattle ranching.

“McDonald's is getting pressure on a couple of fronts. Customers want to know where their food's coming from and they want to know that the animals are treated well. They're also getting pressure from their investors: ‘What are you doing about the climate? What are you doing about climate change?’” Byck said. “Basically, they want a resilient supply chain. And it seems like the folks who are focusing on soil health are having a more resilient ranch during droughts and floods and all the extreme weather that we're having more of.”

Researchers are looking for producers who run cattle using the AMP system – and their neighbors who don’t.

“One of the criteria for being selected is that they're good friends with their neighbors so that we'll be able to do our measurements on both sides of the fence,” Byck said. “We're really measuring the state of American grazing because we're doing the conventional continuous grazing on one side of the fence and the adaptive grazing on the other side of the fence, which is done much less right now, and then we're just going to find out answers.”

In their films, Byck and his team, made up of university scientists from New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Arkansas and Texas A&M, highlight the apparent successes of the ranchers they’ve followed.

“With their soils being super healthy, they're producing a lot more forage with a higher nutrient density, which means they can raise their carrying capacity, which means more food produced on the same acre with the same rainfall,” Byck said. “I haven't seen someone who's done these methods that tells me their soil is worse off and I filmed in all sorts of ecosystems.”

Adaptive farmers in the films are shown to be growing forage longer in the fall and sooner in the spring than their conventional neighbors. All this, without more work, Byck said.

“I haven't heard one rancher or farmer say it was more work,” he said. “I've had ranchers and farmers say it's the same amount of work. You're just doing different stuff or that it's less work – and I've heard less work more.”

Ultimately, Byck says he wants to find solutions to climate change and to support farmers and ranchers in equal measure – goals he sees as companionable.

“I think the farmers actually are in a position to be the heroes on a lot of different fronts, including food security, water security, climate change, mitigation, and all sorts of things,” Byck said. “Farmers could be incredibly powerful for solving those problems.”

Peter Byck can be reached at peter.byck@asu.edu.

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