August 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 4 // Research in Brief // 4RIB3

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Adoption of Intensive Grazing Systems

The study focuses on the divergence between recommended and on-farm practices, information sources, the state of characteristic flux in farmers grazing techniques and the unique challenges of Cooperative Extension education efforts with low-tech grazing dairy producers. Recommendations include: (a) establish minimum standards for new technologies, (b) encourage sequential/incremental adoption of technology, (c) provide specificity in addressing production bottle-necks, (d) provide on-going Cooperative Extension education, and (e) acquaint experiment station researchers with the extension challenges of educating the non-expert farmers.

Gregory D. Hanson
Department of Agricultural Economics
and Rural Sociology
The Pennsylvania State University
Internet address:

Agricultural Cooperative Extension (CE) agents extend technical assistance to both high tech farmers and ranchers, increasingly characterized by capital intensive production systems and recent technology innovations, and low tech farmers and ranchers often characterized by inadequate financial resources to upgrade production systems technology. In contrast, Agricultural Experiment Station (ES) researchers focus on high tech agriculture and implicitly assume recommended practices, based on their research findings, are implemented, or easily implementable, by farmers. The results of a recent study of on-farm adoption of intensive grazing system technology for dairy cattle indicate CE agents face large challenges in extending ES research to the vast majority of low-tech farmers.

Extension Programming for Expert vs. Typical Farmers

Often CE agents are institutionally linked to progressive farm organizations such as crop management or farm business management associations that tend to have members with computerized record-keeping and above average educational achievement and/or farm size (Olson, Nordquist, Talley, Christensen, Weness & Fales, 1994). Another example is linkage to expert panels of farmers (Christensen, Howell & Miller, 1993). The question raised, is what are the Extension programming implications when the typical farmer is not expert, (i.e., is less specialized in production technology and has traditionally been isolated from direct Extension outreach).

Intensive Grazing Systems

Intensive grazing can be defined as applying better management practices to pasture so that cattle (or sheep) can obtain the majority of their warm month feed needs from grazing. An essential feature of intensive grazing management consists of the rotation of cattle through numerous small paddocks, each with a water source, instead of continuously grazing one or two large paddocks. Benefits of intensive grazing include: more complete use of plant material, better consumption of less preferred forage plants and weeds, less hoof damage than in confinement housing, less eye irritation than in weedy pastures, more even spreading of animal waste over pastures, less nutrient run-off into streams and rivers, and more forage feed produced per acre (Wilson, LeVan & Todd, 1993). Intensive grazing is now being rapidly adopted by U.S. dairy farmers and has become a major management issue in the traditional North Central and Northeast dairy regions.

Anecdotal evidence abounds that intensive grazing is profitable, particularly when practiced in conjunction with technical assistance provided by CE or the Soil Conservation Service (SCS). As an example, a recent grazing newsletter indicated that a farmer who cooperated in a university-led intensive grazing study "...saved about $12,800 in feed costs with only a minimal drop in milk production" (Murphy, 1993, p. 4). However, anecdotal information may not be representative of typical experience due to a self-selection bias. In contrast, a Pennsylvania study found a $32 disadvantage per cow for intensive grazing compared to confinement producers (Parker, Muller, Fales & McSweeny, 1993).


This study was initiated by obtaining a list of 467 dairy farmers identified as practicing intensive grazing in a homogeneous production region of Northeast Pennsylvania (Cunningham, 1993). The list was compiled by a team of knowledgeable local agribusiness, CE, SCS, and dairy industry leaders. The selection criteria were that at least 40% of warm weather feed be derived from pasture and that pastures were periodically rotated. From the 467 farmers, 63 were selected using a stratified random sample design to provide representative sample numbers of small, medium, and large size dairy farms. Production, cost, and returns data were collected in 1993 (for calendar year 1992) for 50 of the 63 farms drawn in the sample (a 79% response rate). Data were collected via a farm financial management software program, FINPACK, now used by CE throughout the U.S., and a supplemental survey of farmer attitudes toward grazing and grazing management practices.

Research Findings: On-farm Intensive Grazing

The study provides what is believed to be the first statistically representative evidence that intensive grazing is profitable. Average forage supplied by grazing ranged from 71% in spring to 51% in fall. A surprising finding was that the intensive grazing production systems were largely characterized by change or transition in terms of the farmers' approach to intensive grazing practices. Only 21% of the sampled farms were stable in terms of their grazing production system. Sixty percent of the sampled farms indicated they were increasing reliance on pasture use, while 19% indicated they were reducing reliance on grazing. Another key finding was that the management practices employed by the sampled representative farmers were strikingly different from recommended practices (Table 1). The degree of difference between recommended and typical reality, regarding rotation frequency, paddock size, stocking density per paddock acre, fencing and water source technology, fertilization and forage sampling, is startling.

Table 1
Recommended and Typical Intensive Grazing Practices
Recommended Grazing Practices Typical On-Farm Reality
1. Rotate pasture every three
days or less (residency
Pasture rotated 1-2 weeks
2. 1-5 acres per paddock 30.9 acres per average
3. Stocking density: 10 or more
average cows per paddock acre
Stocking density: 1.5
cows per paddock acre
4. Mobile, movable fencing
as needed, especially for
interior paddock fences
Permanent fencing--only
5. Mobile, movable water source
as needed
6% with mobile water
6. Most pasture fertilized
and/or limed
27% of pasture received
purchased fertilizer
or lime
7. Fertilizer cost $88 per
Actual fertilizer cost:
$7 per acre (Penn State
8. Several forage samples taken
of pasture
No forage samples taken
Note. Recommended practices are a general compilation of guidelines from various state sources and the published literature treating grazing, e.g., see Emmick and Fox, 1993; Undersander, Crossley, and Martin, 1993. The recommendations are not comprehensive, but are intended to highlight important features of grazing technology.

In effect, the typical farmer in the study was practicing moderate intensive grazing, rather than intensive grazing. Part of the explanation for the wide disparity between recommended practices and reality has to do with information sources. In a question permitting multiple responses, the sample farmers indicated they relied on family grazing tradition (84%), personal experience (46%), agribusiness publications (36%), and neighbors (27%) far more heavily than on CE (16%) or SCS (14%) for advice on intensive grazing issues.

Based on the value of feed content, intensive grazing was significantly more profitable than hay and corn silage enterprises (Table 2). Intensive grazing had much lower direct costs such as seed, lower overhead costs such as depreciation of machinery, and even lower labor costs. The lower input costs experienced by the farmers is partially related to less fertilizer and chemical applications using the typical moderate intensive grazing practices employed. The average net cash income per farm of $36,774 ($623 per cow) was adequate to meet scheduled loan principal payments and pay family living expenses. However, cash income was not generally adequate to replace machinery and buildings capital. Although not shown by the study, a more complete implementation of intensive grazing systems technology could result in higher farm incomes.

Table 2
Returns to Intensive Grazing, Hay, and Corn Silage
Yield in dry matter (tons) 2.29 2.06 4.15
Gross return after storage loss $192.92 $195.81 $272.52
Direct costs 19.48 53.47 129.02
Overhead costs 36.11 74.45 58.62
Opportunity cost of operator labor 7.07 27.89 15.86
Returns to operator management 129.02 20.49 57.76

Another key finding was that credit rationing (the inability to obtain adequate lender financing) motivated expansion of grazing. Farmers with (a) high debt, (b) poor cash flow, and (c) available pasture area for expansion were statistically more likely to add intensive grazing acres to their farms. This suggests that intensive grazing represents a viable option for financially burdened farmers or limited resource farmers that typically have limited access to additional loan funds.

Implications for Cooperative Extension Programming

The study points out both opportunities and problems in the delivery of cutting-edge intensive grazing technology via Extension programming to typical farmers. CE faces a major audience participation challenge in that only one of six farmers in the representative sample indicated they received direct information from Cooperative Extension on grazing. Second, widely disparate implementation of intensive grazing technology, accompanied by transition in the grazing program of 80% of the sample farms, raises a critical standardization issue as to what constitutes a minimal intensive grazing system. Study results suggest that a number of steps can be taken to target typical farms that comprise a hard-to-reach audience. These steps include:

  • MINIMUM STANDARDS. Establish and publicize minimum standards for the new technology. Farmers can benefit from definition of components required and a sense of the integrity of the system.

  • SEQUENTIAL ADOPTION. Actively assist farmers in sequential adoption of new technology and management methods, in incremental phases.

  • ADDRESS BOTTLE-NECKS. Focus on specific, manageable, production problems in workshops with farmers. Total-program design and implementation, particularly for complex systems, can overwhelm the management and credit capacity of limited resource farmers.

  • IDENTIFY FINANCIAL INCENTIVES. Explicit recognition that intensive grazing offers a technology option that is capital extensive, i.e., requiring less financial resources than confinement feeding, can be useful information for many low-tech farmers.

  • PROVIDE FOLLOW-UP. Given the overwhelming change occurring in the grazing approaches of the sample farmers, CE programming with some degree of an on-going component, appears highly beneficial. Follow-up with active workshops is one option.

  • LISTEN TO FARMERS. The experience of farmers in adapting technology can be critical to the efficient design and implementation of Extension programming.

  • COMMUNICATE WITH RESEARCHERS. Experiment station researchers may not be adequately aware of the extent of differences between laboratory conditions and real world conditions on typical farms. Educating the researchers will lead to more effort toward solving problems of low-tech, limited resource, farms. Shifting to intensive grazing technology can be viewed as process.

Intensive grazing is an outstanding example of an innovative, low-cost production system that can uniquely benefit typical livestock producers. The conclusion that low-tech farmers can benefit from even partial adoption of new production systems, indicates there is a substantial educational return to the investment of agents' time in Extension programs for non-expert farmers. Explicit recognition of fundamental expertise differences among groups of farmers can permit Cooperative Extension to more effectively reach out to limited resource producers that are poorly integrated into Extension programming, and that are the most in need of its benefits.


Christensen, R.L., Howell, J, & Miller, A. (1993). Expert panels in participatory education. Journal of Extension, Winter, 22-24.

Cunningham, L.C. (1993). An economic comparison of grazing intensity for lactating dairy cattle in northeaster Pennsylvania. Unpublished master's thesis, The Pennsylvania State University, University Park.

Emmick, D.L, & Fox, D.G. (1993, September). Prescribed grazing management to improve pasture productivity in New York. (Available from Natural Resources Conservation Service, Syracuse, NY)

Murphy, B. (1993, March). Pastures and profitability. Innovations in Sustainable Agriculture. (Available from Northeast Regional Sustainable Agricultural Research and Education Center, University of Vermont)

Olson, K.D., Nordquist, D.W., Talley, D.E., Christensen, J., Weness, E.J., & Fales, P.A. (1994). 1993 annual report of the Southwestern Minnesota Farm Business Management Association (Staff Paper P94-15). St. Paul, University of Minnesota, Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics.

Parker, W.J., Muller, L.D., Fales, S.L., & McSweeny, W.T. (1993). A survey of dairy farms in Pennsylvania using minimal or intensive pasture grazing systems. The Professional Animal Scientist, 9, 77-85.

Undersander, D.B., Crossly, A.A., & Martin, N. (1993). Pastures for profit: A guide to rotational grazing (Cooperative Extension Bulletin A3529). (Available from Cooperative Extension Publications, University of Wisconsin, Madison, WI)

Wilson, L.L., LeVan, P.J., & Todd, R.E. (1993, November). Haller livestock/forage farm grazing systems. Pasture Profit, pp. 2-3.