Holistic management is gaining traction within the livestock sector, but what does it mean, what are the benefits, and how easy it is to implement?
The sustainability of livestock production is sometimes put into doubt due to ongoing discussion about the industry’s impact on the environment, particularly in terms of carbon emissions and its perceived contribution to climate change.
While the jury is still out on the environmental debate, advocates of holistic management are firm in their views; they argue that livestock, when managed holistically, can play a crucial role in reducing carbon emissions, and also have a positive impact on conservation and biodiversity.
But what is ‘holistic management’? It was originally developed by Allan Savory, a Zimbabwean ecologist and livestock farmer, as a way to reverse desertification in sub-Saharan Africa, but is now applied to a range of different environmental settings across the world to improve productivity and the financial bottom line, at the same time as restoring soils and ecosystems.
Holistic management places emphasis on the whole system, and aims to work with natural processes, rather than trying to control them.
Part of this holistic management is holistic planned grazing (HPG), which aims to mimic the natural behaviour of wild herbivores.
Allan Savory suggests that the reduction in livestock numbers can make the problem of soil degradation worse. It is not the number of stock that causes the problem, but the time the stock spend on any given area.
Rob Havard, runs about 90 Aberdeen-Angus cows on an organic system at Phepson Farm near Droitwich, Worcestershire, and since 2003 has taken the farm in a more environmentally focused direction.
Speaking at event organised by Agricology, which is a growing network of farmers, researchers and agronomists sharing knowledge on agroecological practices, Mr Havard explained as part of his focus he is using HPG. “In the wild, animals move together in mobs in a natural rotation, and this creates rest periods to allow grazing land to flourish again. We are trying to recreate this natural process.”
Mr Havard, who was an ecologist before returning to the family farming business in 2003, said it was vital pastures have long-enough rest periods.
“We are always told we should be grazing at the three-leaf stage, but that goes against the physiology of the plant. We need to allow that plant to regrow sufficiently so it can reach its genetic potential.”
Mr Havard uses temporary electric fences to create paddocks for his cattle to go into at covers of between 5,000kg DM/ha and 3,500kg DM/ha, and leaving at 2,500kg/DM/ha. The pastures are rested for an average of 60 days, to build organic matter and soil health.
He said: “We always use a back-fence and will graze paddocks for two to four days, and are budgeting at 17kgDM/cow/day.
The size of paddocks will vary, with Mr Harvard saying it is important to be flexible when it comes to setting up electric fencing.
“I do not use a plate meter, but instead estimate covers and will always err on the side of caution.”
He uses an 80 litre drag trough and over-land alkathene pipe for water access, and says if there is a problem with freezing temperatures he is prepared to bring in containers of water.
Mr Havard said grazing management in the summer months had a huge impact on the ability to out-winter his cattle. “We want the plants to have a big root mass to help hold the cows up in the winter. This root mass can be lost when the plant is over-grazed as the plant is stressed and will take energy from the root to try and make up for this.”
He said this deferred mob gazing, which he has been doing for the last eight years, has meant for the last two years he has been able to leave his cows out all year round on what is relatively heavy soil.
“We let the cattle ‘skim graze’ the paddocks in the summer, so that we can ‘stockpile’ these pastures for winter grazing.
“We want to reduce wintering costs, which is the main cost to a business and by doing so make ourselves more resilient to price instability.”
He conceded that in extreme weather years this may not be possible, but said if he could save costs three years out of four, then he would be happy.
“For this type of grazing, easy-fleshing forage converters with low maintenance requirements are needed.” He now favours a moderate-framed feminine looking native Aberdeen-Angus, with a tidy udder being important. “I am quite hard on this and will cull 10 cows out of the herd this year as I want cows that will last until they are 15 years old.”
Mr Havard said that deferred mob grazing had helped him cut fixed costs and given him a cash-only net profit of £350/cow.
He explained: “The cows have lifted soil organic matter to 12-15 per cent on some parts of the farm, compared to 3-5 per cent on nearby arable units. And this has helped cut inputs.
“This has resulted in a gross margin of £507/cow. And with fuel, contracting and machinery costs low due to the low-input system, based on mimicking nature, the cash-only fixed costs are £157/cow.
“Variable costs have also reduced, with no hard feed and no routine use of vaccinations or wormers.”
During the winter months cows are on grass and baled hay. “By September I’ll know what the feed budget is for the number of cattle I have on the farm. I’ll look at grazing covers to work out what areas will be needed, and also how many bales are need to supplement this grazing.”
By mid-summer all the hay needed for winter will be on the farm, stored outside in the fields to be placed where needed.
Typically two bales are rolled out each day for a mob of 40 cows. In very wet or snowy weather the cattle are moved onto a 9 hectare (22 acre) ‘sacrifice field’, with big bales of hay positioned in a high density grid formation.
“While we might be damaging the soil structure by feeding the bales like this, we are also adding a huge amount of organic matter to the soil from what is left after the cattle have eaten through the bales.
“We change the placement of the bales each year, and by having this sacrifice field I can have a higher stocking rate across the rest of the farm for the rest of the year.”
Last winter 71 cows and followers were on this area for nine weeks, and were fed 144 bales. Bales are placed on their side, and then Mr Harvard will roll and open up a third of the bales at a time. “We find they eat about 85 per cent of the bales in drier conditions, and 70 per cent in wetter weather.
“But when compared to having to buy in straw and hay for winter housing, this method is a no-brainer to me.”
Mr Havard said this holistic approach has given his family’s business ‘some good gains on a low cost system’.
“It’s also given us a greater range of wildlife on the farm, helped us keep fixed costs and wintering costs down, and also fits in with how I want to spend time farming and with my family.”
Mr Havard has added to the biodiversity of his land through the use of strewing. Land earmarked for this is power harrowed to a depth of around 1.5-2 inches, with the aim being to leave around 50-60 per cent of the land bare.
Green hay from ‘donor’ hay meadows is then spread on the ground with the seed from this easily able to come into contact with the ground.
“The hay meadows are mowed, and then immediately the hay is picked up with a forage harvester, and loaded into much spreaders to be spread on the field at a rate of 1tonne to the acre”, said Mr Havard.
“This gives us lots of biodiversity, and is bringing in a lot more than just seed. We see a huge amount of wildlife in these pastures.
“The cost of doing this is not huge, particularly if you are able to use your own meadow as a donor. But it is important not to get more than 50-60 per cent of the ground bare following the power harrow pass as this will cause issues with soil structure.”
Environmental stewardship has been used to experiment with establishing long-term diverse meadow pasture, on land which was previously in an arable rotation.
The main goal of the wildflower meados, which contain up to 27 different species, is to improve drainage through deeper rooting plants and have a positive impact on biodiversity.
“Before this the soil structure was very poor due to a 20 year rotation of rape, wheat and beans”, said Mr Havard.
“We have seen great results already for both drainage and wildlife. Deep rooting species such as sorrel and yarrow have worked well in helping to drain the clay, and wildflowers have established well across the fields which have become a magnet for butterflies, and other insects and pollinators.
“There is also a minimum of 12 per cent organic matter in the fields, and species like yarrow are really good for fungal balance within the soil.
“Meadow foxtail gives early and late grazing, and herbs and legumes like ribwort plaintain and birdsfoot trefoil create a wider mineral profile in the forward for the grazing animals, along with good protein levels to help provide a balanced, healthy diet.”