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Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

Working with Nature to Build Organic Soil, Part 5: Sustainable Grazing

The previous articles in this series have shown how plants build soil by converting atmospheric carbon into sugars which then become humus, nature’s precious topsoil. We’ve seen that cover crops, compost and compost tea all complement this system.

In this post, we’ll look at the essential role that grazing animals have in this system, and how to successfully manage our ruminants in a sustainable manner.

Dutch Belted cows on pasture

Sustainable (Planned) Grazing

What is sustainable grazing?: By definition, sustainable grazing allows nature to keep our pastures, soil and animals healthy long-term with minimal inputs. Although ruminants have been blamed for depleting forage and contributing to climate change, mimicking nature allows us to graze our animals sustainably.

How Can We Imitate Nature When Grazing Animals?

To see how nature has kept the planet healthy for thousands of years while providing food for indigenous people, we only need to think of buffalo herds on North American prairies or antelope grazing the Serengeti plains or caribou herds roaming the arctic tundra.

There are two characteristics of their grazing pattern that prevented forage from being depleted and kept the planet healthy.

First, these animals all had predators that kept them “bunched” in tight herds for protection.

Second, because they had to keep moving away from their dung and urine in order to graze, these tightly bunched animals kept moving. We can imitate this “bunching and moving” with our own herds with rotational grazing through paddocks. This “planned grazing” is also called “holistic management.”

What Are the Benefits of Planned Grazing?

When doing things nature’s way by “bunching and rotating” our animals, we’ll be able to:

• Prevent “cherry-picking” and destruction of the most nutritious forage.

• Allow sufficient recovery time for forage to both grow tall and roots to grow deep which can then absorb and retain rain.

• Break up the soil’s crust to better absorb rain.

• Fertilize plants and soil with dung and urine.

• Allow the densely spaced hoofs to work some plants into the soil for additional fertilizer.

• Build humus rapidly, at four to six inches a year, from atmospheric carbon.

• Ameliorate climate change by sequestering atmospheric carbon into the soil.

How We are Converting our Homestead to Sustainable Grazing

Fifteen years ago when we bought our little farm, it had an undivided, ten-acre meadow. We purchased two pregnant cows and grazed them on the entire pasture throughout Ohio’s grazing season, just as generations before us had done.

Although this method constantly depleted the most nutritious plants, we usually had adequate forage because Ohio gets moisture from rain or snow pretty much year-round. As Allan Savory says, year-round humidity allows pasture to recover, even when being constantly cherry-picked. However, it only took the drought of 2012 for us to realize that our pasture needed more resiliency.

We knew the easy part of establishing rotational grazing would be dividing the meadow into smaller paddocks with electrical fencing. But each smaller pasture, or paddock, requires water and shade. Each original paddock was therefore fenced to include mature trees. Since then we have also purchased a portable shed to provide shade.

We then had a well dug in the meadow to provide water to each paddock. A windmill was built and water lines buried to each paddock. Additionally, we are gradually improving the forage by frost-seeding a variety of legumes and grasses each March.

So far, we can now rotate our animals through seven separate paddocks, all with shade, water and improved forage. With only nine cows, we certainly haven’t yet achieved “bunched” or “mob” grazing. However, being able to rotate the cows to keep forage from getting shorter than eight inches has prevented the many bare spaces that previously existed between plants.

Windmill and portable shelter

What is 'Mob Grazing' and When is it Essential?

Mob grazing refers to having a great density of animals moved through each paddock — as many as 800 cows per acre. (The Soil Will Save Us, Kristin Ohlson, chapter 4). As Allan Savory says in his TED talk and satellite photos demonstrate, mob grazing is necessary in most of North America — from about Indiana’s eastern border westward.

However, the more extreme weather of climate change may require all of us to graze our animals more densely. For those of us who don’t want to increase our herd size, Joel Salatin tells us how to mob graze a single cow.

Finally, we probably all know well-meaning people who think grazing animals are bad for the planet. Here is how you can help educate them.

Ruminants Don’t Contribute to Climate Change or Desertification

Grazing animals have been maligned for accelerating climate change because of the large amount of methane released from their rumens. But when livestock graze, the soil is enriched, plants thrive and bacteria in the soil called “methanotrophs” absorb all the methane emitted from the cows’ rumens.

When humans survived as hunters and gatherers, our planet thrived with larger herds of animals than are grazing today. Nature’s complex and inter-related systems always keeps things in balance — if humans don’t interfere.

When herds are allowed to “cherry pick” an entire pasture year-round, the good forage does not have time to recover, large bare spots appear and the quality of the soil and plants decreases. Remember that the current deserts in North America’s southwest were lush prairies when nature kept large herds of animals bunched and moving. Grazers don’t cause deserts; the people who manage the animals do.

This is the last article on working with nature. I hope the series helps you work better with nature to build healthy soil, plants and food while also helping our planet.

Mary Lou Shaw is a retired family practitioner who emphasized preventive medicine, is now homesteading with her husband in Ohio. Besides growing their own food, the pair help preserve genetics and knowledge needed by others to foster rare breeds. They have a large garden and orchard, Dorking chickens, Narragansett turkeys, Dutch Belted cows and bees. Buy Mary Lou’s book, Growing Local Food, through Carlisle Press at 800-852-4482. Read all of Mary Lou's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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