Are You An Accomplished Grazer?

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July 30, 2020

By: Allen R. Williams Ph.D 

STARKVILLE, Mississippi: What makes a person an accomplished grazer is the ability to be an astute OBSERVER. Most of us have lost our ability to truly observe, to viscerally recognize what is really happening with the soil beneath our feet, the plants growing in our fields, the behavior and performance of our livestock and the signs of ecosystem health around us.  We mistake being busy for being observant.  They are NOT the same. 

Keen, daily observation develops an astute sense of intuition. Highly tuned intuition facilitates great decision making.  It is almost impossible to make good decisions without keen observation and intuition. Bad data or a lack of data makes for poor decision-making skills. 

Andre Voisin (1903-1964), the French farmer and biochemist, was an incredibly astute observer and spent many hours in his pastures examining and pondering what he saw each day.  He wrote two books that are seminal reads for any aspiring grazer titled, Grass Productivity and Soil, Grass, and Cancer. He was certainly a man way ahead of his time. 

Key observations made by Voisin were that overgrazing has little to do with the number of animals on a pasture but far more to do with the amount of time the plants were exposed to the animals. If animals remained in any one place for too long, or returned too soon, they almost always overgrazed certain plants. 

He noted that OVERGRAZING and UNDERSTOCKING can result in thousands of plants in a pasture being killed. One example he provided of this is the fact that one cow grazing a 10-acre paddock on a continuous basis can kill thousands of plants, whereas 1000 cows grazing the same 10-acre paddock for a portion of one day will not kill a single plant. 


When observing, you will need to use all your senses to their utmost.  Sight, sound, smell, touch, and even taste. The best grazers move their livestock on a daily basis, or even multiple times a day. When you move your livestock make sure you note the condition of the previously grazed paddocks. 

Did you get the desired impact? Did you leave plenty of residual behind for protection of soil moisture and temperature and for soil microbial support? Did you lay down enough trampled forages so that you are consistently building new carbon and organic matter? Were your livestock highly selective or did they graze from the majority of plants growing in the paddock? That includes not just the grasses and legumes but also the forbs (yes, weeds). All this requires the use of our sense of sight. 

What about the condition of the livestock?  What are you seeing there?   Let’s take cattle as an example. You need to note their daily body condition and gut fill. If cattle are getting enough forage dry matter each day then you will be able to gauge this through their paunch fill. The paunch is the triangular area high on the left-hand side of the animal directly behind the 13rd (last rib) and in front of the front (hooks) of the pelvis. If it is concave, or sunken in, after an hour or two of being moved into a fresh paddock then they are not consuming enough dry matter.  It should be filled out level with the ribs or even slightly convex (pushed out). What about their manure? Are you paying attention to the consistency of the manure patties? Are they very loose and runny? Are they stacked in multiple layers and dry in appearance?  Or, are they round in shape with the consistency of a thick pancake batter with a dimple on top? This version of a manure patty is the most desirable and indicates the cattle are getting a good balance of both protein and energy in their diet. Loose, runny patties and dry multi-layered stacked patties both are indicative of nutritional issues. 

What are the livestock eating every day when turned into a fresh paddock?  What do they go after first? What about in their second and third rounds around the paddock?  How do they respond to each other in varying stock densities?  How do varying stock densities change their grazing behavior?  How long do they tend to actively graze each day compared to time spent in digestion and rest? 


On a routine basis you should employ what my partners and I call the “Shovel Test.” This requires a highly technical tool called a shovel (make sure and read the Owner’s Manual before first use). All kidding aside, one of the most basic tools we have on a farm is also one of the most important relative to being an accomplished grazer. 

Dig divots of soil about a foot deep and examine the soil surface thatch layer, the soil aggregate layer, the color of the soil, the aroma of the soil, the presence of soil macro-organisms, such as earthworms, beetles and grubs. Take pictures so that you have a pictorial diary and can monitor progress through the years. 

Do you have multiple plated layers of soil? If so, you have serious issues with compaction and water infiltration.  It also indicates poor microbial population and functioning. Does your soil have a deep-rich earthy aroma (very good)? Or, does it have a slight metallic or acidic aroma OR a sour or musty aroma (not good)? In nature good aromas mean good things are happening and bad aromas mean bad things are happening. 

How much soil aggregate do you have? Unfortunately, many pastures across North America today have very poor soil aggregate layers, thus poor water infiltration. This is the very reason many grazers now say they are never more than two weeks away from a drought. 


Another test that you can do on an annual basis is a simple water infiltration test. To do this you will need a 6-inch infiltration ring made out of metal or even PVC pipe. You can google soil water infiltration tests to see how easy it is to do this. There are also charts available from the USDS NRCS that will tell you where you should be in terms of water infiltration rates.  Very simply, the more water your soil can infiltrate the more productive your forages will be. 


Measuring plant brix using a simple optical refractometer is a great way to gauge soil microbial health, plant health, and ultimate animal health.  Bottom line is routine brix measurements allow for far better assessment of soil and pasture conditions, when to graze specific pastures, and what type of performance to expect from your livestock. 

Every time you do brix measurements on your plants take the time to also note the aroma of the plants you are measuring. You will soon learn to correlate the plant brix to the aroma profile. 

Regression analysis on more than 20 years of plant brix data shows that for every 1.0% increase in brix above a base of 3.0% brix, cattle average daily gain increases 0.1 lbs/day.  The majority of pastures across North America average a 3% to 6% plant brix. Accomplished adaptive grazers can average 12% to over 20% plant brix. If you can influence an increase in plant brix from 5% to 15% then your cattle would gain an additional 1.0 lb/day on the same forages in the same pastures. Increases in plant brix are primarily influenced by soil microbial function. Increase microbial function and you increase brix. 

Plant brix fluctuates every 24-hour photoperiod. When the sun sets each day and photosynthesis shuts down, plant carbohydrates migrate to the base of the plant. When the sun rises each morning and photosynthetic activity fires back up, the carbohydrates migrate up to the top of the plant, reaching a peak concentration in the plant blade and leaf material by mid-afternoon. Therefore, best animal performance is realized when animals are moved to fresh paddocks in the afternoon instead of moving them in the morning. You are giving up free gain when making moves in the morning. 

Best animal performance is realized when animals are moved to fresh paddocks in the afternoon. 


More frequent movement of our livestock results in far better manure and urine distribution across all pastures.   

If your goal is to get one manure patty on every square yard of pasture it will take 27 years to accomplish that with continuous grazing. However, if you move them just once daily, every day, it only takes one year to accomplish the same goal. Not only have you accomplished that goal in a 27th of the time, but you will have accomplished that goal 27 more times in 27 years than the continuous grazer was able to. 

A single cow deposits on the soil each day in her manure the equivalent of 0.23N-0.15P-0.52K. With higher stock density impact, it is quite possible to deposit 84N-54P-189K, or more, in a single year to a single acre simply using your livestock as the fertility tool. 


The more frequently we can move our livestock the greater the positive compounding and cascading effects we will realize. Frequency of movement combined with adequate rest periods elicits very positive compounding benefits that benefit life from beneath the soil surface to above. These benefits include greater soil microbial life, deeper root depth and greater root mass, more soil carbon and organic matter deeper in the soil, more plant species diversity and biomass production, increases in beneficial insects and pollinators, an explosion in bird species and numbers, better wildlife, and animal performance. 


The vast majority of the “weeds” or forbs that are growing in your pastures are growing there as a result of our management decisions. These “weeds” are nature’s first line of defense and repair as a result of an insult to the soil. If we have a weed problem, we can only point our finger back at ourself and ask “what did I do to cause that weed to be there?” It is there to repair a scar we created through lack of observation and improper grazing practice. 

Weeds do not exist to irritate and aggravate us. They are not nature’s way of punishing us. It is rather the opposite. Degraded soils are most rapidly repaired through these weeds.  Not through grasses and legumes. They come after the weeds have had time to do their duty. 

The work of Dr. Fred Provenza, author of Nourishment and retired Professor Emeritus at Utah State University, shows us that these “weeds” have a profound role in soil, plant, animal, and human health. They produce an astounding array of secondary and tertiary chemical compounds that are highly medicinal in nature and anti-parasitic in nature. In other words, if our livestock eat these weeds then they are self-medicating and self-deworming every day. 

How do you best manage weeds? Simply through grazing. The very best tool you have in your tool box for “weed” management are your cattle and/or your sheep or your goats. No need to spend dollars on herbicides or mowing. If you do the proper job of grazing management, the livestock will eat the weeds and they will benefit from the medicinal and anti-parasitic compounds they are consuming. 

One word of caution here: If you have an area that is predominantly composed of a known toxic plant, then you may need to consider a chemical or mechanical means of control prior to starting grazing control. 


What does it take to be an accomplished grazer? Keen daily observation.  It is that simple. Then adjust what you are doing based on those observations.  Use your senses of sight, sound, touch, smell, and taste. Use simple tools such as the shovel test, water infiltration test, and plant brix to compliment your five senses. Move your livestock frequently and alter stock densities  Provide adequate rest periods for each pasture prior to grazing again.   

Don’t try to turn good grazing into rocket science. Keep it simple and keep it fun. Tune into your sense of discovery and you will get great enjoyment out of the daily observations you are making.  

Allen Williams is president of Grass Fed Insights, LLC and one of the founding partners in Soil Health Consulting, LLC, and a partner in Joyce Farms, Inc. He is also a 6th generation family farmer. He can be reached at or 662-312-6826.

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