“Graziers need to get beyond the paralyzing paradigm of wasting grass if we want to be truly sustainable.”
Those are the words of Ian Mitchell-Innes, a South African farmer, philosopher, punster, and no-nonsense, world renowned educator of grazing farmers, and wanna-be graziers all over the planet. On this particular day he was speaking at a Grazing Workshop held at the Larsen Farm in Wells, Vermont. He was sharing his philosophy that success means capturing solar energy and using it to feed cattle, and then leaving ungrazed, trampled forage to feed the soil.
“We are in the energy business: Energy is money, money is energy, and time is money,” Mitchell-Innes says. “One day we will be recognized for our organic matter building capability by consumers around the world and be justly paid for sequestering carbon”
His timing was spot on for those hearing his blunt words. As I travel around the state, and visit with farmers seeking to develop a good grazing system or improve the one they have, I find this is one of the most difficult of concepts to get rearranged in the mind. There is a lot of fretting going on about “all that wasted feed”.
But is ungrazed feed really wasted?
Not in the minds of those that promote and practice grazing. Many agree with Troy Bishopp who calls Ian “Mr. Litter” for his promotion of a ratio of 80% trampling to 20% grazing to enhance soil building, water-holding, and carbon sequestering. While there are varying beliefs and opinions as to what degree of trampling is best, for the most part, the general consensus is that ungrazed residue really keeps you on the right side of the line whether you are looking at the benefits for good feed, the economics, or the ecological impact of that trampled forage.
But what if I can’t tall graze?
Ian’s belief in and promotion of grazing tall (greater than 10 inches), at greater stocking densities and for only as much time as it takes for the animals to chomp the top third of the plant is a bit too extreme for some graziers. Their comfort level resides somewhere on the continuum towards shorter grazing, or incorporating other management practices to achieve similar goals. And, as Dan Hudson, Agronomist with University of Vermont’s Extension Service, points out, sometimes graziers don’t even have tall grazing as an option. Tall grazing and moving animals along quickly can leave a pasture looking uneven and “raggedy.” While it makes economic sense not to clip the pasture post-grazing, if the owner of your leased or rented pasture land likes the look of a neatly mowed field, you may just have to spend the money on clipping.
If this is what you’re faced with, Dan suggests allowing animals access back into the clipped section after opening a new paddock. In this way the animals trample the clippings and drag them around, accomplishing Ian’s goal of incorporating trampled material into the soil and setting up a friendly environment for regrowth of the forage while keeping the soil cool and moist.
“If this happens to a different part of your pasture every year, it might work out very well in the long run” Dan says, although it can be tricky to get precise results. Weather can send the best laid plans out the window in favor of plan B or C. And if ever there was a grazing season demanding the most creative ideas one could dream up, the summer of 2013 is that!
I know for myself, I have explored and experimented with several of these management practices with my pastures and sheep, grazing tall, increasing the density of the animals on a paddock, moving them quickly, or slowing way down depending on the weather. I’ve brought in other, heavier species to do some serious trampling of the downed forage, and I have sometimes clipped – when undesirable plants are numerous and drowning out the diversity chorus. And many times I leave the paddocks alone, for the seeds to mature and drop to the ground bank for next year’s foraging.Some of these have been wonderfully successful and some have not, but in each case something was learned through the process.
Live and Learn
Maybe the learning is a goal in itself. One cannot help but appreciate Ian Mitchell-Innes’ pushback to farmers when he reminds us to first look up from our immediate tasks and step back for a good gaze at the big picture and then to return to our farms to observe, observe and observe some more. Ian’s ideas are extreme for some folks, but then they are based on lots of practice in a very brittle environment and lots of time observing and learning. Only you can know your own farm as Ian reinforced throughout the workshop. When participants asked what they should do about particular events and circumstances at their farms, Ian declared “I don’t know. I don’t know your farm” as though it was the oddest question he had ever entertained.
So let those animals trample. Be flexible and try other new ideas. Then, most importantly, pay attention to what happens, make many observations, and keep good records. Then let’s all share what we discover!