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This week's Book of the Week feature is Restoration Agriculture, by Mark Shepard.
From Chapter 9: Livestock & Restoration Agriculture
Everybody who lives in grazing country has seen a pasture where there are just too many animals on the pasture. Plain and simple. The animals eat every morsel of green until even the closest cropped golf course green appears lush. Once they’ve eaten the pasture down to those levels, there’s not enough feed for the animals and their health and nutrition suffer. Soil compaction becomes an issue because there is no longer any more root penetration to drill channels for water to percolate down into or to add fibrous carbon to the soil. Overgrazing of animals is one of the largest causes of land degradation and desertification on a global scale. Degradation from overgrazing is used by the proponents of animal confinement operations as a propaganda tool to eliminate the small grazier or rancher as competition in the food markets. As practitioners of restoration agriculture we will want to be especially aware of the anti-overgrazing bias that exists in many circles, because our goal is one of restoring health and vitality to the earth-plant-animal system, and not degradation. By being observant and by carefully managing our grazing patterns we will be able to ensure that this is so. Overstocking a pasture with one type of livestock and not rotating them to new pasture is the sure way to ruin.
That said, understocking a pasture can also lead to overgrazing. This may seem counterintuitive, but it is actually possible. Not too far down the road from Ashley’s house in the Driftless Region of southwest Wisconsin, and right around the corner from the chemical cornfield, is the farm of a certified-organic, grassfed beef grazier. This grazier is very concerned about the extent of human impacts on the planet and he wants to ensure that his own personal footprint will be small. He lives in a very small, owner-built cabin off the electric grid and does so many of the things that the sustainability culture would like to urge for the masses. His concern for a small footprint reaches so far into his ethic that he is a strong opponent to overgrazing. His 13-acre pasture has a grand total of three beef steers on it. The pasture is not divided into paddocks for rotation and the animals are free to wander anywhere on the 13 acres for their food. Most references that he’s read claim that 13 acres can support approximately thirteen cattle without overgrazing but he knows that this is incorrect. He knows that thirteen cows would severely overgraze 13 acres and lead to the end of the world as we know it if everyone grazed at this rate, because he is faced every day with the fact that his three cattle are overgrazing that same 13-acre area. If three cattle can overgraze 13 acres, then thirteen cattle on 13 acres would cause the next Sahara Desert and we would all blow away in the wind.
His three cattle are indeed overgrazing the 13 acres. His observation is correct. However, this is because of poor management practices rather than too many cattle. His three beef cattle on 13 acres wake up in the morning and go about their grazing day. They eat the first mouthful of their favorite forage, then move on to the next favorite mouthful. The less palatable forage gets left behind uneaten as do the unpalatable and noxious weeds. As the season progresses the cattle eat only their favorite forage while the undesirable forage, like thistles, grows stronger, more woody and less palatable, and most significantly it sets seed. Soon there are a million thistles instead of three and before long there is a pasture comprised of bare-shaven grass between oldgrowth forests of burdock and ragweed. By allowing the cattle to eat only their favorite forage and by not removing the unpalatable plants, three cattle have managed to destroy 13 acres of rich, abundant pasture. Thus he has proven to himself that overgrazing is a curse on the earth and that next year he may decide to have fewer cattle. Whether he decides to have fewer cattle or not, he will soon be forced to have fewer cattle because there will be very little forage left on that 13 acres for them to eat.
Overstocking can degrade pastures by removing more living plant matter than can regenerate before the next round of grazing happens. Under stocking can degrade pastures when not followed up by finish mowing or grazing with other animals in order to prevent undesirable plants from proliferating and setting seed. This is what sheep are especially good for. They will eat more coarse vegetation than cattle and they will thrive on it too. They are the “finish mower” of our animal polyculture. The rule of thumb for sheep numbers is to have the same number of sheep as there are cattle. A pasture would, of course, support more sheep than one per acre, but by the time a cow and calf, two hogs and two turkeys have gone over the pasture, it is not the same as a fresh pasture. Although the pasture will support fewer total sheep per acre when rotated with other animals than if only sheep were raised, the total number of animals, and the total amount of available forage converted into animal biomass is greater than in a single-species system.
To show how simple this can be, I will begin with a discussion of one of the simplest leader-follower systems there is, and with animals that are familiar to most of us. Those animals are cattle.
The simplest and most researched leader-follower system is one in which only cattle are used. The system is managed according to the “first bite” theory.
Cattle graze by taking a bite from the top of the most nutritious pasture according to their needs. They will then move on to the next “first bite” and so on until all of their preferred pasture has been bitten. They will then move back over the pasture and take the next bite down the stem, moving into less and less nutritious forage. In the simplest of the leader-follower systems, young calves are moved into the pasture first. They have the highest nutrient demand of any cow life stage and will take the best of the best pasture bites. After the calves have initially grazed the pasture and before they begin to move on to the “second bite” stage, they are moved into fresh pasture where they can continue to graze the most vital and nutritious feed. Lactating cows are then moved into the pasture where the calves vacated. Simple systems such as this have been shown to increase total weight gain in calves and to not reduce milk yields from the cows. The system can be refined even further.
Calves can be grazed first. Then the cows can be divided into two classes based on their production. The heaviest milk producers can be moved into the pasture behind the calves, then the lighter producers behind the heavy producers. Dry cows can follow behind. With a leader-follower system such as this, the calves get all of the most nutritious “first bites,” the cows then get all of the second and subsequent bites. This grazing system matches pasture growth. On a pasture, “first bites” are the smallest portion of available feed. This matches nicely with the calves’ small size and high nutrient needs. Older cows require more bulk and dry matter in their diet and that is exactly what is available after the leaders move through. Mature, dry cows who are able to thrive quite well on dry hay alone do quite well with the coarse forage left behind by the leaders.
An ideal restoration agriculture grazing system would be a mob-stocked, leader-follower system beginning with cattle.
About the Author:
Mark Shepard heads Forest Agriculture Enterprises and runs New Forest Farm, an 106-acre commercial-scale perennial agricultural ecosystem that was converted from a row-crop grain farm. Trained in mechanical engineering and ecology, Mark has combined these two passions to develop equipment and processes for the cultivation, harvesting and processing of forest-derived agricultural products for human foods and biofuel production. Mark is a certified permaculture designer and teaches agroforestry and permaculture around the world.
Mark Shepard will be making multiple appearances at the 2019 Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag Conference & Trade Show this Dec. 9-12 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. On Dec. 9, he will be leading a 1-day intensive Eco-Ag U workshop about Water Management Strategies. Shepard will also be speaking at the regular conference, Dec. 10-12, about Restorative Farming Systems and Innovative Water Management for Any Farm. Learn more and register.
Similar Books of Interest:
- Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land, by Gary Paul Nabhan
- The Woodland Homestead, by Brett McLeod
- Sepp Holzer's Permaculture, by Sepp Holzer
Other Excerpts to Enjoy:
- Book of the Week: Grass, the Forgiveness of Nature
- Book of the Week: Saving the Guinea Hogs: The Recovery of the American Homestead Breed
- Book of the Week: In the Shadow of Green Man