Thursday, June 23, 2011

Farming: Lessons in Rotational Grazing

Attending a pasture management class. Look at how high the grass
is here despite being recently grazed by cattle, this is what you want to see!

Usually when farmers and ranchers mimic nature everything improves: the land, the livestock, and the expenses. All good.

Considering that most livestock originally descended from grassland plains animals it only makes sense to observe what these animals do naturally and replicate it to conform with best management practices. Herd animals - whether cattle, sheep, goats, or others - are continually on the move. They will graze a relatively concentrated area and immediately move on to the next. In so doing they manure the area, graze out the choice grasses or small bushes, trample down a lot of organic matter, and then move and repeat.

In most herds species will be intermixed. Zebras will mingle with wildebeest, antelope with bison, and so forth. This is a key function because certain species prefer a particular grass or bush, while others like what the one ignores. Also, because intestinal parasites are generally species-specific, one will eat where the other poops and vice-versa.

As a consequence the land is evenly grazed, highly manured, and rebounds quickly.

Contrast this to the typical grazing pattern used by most ranchers and farmers, where herds of single species are allowed to roam freely over large areas. The usual result is that manure is scattered, the preferred grasses are overgrazed, and in the absence of browsers, unwanted weeds abound and eventually dominate.

So how does this influence the way we plan to run the Valhalla program? We plan to lead with the larger animals and work our way down.

Cattle will be contained in small, easily portable electric fencing - the precise area will be contingent on the size of the herd - and moved daily or every second day. Following immediately behind the cattle will be a mixed group of sheep and goats. The sheep will eat some of the grass the cows ignore and the goats will happily browse emerging weeds and brush. Whenever the cows move, the goats and sheep immediately follow.

Lastly, the area will be turned over to pastured poultry - turkeys and chickens primarily - that will scratch up the manure looking for insects and seeds, pick out some weeds, and add their manure to the growing collection.

By having multiple small areas into which rotating animals can be cycled, the grass has time to regenerate, the root systems are intact and healthy, soil retains more moisture, and organic matter is continually added to the topsoil.

In the Ozarks, we have learned, this system may even be applicable for much of the winter. With hardy, self-reliant animals the typically light snows can be pulled off standing grass by grazers for a few months before supplemental hay is required. Give the grass time to grow in early spring, then begin the turn-out program again.

Each year, if done properly, pastures will improve, feed costs will diminish, and livestock will thrive. A multiple-win situation!



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