I was reminded again the other day that regenerative grazing is not the norm. We need to make regenerative agriculture a household word.
If you are on social media, and you see a meme or a story about regenerative agriculture, share it. And share it again and again.
Let’s look at the basics. I have 10 points that will help new producers understand what regenerative grazing is.
The Grazing Concepts
1. Graze period: The amount of time your animals are grazing on a paddock.
We want to prevent overgrazing. To do this we need to keep our graze period short enough to stop the “second bite.” If the plants use stored energy to put up that new leaf, the energy reserves will be empty when the second bite occurs and the plant will be overgrazed. Depending on your environment and the time of the year, this second bite could occur after only a few days.
2. Rest period: The recovery time between grazings.
Adequate rest ensures the plants’ energy reserves are replenished before the plants are grazed a second time. Again, depending on your environment and season, this could be anywhere from about 25 days to 365 days.
3. Animal impact: This is the physical and biological effect that animals have on the soil.
Hooves physically stimulate the soil. Animal impact can help new seedling development, recycle nutrients, break up capped soil and develop a polyculture of forage plants. Positive animal impact can improve the land tremendously as it will step a lot of litter into the ground. But be careful, negative animal impact can also occur.
Biological impact is also very important, building biology into our system. Manure is the best compost you can ever get. Urine is the best biological tea you can buy. Even phlegm and saliva from animals are adding biology to soil.
4. Stock density: This is the number of animal units per acre at a given time.
Basically, how tight together or spread out is your herd while grazing? I measure this in animal days per acre but there are other ways to measure as well. This is not to be confused with stocking rate, which is the number of animals you have on a pasture for the entire season.
Two benefits to a higher stock density are improved plant use and manure distribution. If you have high plant utilization, every plant is either bitten or stepped on. This allows every plant the same opportunity to regrow. We also get better manure distribution around the paddocks, improving nutrient recycling.
5. Soil armour: The protective layer on the soil surface.
Residue is one of the most important aspects of good grazing management. However, many producers have a hard time accepting this “wasted grass.” Think of this residue as next year’s fertilizer. It’s also the protective layer that allows the soil to function. It provides food, water and shelter for our soil biology. It creates the environment suitable for all our underground employees. It is also a key component that allows us to maintain a healthy water cycle.
The Grazing Principles
6. The water cycle: We need to fix this, on a global scale.
If we can reduce runoff, reduce evaporation and slow infiltration, we have the ability to manage weather. If we can increase the soil’s water-holding capacity, we can manage climate. Severe droughts, flash storms, flooding and fires could all be reduced in numbers and severity if we could fix the water cycle. My best advice for a new grazer is to leave more residue.
7. Sunlight harvesting: We need to collect as many sunbeams as we can.
Where I live, we only have about 4.5 months of the year when we can actually do this. During our short growing season, I want to collect as much sunlight as possible. I want to get an early spring start. I want the moisture available, the nutrients available, and my plants’ energy stores full and ready to grow. I also want to make sure I am collecting sunlight late in the summer. I want a healthy stand of vegetative plants until that killing frost hits. I also want a dense pasture to make sure that every sunbeam hits a live, green, growing plant. If they hit bare soil, the sunbeams are reflected.
8. Recycling nutrients: We need to stop exporting nutrients from our soil.
Most of our agricultural practices simply mine the soil. We harvest a crop and remove nutrients from the land. Then we have to pay to replace them. Only in a grazing system do we get to recycle nutrients back to the land. Not only are we leaving residue, but the livestock return about 80 per cent of what they consume through dung and urine. We only export 20 per cent. How do we replace that 20 per cent? We need to build biology.
9. Building biology: It is not about adding fertility to our land, it is about building biology.
Biology helps break down residue and manure from the 80 per cent. We also need the biology to get us the other 20 per cent to keep our system sustainable.
Bacteria, fungi, earthworms and dung beetles are just a few of the employees that help get me free fertility. Here is the kicker: A lot of our modern agricultural practices are detrimental to soil life. If we want to produce nutrient-dense food, we need the biology.
10. Polycultures: There is no such thing as a “weed.”
We need to get away from monoculture thinking. We need to plant polycultures. A polyculture of plants will get you a polyculture of roots, which will get you a polyculture of soil organisms.
If one species of plant is taking over an area, it’s a symptom telling you that something is favouring them. A few of these undesirables is not a bad thing, as they are adding to the polyculture that we desire with regenerative grazing. If we solve the problem, the symptom will go away. Nature fills in holes. If we plant the polyculture, there are no holes to fill in.
There you have it. A 10-step guide to regenerative grazing. Help me spread the word; no matter where you live, these concepts will work in any environment with a growing season. You might just have to adapt them to your environment.