Monday, 9 May 2011

Mob grazing roots

Not, as the title suggests, the approach that needs to be taken when you've run out of grass, but instead a look at where the modern mob-grazing concept came from and how it has evolved into a wider land and business management tool.

The practice of mob grazing was developed by a man called Allan Savory. He grew up on the continent of Africa and believed over-grazing by domesticated livestock was the cause of many of the continent's problems. Overgrazing leads to loss of ground cover leading, in turn, to soil erosion, poor fertility, even less ground cover etc etc.

At first, Allan believed the cure was to remove animals completely to allow the vegetation unhindered growth. However over time he observed that this didn't solve any of the aforementioned problems either. So he started to study areas where grasslands did flourish, namely the African savannahs where high temperatures and months without rainfall were the norm. He realised that grasses have evolved in sync with migratory grazing animals. The grass plants are subject to short periods of high density grazing and trampling as the huge herds pass through the area, followed by a long rest period in which to recover and regrow before the herds returned. Allan could see that grasses actually flourished under this 'pulsed growth' and he started to change the grazing patterns of his own domesticated cattle to replicate this system on his own ranch.

Over time, Allan has refined best practices for mob grazing as dictated by the climate and local environment. He also evolved a wider management tool, known as 'Holistic Management'. There is now an organisation known as "Holistic Management International" (HMI) which helps and educates people as to the benefits of adopting this approach to management (

Ian Mitchell Innes is a Certified Holistic Management Educator' with HMI and did his best, during the three days spent with Greg and Jan Judy, to explain to us the basics of Holistic Management.

Ian Mitchell Innes teaches us how to read the environment, pointing out cow grazing patterns and emphasising that managing holistically relies on careful and constant observation, looking for signs that influence future decisions

As with all good management guides, one of the first pieces of advice is to set yourself some goals. However, Holistic Management guidelines state these goals must be towards achieving three things:
  1. What you want your quality of life to be?
  2. What are your preferred forms of production?
  3. What do you want your future resource base to look like in the future?
Importantly, everyone involved should have a say in the above and Ian emphasised the importance of all family and work colleagues pulling in the same direction. So, for example, under "Quality of Life", it might be necessary to tailor your workload to give you weekends off, of a longer break in the summer if you, or other family members say this is important to them. Or, under "Future Resource Base", your aim might be to increase the number and diversity of plant species growing in your pastures to make them more drought tolerant and to widen the growing season.

Subsequently, every management decision should be measured against these goals to ensure your business is heading in your desired direction and towards the agreed holisticgoals.

One of the reasons Holistic Management is so successful is that it allows complex problems to be understood, at least in part, by us. Ian pointed out that our thought processes, and those of computers, science etc, are linear. Give us one variable and we can deal with it - hence scientists try to keep everything constant except the item being measured. Give us lots of variables and we get hopelessly lost!

Unfortunately, nature is infinitely complex. Change one thing - say the amount of carbon in the soil - and it has knock on effects to such things as water holding capacity, mineral flow, atmospheric carbon levels and consequently global warming, to name but a few. Changing each of these then has a knock on effect on myriad other parts of nature, far too many for us to comprehend. Holistic management provides a way of simplifying and presenting this complexity in a form we can understand.

It's not an easy subject to understand, and I am only just starting to grasp it (though a seasoned practitioner may read the above and say I am a long way from doing so....!) For anyone interested, Allan Savory has written a couple of good books about it. I recommend everyone involved in land management reads them. Holistic Management is a new way of looking at land management and, even if you decide not to follow its doctrines, it can redefine how you think.

Self service at the mineral cafe

Can cows self-select nutrients in just the right amounts to satisfy their needs? Having seen how they gorge themselves on barley, suffering acute acidosis and (in one case) death as a result, I would say not.

However, Mark Bader is a man who thinks they can, specifically when balancing their mineral requirements. Mark is President of "Free Choice Enterprises" and has carried out some fascinating work into the subject. His website can be found at

Mark Bader in full flow, explaining his theory of self-selection minerals, among other things

The result of his hypothesis and subsequent investigations is that he likes to give cattle free access to fifteen different mineral formulations, plus salt. Greg Judy had one of Mark's self feeders in with his cows. Interestingly, Greg says it was noticeable and measurable that the cows changed the types and quantites of each mineral depending on the paddock being grazed. Put them into an old, stockpiled paddock and the ratio of the amounts of each mineral consumed would be different from if they were grazing, say, a lush green pasture with seedheads just forming.

Mark Bader-designed mineral self-feeder. The tray is covered with a heavy rubber lid, attached along the centreline of the feeder. The cattle soon learn to lift the rubber lid to gain access to the minerals underneath

The compartments below the rubber lid. There are eight compartments on each side of the feeder, each one holding a different mineral mixture or salt. The feeder is on skids and is dragged along by the ATV into each grazing paddock

Mark argues that an excess of one type of mineral has serious consequences as it almost invariably locks up some other vital trace element causing a 'deficiency'. He makes the point that providing a 'compound, balanced' mineral block might actually be giving the cows too much of something and may be doing the cattle more harm than good.

It's an interesting theory and one I would love to explore further. I did think about putting some of Mark's minerals into my suitcase to try out here in the UK, but wasn't sure what Customs and Excise would make of a carrier bag of white powder stuffed between my dirty laundry and my wash bag....

Saturday, 7 May 2011

Mob Grazing? Pah, it will never work.....

".... I mean, if we stocked at that kind of density, well with our soils and the amount of rain we get, the place would be a quagmire. And your grass is much too mature? It's little better than straw and you're cows won't perform. Honestly, don't say I didn't warn you. 

"You're also wasting lots of the grass. The cattle are just trampling it into the ground. And that field you've just moved them out of, there's enough left there to feed them for another week.Why grow it and then not feed it? Madness, I tell you, madness!"

Such were the forebodings of doom, ringing in my ears as I boarded the plane to St Louis, Missouri (via Chicago) to spend three days at Greg Judy's Mob Grazing School in the hamlet of Rucker. What had I done? Was I worshipping false idols? Was this whole mob grazing lark just a blind alley leading to poverty and unemployment? I had one of Greg's books with me but couldn't bring myself to look at it. Maybe he was a fringe lunatic, the leader of a cult, worshipping rough, weed-laden pastures and I was a willing disciple, drawn in with his tales of 75 vestal, virginal paddocks (per rotation) just lying there waiting to be consumed by willing beasts.

The condition of St Louis airport did nothing to allay my concerns. A tornado had ripped through there, just days before my arrival and half the airport was closed, blue tarpaulins strung across gaping holes in the terminal roof. Were the Gods trying to tell me something about my Nuffield trip, first with terrible earthquakes devastating parts of New Zealand, now with the US suffering its worst tornadoes in over quarter of a century.

The extreme weather had brought over four inches of rain to the area in the past twenty days, and I had visions of cattle up to their hocks in mud, staggering disconsolately through the pouring rain under a gloomy sky. Arable fields by the side of the road reinforced such worries, with deep rills eroded by the flowing water running across the cultivated land. What would the morning bring......?

Mob grazing, hah, it works.....!

It was the feel of the soil under my boots that I noticed first, spongy and forgiving, like walking across a giant mattress. Laid on top of the soil was a mass of dead stems through which sprouted thousands of new clover and grass seedlings. Greg explained, in his Mid-West drawl, that the soil texture was due to the high levels of organic matter he, or rather his cows, had helped to create through being mob grazed.

Within moments, he was down on his knees, peeling back the dead stems, or litter, to show us the soil. It teemed with life. Earthworms, centipedes, beetles and myriad other creatures scurried away from the daylight. He grabbed a handful of dirt and immediately you could see he was a man in his element. He enthused about the life in his hands, urging us to touch it, to feel its texture, to smell it. (Incidentally, Greg's record for the most earthworms found in one cowpat was 462. Four Hundred and Sixty Two!)

Greg Judy enthusiastically grabbing handfuls of earthworm-laden soil. Ian Mitchell Innes (more about Ian in a later blog) is in the flat cap and green coat at the back of the group

The cattle were in an adjoining block, a couple of hundred South Poll suckler cows. The spring calving season was just getting underway and the out-wintered cattle looked thin but surprisingly healthy. Average temperatures in winter are below freezing and high rainfall is the norm throughout the year, and yet Greg has no sheds on his land to house the cattle, nor does he own a tractor. The cattle do all their own harvesting work, and they spread their manure for free too. He does give them an occasional feed of hay, but only when ice storms have sealed the ground with an impenetrable layer of rock-hard ice. Snow, apparently, doesn't trouble the cows as they just scrape through it to the stockpiled grasses below.

That's one of the secrets of mob grazing. You get your stocking rates right, and time your moves during the growing season both to ensure adequate regrowth of the grasses before the cattle return to the same patch of ground again, and also to ensure you build up a surplus of grass around the farm. When the growing season ends, this stockpile of fodder can be utilised very cheaply.

New season grass growth. This area of ground had been covered in large amounts of stockpiled forage which had been grazed off during the winter. The two patches of brown are places where the litter can be seen lying on the soil surface. As well as seething with worms, these areas were also covered with hundreds of new seedlings, predominantly clovers.

Another secret is the stocking densities. The cattle are stocked at very high densities, especially in the summer months as the land gets drier (in winter, they're given a little more room, and moved very frequently to avoid poaching the ground). Remembering that the grasses are taller and more mature than is usual under a conventional, rotationally grazed system (especially later in the season), these high densities mean a significant proportion of the grass stems are trampled rather than grazed. To paraphrase Greg, this is worm fodder. It forms a layer of dead and decaying material on the surface which feeds the incredible amounts of soil life we saw. It also protects the soil from the deleterious effects of wind and rainfall and provides a beneficial microclimate for the aforementioned bugs.

A group of bulls being moved to a new paddock. Predominantly South Poll, they're a range of ages from freshly weaned yearlings to over two years old.

Of course, one thing I haven't mentioned is the economics of the system. I am not going to go into detail, in fact I am not going to provide any data at all. Instead, I will say this: If you are in the cattle game, grab a pen and paper and write a list of all the costs you incur in keeping cattle (eg Muck spreading, silage making, milling grain, feeding silage, mucking out pens etc etc). Now divide them up into two columns headed "Summer costs" and Winter costs". Now cross out ALL the winter costs and replace with a very small amount of labour, just enough to put up a couple of temporary fences each day. This is roughly where Greg is with his system. Incredibly simple, incredibly efficient and with the same numbers of calves to sell as you and I have under our ridiculous, fossil-fuel-driven systems.

Mob grazing doesn't just work. It rocks!