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Grazing: Is it Art or Is It Science?

I commonly hear people talk about “grazing” like it was a single activity. Unfortunately, this leads people to argue about whether “grazing” is based more in art or more in science. However, the argument pretty much goes away by simply separating the term “grazing” into two distinct activities; grazing planning and grazing management.

When this distinction is made, it becomes apparent that grazing planning is far different than grazing management. Grazing planning is mostly science with a brush stroke of art here and there, while grazing management is primarily the artful application of the science. So in my worldview, “grazing” is an art but it is primarily painted in science.

Original painting by Toni Grotte at
Original painting by Toni Grotte at

As an example, suppose you are a landscape painter. And you have a masterpiece morning sunrise in progress. Unfortunately, you do not have much time to paint a sunrise and capture all of the magnificent morning hues of first light.

The problem is the rustling you had heard in the pre-dawn darkness, as you were setting up to paint, was Rocky the raccoon running off with your last tube of green paint, and you do not have time to go get more. What to do, what to do?

I suppose you could panic and begin mixing all of your paints together to see if you could come up with a suitable color to capture the sun peeking through the green foliage. Sooner or later you might discover that blue paint mixed with yellow paint does in fact make green. Of course, by then, the color you wanted to paint will have vanished along with your opportunity to create a masterpiece.

Had you simply remembered what you learned in high school art class about the science of color, you would have instantly mixed blue and yellow together along with some black or white until you matched the sun-filtered green of the morning foliage and painted your masterpiece. Understanding the principles of color mixing represents the science, applying the color to the canvas represents the art. So as it turns out, even painting is more than just art. Its medium is science.

“Grazing” too is more than just art. Art, like beauty, is always viewed through the eyes of the beholder, and there are way too many personal opinions involved here in what is considered art. Keep in mind, I am not a professional art critic, nor do I even play one on television. But from where I sit, there are some folks in serious need of having their vision checked.

Grazing ColorWheel“Grazing” also is more than just science. There are far too many unpredictable variables for that; variables that are knowable, but are just not that predictable. Sunshine, precipitation, and temperature are just a few of the variables that do not answer to us, and yet they have a huge influence on whether we are creating a masterpiece or something that just disturbs the peace.

As I see it, the better the science, and the better one knows the science, the better one can apply it as art. The science provides us with insights as to how and why things work as they do (principles). The art is in the rational application of the principles, which manifest in day to day operational decisions (management).

Okay, you ask, if the science in grazing is so important, then why do so many science-based grazing plans end up not working very well?

Good question.

First – Although grazing planning and management are both painted in science, the knowable but not predictable variables previously mentioned result in it being an inexact science. That is why the “art” is so important in managed grazing. When Nature does not behave as expected (like a raccoon running off with your green paint) a true artist simply adapts the science they know to the conditions at hand and modifies their art (management) as required by the circumstances.

Second – Good grazing plans are written using the best information and data a planner has available. However, that does not mean the data is good. Take forage yield data by soil type as an example. I have been looking at that kind of data since 1980, and I can tell you some of the data that has made it into the commonly used databases is an absolute joke. I have seen yield data reported, in tons per acre per year, where some of the data came from a single mid-summer cut while other data was reported from 2, 3, or 4 cut studies. I only know this because I knew the person who put the database together and where they got their information.

Obviously, the more times a forage is harvested in a years’ time over many years, the closer one gets to understanding just how many pounds per acre of forage a particular soil type can potentially produce. The fewer the cuts and the fewer the number of years in a study, the less reliable is the data.

I always preferred to use hay yield data provided to me by the farmers or ranchers I was working with. Sometimes this was a good idea, sometimes it was not. This may come as a shock to you, but sometimes the people working the land are as clueless about the amount of forage an acre of land can produce as the planners trying to help them. As an example, I have never met a farmer in New York State that grows less than 20 tons of corn silage per acre per year. Yet, if you ask them how many acres of corn they planted, how many tons their wagons hold, and how many loads they put in their silos, the numbers just do not add up.

Here's an example of color averaging
Here’s an example of color averaging

Third – We hang our hats on using average numbers to plan with and around, yet there is no such number as average.

For example, if grazing is an art, then what does average grazing art look like?   Is it like a painting where half of it borders on being a masterpiece and the other half of it looks like a mystery piece? I suppose if you were to add the two parts together and divide by the sum of their brush strokes you could create an average of sorts. I just don’t know what it would mean.

On the other hand, what does average grazing science look like? I don’t have a clue, and I am a science guy. I can tell you that as a science guy, I look at and use a lot of numbers to help me make decisions, not just about grazing, but most all things in life. If the numbers do not add up, then I doubt the value of the data. Even when the numbers do add up, I just doubt the value of the data less. Maintaining a bit of skepticism about average numbers is a good thing. Because you can never be too sure where the numbers came from, who collected them, and for what purpose.

And besides that there is no such naturally occurring number as an average. It is a human-created number. What is even more interesting is the fact that not all averages are the same.

Average numbers are created by taking a set of numbers, adding them up, and then dividing by the total numbers in the set. For example, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. There are 6 numbers in the set. The sum of the numbers is 21. One can easily see that the lowest number in the set is 1. One can also see that the largest number in the set is 6. But stare at the list as long as you like, the average of the numbers in the set is not visible. However, if you divide the sum of the numbers in the set (21) by the number of entries in the set (6), just like pulling a rabbit out of a magician’s hat, the average of the numbers in the set, which is 3.5, appears. And yet there is no 3.5 visible in the list.

Suppose the 3.5 in the previous paragraph was the forage yield in tons of dry matter per acre per year that you found listed in a database for the type of soil in your newly acquired pasture. Suppose also that the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 were the yield data from a 6 year study that was used to generate the 3.5 tons of dry matter per acre per year average. With year to year yields ranging from 1 to 6 tons of dry matter per acre, just how comfortable would you be stocking your farm or ranch with livestock based, on average, with having 3.5 tons of dry matter available?

Now suppose the yields were not 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, but rather 3, 3, 3, 4, 4, 4, tons of dry matter per acre per year. Again, I can point out the smallest number in the set (3) and the largest number (4), but I still can’t point to the average number until I divide the sum of the numbers in the set (21) by the number of entries in the list (6) and, again, just like magic, the average of the numbers in the set, which again is 3.5, appears. Okay, same question, with year to year yields ranging from 3 to 4 tons of dry matter per acre, now how comfortable would you be stocking your farm or ranch with livestock based, on average, with having 3.5 tons of dry matter available?

Although both data sets generate the same average forage yield per acre per year, only one even comes close to being useful for planning purposes. As previously stated, averages are created by adding up all the numbers in a data set and dividing this sum by the total numbers in the set. When the numbers vary widely (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) the average of the numbers (while better than nothing) is not very useful. What is useful is an average number created from a set of data that is fairly consistent (3, 3, 3, 4, 4, 4). Unfortunately, there is no way for you or a planner to tell from most databases whether the value listed is fairly reliable or just a number.

588x386xI-can-draw-a-cow.jpg.pagespeed.ic.ncjs6oYzcMFourth – Now don’t get all hissy with me and throw a fit over this next statement, but your art may not be as good as you think it is. I have freely admitted that sometimes the science we use in planning is not very good either. It is what it is.

If you are trying to graze without a plan, then how do you know if what you are doing is leading you to the right color? Yes, I did say color. Over the past 35 years, I have had the great pleasure to see and to work with some “true artists.” They started grazing using science-based grazing plans and applied the necessary art to paint their farms in sustainable black. After 25-30 years of grazing, these farms are still in business, and they are still grazing.

On the other hand, I also have had the opportunity to see some very fine examples of what some visually impaired folks called art. But as evidenced by the number of those farms that are now out of business, painted in red, or have gone back to feeding livestock in feedlots or barns, I would give them all zeroes for artistic impression. Some grazing “art” is not sustainable.

For example, adding a few more head of livestock or reducing the number of acres of pasture than is prescribed in your grazing plan. Having more animals on a pasture than what the pasture can support is not very artistic.

Other examples of visually impaired grazing art include, overfeeding supplements (especially protein) to dairy cows in the barn and wondering why cows do not eat much in the pasture, grazing tall lignified forage and wondering why livestock do not perform well, failing to soil test and correct fertility imbalances and wondering why forage yields are so low, increasing paddock residency periods because you don’t feel like moving livestock on the recommended schedule, failing to provide a decent quality and quantity of water in pastures and wondering why animal performance is lower than expected, sticking to a grazing plan that was written using “average condition science,” when the conditions are anything but average and wondering why the plan is not working, and the list of artistic faux pas goes on and on.

Painting-a-CowFifth – Where you get your information. I have heard it said that “the science in grazing is just a bunch of blah, blah, blah.” But to me, it is people passing words without facts that are the blah, blah, blah. Henry David Thoreau (one of my favorite philosophers) called these words the “mere smoke of opinion.” And like real smoke, which tends to obscure our vision, drift this way and that, and then simply disappears, so does the blah, blah, blah of brightly colored but fact-less grazing art.

Just because a farmer or rancher with a gift of gab and a big brush can paint an  artistic picture of what they are doing on their farm does not mean it will work on your farm. As a matter of fact, it may not even mean it is working very well on their farm.

I can think of a number of occasions, over the past 35 years, where farmers on pasture walks were told by the host farmer how blah, blah, blah science-based planning was and how good an “artful something” they were doing or using was, just to find out, shortly after, the farmer had abandoned the practice or stopped using the “something” because it did not work or was less effective than some other practice or thing. In the meantime, a whole bunch of farmers, who had heard from their fellow farmer how good the “something” was, were finding out, at their cost, they had been smoked.

While I am not certain why people like to paint the art in grazing with a very large brush, using the brightest and boldest of colors, while painting the value of the science in watered down pastels, with a pin striping brush (if they paint it at all), I do know this. If you ignore science long enough, you too can join the ranks of the other “starving artists” trying to sell “art” at the local Holiday Hotel art sale, or worse.

When you have the luxury of time and money, and issues like health, safety, or environmental impacts are not concerns, creating your own art by doing is not a bad way to learn how to do something. However, when time and money are in limited supply, or when there are concerns with environmental impacts, or issues with health, safety, and the like, it is not.

From Rita Kirkman's Daily Paintings:
From Rita Kirkman’s Daily Paintings:

So in summary, while I believe that good grazing is an art, it is an art painted in science. The fact that you don’t have to follow every single science-based guideline provided to you, or that the guidelines have to be tweaked in order for you to be successful with grazing on your particular farm or ranch in no way compromises the value of science-based information. It is simply a testament to the fact that grass-based agriculture is an extremely forgiving form of farming and that farm to farm there is a tremendous amount of variability in artistic application. And certainly, this is as expected. Again, sunshine, precipitation, and temperature are knowable, but they are just not that predictable. And sometimes the science used in a plan is not as reliable as we would hope.

True grazing artists understand these issues and when conditions are far different than what is expected or things are not going as planned, they don’t give up on science, they just remix their paint.

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Darrell Emmick
Darrell Emmick
Darrell began his career in grassland research and management in 1980 by walking across a plowed field in the rain to ask the farm manager of Cornell University’s Mount Pleasant Research Farm for a job. Although the farm manager had no funds that particular year for hiring summer help, Darrell was informed that there was a new pasture research project getting underway at Cornell’s Teaching and Research Center in Harford, NY, and they could likely use some help from a person willing to walk across a plowed field in the rain to ask for a job. Little did Darrell know that plodding through mud and rain would lead to 34 years of researching, promoting, and helping farmers implement grazing-based livestock production systems. Along the way, Darrell earned a Master’s degree in Resource Management and Ecology, a PhD in Range Science with a concentration in the foraging behavior and diet selection of herbivores, served as the pasture research manager at the Cornell University Hillside Pasture Research and Demonstration project, and after 26 years as the state grazing land management specialist with the USDA- Natural Resources Conservation Service in New York State, has retired. While Darrell can still be found walking across plowed fields in the spring rain, with a turkey call in his jacket pocket and a 12 gauge shot gun cradled in the crook of his arm, which, by the way, was exactly what he was doing those 34 years ago when a job got in the way, he does prefer to talk grass and fish.


  1. Darrell,
    I appreciated your articulate, and at times humorous explanation of a Grazing Plan. As you say, it needs both the science and the art to make it successful. Having a plan as a guide, and willingness to adapt to changing conditions. Like so many things in life – being flexible is the heart of it. The world simply isn’t static. Perhaps we need to teach this in schools? How to observe, analyze and utilize some creative flex as conditions change. Goodness knows there are far too many that turn ugly or violent because something doesn’t “follow the plan” when they might have done better if they’d changed their paintbrush or used another method to make green paint.
    Thanks for the good read!
    Kimberly Hagen

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