• Austin Unruh

Taking Grazing Up a Level

As I write, the whole world is wrapped up in a pandemic the likes of which few alive have seen. In a time when it can be hard to look away from the news, I find it helpful to step back and reflect, to take a look at the big picture, and clarify what my most meaningful work is.

While the recent stock market plummet from an all-time peak is particularly painful for many, human history overflows with stories of alternating boom and bust. Since the humble beginnings of agriculture, the cultivation of our food has led to feasts and famines as we’ve created a living from the sweat of our brow. Feasts when rains were gentle and locusts far away, famines when the rains never came, or disease overtook a crop. Yet always, the cultivation of the land has caused degradation of our fields and soils. The plow, and more recently herbicides, have always invited our best soils to muddy up the nearest swimming-hole, while leaving denuded landscapes where neither bird nor butterfly could live.

If you are reading thsis, it’s because you are part of the solution. You read this because you know how grazing, with its deep roots and perennial cover, is a powerful way to restore our land and water, while yielding the most wholesome foods for our families and customers in the process. You read this because you are working towards a healthier future.

As we all know, not all grazing is equal. There is a progression in how grazing is done.

The most simple form of grazing would be a single pasture where livestock are allowed permanent access. This already is better in many ways than the plow, since we have perennial cover, and it yields grass-fed meats of higher quality than those produced in the feedlot. Incomplete as we know single cell grazing is, we’re moving in the right direction.

The level up from this is thoughtful adaptive grazing, whereby the grazier pays close attention to the needs of their forages and livestock, moving stock accordingly. This progression from single-cell grazing to adaptive grazing has been made much easier in the last decades by new developments, including portable fencing and good educators. Upgrading from single-cell to adaptive grazing improves carrying capacity, lowers costs and sequesters tons of carbon on farms throughout the world.

Now, a growing number of people are starting to envision the next progression of grazing. They see an opportunity to level-up the grazing game, literally. To take grazing practices to the next level, we’ll make use of that neglected, open piece of solar-energy-converting real estate 10-100 feet above our heads. Trees. Thoughtfully chosen, well-designed, high-yielding tree systems will lead that (r)evolution by providing shade, shelter, fodder and nutrients to our farms, while the green grass grows all around (all around).

Just as the last evolution of grazing brought about more vibrant ecosystems, this 3D-grazing evolution will fast-track regeneration, as we sequester tons of carbon, create niches for all manner of birds and butterflies, and deepen our topsoil, all while creating the conditions for healthier livestock, higher yields and stronger bottom lines.

These are tall claims, I know, so I’ll need to back them up. In the next several articles of this series, I’ll unpack what thoughtful silvopasture looks like, and how it can fit into your grazing system. I’ll aim to answer the big questions, like “what can these trees do for me?”, and “if it’s so great, why don’t we see it all around us right now”? In the meantime, I trust that the regenerative grazing community will continue strong, pandemic or not, as each person pursues the hard but rewarding work of creating healthier, more resilient farms and communities.

Take Your Grazing Up a Level