How to Use a Leader-Follower Grazing System

In a leader-follower grazing system, animals with different forage needs pass through a pasture in succession, using the land more efficiently without destroying its ability to support livestock.

| January 2015

Restoration Agriculture (Acres U.S.A., 2013) by Mark Shepard reveals how to sustainably grow perennial food crops that can feed us in our resource-compromised future. The goal of a restoration agriculture system is to take advantage of all the benefits of natural, perennial ecosystems by creating agricultural systems that imitate nature in form and function while still providing for our food, building, fuel and other needs, and this book is a guide to creating such a system based on real-world practices. The following excerpt from chapter 9, “Livestock & Restoration Agriculture,” deals with adding livestock to a perennial agriculture system.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Restoration Agriculture.

Stocking Rates for Multispecies Grazing

Everybody who lives in grazing country has seen a pasture where there are just too many animals on the pasture. Plain and simple. The animals eat every morsel of green until even the closest cropped golf course green appears lush. Once they’ve eaten the pasture down to those levels, there’s not enough feed for the animals and their health and nutrition suffer. Soil compaction becomes an issue because there is no longer any more root penetration to drill channels for water to percolate down into or to add fibrous carbon to the soil. Overgrazing of animals is one of the largest causes of land degradation and desertification on a global scale. Degradation from overgrazing is used by the proponents of animal confinement operations as a propaganda tool to eliminate the small grazier or rancher as competition in the food markets. As practitioners of restoration agriculture we will want to be especially aware of the anti-overgrazing bias that exists in many circles, because our goal is one of restoring health and vitality to the earth-plant-animal system, and not degradation. By being observant and by carefully managing our grazing patterns we will be able to ensure that this is so. Overstocking a pasture with one type of livestock and not rotating them to new pasture is the sure way to ruin.

That said, understocking a pasture can also lead to overgrazing. This may seem counterintuitive, but it is actually possible.

Overstocking can degrade pastures by removing more living plant matter than can regenerate before the next round of grazing happens. Understocking can degrade pastures when not followed up by finish mowing or grazing with other animals in order to prevent undesirable plants from proliferating and setting seed. This is what sheep are especially good for. They will eat more coarse vegetation than cattle and they will thrive on it too. They are the “finish mower” of our animal polyculture. The rule of thumb for sheep numbers is to have the same number of sheep as there are cattle. A pasture would, of course, support more sheep than one per acre, but by the time a cow and calf, two hogs and two turkeys have gone over the pasture, it is not the same as a fresh pasture. Although the pasture will support fewer total sheep per acre when rotated with other animals than if only sheep were raised, the total number of animals, and the total amount of available forage converted into animal biomass is greater than in a single-species system.

To show how simple this can be, I will begin with a discussion of one of the simplest leader-follower systems there is, and with animals that are familiar to most of us. Those animals are cattle.

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