Holistic Planned Grazing – Observations from my farm
by John McHugh
Grazing management on most farms and especially dairy farms usually focuses on maximising grass growth, maximising grass quality and maximising utilisation by the animal. While these are important performance indicators and particularly relevant for short term profitability, there are many other factors we can take into account if we are willing to take a more holistic approach. some of these are below.
Factors to consider:
- Soil carbon levels are they improving, static or reducing? it’s important to consider both labile (short term quick cycling carbon mainly from plant debris and animal manure) and the more stable long term carbon or humus (mainly from plant root exudates).
- Soil mineral availability– improving, static or reducing?
- Compaction levels or water infiltration and soil water holding capacity?
- Sward diversity– is it increasing, static or decreasing?
- Input costs– is your sward growth becoming more dependant on increasingly expensive and potentially damaging inputs?
- Wildlife benefits – does your sward provide habitat and food for a range of insects, mammals and birds? could this be improved?
These are all relevant considerations especially if we take a more long term view that is critical for the health of our land so that future generations don’t pay the price for our blinkered approach. There is not necessarily a right or wrong approach to how we manage our swards, some of the most diverse and beneficial to wildlife grasslands (think of the Burren or old hay meadows) we have often resulted from practices that would be frowned upon if we were to focus on soil carbon or especially labile carbon alone. Holistic planned grazing is basically a planned approach to managing the impact that livestock have on our farms in a way to suit our specific context. It’s is based on the observations and work of Zimbabwean ecologist and farmer Allan Savory. It is one aspect of holistic management which gives us a framework for decision making rather than black and white answers to management decisions.
Mob grazing is another term we frequently hear of in regenerative agricultural circles and this usually involves grazing very heavy covers of grass for a very short duration with a very high animal density. the high density maximises the animal impact with the aim to trample a large portion of the forage into the ground as a soil feed. it involves long rest periods between grazings to allow the plants to fully recover before being grazed/trampled again.
I have attempted to implement some of these principles on my dairy farm over the past 5 years and here are some observations.
I like many others was very excited by the potential to build vast amounts of soil carbon in a short period of time grazing really tall grass. many of the examples of mob grazing that we see are in much more arid climates and usually in natural grasslands. grass in these areas has evolved differently to grass in semi-natural grasslands like we have in Ireland. Many of the really tall grasses are c4 grasses and the more direct sunlight in these areas can support tall and dense swards. My experience of grazing grasses at a tall mature stage is that it led to sward becoming very open and capturing a lot less sunlight through photosynthesis than a shorter denser sward.
Rest is a really important tool to get our heads around. Overgrazing our swards involves not enough rest, this leads to certain plants being eliminated from the sward through over grazing. it was my hope the by having very long rest periods I would promote more diversity by allowing shyer plant species more time to recover and to seed. I didn’t find this to be the case and in fact I was over-resting the sward and this can lead to as many problem and the sward can easily become dominated by tall dead/ decaying grass that prevents light getting through for these shyer species. rest doesn’t have to be seen as a period where animals have no access to the pasture, it can also be an appropriate stocking rate.
I tried hard to achieve a large animal impact over the past few years without much success. this is difficult especially with a dairy herd without sacrificing animal performance. in hindsight I think I was overly influenced by examples of mob grazing in different climates and I neglected an area where animal impact is very important in our climate. The winter and spring period are the periods where growth is low and soils are sodden. Our grasslands would have naturally evolved with a large animal impact in this period. Grass would be grazed very tightly as forage dwindled and the early growth of spring would have been quickly grazed by animals promoting pastures to become very dense through tillering. Poaching that would naturally occur during this period would also set the scene for the diversity that evolved for this situation. this is not a time of year where our pastures have evolved with rest yet this is the time of year where we rest them most.
The importance of diversity in powering a healthy ecosystem is well understood and there is lots of research showing how productive diverse pastures can be. i started sowing multi-species swards in 2015 and was very excited by this quick way of introducing an abundance of diversity in one season. however, over the years i saw this diversity gradually dwindle with the lesson of how management is the more important factor that supports diversity. We can super-impose diversity on to our farms without any knowledge as to whether these are the plants that will bring the most benefit or we can try to tune in to nature on our farms, what plants are starting to naturally turn up as we change our management practices and try to adjust our management in line with how our environment naturally evolved.
These are often the first diversity to show up on our farms. seeing them as weeds is a huge limitation that will block a lot of potential further progress. overcoming the fear of our farms being over run by noxious weeds can be difficult but if we trust that nature doesn’t make mistakes and learn to adapt our management then we can open the door to our soils and farm health improving at much greater rate. I have let ragwort completely take over a field, allowing it to flower and seed only to find that after 2-3 years with appropriate management (no silage/hay cutting or over grazing) it will completely disappear. what we see as weeds are often the first responders in a process of ecological succession that can pave the way for greater complexity, diversity and resilience coming on to our farms.
Carbon is a very topical subject in the world today and especially for farmers whose management decisions have a huge effect on whether our land is emitting carbon or is a carbon sink. it is important to understand the difference between quick cycling or labile carbon and the more long term and stable soil carbon or humus. The labile carbon mainly comes from all the dead and decaying plant material and animal manure and is at or near the surface of the soil. Humus on the other hand mainly comes from different plant root exudates that are sequestered by various soil microbes and combined with clay and many minerals including nitrogen and stored in a very stable form deeper down in the soil. humus is like the heartwood of a tree, it grows slowly over many years if the conditions are right whereas the labile carbon is like the leaves, they quickly appear and disappear every year. It is easy to become overly focused on trying to build labile carbon while completely ignoring humus. Soluble applications of nitrogen and phosphorous are very damaging to humus formation and the lack of appropriate diversity is another big limitation as this diversity is required to feed the appropriate minerals and microbes required for the process. these plants might frequently be what we see as weeds!
As we continue to farm we are constantly making new observations and becoming aware of new things that will influence our plan. our plan is a process that is always changing and adjusting, there is no right or wrong or success or failure, different management decisions will benefit different aspects of nature. Learning new methods of releasing our stranglehold on nature can be an exciting process, they are often right in front of us and just need a minor adjustment in our perspective for them to becoming visible.
About John McHugh
John McHugh has a 230-acre organic dairy farm in Co.Laois. He moved away from being an intensive dairy farmer in 2015 when he realised that he needed to create a sustainable and resilient lifestyle that his children could carry on. He is a farmer that has adapted from a commodity and profit driven production system of dairy farming to one that is focused on family succession, long term environmental goals and nature based farming. A farm that is being built around supporting and developing his local community – developing the Clondarrig Community Farm Project. Since 2015, he has sown diverse pastures, practises holistic grazing that allows pastures to flower and seed enabling some natural succession to take place and bringing about huge jumps in insect populations. “Having long grazing intervals and reduced grazing pressure is allowing more natural diversity back into the farm”. He has embraced the principles of Permaculture, converting pastures to agroforestry and lining cow access roadways with fruit and nut trees. Pigs were introduced to the farm as another means of promoting diversity, helping to break the dominance of perennial rye grass and create opportunities for other plants. Oats are sown to provide the straw and grain requirements and the surplus is sold to Flahavans for organic porridge. In 2018 he decided to open up his farm to people that were able to teach others about engaging with the land and reconnecting with nature, this saw the birth of the Clondarrig community farm project. “Its all about connection, connection of trees, wildlife, butterflies, but the connection with people as well”. More information and a short film on John’s farm here. Ambassador since 2020