If you follow the principles of making hay, you can also grow good pasture
My wife and I recently attended the Alberta Organic Conference in Fort Saskatchewan. It was a fantastic event and she made a great comment to me on the way home. We attend a lot of events like this and we are constantly reminded about the principles of regenerative agriculture. It’s “the normal” in our circle.
Her comment was that “We have to remember that we are not the normal and there are so many producers that have never even heard the term ‘regenerative agriculture.’”
She’s right. We are part of a very small percentage of producers actively practicing and preaching soil-building practices. Now don’t get your back up, I’m not trying to be condescending but in an industry full of politics, salesmen and marketing, the regenerative movement has a pretty quiet voice. Even if I yell as loud as I can in this column, I still have very little impact on our industry. It is said that a person needs to hear something 21 times before it sinks in. So maybe this will be your 21st time. There are a lot of readers that are new to the term so I’m going to go back to the basics in this article.
Regenerative grazing is actually not that difficult. We all know how to make good hay, right? We allow our hay field to rest in the spring to let it grow. We may harrow it once to stimulate new growth but it’s allowed to grow. We wait until late stage two and we cut it all down in one day usually. We then bale it up and allow it to rest again for a month or two. Depending on the environment, we try to get another cut (or two) when the plants are recovered again. Does that sound like a good way to grow more hay?
That is also how we grow pasture. If you follow the principles of making hay, you can also grow good pasture. We just can’t harvest all of the pasture at one time because we can’t park our harvesters in the shed for two months. They need to eat every day.
We cross-fence our pastures to make quite a few small “hay fields” that we allow time to grow, graze it in a day or two, and then let it rest for a month or two again before grazing it again. Just like making good hay. If you harrow your hay field, that is similar to the animal impact that we apply to our pastures.
Let’s start with the four grazing concepts, which are the basics of regenerative grazing. Just pretend that we farmers never learned how to spell. Remember GRAS. Graze period, rest period, animal impact and stock density.
Graze period and rest period work together and are strictly a measurement of time. It does not matter how many animals or how many acres, it’s just timing. You want to make sure your animals are off a paddock before the plants have a chance to regrow. We don’t want the animals to take a second bite as a plant starts to regrow. Grazing that new growth of a plant before the energy stores have been replenished is how overgrazing occurs. How long this takes depends on your season and your environment.
Rest period works in relation to graze period. This is how long you allow a paddock to rest in between graze periods. This again depends on your environment but can be anywhere between 30 to 365 days. You want to make sure that by the time your animals are back to graze a paddock, the plants are in late stage two of production again and have replenished their energy stores, just like you do on a hay field.
The next grazing concept is animal impact. This is the physical stimulation on the soil from the animals’ hooves. If done correctly, it works similar to harrowing the soil. It helps us get seed to soil contact to allow new seeds to germinate. It can break capped soil which allows water infiltration and helps with nutrient recycling as well by stepping the plant material into the soil.
Stock density is strictly a matter of how tightly grouped the animals are in a paddock. It’s not stocking rate, which is how many animals you have in a series of paddocks for the whole season.
There are two benefits to higher stock density. Plant utilization is improved the higher the stock density. This is similar to your haybine knocking down every plant in the field. No plant gets an advantage as they are all eaten, stepped on or knocked down by the animals. The other benefit is better manure distribution. The higher the stock density, the better we redistribute the nutrients around the field. The nutrients that we remove from the soil are returned to where they came from. This is different in a good way compared to our hay field. With hay, we are exporting a lot of nutrients.
To manage these “little hay fields” I recommend having no fewer than 16 paddocks in my environment to adequately manage the grazing concepts. In drier areas you may need way more to properly manage your forage. I can’t give you a recipe as everything depends on your environment, but the concepts remain the same no matter where you farm. We adjust the concepts to match the environment.
If you are good at making hay, you can be good at growing pasture. We just need to manage for the concepts. Regenerative agriculture is not “the normal” yet. But it needs to be, so we can rebuild our soils and to make sure that our agriculture industry remains economically and environmentally sustainable for generations.