How to Use a Leader-Follower Grazing System

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An ideal restoration agriculture grazing system would be a multispecies, mob-stocked, leader-follower system beginning with cattle.
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Eeyore (we name our livestock!) grazes in among the hazelnuts. Animals are rotated frequently to avoid hoof damage to tree roots. A portable two-strand polywire fence with a solar charger is all that is needed. For pigs, both strands are lowered to nose and ear height.
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In addition to thriving on pasture, pigs are the ultimate cleanup tool, eating unmarketable produce and cleaning up after apple, hazelnut and chestnut harvests.
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Tammy, the Tamworth matriarch, enjoys her pats while telling the author about the state of the herd. Of all the breeds we've tried, Tamworths seem to thrive the best on a no-grains, pasture and tree crops diet. The pigs rations are comprised of mulberries, cherries, apples, hazelnuts, hickories and chestnuts and, of course, visually imperfect produce of all kinds from asparagus to green peppers.
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Turkeys at work grinding up mineral amendments with caterpillars, grasshoppers, slugs and more and depositing them in easily decomposed packages across the pasture. Give thanks for pest control and fertility!
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Dealing with chickens in a leader-follower system can be somewhat challenging, but they do eventually learn how to avoid predation and eventually become nearly care-free.
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The goat's ability to thrive on almost anything is both its greatest strength and its greatest curse.
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A silvopasture system is an intentional combination of forage and trees with livestock. Repeated university research shows that with proper management, forage yields increase, forage digestibility improves, and animals gain faster at lower costs. Here, Holstein steers graze in the hazelnut savanna: two crops from the same acre! Recently populations of savanna sparrows have begun to expand. Ecological restoration can occur simultaneously with agriculture, not separate from it.
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Mark Shepard describes a vision of nature-inspired farming in "Restoration Agriculture," based on his experience creating his own 106-acre perennial agricultural ecosystem, and offers advice on how to create a farm that works with, rather than against, the dominant conditions of the environment.

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.

Cattle Lead the Leader-Follower System

The simplest and most researched leader-follower system is one in which only cattle are used. The system is managed according to the “first bite” theory. Cattle graze by taking a bite from the top of the most nutritious pasture according to their needs. They will then move on to the next “first bite” and so on until all of their preferred pasture has been bitten. They will then move back over the pasture and take the next bite down the stem, moving into less and less nutritious forage. In the simplest of the leader-follower systems, young calves are moved into the pasture first. They have the highest nutrient demand of any cow life stage and will take the best of the best pasture bites. After the calves have initially grazed the pasture and before they begin to move on to the “second bite” stage, they are moved into fresh pasture where they can continue to graze the most vital and nutritious feed. Lactating cows are then moved into the pasture where the calves vacated. Simple systems such as this have been shown to increase total weight gain in calves and to not reduce milk yields from the cows. The system can be refined even further.

Calves can be grazed first. Then the cows can be divided into two classes based on their production. The heaviest milk producers can be moved into the pasture behind the calves, then the lighter producers behind the heavy producers. Dry cows can follow behind. With a leader-follower system such as this, the calves get all of the most nutritious “first bites,” the cows then get all of the second and subsequent bites. This grazing system matches pasture growth. On a pasture, “first bites” are the smallest portion of available feed. This matches nicely with the calves’ small size and high nutrient needs. Older cows require more bulk and dry matter in their diet and that is exactly what is available after the leaders move through. Mature, dry cows who are able to thrive quite well on dry hay alone do quite well with the coarse forage left behind by the leaders.

An ideal restoration agriculture grazing system would be a mob-stocked, leader-follower system beginning with cattle.

Add Hogs for Multispecies Grazing

Once the cattle have moved through the system, the time is right to move in the pigs. Pigs are, of course, one of the most broadly omnivorous livestock. Left to themselves, they graze a fair amount of green forage but prefer to root through the ground to eat grubs, worms and plant roots. In season, they eat dropped fruits and nuts and they have been known to dig up and eat snakes, rodents and ground-nesting birds. The “plowing” behavior of pigs can be used in the proper place and at the proper time when farmers want to disturb the soil in order to plant a new crop. Some leader-follower farmers graze their cattle first, then follow with pigs that are allowed to plow the ground and eat plants and roots until there are none left. The farmer then follows the hogs and plants a small grain crop or preferred pasture for when the cows come back on rotation. All pigs will relish rooting in the ground with their powerful, yet sensitive, snouts and it really is quite a joy to watch a pig as it lifts its head from its enthusiastic snuffling with dirt all the way up to its eyebrows. Some breeds of pigs, however, root less than others and thrive on pasture better than others. An in-depth discussion of which hog breeds thrive the best on pasture would be never-ending and would offend as many “true believers” as it would enlighten others. So rather than discuss too many specifics, I’ll just briefly mention a few here. In a perennial, restoration agriculture system, healthy pasture is the key. The woody polyculture is important, yes, but the health of the pasture is what drives the health of the entire system. When the forage quality is high it will support more animals. More animals provide more fertilizer, in the form of manure and urine, to the trees. A perennial woody polyculture will over time create a closed-canopy, producing so much shade that grass will not thrive. It is at this point in site development that the system has moved from a savanna system to a forest. A “food forest” is the result, but a closed canopy is not the system that produces the most food per acre. The most photosynthetically productive biome is the savanna with a deep, three-dimensional solar-collection structure. We want to maintain our woody plantings so that the grass is always greener on our side of the fence. Forage health results in good animal health which results in good human health. So, in order to achieve optimal productivity and optimum health in the whole system, pigs should not be allowed to diminish forage health by rooting it all up.

In order to do this, nose-rings are recommended — one across the columella (the fleshy part between the nostrils) and another into the tip of the snout. (Earrings and a belly button stud would look cool, too, but they don’t perform a useful function like nose rings do!)

The procedure is painful at first, and pigs always seem to squeal ten times louder than the actual pain warrants. Inserting the nose ring is best done immediately after weaning or as soon as you receive feeder pigs on the farm. Within seconds of release, the pigs stop complaining and don’t appear to experience any discomfort. Unless, of course, they try to root in the ground. Their hungry tummies quickly teach them to graze rather than root. Some breeds learn more quickly than others. Of the many different breeds of pigs that I have grazed, two stand out. Experience with other farmers has led to a third one. Red Wattle pigs appear to thrive quite well on pasture as do Berkshires and especially the Tamworths. Of the three, the Berkshires appeared to be the leanest when grassfed, and the champion in weight gain and thrift on pasture is by far the Tamworth. Berkshires take a few days to figure out how to graze well, but the Tamworths start looking for grass as soon as they’re off the nipple. When they are not ringed, Tamworths appear to do the least amount of pasture damage. I have seen un-ringed Tamworths on pasture in several states with no apparent rooting. Other hogs worth noting are the black Iberian pigs from the Basque regions of Spain. Hogs in northern and western Spain are pasture-raised and finished on acorns and chestnuts. Their darker meat becomes the famous “jamón ibérico” beloved by Spaniards and their guests. France and Italy as well have their own favorite pasture and acorn-fed hogs, and the trend is growing in North America. There is nothing quite like the flavor and texture of pork that has been grazed on pasture all summer and fattened on a diet of apple pressings, hazelnut and chestnut gleanings and acorns.

Management of pigs in a restoration agriculture system includes using them as the ultimate cleanup tool. With apples cleanup can be timed to coincide with the June drop when insect-damaged fruit falls from the tree. Pigs happily rummage through the woody polyculture and gobble up the tiny fruit with insect larvae inside. After harvest, whether of apples, chestnuts or hazelnuts, pigs are rotated through beneath the trees in order to pick up any fruit or nuts that were missed by the human harvesters who went through first.

With a “pigs following cattle” system a rule of thumb would be to have no more than two mature pigs per adult cow. Fewer than two pigs per cow works just fine. With too many pigs they’ll not have enough leftover forage to thrive, and they will get hungry and begin to break through electric fences. Pigs are incredibly intelligent animals and once they learn that it only takes one zap to run through an electric fence, they will do exactly that if they are not getting enough to eat in their paddock.

Then Turkeys

Once the cattle have grazed off their first two bites, and after the pigs have cleaned up behind the cattle, turkeys are an excellent choice to follow. Turkeys will nibble grass and forbs and there will be some left for them, but they prefer to eat big seeds and insects. Turkeys will eat the insects attracted to the dung left behind by the larger grazers as well as any seeds that may have passed through the gut of the animals that went before. They will scratch around in the grazed and trampled debris in search of beetles, caterpillars, worms and large seeds. Many pasture “weeds” that don’t provide the best forage for cattle and pigs have large seeds. These large seeds will be gobbled up by the turkeys and ground into oblivion in the bird’s gizzard. Turkeys (and all fowl) are also a great way to introduce mineral amendments to the pasture in a low-cost manner over a period of time. To have a high-yielding pasture, whatever minerals are low can be placed in a mineral feeding box and dragged from paddock to paddock with the turkeys. Coarser-grit minerals are oftentimes less expensive than the finer particle sizes of minerals simply because less milling time went into their production. As the turkeys graze the pasture they are ingesting the spectrum of minerals available in that pasture. They will be internally deficient in whatever minerals are deficient in the pasture soil. All fowl instinctively will pick at the grit that supplies them with the missing ingredients that they need. The grit gets ground to a fine powder in their gizzard, it gets acted upon by the bird’s digestive acids and enzymes, and what isn’t used by the organism itself gets defecated onto the very pasture that needs that very mineral.

Animal polycultures have been the secret in nature’s toolbox to creating the most fertile soils on the planet. The moist temperate savannas of North America, especially the American Midwest in the Ohio, Mississippi and Missouri River watersheds, are home to the planet’s deepest, most fertile topsoil. Some has been measured at nearly 200 feet thick. This fertile topsoil was created by the oak savanna plant families (and others as well) but especially with the help of the animals. Phosphorus, one of the Corn Belt’s most deficient mineral nutrients, was once brought into the region by the ton as migrating birds gobbled up Gulf of Mexico seafood and pooped their way up the Mississippi flyway leaving behind a wake of fertility. We no longer have passenger pigeons on the farm, so we now have to substitute domestic fowl and provide them with the mineral nutrients that they and the soil need.

Turkeys, especially the more intelligent, heritage breeds, are quite low maintenance and only one flock need be raised all during the summer grazing season. By the time the best grass is finished in the northern regions it will be time for the turkeys to be put in the freezer for the holiday season to come. Approximately two turkeys per hog is an adequate number.

Sheep Clean Up the Leader-Follower System

Imagine what the pasture looks like now. One or more waves of cattle have grazed through it first, with the calves eating the tips of the most nutritious plants, the best cows taking the second bites, lower-producing cows taking the thirds, and dry cows the fourths. Then pigs come in and clean up the leftovers, and third the turkeys pick out the seeds and eat the bugs. What’s left?

Anyone who has watched this process happen, or even part of this process, will observe that the first plants to rebound after this grazing pressure are the ones that were the least preferred by cattle and not eaten by the hogs. The turkeys really aren’t that much of an impact on the pasture itself, and so the green growth begins to rebound. First up from the ground are the plants, mostly biennials and perennials, that have large, fleshy roots with lots of stored energy. Other plants left behind are the ones that many graziers would call invasives, such as spotted knapweed and leafy spurge. Other plants quick to respond include dandelions, burdock, cow parsnips and thistles. With little else to eat the sheep happily graze on these broadleaf plants. Over time these weeds will become less and less prevalent in the pasture thereby providing weed control as a side benefit of the grazing system.

Chickens for Additional Clean-Up

Following the sheep come the chickens. Dealing with chickens in a leader-follower system can be somewhat challenging. Buying enough square-mesh portable electric fence to set up permanent paddocks for all of the chickens that you can raise is quite expensive. And moving mesh-fence paddocks every day is a lot of work and a royal nuisance. Open-bottomed, portable chicken pens are one way to deal with the issue, as are trailer-mounted, mobile chicken coops.

As the chickens move through the pasture following the sheep, they scratch up any remaining manure from the “leaders” ahead of them searching for insects and seeds. By the time the chickens move through the pasture there will likely be very little animal manure left to be found. It has all been eaten or carried away by dung beetles and carrion beetles or scratched apart by turkeys and chickens. With poultry included in the animal polyculture there will be very little animal mess. Chickens, whether egg layers or meat birds, are one of the simplest animals to raise and most readily purchased by direct-sales customers, although I don’t know of many people raising chickens on a small scale that are actually making more than a hobby income from the enterprise. Chickens are a good starter enterprise for farm kids, and when collaborative processing and marketing ventures are undertaken, growers can do quite well.

A rule of thumb number for chickens is really not possible. If you want to use no supplemental feed, then obviously fewer chickens could be supported at the tail end of a polycultural leader-follower system. If you are going to incorporate the growing of small grains in the overall farm system, you could expect to need approximately four acres of small grain and legume production to feed 4,000 meat birds.

Unconventional Multispecies Grazers: Geese

Geese have been included, not because they were historically significant savanna animals, because they really weren’t. They were more significant along migratory flight paths and are quite obviously, waterfowl (or supposed to be). Geese have been included here mostly because their eating habits are very similar to sheep. They happily graze broad-leaved plants and are good for following turkeys. Fencing that is set up for pigs and turkeys will also contain geese without any adjustment. Geese will also provide burglar alarm services warning the grazier that someone or something is out near the poultry. Geese are very well adapted to a perennial polyculture and can oftentimes provide a higher value income stream than sheep. Geese are oftentimes disliked for being feisty and mean, but then again so are sheep. I don’t like sheep smell, whereas geese on pasture I don’t mind.

Goats in the Silvopasture

Goats are a wonderful animal. They are without a doubt the animal that is able to produce high-quality meat and dairy products on the coarsest, most degraded forage. They can eat raspberry bushes, roses or poison ivy, gain weight well, produce surplus milk, cream and a kid or two each year. A goat’s ability to eat almost anything is what has led to countless images in children’s books and elsewhere of the bearded billy goat eating tin cans. The goat’s ability to thrive on almost anything is its greatest strength — and its greatest curse. Goats can be an extremely useful tool to manage the succession of a site by browsing economically undesirable plants such as honeysuckle, multiflora roses and autumn olive.

However, goats can be the bane of a restoration agriculture farmer. After planting 10,000 hazelnut bushes at great financial and labor cost, the last thing a farmer wants is a goat to come along and murder all of them. Beware…goats are fence jumpers. If you have a charming apple orchard planted and they get it into their heads that they want to eat apple trees today — they will escape. Goats can jump over or go through any normal electric fence that humans can contrive. Build it higher and they’ll find a way over, under or through it. A 20-foot-tall, nuclear-powered, high-tensile, 45-strand, electrified razor wire fence with a minefield in front of it is still no match for a goat with an eye for your chestnut tree.

If you are just starting out as a restoration agriculture farmer and have not quite mastered the subtleties of multispecies grazing and pasture management (I am sixteen years into my project and I still find I have way more to learn.), goats are best avoided. Archaeologists, anthropologists and historians have discovered evidence over and over again that goats are the last seral phase before total desertification.

Historically around the world, the preferred grazing animal of pastoralists and early agrarians has been cattle. Cattle require high-quality pasture and produce high-quality food in the form of dairy products, meat and blood from the living animal. Beef has always been the status symbol of the grazing animals. If you had cows, you were wealthy. The more cows you had, the wealthier you were. Though, too many cows kept for status or whatever reason can and do degrade pasture quality. Over time, as pastures degrade, fewer and fewer cattle can be maintained on the pasture and sheep and goats are then kept. Entire cultures have seen a shift in their diet over time from beef eaten by many, to beef as a status food only eaten by the rich and sheep eaten by the masses. As the grazing environment is degraded more and more, cattle disappear from even the ranks of the wealthy and the percentage of goats increases. As this process continues pastures fail to recover, soil erodes in the wind and rain, and societies collapse with the only survivors being a few wandering herdsmen with their skinny, starveling goats nibbling at the last few sprigs of life that cling to the bare bones of the planet.

Maintaining pasture quality is goal number one in restoration agriculture. If pasture quality is not maintained and the forage is overgrazed or incorrectly grazed, cattle and hogs give way to sheep and goats which give way to the deserts that we see in Africa, the Middle East, China, and Central and South America. When pasture quality is not the primary goal, goats are the final nail in the ecological coffin.

I personally do not recommend goats in a restoration agriculture system until that system is quite mature — 15 years old or more. Goats pose an unacceptable risk in the establishment phase of an edible woody cropping polyculture. If you feel that you have to have goats on your restoration farm, go for it. It can be done and it can be done well. Just remember…I warned you!

Other Potential Silvopasture Problems (Besides Goats)

Management and fencing are probably the biggest challenges that a restoration agriculture farmer or rancher faces. This is especially the case when a farmer has changed from a rectilinear paddock system to one that is coupled to an earth shaping and water management system.

In a simple beef leader-follower system, young stock is fenced separately from the older animals. Two active paddocks worth of moveable fence need to be maintained. When pigs are added to the system, an additional strand of fence wire needs to be strung quite low and weeds need to be eliminated frequently from beneath the lower strand so the fence doesn’t short and the pigs become residents in your home garden or your neighbor’s cornfield. Sheep may need a third strand, or at a minimum, the fence wire will need to be moved higher or lower as the next type of livestock is moved in.

When the farm is designed in order to optimize water capture using swales or terraces on or near contour, more fence posts are needed in order to describe curves rather than straight lines. The moveable ends of paddocks are still straight lines and no change in management is needed there, but overall more fence will be required and more time will be needed to move livestock at the appropriate time into the appropriate paddock.

Multispecies grazing can possibly require additional handling facilities for loading animals for sale onto trailers. There are those who are convinced that animals cannot be trailer loaded without a species-specific squeeze chute, but this is only the case for animals that have no personal connection with their manager. When herds become larger than a certain number the animals become anonymous and no longer respond to their human companion. Multispecies grazing allows the grazier to have fewer animals of each species reducing individual anonymity. Being on friendly terms with your livestock is an incredible help. Another way to remove the need for additional handling facilities is to train the animals to load into a trailer from a young age.

Somewhere in the grazing paddock system park a livestock trailer. When the cattle are in that paddock, lead the animals into the trailer where they find a tasty treat of a well-balanced feed. Simultaneous with the livestock discovering the tasty treat the herder should give out a species-specific whistle or call. As this happens periodically through the grazing season, the animals become familiar with the trailer. They see it frequently, they graze near and around it frequently, and they get a morning treat inside of it along with scratches and pats from the human. The animals become comfortable with seeing the trailer arrive and seeing it drive away. Eventually the trailer becomes associated with a positive experience. They become “Pavlov’s livestock,” conditioned to coming to the owner and loading onto a trailer at a whistle or call. The first time I called in a custom hauler to take a dozen hogs to the slaughterhouse, he asked me where my squeeze chute was. When I told him that we wouldn’t need one, he groaned and cursed and moaned “Gol Dang! You’re not one of those, are you?” I said, “Relax!” and gave a whistle and the pigs came thundering from around the bend. One sniff of the trailer and they let out squeals of joy. This one has hay in it! Yippee!

Winter is an issue for livestock production and additional housing for carryover stock may be required. Separate quarters are a good idea especially to help prevent transmission of cross-species parasites, diseases or mineral toxicity.

Multiple Species and Mineral Toxicity

Supplemental feeding of minerals and trace elements should be carefully monitored. Cattle love their salt lick and hogs can overdose on salt. Mineral supplements for cattle and hogs may include copper and be necessary for their health, but can be toxic for sheep. Soil testing and forage testing is prudent in order to understand what your soil mineral levels actually are doing. Don’t lose your herd or flock to guesswork.

Parasite Control With Multispecies Grazing

Sheep and goats share the same internal parasites. (Another reason to not use goats!) As do pigs and chickens. Some parasites can subsist externally from their host animal in a form of suspended animation as dehydrated cysts. The best way to limit parasites in a multispecies livestock operation is to understand what the parasite potentials are, understand the parasite life cycles, and to not combine livestock with similar parasites in the same or even the following paddock. Always have a species break between one host species and the next susceptible species. Parasite problems can also be limited by maintaining a diverse pasture mix and especially a mix that includes perennial plant species that are known to be parasiticides. Some of these species are wormwood (Artemisia absinthium), members of the sage family in general, garlic, gentian, fennel and other strong herbs. These can be planted along main fence lines, as well as the occasional members of the walnut and hickory species (leaves and nut husks show parasiticide effects). If winter squash and pumpkins are grown on the farm, market rejects can be fed to livestock both for their carbohydrate and mineral gain as well as the antiparasitic effects of the seed skin. Lespedeza, although considered invasive in many places, is excellent forage and has also been shown to have a parasiticide effect.

Disease Control With Multispecies Grazing

Johne’s, malignant catarrhal fever, and other livestock diseases can be managed in a similar manner as parasites. To avoid direct transfers sheep should not be grazed in a system that includes elk, deer or bison.

Like most of the parasites, livestock diseases are passed along through mouth and nose contact, and in the feces. To limit parasite and disease transmission keep cattle separate from pigs and pigs separate from the fowl and fowl separate from the sheep. Care should be taken that animals are not stressed. Clean water should be available to the animals at all times and watering tanks or troughs should be emptied and purged between species. Once again, this all comes back to pasture health. Pastures should not be grazed until the soil is exposed. Sheep, especially, will crop a pasture until the crowns of grasses are the only thing remaining. This is a surefire way to spread both parasites and diseases. Healthy pasture with long periods of recovery between grazing is the best way to maintain healthy, parasite- and disease-free livestock.

Multispecies Grazing In Summary

Multispecies, mob-stocked, rotational grazing can lead to healthier pastures. Healthier pasture forage creates healthier soil. Healthier soil in harmonious mineral balance grows the most nutrient-dense, healthiest food to eat, whether you’re an animal grazing peacefully or a human enjoying the fruits of a healthy and abundant system.

Multiple livestock species, each with their own dietary preferences, will balance the forage plant communities and lead to pastures that recover more quickly from grazing, develop deeper root systems allowing them to recover deeply leached nutrients, and tolerate weather extremes such as excessive soil moisture or prolonged drought.

One of the goals of multispecies grazing is to utilize pasture resources more uniformly. By the time the last livestock species vacates a paddock, there should be no odd patches of ungrazed plants. Pastures recover more evenly and require less finish mowing.

In addition to being utilized more uniformly, pasture is utilized more effectively. Plants that are unpalatable or even toxic to cattle, such as larkspur and leafy spurge, are eagerly consumed by sheep. This is effectively an increase in carrying capacity for the cattle next time around. Sheep (and goats…I can’t believe I’m saying this!) can be used to control unwanted brushy species that will naturally want to occupy the revitalizing landscape. Restoration agriculture plantings of edible woody species provide perches for a phenomenal diversity of wild birds, many of whom came to the system with their intestines preloaded with undesirable seeds. Multispecies grazing ensures that somebody in the system somewhere likes that plant for food. Once the undesired brushy species are removed more grasses can thrive and the virtuous cycle continues.

Leader-Follower Grazing Offers Higher Livestock Production…

Total livestock production is higher when a polyculture of animal species is grazed in a leader-follower system. This is in part because of the increase in site fertility and total productivity and in part because of the different food sources used by the different animals. You may not be able to raise as many beef or sheep per acre as you used to, but the total pounds of livestock weight per acre will be greater.

…and Economic Diversification

My Uncle Bill, a lifelong farmer, once told me, “Mark, you’ve got to get into raising sheep.” “Why is that?” I asked him. He replied, “They’re the most profitable livestock I’ve ever raised. With sheep I only lose five or ten bucks a head!” Uncle Bill had variously been a dairyman, bull semen farmer, commodity row cropper, hog producer and beef producer. Although he had grown up on a widely diversified family farm, he had abandoned those ways during the bulk of his career. By concentrating on only one main enterprise and by pushing production to the maximum he could get away with, he had been economically bludgeoned for his fifty-year career. Yes, he had some big years, and those big ones were big. His downs, however, were just as big. It was in those down years that he would be forced by economic pressures to refinance and start something somewhere else. My grandfather only lost the farm once. Uncle Bill, always the overachiever, did it several times.

By diversifying the species that one grazes, market fluctuations can be evened out. Cattle, hogs, sheep and poultry all tend to have slightly different price cycles. High prices for one may offset low prices in another. Some species, like geese, can have very high specialty market prices, but low total volume in sales. A multispecies, mob-stocked, rotational grazing system is the animal portion of a diversified farm products portfolio. Raising only one crop — milk or corn for example — leaves you totally at risk to that one market. Your income stream will rise and fall with that one market. In the case of most American farmers in the past sixty years, your income only falls. It is interesting to see how after a career of single-crop farming and all of the stresses it caused in his life and for the family my Uncle Bill has now officially retired and raises cattle, sheep, hogs, a gaggle of geese, and one Indian Runner referred to by his grandchildren as “snappy duck.”

More from Restoration Agriculture:

Restoration Agriculture: Balancing Agriculture and the Environment

Reprinted with permission from Restoration Agriculture: Real-World Permaculture for Farmers by Mark Shepard and published by Acres U.S.A., 2013. Buy this book from our store: Restoration Agriculture.

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