Across America, a new will to heal, deepen and build soil structure previously damaged by conventional farming methods is gaining ground. John Wilkes reports.
Holistic grazing management may sound mysterious, but there is nothing ‘muck and magic’ about the output and margins being achieved by its livestock producing devotees.
In the US, the movement has elicited burgeoning interest from mainstream ranchers and farmers looking at ways to remain viable by turning conventional thinking on its head.
Crucial to overall success in holistic grazing management is stocking livestock in extreme numbers on relatively small areas for short periods of time.
According to soil health advocate Ray Archuleta, from the National Resources Conservation Service, part of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), this approach owes much to British visionary Sir Albert Howar; the father of modern organic agriculture, who believed ‘mother earth never attempts to farm without livestock’.
Mr Archuleta says: “The drive to a more holistic approach came out of desperation, as many producers were going bankrupt back in the middle of the last decade.
“The increased costs of inputs were crippling farmers. Standard practice and thinking were not working. No matter how much resource was put in, producers were not getting results.”
Mr Archuleta says because the earth was ‘suffering’, holistic practitioners began looking at the earth as a living thing, not just a growing medium. Previously, soil ecology was not fully understood or given much credence by the wider agricultural community.
He says it became clear the soil eco-system needed viewing as a whole - taking in water, mineral and energy cycles, then managing resources accordingly - to achieve best practice.
Mr Archuleta says there was, however, a ready source of inspiration and knowledge pre-dating even Sir Albert Howard. Emanating from the plains of Africa, and envisioning farm livestock mimicking those great herds, Allan Savory, the South African holistic campaigner pioneered this idea of ‘mob-grazing’, involving large numbers of cattle feeding on a small area for a short period of time.
Similarly, when routinely confronted and stampeded by predators, American bison stirred the ground and helped propagate the forage which was once the lifeblood of 500,000sq.miles of prairie out on the Great Plains.
It is this tight, high-density, predator-instigated trampling which is fundamental to Mr Savory’s management methods as he targets grassland proliferation - and soil structure restoration which would improve the soil’s carbon storage capacity.
Mr Archuleta says the term ‘mob-grazing’ has confused a few American farmers. He prefers to refer to the process as ‘adaptive grazing
management’ which he describes as a planning and monitoring, and then re-planning grazing strategy.
Summerfield Farms, near Greensboro, North Carolina, comprises 200 hectares (500 acres) of which some 80ha (200 acres) are ‘holistically managed’ to support about 180 head of beef finishing cattle.
The remaining 120ha (300 acres) are mostly wooded and managed for wildlife.
Summerfield’s livestock manager Scott Philips says: “The idea is the top third of each plant is eaten, the next third is trampled into the soil and the remaining third is for regrowth. The aim is not to overgraze but to protect the plant root system, which in turn helps break up compaction, allowing nutrient-rich water to easily infiltrate down and be retained in the soil.”
He says the trodden down plant biomass both shelters and cools the earth, slowing the kinetic energy of raindrops to assist in water capture.
Microbes then digest this layer into organic material - aiding the retention of soil carbon, which in turn promotes greater biodiversity and soil health.
The presence of a thick mat of vegetation under the sustained pressure of continually high numbers of animals’ feet helps offset poaching the ground during any longer periods of rain, as this approach causes very little damage to the underlying soil structure.
Land managed in this manner is much less prone to flooding and run-off, as even during heavy rainfall the ground is better able to absorb and hold moisture.
Mr Philips says: “The whole process works best if you can create a ‘frenzy’ of feet each time the cattle are moved onto fresh ground; you need this immediate impact. Then move them on.”
Through spring and early summer, grass growth necessitates moving the beef herd on the hour, every hour during a 10-hour-day, before leaving the cattle to back-graze over all the day’s pasture at night. This is important during Carolina summers, when daytime temperatures of 40degC can take their toll on cattle performance.
On average, each animal has access to 1.8sq.m (19sq.ft) of pasture during each of the 10 daily moves across about 0.6 hectares (1.5 acres).
Mr Philips says: “At these levels, cattle can become unsettled due to competition and exhibit unnatural behaviour, so we now trim back to our stocking ‘sweet spot’. Ideally, with enough acreage, it would be good to graze just once during a season, as happens on the big units in more arid country.”
Working on a 90-day turnaround, the plant population is thoroughly appraised to ensure it is full recovery before seeing cattle again.
After the herd has passed through, they employ their ‘dung busters’, which are mobile chicken caravans full of electric-fenced, free-range laying birds - electronically shut up at night.
Moved daily, these chickens break up manure deposits, thus reducing the environment for parasitic infestation.
As chickens feast on dung-dwelling fly larvae, they significantly reduce horsefly and other winged insect pests for the cattle.
At such tight stocking densities, it is equally as important the herd has uninterrupted access to clean, plentiful drinking water. To make sure this happens, a new multi-outlet watering line runs along higher ground ringing the whole farm, so concentrations of manure and urine from drinking cattle can wash down naturally over the ground when rain falls.
Water tanks are moved along with the cattle, every hour, by farm staff.
Mr Philips says: “Holistic management incorporates all decisions you take on your land.
“It includes some ‘filters’ to make sure it is taking you towards your goals. We are totally transparent in embracing this. You have any questions, you come and see us, and we will show you what we are about.”
He adds the holistic path is ‘not for the faint-hearted’ in terms of animal performance, intensity and production.
“If anything goes wrong, effects become exaggerated as everything is inextricably linked.
“A pasture grazed for too long or an issue with the water supply can have an immediate, tangible, detrimental effect.”
Before leaving to supervise the herd’s next hourly move, Mr Philips says: “Finishing grass-fed holistic beef is the hardest thing to do. It is not a method, it is an art.”