The following blog is an article from HMI’s journal, IN PRACTICE, titled “Restoring Old Pastures with Holistic Grazing Planning at Arriola Sunshine Farm” by Cindy Dvergsten and Mike Rich
At Arriola Sunshine Farm (near Dolores, Colorado) we aim to create healthy land, healthy animals and healthy people. We generate real wealth by capturing solar energy with green growing plants. Our farm contributes to building a strong vibrant community and economy that is sustainable. We have engaged in several farm enterprises over the years including hay, small scale fruit and vegetable produce, heritage turkeys, chicken eggs, and grass-fed beef. We began practicing Holistic Management in the mid-1990s during which time Cindy became a Certified Educator with HMI. Today our focus is on livestock breed conservation with Navajo Churro Sheep, producing wool. registered breeding stock and grass-fed lamb.
Our land has not been plowed or reseeded in over 40 years. Prior to purchasing our 5-acre farm, the fields were used primarily for hay. We continued with this for several years during which time we witnessed a slow decline in productivity. Typically, old hay fields are plowed out and replanted, however this type of action did not pass holistic testing guidelines for us, and thus would not honor our holistic goal. Instead we shifted to pasture and used grazing animals to restore productivity to our land. We started with raising a couple steers and then switched to Navajo-Churro sheep in 2003 which provided us greater ability to manage animal impact on our small acreage.
With carefully planned grazing and use of animal impact, we have doubled our productivity and continue to see improvement. We avoid over grazing by not allowing the sheep to stay too long or come back too soon. We plan our grazing periods to be 3-7 days and provide 35 to 60 days of recovery. We never repeat that same grazing pattern, doing our best to mimic nature. When we feed hay, we do it out in the field where we maximize the tool of animal impact. All manure is returned to the field where it is incorporated into the soil by the micro- and macro-organisms. This happens in as little as two weeks during the growing season.
We have realized improved economic returns through increased carrying capacity, drought resilience, improved forage quality, better animal performance, and fewer inputs. Improved grazing management has added only a minimal amount of labor. Forage production on our fields in 1998 was 1.5 tons to the acre whereas in 2018 it averaged 3.5 tons to the acre enabling us to carry twice the number of animal units for a longer grazing season.
Monitoring is essential to maximizing productivity. We observe on a daily or weekly basis what is happening with the rate of grass growth and animal performance. This includes clipping and weighing forage samples before and after grazing so we may train our eyes to what is happening and tweak our grazing plan as necessary to stay in tune with nature as the season progresses.
We make improvements to our fencing when it makes sense economically. As forage productivity increases so does the need to manage it more intensively. Wise additions to our permanent fencing allow us to better utilize forage while reducing labor that otherwise would occur with continuously moving temporary electric fencing.
After 10 years of practicing Holistic Grazing Planning, our land showed up on aerial photos as being notably greener and more vibrant than surrounding lands (see photo taken by USDA in late July 2009). Notice that where the pasture has just been grazed, center-right, the color is tan/yellow. This indicates that the soil surface is covered with residue after grazing. Leaving some grass and residue on the surface after grazing helps to protect and build the soil. Our sheep trample residue in along with their manure adding to soil fertility. Residue serves as a mulch to hold moisture in and contributes organic matter to improve porosity of the soil and build fertility. In contrast, the surrounding farm fields show pinkish/ brown colors indicating that bare soil is showing between plants. Exposed soil surface dries out faster, promotes weeds, is less fertile, and becomes hard capped which increases runoff.
Comparison Shows Progress
In 2011 we began managing our neighbor’s pasture. Previously, his pasture had been rested for 10 years followed by two years of continuous season long grazing by a couple horses. This situation provided us with a good “before” scenario to work from. Forage production was less than 2 tons to the acre and bare soil showed between plants. The plants were less vigorous requiring longer recovery periods. As the photos show, there was much less organic matter and less biological activity. The surface capped soil surface caused a reduced infiltration rate of irrigation water.
In comparison, now look at the aerial photos taken in 2014. You can see improvement in the neighbor’s property (yellow box above the red box outlining our property) compared to the 2009 photos. Notice there are more green plants capturing the sun’s energy and thus sequestering more carbon in the soil. We did not replant, but let nature take its course, using our sheep to bring about positive change. We observed a cycle of weed growth including bindweed, dandelion and Canadian thistle, however they are very nutritious for sheep. Following this was a return of alfalfa and robust orchard and bromegrass plants. With improved soil cover infiltration is better and water holding capacity higher. The carrying capacity increased on this field just as it has on our own property.
Healthy soils are alive with millions of insects, nematodes, worms, bacteria, protozoa, molds, fungi, plant roots and animals like gophers playing a role in keeping the carbon cycle functional so carbon goes into the soil, not the air.
Soil organic matter in our fields was measured at 1.7% in the mid-1990s. In 2018 we measured 4-5.7% organic matter in the same field (nearly a 200% increase). We utilized the Haney soil test which offers a comprehensive insight into soil health. Soil respiration, indication of the amount of microbial biomass, was 315 in our best paddock which is considered very high. The Haney test also provides an overall soil health score of on a scale of 0 to 50. Our better paddocks averaged 31. Furthermore, the nutrient value of the soil (N, P, K) was $173 per acre. Consider for comparison our neighbors’ soil which we have been managing for only six years. There the organic matter is 3.5%, soil respiration 97, overall soil health is 16 and the nutrient value is $82 per acre – which is still relatively healthy.
Last year (2018) we carried 22 ewes with 35 lambs, four yearling ewes and 5 rams on of 5.5 acres of irrigated pasture. Our irrigation water was cut off 7 weeks early, yet we were able to graze our flock until snow prevented further grazing in December. If our land was not in excellent condition, we most likely would have had to destock like many others in the area. Instead, we were able to increase our flock while also reducing our dependence on hay. This year (2019) the drought has ended, and our pastures are in great condition with abundant spring precipitation and lambing rate increased. For the grazing season, we plan to carry 25 ewes with 47 lambs by their sides along with 3 yearling ewes and 4 mature rams.
The ability to be profitable in agriculture depends not only on productivity and efficiency, but also on the ability of a farmer or rancher to ask for and receive a fair price for their product. Navajo-Churro sheep are a non-commercial heritage landrace breed and thus require extra effort to market its products. The wool is a specialty product and the meat is exceptionally lean with a “light” flavor. They are a hardy range animal with excellent mothering ability and are smaller in size thus requiring fewer inputs. With successful marketing the wool and meat will bring a somewhat higher price as compared to commercial breeds and conventional products. Feeding and finishing on grass with healthy production practices along with marketing our values around livestock breed conservation helps us achieve desired income.
Hay and our labor (we do not hire) make up most of our direct costs of production. In calculating our gross profit, we consider the breeding ewe as our unit of production. Considering strictly the direct production costs, including our labor and marketing expenses, and then subtracting that from the gross income from raw wool, pelts, breeding stock and butcher lambs; our gross profit will average $140 per mature breeding ewe this year depending on our actual direct costs.
As the year progresses, we will purposely use the tool of human creativity to solve problems and test our decisions to determine if they are socially, economically and environmentally sound so we may realize a triple bottom line. No matter how good the year is, we look for ways to improve our quality of life and enhance productivity on our land so we may collect ever more solar energy in the future with green growing plants.
Cindy Dvergsten and Mike Rich provide training and mentoring in Holistic Management and may be reached at [email protected].