The impact of herbivores

From the Ground Up with Steve Kenyon

Grasslands need the herbivore just like the herbivore needs the grasslands. It is a symbiotic relationship that has lasted thousands of years without us. Nature already had this figured out long before humans came into the picture and we need to respect the laws of nature. The problems occur when we try to manipulate nature.

Wait a minute, we can’t just look at one part of the whole. We need to add in a few more critical interactions. Enter stage right, the predator. Because of predators, the herbivores would bunch up for safety, graze an area pretty hard for a short period, then move on. Picture what that would look like afterwards. There would be high hoof impact in the area, all of the plants would be grazed or knocked to the ground and there would be lots of manure and urine left behind. The predators caused the herbivores to regeneratively graze the land. This would provide a great environment for a huge number of bugs, beetles, insects, mites and birds; just adding more symbiotic relationships to our show.

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Then man came along. We scared away most of the predators and replaced the wild herbivore with a domesticated herbivore. We had to keep our animals safe and in our control so we used cowboys. Their job was to herd our animals. The cowboys still mimicked what the predators did. The herbivore still regeneratively grazed the land. No harm, no foul yet, right?

But humans naturally have to keep improving systems (which we usually screw up). We invented barbed wire. Barbed wire was one of the worst inventions we have ever had in the livestock industry. We now removed the herding management of the cowboy and allowed the animals to spread out. The devastating production practice of overgrazing began.

With one invention, we messed up the symbiotic relationship between the grassland and the herbivore. Thousands of years of perfect harmony and we can screw it up in less than 100 years. Now the herbivore is damaging the forage, the soil and the biodiversity of the whole ecosystem. Congratulations to us.

A lot of environmentalists, animal rights groups, vegans and vegetarians want to now blame the herbivore for the devastating results. Did I miss anyone? Sorry, I wouldn’t want to miss anyone who might be offended.

It is not the fault of the herbivore, or the predator. It is our fault, our management that causes damage.

Regenerative grazing is a management method that mimics what nature used to do. The four grazing concepts are the tools we use. These are: graze period, rest period, animal impact and stock density (GRAS).

We need to manage for a short enough graze period to prevent animals from grazing a plant for a second time once it starts to regrow. We don’t want them to take a second bite. We also want a long enough rest period to allow the plant to fully recover and replenish its energy stores after the first grazing.

Graze period and rest period have to work together to prevent overgrazing. Every environment is different but the most important thing to manage is the timing of the grazing. It’s the number of total paddocks in a pasture that is more important than the size of paddocks or the number of animals. In reality, when we manage a hay field, we do an excellent job of the graze period and rest period. We cut it all in a short period of time and allow a long rest period for the plants to fully recover before we cut it again. But that’s only two out of four with nature’s design.

We also have to manage the animal impact and the stock density. This is where we need the herbivore. A high stock density gives us two benefits. We get even plant use. Again, we also do a good job of this in our hay fields. Every plant is cut. When grazing we want every plant to be grazed or at least stepped on and flattened.

But the haybine does not give us manure and urine. This is provided by the herbivore. This is where our lead actress enters. She recycles 80 per cent of what she consumes. The higher the stock density, the better the spread of nutrients on the land.

The last concept is animal impact. I used to say this was the physical stimulation on the soil by the animal’s hooves. This physical stimulation can break the soil cap to allow water infiltration. It can create seed-to-soil contact and cause new seedlings to germinate. It can push plant material to the ground to help speed litter decomposition.

These things are all still true, but there was a huge side to animal impact that I was unaware of for many years. Enter stage left, the biology: bacteria, fungus, protozoa, nematodes, earthworms, insects, etc. The physical impacts you might be able to mimic with a set of harrows, but you won’t get the biological impact without the herbivore. It is the biology that comes with the manure and urine. It adds biology and is also food for biology. That manure is the greatest compost you can ever add to your soil. The urine is the greatest biological tea you could ever add to your soil.

Everybody loves new equipment. So here it is, the most effective piece of equipment you will ever own. The herbivore is a self-propelled and solar-powered forage composter with an automatic manure spreader attachment out the back end. They are also a fantastic compost tea applicator. Some models have the sprayer nozzles out the rear of the applicator while others have the sprayer nozzles beneath the undercarriage. Are you interested?

There is also biology added to the soil from the saliva of the herb­ivore as well as the phlegm. Even the hair coat sheds biology that can stimulate the soil. I would guess that there are more symbiotic relationships between the herbivore and the soil than we can count. You don’t get that from the haybine.

The action of grazing also stimulates the plants to grow. The “tug” on the top of the plants pulls at the roots just enough to stimulate more growth. This could cause deeper root growth or even cause tillering of the upper plant. The herbivore not only shares the environment with thousands of other species but they also enhance and stimulate it. It’s the whole ecosystem that works together. Plants, predators, herbivores, soil critters, insects, birds, bugs, beetles… need I go on? The world is a stage, and we need all of them to play a part.

Animal impact is crucial to the regeneration of our grasslands. It’s a part of the big picture. We need the herbivore on the land and we need her to be managed in a regenerative manner. Remove her from the play and the whole system falls apart. We need to mimic nature. It worked for thousands of years without us.

About the author

Contributor

Steve Kenyon runs Greener Pastures Ranching Ltd. in Busby, Alta. You can email him at [email protected] or call 780-307-6500.

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