Managing grazing land will be a much bigger concern in the future

Teresa Clark
for The Fence Post
Jason Rowntree, associate professor of animal science at Michigan State University, explained some of his research using collars on cattle to measure how much gas cows release.
Photo by Teresa Clark

With the U.S. eroding over 1 billion tons of soil in our agricultural systems today, the biggest challenge for the next agricultural generation will be finding the answer to rectify that problem, according to an associate professor of animal science at Michigan State University. Jason Rowntree toured Nebraska recently speaking to ranchers and agricultural students about the role of grazing in the food production system.

Looking at the U.S. Department of Agriculture erosion laboratory data, Rowntree said that 1 billion tons of soil erosion calculates to 2 trillion pounds of nutrients, and is equivalent to 40 million semi loads of soil per year. “If you compare the soil we erode to the amount of grain, corn, beans and hay produced in the U.S., the amount of soil we erode through our production dwarfs the amount of corn, beans and hay we produce each year. The No. 1 export in U.S. agriculture is not the grains we produce, but the amount of soil we are eroding. It is something we know we could do better,” he said.

Rowntree said curbing soil erosion will be quite a challenge, and urged the students to believe there are good people out there willing to help. “I believe there are good people at FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency). I believe there are good people at the Humane Society. I also believe there are good democrats, independents and republicans. It is up to me to find the people I can agree with, and not worry about the organization we try to pen those people towards. Find people you can work with and agree with, regardless of their affiliation as an organization,” he said.


“I am not opposed to grain finishing livestock. I do a lot of work looking at local and regional food systems. I use things like herbicides and fertilizer, but I use them as tools in my toolbox versus crutches that have to keep me going in my production system.”

After two massive hurricanes devastated Louisiana agriculture in 2005, Rowntree worked with farmers, ranchers, and others to help them recover. It was there he realized he wanted to make the world a better place, and could help by developing systems to increase the resilience of food production worldwide.

Since then, he has participated in research to improve energy use at the farm level for grazing. His studies have focused on capturing kinetic and solar energy, which is energy that could be used without a dollar bill. He has also spent a lot of time researching how greenhouse gas fluxes, and what energy in and energy out coming into the farm really means. “What I want to know is how much I am absorbing in my system versus how much is going back out,” he said.

Another area of work Rowntree is interested in is grass finished local beef production systems. “In my work, I do a lot more grass finishing than I do grain,” he explained. “I am not opposed to grain finishing livestock. I do a lot of work looking at local and regional food systems. I use things like herbicides and fertilizer, but I use them as tools in my toolbox versus crutches that have to keep me going in my production system.”

Rowntree coordinates the Lake City and Upper Peninsula AgBioResearch and Extension Center where he addresses economic, environmental and social complexity in agriculture. In fact, he has secured more than $2 million in funding to study how grazing livestock can improve land and mitigate climate change by capturing carbon and providing other ecosystem services.

The Lake City Research Center was one of the first universities in the country to conduct crossbreeding research in the 70s, Rowntree said. Through the years, the research center started with 800 pound cows, but eventually bred them up to an average of 1,800 pounds to more than a ton after EPD reliability-based research. When he started working at the center, Rowntree was interested in low-input, grass-based research, and ended up liquidating most of the large cows, bringing in some smaller Red Angus cows from a seedstock producer in Sheridan, Mont. “It was a unique opportunity that we had to get done in 60 days,” he explained.


The next step was throwing more than 30 years of conventional farming out the window, and changing the grazing and farming program at the university to a grazing operation. The school had 300 grazable acres and 270 haying acres. Traditionally, the employees spent the summer cutting and baling hay that was fed back to the cows starting in September or October. All the labor was tied up in cutting hay all summer, so one of Rowntree’s first tasks was putting up fence around an area to graze. “We fenced everything on the farm with three strands of high tensile wire,” he said.

Once Rowntree was able to use the ground to graze cattle, he found they were able to grow an average of 3,000 pounds utilization off an acre of land. “We could grow 6 tons of dry matter, and could run a pair on an acre and a half of land,” he said.

Rowntree stopped the haying operation, and started purchasing lower quality hay that averaged 8 percent crude protein for $80 a ton delivered. Rowntree only applied lime to fertilize the farm when it was needed, and he worked through parasite issues, only using pour-on once for lice control since 2010. “We have done a lot in a short period of time, but I believe in managed grazing. It is having your cattle at a certain location for a certain period of time to accomplish a certain purpose through land or animal with a given animal behavior,” he explained.

In 2010, he started looking at how much land they had, and how much grass was available, and made the decision to start moving cattle. “We started looking at 150,000, 250,000, and 500,000 pounds of density. We started looking at the impact of our trample to graze ratio. We wanted to look at the impacts we are making on the land we are using,” he said.

Over time, Rowntree could see dramatic improvements. “Now we move the cowherd once a day, but we keep the bred heifers closer around the barn. We calve in April and May, and turn the heifers back in with the cows after calving,” he said. The open heifers to breed, and the steers that will be grass fed are also managed separately. ❖

— Clark is a freelance livestock journalist from western Nebraska. She can be reached by email at


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