3 Rules of Adaptive Stewardship: Compounding

The Butterfly Effect

Here’s an interesting question to ponder: To what degree do you believe everything is connected on Earth? I would imagine most of us think everything is fairly connected, given how technology has made the world feel so small. For example, I currently live in the United Kingdom, but my smart phone allows me to video chat in real time with my family who lives over 4,000 miles away. It’s unbelievable when you really think about it and I’m forever grateful to be able to see the faces of loved ones while away. 


Similar advances in technology have allowed global markets to become intricately linked. In the not-so-distant past, weather, war, political unrest and other events in one part of the world would have been virtually unknown to other parts of the world for a very long time. However, we are directly affected by nearly everything nowadays, no matter where it takes place. After all, who would have thought 300 years ago that a military invasion over 5,500 miles away would  affect input costs for American farmers in under 48 hours? This is the result of a connected world. Pull on one string of the web and the rest of the web moves with it.

Agricultural markets are greatly affected by outside forces, as illustrated by the rise in nitrogen fertilizer prices due to the COVID-19 global pandemic in 2020 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

Financial and technological connections are fairly easy to understand in our globally-focused world, but what about connections in the natural world around us? One thought-provoking question often asked is whether the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can set off a chain of events culminating in the formation of a tornado in Texas. In other words, how connected is the natural world?


One person who believed “the butterfly effect” to be true was the originator of the question itself, meteorologist Edward Lorenz. In 1961, Lorenz discovered that extremely small changes in numerical values led to dramatically different predictions when using a computer to model future weather patterns. These results led him to write that, “In view of the inevitable inaccuracy and incompleteness of weather observations, precise very-long-range forecasting would seem to be nonexistent.”1 His findings were so influential, a new branch of mathematics called “chaos theory” emerged. One of the core tenants of chaos theory is that tiny changes in initial conditions produce large changes in long-term results, such as weather models that can’t decide whether there will be storms or clear skies in the coming days. Hopefully this will give you pause the next time you want to curse out your local meteorologist for the inaccuracy of their 10-day forecast!

Graphical representation of the large variation in outcomes when tiny changes are made to computer models predicting future outcomes. Note how the graph itself resembles a butterfly, which Lorenz chose as the subject of his famous question.

Farmers and ranchers with ecological education and observation skills understand that the infinite amount of variables affecting their operation are connected in a web of strings, just like the financial market example. Pull on one string of the web and the rest moves with it.  Not only that, they rely on one another in ways that we may never be able to fully understand, making the web of string somewhat of a house of cards. While nature is more resilient than a house of cards, the removal of certain keystone species can cause outsized negative downstream effects on other species and the ecosystem as a whole. The first rule of adaptive stewardship, the Rule of Compounding, captures these intimate relationships and dependencies.


The Rule of Compounding states that every management practice applied creates a series of compounding and cascading effects that are either positive or negative in nature. There are never any singular impacts and they are never neutral.2 A helpful analogy is the tossing of a rock in a pond. Ripples caused by the stone represent the ongoing effects of a management decision. We want our management decisions to set off a chain reaction of positive effects, rather than negative.


Animal impact on the land is a hotly debated topic these days. Literally. Some groups advocate for the removal of human and livestock influence on landscapes in what is termed “rewilding“. Proponents of rewilding tout its ability to slow extinction rates, restore biodiversity and mitigate climate change. Other groups believe that domesticated livestock are essential for global nutrition and that they can produce tremendously positive impacts on ecosystems when managed properly. Regenerative grazers, and myself, fall into this camp. We often use the rallying cry “it’s not the cow, it’s the how” to vocalize that the proper management of livestock mimics the grazing patterns of wild ruminants and hindgut fermenters, which, to me, makes adaptive, multi-paddock (AMP) grazing a version of rewilding. While many may disagree, the positive compounding and cascading effects of AMP grazing are undeniable and research is beginning to corroborate anecdotal evidence.3,4,5


Think for a moment about the life of a plant in pasture. Walk a mile in its shoots, if you will. Plants grow slowly in the first phase of their lives because they don’t have many solar panels (chlorophyll) collecting energy, carbon dioxide vacuums (stomata) collecting building material or collection zones for water and nutrients (roots). After  a few weeks, plant growth picks up the pace as energy, carbon, water and nutrients are readily available and fuel even more growth like a teenager in the middle of a growth spurt. Like humans, the plant stops growing tall at some point and begins to put most of its resources toward reproductive parts, like flowers and seeds. This is why some experts recommend grazing plants at the end of phase 2 (teenager phase) to knock them back to the beginning of phase 2 where they will rapidly regrow.

Plant reserves based on growth stage

One note: Continuously grazing the same plants during boot stage may have negative long-term effects as the plant’s growing point is near the top to facilitate reproductive growth.6 Make sure to let an area grazed at boot stage rest and recover because regrowth will be slower, especially in dryer conditions. This is less of an issue in a pasture with diverse forage at various stages of growth, but that’s a story for another time.


Now, it’s important to know that roots slough off of the plant after it has been grazed. This makes sense because the ability of a plant to capture energy and building material from photosynthesis is hindered when leaves are taken, so this causes some roots to die from a lack of energy and food. The quantity of roots sloughed off is related to the quantity of above-ground plant material lost, however the relationship is not directly proportional. On average, only 2-4% of roots are lost when 50% or less of the plant is grazed. Increase the percent of leaf volume eaten to 60% and half of the roots are lost, which will require a lot of time, energy and food to rebuild. Check out the chart below for all of the figures.

Percent of roots sloughed after a grazing event

While nutrient and energy reserves do play a role in plant shoot and root regrowth ability, rangeland scientists John Hendrickson and Bret Olson write that,  “A plant’s ability to recover after grazing depends largely on its ability to reestablish leaves and renew photosynthesis. Plants do not maintain large stores of energy and nutrients, so they need carbohydrates gained from photosynthesis to survive, grow, and reproduce.”7


The takeaway message is that leaving 50% or more of the above-ground portion is not wasting forage. Quite the opposite if we think about long-term pasture production. Let’s look at two different grazing scenarios and analyze the compounding and cascading effects rippling outward from each of them.

Compounding & Cascading Effects of Set-Stock Grazing

First up, we will examine a common set-stock grazing system that allows livestock to graze in the same paddock the entire growing season. These animals have free rein to consume whichever plants they please, whenever they please. There are no pressures put on it by predators or fellow species that would affect its grazing habits, so each of the animals will seek out their favorite plants to graze. This sounds nice and ethical, but what ends up happening, assuming the land is overstocked, is that favorable plants are grazed past 50%, which we know slows the rate of recovery and causes significant root death. Significant root death leaves the plant vulnerable during periods of stress, especially periods of high heat and low rainfall. The good news is that most plants are resilient and will bounce back from one overgrazing event if given the proper amount of time. The bad news is that set-stock grazing does not offer the plant the proper amount of time to bounce back. Animals continuously nibble on the same plant before it is fully rested and recovered and each successive bite forces the plant to dig deeper into its limited energy and food reserves. This causes more roots to slough off and leaves the plant even more vulnerable to poor growing conditions and disease. Just like someone being pushed down every time they try to get up off of the floor, eventually the plant can no longer muster the energy to get back up. And remember, these aren’t just any plants. They were the first choice of the livestock, likely because of their superior nutrition and palatability. This means that set-stock grazing actually selects against long-term success of the plants that are most nutritious and desirable for livestock.


Over time, bare spots begin to develop across the paddock where plants die out, particularly in drier climates. Bare spots are devastating to soil health as living roots are unable to feed biology in the soil that build soil structure and organic matter accumulation. Hindering soil biology means our soils are at higher risk of capping and compacting, which leads to poor water infiltration, poor water percolation, anaerobic-dominating conditions and impaired nutrient cycling. This barren, Mad Max-like environment is most suitable for loner plants that reproduce rapidly by putting more energy into the quantity of seeds instead of the quality of each one. These are our weeds and they thrive as paddock health degrades. Yes, livestock will readily consume many weeds, but they tend to do so only when they are grouped tightly and feel competition from their peers. This is not the case with set-stock grazing. Livestock then move on to their second favorite forage, repeating the process all over again, resulting in more bare spots, more weeds and a landscape with lower diversity of plant species.8


The economic compounding and cascading effects of set-stock grazing are also negative. Poor pastures cannot feed livestock year-round, so expensive winter feeding becomes a necessity. Fertilizing and/or reseeding a poor pasture are also large expenses, while poor forage quality makes livestock weaker and more susceptible to disease, which can result in hefty invoices from the vet. Ecologic, agronomic and economic woes will no doubt have negative compounding and cascading effects on the mental and social health of producers as well.  As you can see, the effects of one management decision, set-stock grazing, can ripple outward and touch every aspect of the grazing operation.

Typical overgrazed pasture. Negative compounding and cascading effects abound in such poor performing pastures.

Compounding & Cascading Effects of AMP Grazing

Let’s now contrast the previous situation to one where plants are allowed to recover and rest after an animal has fed on it. This is a key tenant of adaptive, multi-paddock (AMP) grazing, as the time a plant is exposed to animals is a more important factor than animal units on an area.

As the name indicates, AMP grazing utilizes temporary fencing to split up a piece of land into multiple paddocks. If, for example, there are 10 paddocks made, livestock will be grouped into one of them, which allows plants in the other 9 paddocks to recover from the last time livestock were there. Livestock should be moved to a new paddock before animals begin taking second bites of the same plant. This will ensure that no more than 50% of the plant is consumed, which we know plays an important role in its ability to regrow. Keeping 50% or more of a plant also keeps it tall enough to be trampled to the ground. Just as a bald man grows out his hair on the sides to cover up his shiny scalp, taller forage is able to fall on its side and cover the soil. It’s a shame combovers don’t lead to hair regrowth like trampled forage leads to pasture regrowth…


Ideally, livestock will be moved off of a paddock when a majority of the sward has been grazed 50% or less and trampled to the soil surface, only to return after the sward has recovered and rested. Combined with a more even manure and urine distribution compared to set-stocking, AMP grazing creates positive compounding and cascading effects that increase pasture health over time. Trampling sufficient cover onto the ground moderates soil temperature as sunlight cannot penetrate down to the soil surface, which reduces water loss through evaporation and keeps biology functioning at a nice temperature.9 Soil biology also benefits from maintaining living roots in the soil, as a minimum amount of roots are sloughed off. Maintaining living roots in the soil as long as possible is a principle of soil health for a reason and its importance to soil biology and pasture productivity cannot be overstated. It’s important to remember that living soil biology colonizes less than 1% of total soil surface area, making carbon hotspots like roots and organic matter oases in a vast desert of unfavorable conditions.10 Among other benefits, living soil biology assembles soil particles into micro-and macroaggregates, which creates channels for water and air to infiltrate into the soil.11  Macroaggregates are formed largely by the hyphae of mycorrhizal fungi that surround and bring together microaggregates.12 The benefits of a macroaggregated soil include: a healthy mixture of aerobic and anaerobic conditions (some beneficial processes like nitrogen fixation require anaerobic microsites!13), protection of soil organic C from degradation14,15 and better root development. 16

Fungal hyphae stabilizing a soil aggregate. From Weil and Brady (2016)

Below-ground improvements will eventually show themself in the above-ground portion, which is where soil health really translates into more money in our pockets. In fact, research shows that AMP grazing can improve pasture productivity by as much as 300% compared to conventional grazing systems.17 More forage in the pasture means ranchers can increase their herd size while improving ecosystem functioning18, thus improving profitability.19 In addition, pasture species diversity increases over time8, leading to greater shoot biomass, root biomass and root exudate production20,as well as bigger and more diverse microbial populations21.


Without even mentioning improvements in epigenetics of plants and livestock, self-medication of livestock, and beneficial insect populations, it’s easy for one to see that AMP grazing is a win-win-win situation fueled by numerous positive compounding and cascading effects.

Diverse sward on a dairy operation in southern Ireland. Think about the compounding and cascading effects from such diversity!


Albert Einstein famously said that compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world. “He who understands it, earns it. He who doesn’t, pays it.” The same is true of compounding effects in an agricultural setting. Many of our ecological bank accounts in the form of  biodiversity, soil health, organic matter and ecosystem process efficiency have run low, which forces us to put in large amounts of our own time, energy and money to make the land productive. The good news is that we can start reinvesting into our bank accounts through the implementation of regenerative practices in the proper context, no matter where we’re starting from. It takes time and it takes intentionality, but it is well worth the hassle to one day live off of the compound interest of a biological system that works 24/7/365 for you, rather than the other way around.


 This article focused mainly on grazing systems, but the same applies to cropping systems as well. Management decisions in any system that sow the degradation of soil health and ecological inefficiency will produce a harvest of negative compounding and cascading effects. At the end of the day, it takes humility to admit that we can’t know everything and that we don’t have all of the answers. It also takes trust in natural systems to believe they have the ability to self-heal, self-organize and self-regulate when given the chance. Regenerative farmers and ranchers the world around have already shown that they are capable of doing exactly that. They have discovered that the default setting for natural systems is health and balance. 


I encourage everyone to find producers in both local and distant regions that are further down the regenerative path than yourself. Ask questions and learn from their successes and failures. Be a lifelong learner and don’t go at this alone. Together, we can change modern agriculture for the better and make operations rich in positive compounding and cascading effects the new conventional agriculture.