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Management

Management intensive grazing strategies highlighted in new video, ‘Soil Carbon Cowboys’

Written by Natasha Wheeler

“Soil Carbon Cowboys,” an online video produced by Peter Byck, in collaboration with Arizona State University and World Bank, features ranchers using management-intensive grazing. 

Neil Dennis from Saskatchwan, Canada, Cabe Brown from Bismark, N.D. and Allen Williams from Starkville, Miss. – affectionately referenced as soil carbon cowboys – are highlighted in the videoas they discuss their experiences with the management practice.

“Since the 1800s, letting cattle roam freely for weeks and months was second nature,” states Byck.

Brown explains that the wild prairie contained large herds of buffalo and elk.

“They would graze an area and then keep moving. They might not return to that area for a year or two,” he notes.

Management-intensive grazing attempts to mimic the migration patterns from the 1800s. Ranchers divide their land into an acre or half-acre plots, which are then partitioned by temporary electric fence.

“I can put up a quarter mile of fence in 18 minutes,” Dennisclaims.

High densities of cattle are stocked into small grazing areas for a short amount of time before they are transferred to the next plot of land.

“The cows always move readily to the new paddock because they know they will get a fresh bite of grass,” Williams says.

The system works because the grass is left in a resting state for a long period of time, Byck notes.

“For several decades, we pushed monocultures in pastures because it was easy,” states Williams.

A monoculture is managing for a single species. It was easy to choose a fertilizer and make other management decisions for that species.

“Managing for poly-culture or a cocktail mix is a little foreign for today’s generation,” Williams explains.

The cowboys illustrate some of the variety that is included in their seed mixes, noting that they may seed pastures with the legume black medic, hairy vetch, which contains over 30 percent protein, sunflowers, corn and flowers that attract pollinators.

“Sow thistles are a weed, but if cows eat them when they are just flowering or just a bud, they are higher in protein than alfalfa,” notes Dennis.

Williams and Brown add that they are saving money because they do not have to buy fertilizer or run equipment to apply it.

“I can grow these crops for just the cost of the seed. They make nitrogen, and the livestock come around and eat these plants, turning them into dollars. I am getting all of my fertilizer for a profit because I am making money on all of these crops,” Brownclaims.

Williamsalso explains that the variety of plants and the style of grazing management helps to return carbon to the soil.

“The whole world revolves around the carbon in the soil. It’s those carbon molecules that feed soil life. Microorganisms in the soil feed all of the plants that nourish all of the animals that feed civilization,” the Brownsays.

Within a decade, these ranchers have doubled or tripled the amount of organic matter in their soils.

“Carbon-rich soils soak up heavy rainfall while carbon-depleted soils do not,” Byckcomments.

The cowboys explain that the water retention of their soils has greatly improved since they implemented management-intensive grazing systems. They also claim that their plants and cattle have been healthier.

“One of the reasons I am content is that my cows are clearly content,” Williams states.

The cowboys explain that the management-intensive grazing practices have allowed them all to remain in the business.

“My mother didn’t think much of it when I first started, she was upset about all the weeds,” states Dennis. “Now she is bragging to her friends about what I’m doing.”

Natasha Wheeler is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..