One thing always leads to another on Neil and Barb Dennis’s farm south of Wawota, Sask. The idea of a deep massage treatment for an ailing paddock grew from their experience bale grazing and the need to hold 800 yearlings for about two weeks until the grass was ready to begin the rotation in the spring of 2007.
Their quest for sustainability and to improve the quality of their land has been a work in progress for the past decade that has transformed their grain and purebred beef operation into a custom-grazing enterprise. They were early adopters of bale grazing as well as high stock density grazing in the not-too-distant past when it was first known as mob grazing. The benefits of both systems were soon measurable in terms of increased forage production and that translates into money for a custom-grazing business with rates based on pounds of gain.
“It would take 100-plus years to cover the whole farm with bale grazing. A deep massage isn’t as good as bale grazing, but it’s the next best thing,” says Dennis. The advantages over bale grazing are that you can cover more land in a shorter period of time and it spreads the benefit of the manure and litter cover more uniformly across the paddock, making the regrowth more even than after bale grazing. The disadvantage is that you have to start a tractor every day to roll out the bales.
Acre by acre Dennis treated a 10-acre crested wheat paddock over a period of 10 days. The paddock had been grazed once the year before, then stockpiled for spring grazing. Of course the 800 yearlings had it grazed to the ground within a couple of hours.
The massage treatment began by calculating the feed requirements then rolling out brome-alfalfa bales on one acre. The hay was placed in strips leaving a bale width between each strip. When that was cleaned up, he went back and rolled bales into the alternating strips.
“This way, you get more tramping and better spread of urine and manure because they go back and forth over the treated areas to get to the water,” he explains. “When you’re done, you want it to look like indoor-outdoor carpet with lots of manure tramped in. The forage has to be in contact with the ground so the soil micro-organisms can break it down.”
He doesn’t recommend using straw bales because the animals would leave too much litter cover behind. His preference is hay bales made from any mix of forages mature enough to have some seed in the heads. The seeds shell out or pass through the digestive tract, ultimately increasing the diversity of species in the stand.
It’s best to carry out this treatment first thing in the spring so that the paddock will have lots of time to recover and regrow that same season, Dennis explains. The plants shut down for about 21 days after being grazed so short. Regrowth has to come from the root reserves because there are no leaves left for photosynthesis to occur. If you get rain, it could be ready to graze again in 80 or 90 days — if not, it could be a year.
His general rule of thumb is to avoid grazing the pasture again until the forages are budding or starting to set seed. At this stage of maturity, the root reserves will have been replenished and the stems will have firmed up enough that the cattle will tend to eat the tops of the plants, leaving six inches or so behind to trap snow during the winter.
The crested wheat pasture massaged in May was left to rest for 123 days and grazed again on August 24. Before he began using high stock density grazing to improve productivity of his pastures, the plants would start to reach seed set at around 40 days. Now, because the plants aren’t stressed, it’s anywhere from 80 to 123 days. He attributes the longer vegetative period to the overall increase in plant size and plant density, which protects the ground from drying out.
A deep massage using a lower stock density would work — just not as quickly. There’s no magic number that defines high stock density grazing whether the animals are grazing bales or pastures. If you start with a setup that allows you to move the animals once a week it’s better than not moving them at all. If you are already moving them once a week, then increasing that to daily moves will bring faster results.
“The only way to heal the land is with animal impact,” Dennis explains. “Healthier sod equals healthier plants, equals healthier animals and healthier animals and plants for food, equals healthier people.”
In previous years, the crested wheat paddock had yielded 20 to 25 animal days per acre (ADA) — that is, one acre had the capacity to carry 20 or 25 animals for one day. After the deep massage treatment in the spring of 2007, the second pass in late August produced 111 ADA.
In 2008, the paddock produced 123 ADA grazing on the first pass in August. The increase in plant diversity was already apparent. A group of kids learning about holistic grazing found 40-plus species in the paddock that had predominately crested wheat the year before. This benefit came from the new seed introduced from the bales as well as the hoof action of the animals, which disturbed the top layer of soil enough to promote germination of seeds laying deeper below the surface.
A deep massage on another paddock that was going backward with infestations of pussytoe and absinthe provided excellent weed control, he adds. The unwanted plants have been banished to areas under the fenceline that didn’t receive the benefit of the animal impact.
As part of last year’s Great Grazing Tour at the end of June they excavated trenches to a depth of six feet in the area that had received the massage treatment and in an untreated area 30 feet away. Tour leader Terry Gompert, an experienced grazier and extension adviser with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, estimated there was twice the litter one and litter two cover on the treated paddock compared with the untreated pasture. Litter one is the cover on the surface of the soil. Litter two is the decomposing layer just beneath the surface.
The trench walls were wetted down using a pressure washer to get a better look at the root system. Again, the difference between the two areas was readily noticeable with at least 50 per cent more root mass in the top 23 inches of soil in the trench in the treated paddock versus that in the untreated area. The carbon layer, as observed by the darkened colour of the soil, extended down twice as far in the trench in the treated area.
As moisture evaporated from the trenches, the top four inches of the trench in the untreated area began to crumble, whereas the top layer of the trench in the treated area remained intact.
This type of pasture — characterized by plants with large root systems and adequate litter cover — has the ability to absorb a lot more moisture than pastures with bare, compacted soil and plants with small root systems, Dennis explains. He has noticed that downpours of five to 10 inches per hour now soak into the pastures rather than running off and forming potholes. Excess moisture is able to travel below the root mass where it remains available to the plants during dry spells.
Due to the improved condition of his land and its ability to absorb moisture and nutrients, he places bales 20 feet apart rather than 40 to 100 feet from centre to centre when bale grazing. “If you place bales too far apart, you end up with uneven regrowth, which means that you will be grazing mature and immature plants at the same time,” he explains. “When you change what you do on the surface, the ground underneath changes, too. The ground underneath where the bales were stays frozen longer in the spring, so the nutrients are locked there during the run-off then released into the ground as it thaws. You have to look at the whole system.”