Holistic Management Reflections from an Old Timer–
Guest Blog By Don Campbell
Spring is on the way. This year’s grazing season will soon be here. It is an exciting time of the year. You only have one opportunity to do a grazing plan each year. Perhaps you will resolve that this year you will do the best grazing plan ever. If you choose to make this commitment, I am sure you will be pleased with the results.
Before I discuss Planned Grazing, I want to cover two topics that are always important but are especially important this year due to the widespread drought that occurred last year and the uncertainty of growing conditions this year. The first and most important consideration is to take care of yourself and your people. Drought can have a huge impact on mental health and relationships. Make a plan to maintain your mental health. If you are not healthy you will be of less benefit to yourself and others. Plan to maintain the mental health of those around you. There is lots of help available. Remember that asking for help is a sign of strength not weakness. We all need help from time to time. Reach out to your friends and neighbors. Visiting people will likely help you and those you visit as well.
An old friend of mine Bud Williams told me that in the cattle business you have grass, money and cattle. Bud said: “You will never have too much grass or too much money, but you can have too many cattle.” I believe this is true. As managers we need to match our cattle numbers to our grass. This is always important; it is vital during a drought. Make plans now before the growing season begins on how you will achieve this balance.
Allan Savory developed the concept that overgrazing is due to time. This was one of Allan’s Four Key Insights. This definition of overgrazing has led to most of the controversy over Allan’s work. The old concept of overgrazing was that it was the result of utilization rate. This is where the take half, leave half idea came from. Before Allan’s work this definition of overgrazing was the best, we could do with the knowledge we had. We now have a new knowledge. We need to accept the new knowledge and move forward to better management.
Unfortunately, due to the power of paradigms people who are schooled in the old paradigm have great difficulty accepting the new paradigm. This has led to a great deal of resistance from universities, extension people and others.
Producers accept the new paradigm readily. They can see that planned grazing works and are willing to try it. Allan used to say: “Ignorance never blocks learning, knowledge may.” The good news is that planned grazing works and more and more people including producers and professionals are accepting this.
That’s enough for a preamble. Let’s get down to the details of Planned Grazing. This article is not meant to cover all the steps of Planned Grazing. I only want to touch on some of the highlights. I hope my ideas will motivate you to learn more about planned grazing. It is a fact that the human mind can only manage a small number of variables at one time. Planned grazing is set up to manage the variables one at a time which is relatively easy. By completing all the steps, you can be confident that you have covered all the variables and that you have a solid plan.
How Many Pastures?
One of the most common questions people ask is, “How many pastures do I need to stop overgrazing?” The best answer is “I don’t know.” Just a minute, don’t despair, while I don’t know the answer to your question if you give me some information about your operation then together we can easily answer the question. Here is the information we need. What recovery period do you want? What graze period do you want. With this information I can now give you a simple formula to determine how many pastures you will require. The formula is: Recovery Period divided by the graze period + one = pastures required. For example:
Each of these answers is correct depending on what you the producer desires. Remember Holistic Management is empowering you to be the expert on your farm. Use your power to set your objectives. Use Certified Educators to help you achieve your objectives, not set them.
When Does Growth Start?
Another common concern people express is when does growth start? How will I know when to start counting my recovery days? We used a set date to determine when growth started for a number of years. We were not satisfied with this as the start of growth can vary widely. In 2004 we decided that we would say that growth started when the leaves first appeared on the poplar trees. Interestingly I can remember pioneer farmers telling me “you need to get your wheat in the ground by the time the leaves come out.” I believe that the leaves indicate soil temperature & biological activity. There is no doubt that there will be some growth before the green leaves. I am suggesting that you can ignore this as long as you plan for full recovery. Using this method to determine the start of growth for the last 18 years we have observed that growth started as early as April 21st and as late as May 20th. With this wide variation in the start of growth (30 days) it is easy to see that using a set date may not be very effective. I recognize that your area is unique, perhaps you don’t even have poplar trees. However, if you look, I am sure you will find some naturally occurring plant that you can use to determine growth. Remember you are the expert on your place. I am not.
When Can I Start Grazing?
People often struggle with the question “When can I start grazing in the spring.” I can remember having this struggle myself. I had 1,800 yearlings being fed in a small pasture. I wanted to start grazing but I didn’t know when it would be wise to do that. I phoned Kirk Gadzia and asked him “What should I do?” Kirk laughed which upset me a bit, but then he answered “Who do you think held the buffalo back?” Kirk gave me a wise answer. I have used this concept for many years. Kirk was saying that animals are a tool to improve the land. They should be on the land 365 days a year. In the spring, you may graze stockpiled forage, or you may supplemental feed or full feed. In each of these instances you will be benefiting the land as long as you begin to manage your grazing when growth starts.
How Long Do I Graze?
Now let’s look at the graze period. The rule of thumb is “the shorter the graze period the better.” The graze period you choose will depend on your unique situation. You may have questions like: How much labor do I have? How quickly do I want my land to improve? These types of questions will help you set your graze period. For a general guideline I recommend a graze period of 3 to 5 days. When I say this, I recognize that 3 is better than 5; 1 is better than 3. The important thing is to get started. Pick a graze period you are comfortable with. You don’t have to be perfect, only better than you were last year.
How Long of a Recovery Period Do I Need?
The recovery period is the key to planned grazing. The recovery period is the number of days between a grazing and a second grazing. A tool that has helped me understand the importance of full recovery is the “mirror image.” The mirror image says that what you see in above ground growth is mirrored below ground in root mass. When plants are grazed the roots die to provide nutrients for new growth. When the roots die they increase the organic matter in the soil and they make the soil more porous to allow water and air to enter the soil. The mirror image is maintained. Full recovery occurs when the roots are fully replenished. Full recovery occurs when a plant is ready to flower. At that stage of growth there is no detrimental results from the previous graze. In a pasture situation you would be looking at the slowest growing plant that was the most severely grazed. I suspect that for many people this will be a longer recovery than you are used to.
Here are some guidelines for recovery periods. In Western Canada I recommend a recovery period of 60 to 90 days. In my personal experience and from people I have worked with, I suggest that as you move closer to 90 days you will be more satisfied with the results. I want to point out that in more brittle environments a longer recovery is likely required. Grazing once in the growing season is likely best in these environments. Once again, please recognize that you are the expert in your operation. Start with the guidelines and fine tune the recovery period as you gain experience.
How Do I Make Sure Not to Overgraze?
The final topic for today is the difference between overgrazing and severe grazing. As we have already discussed, overgrazing is a function of time. You cannot overgraze with a short graze period (1 day).
Severe grazing is how much residual grass is left when your animals are moved to the next pasture. Everyone has their own idea of how much grass they would like to leave behind when they move their animals. I suggest that you should leave as much grass behind as possible. The more you leave the better. However, you need to achieve full recover. The only way to do this is to adjust the severity of the graze according to the growing season. Hopefully this chart will help my explanation.
Here we have a producer who wants a 75-day recovery period and a 5-day graze period. Our formula tells us he will need 16 pastures. Growth started when we were moving into pasture #16. The black line with the arrow represents the moves.
As the growing season progresses, we monitor the regrowth in pasture #16. If we are having a normal growing season we stick to our plan and things will work. We will have full recovery and the severity of the graze will be moderate.
If our monitoring shows, we have excellent growing conditions, we may choose to shorten our graze period. This will shorten our recovery period. The result will be full recovery and the severity of the graze will be moderate.
If our monitoring shows, we have poor growing conditions, we may choose to increase our graze period. This will increase our recovery period. The result will be full recovery and a severe graze.
|Severity of graze
All of these are correct for different growing conditions.
How to Monitor For Results
We would do our monitoring where we were grazing when growth started. We don’t monitor where the animals are to determine growing conditions or when to move.
When you monitor where your animals are you will often make the wrong move. In the above example we are planning for a 5-day graze. In a year with excellent growing conditions, we will look at the grass on day 5 and say “There is too much grass here to leave behind. I will stay an extra day or two.” By doing this you will be increasing recovery when growing conditions are suggesting you should be shortening it.
If we are experiencing poor growing conditions, we will look at our grass on day 3 or 4 and say “the graze is already severe enough. I will move today. In this case you will be shortening recovery when growing conditions are suggesting you should be increasing it.
The way to make the best decision is to make a plan. Monitor your plan and adjust the graze period and the recovery period according to growing conditions.
I hope you have a great growing season in 2022. Planned Grazing can help you achieve your goals.