Build Healthy Soil Through Regenerative Grazing

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Regenerative grazing is good for both the land and for the animals.
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“The Resilient Farm and Homestead” by Ben Falk details leading-edge strategies for regenerating soil, water systems and human health through the design and operations of the homestead and farm.

The Resilient Farm and Homestead(Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013) is a comprehensive how-to manual that will help the reader select, design, develop, and manage land for self-reliance and regenerative agriculture, and presents a thriving model for productive, durable homesteads and farms in cold climates and beyond. In this excerpt, taken from Chapter 4, author and permaculture expert Ben Falk addresses poor grazing practices and discusses regenerative grazing as a solution.

Picture a ten-thousand-head mob of buffalo or wildebeests thundering across the plains of North America or the Serengeti. Is healthy topsoil what comes to mind? For most of us, steeped in conventional ecology and environmental science, the answer is, “Hell no!” Instead, we imagine ecological destruction from overgrazing and desertification. And in truth the association between grazing animals and land abuse is not unfounded: Poor grazing practices (not necessarily “overgrazing,” just poor grazing management) contribute greatly to the desertification of large areas of the earth, wrecking soil and water and leaving a high climate-change bill. But that’s different from the quick movement of densely packed animals through a landscape (otherwise known in agriculture as regenerative grazing or stock grazing), as in the American West, Africa, and other places where deep-soil prairie lands and massive herds of animals coevolved.

Low-labor, industrial grazing is typified by low-density animal stocking occupying the same land area over long periods of time. (Picture your typical pasture dotted with a few animals here and there.) This, while seemingly idyllic, is the opposite approach to regenerative grazing, which builds soil and grows the healthiest animals. Innovative graziers have recently been realizing that high-density, very short rotations (the cycles naturally performed by grazing herds for millennia) is a far more productive approach to managing pastureland. Enter regenerative grazing, mob stocking, or whatever your preferred term may be for regenerating the landscape through the application of grazing animals. When a large number of densely packed, heavy animals moves through a landscape quickly, occupying that landscape just once or twice a season, the following soil-building events tend to occur:

1. Tall grasses, with correspondingly deep roots, are grazed down to within a foot of the ground but not completely down to the ground; grazing to the putting green level damages the plant’s ability to rebound. Plant roots die back as a response to this pruning, leaving organic matter (carbon) in the soil strata. The deeper the roots have penetrated, the deeper into the soil this organic deposition occurs. And the taller the grass was before grazing, the deeper the roots were able to grow. This is the organic matter/carbon-pumping stage in the system, where atmospheric carbon is transported into the soil by plants. Think of regenerative grazing as a potent carbon-negative conveyor belt reclaiming atmospheric carbon and putting it back into the earth from which it came.

2. Densely packed animals provide nitrogen in the form of urine manure as they graze. They also turn up clods of sod, allowing access for rainwater to bring the newly deposited nitrogen and biological activity (microbes in the manure) into the soil. Think of grazing animals as an enormous living rotovator spewing soil-enhancing nutrients behind them; that’s the action of a massive animal herd if allowed to move through, not loaf upon, a patch of ground. Rains wash the fertility and biological inoculants into the newly broken-up soil, where it can penetrate deeply and not run off the landscape, as it would more readily were the soil surface unbroken. This is the fertilizing and soil biology–enrichment stage of the process.

3. Grasses left standing six to twelve inches by the quickly moving herd rebound rapidly and are allowed to grow to hip height or taller before the herd is brought back again. This is the resting and regrowth/root-penetration stage of the system.

These three steps are the primary reason vast areas of land have been improved and sustained, not desertified, by the presence of massive animal herds. Modern “mob stockers” such as Joel Salatin and Abe Collins are applying this understanding to ecologically (“biomimetically”) manage their animal herds for the multifunctional production of meat, milk, soil fertility, drought resistance, greenhouse effect reversal, and the many other benefits of healthier, deeper soils. The take-home points here for the modern homesteader or restoration farmer are the following:

Let it grow! You only build soil as deeply as you can get plant roots to penetrate (what comes up must go down), so the taller you let your yard or pasture grow before it’s cut or grazed, the more soil you’re making (and CO2 you’re sequestering). Think of any areas in grass as pasture or vegetable gardens-to-be—areas where you want good soil. An upshot here is that mowing, if you mow, wants to happen three to six times per year, max. This begets the need for white clover and other low-growing groundcovers, unless you mind the prairie look in your front yard.

And to the extent that you can, manage your animals for short grazing periods in tall grass. Plan the grazing rotations carefully when your landscape allows.

More from The Resilient Farm and Homestead:

The First Step to Sustainable Agriculture
Scything to Harvest With Proper Equipment and Technique

Reprinted with permission fromThe Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approachby Ben Falk and published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2013.

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