Saturday, 7 May 2011

Mob Grazing? Pah, it will never work.....

".... I mean, if we stocked at that kind of density, well with our soils and the amount of rain we get, the place would be a quagmire. And your grass is much too mature? It's little better than straw and you're cows won't perform. Honestly, don't say I didn't warn you. 

"You're also wasting lots of the grass. The cattle are just trampling it into the ground. And that field you've just moved them out of, there's enough left there to feed them for another week.Why grow it and then not feed it? Madness, I tell you, madness!"

Such were the forebodings of doom, ringing in my ears as I boarded the plane to St Louis, Missouri (via Chicago) to spend three days at Greg Judy's Mob Grazing School in the hamlet of Rucker. What had I done? Was I worshipping false idols? Was this whole mob grazing lark just a blind alley leading to poverty and unemployment? I had one of Greg's books with me but couldn't bring myself to look at it. Maybe he was a fringe lunatic, the leader of a cult, worshipping rough, weed-laden pastures and I was a willing disciple, drawn in with his tales of 75 vestal, virginal paddocks (per rotation) just lying there waiting to be consumed by willing beasts.

The condition of St Louis airport did nothing to allay my concerns. A tornado had ripped through there, just days before my arrival and half the airport was closed, blue tarpaulins strung across gaping holes in the terminal roof. Were the Gods trying to tell me something about my Nuffield trip, first with terrible earthquakes devastating parts of New Zealand, now with the US suffering its worst tornadoes in over quarter of a century.

The extreme weather had brought over four inches of rain to the area in the past twenty days, and I had visions of cattle up to their hocks in mud, staggering disconsolately through the pouring rain under a gloomy sky. Arable fields by the side of the road reinforced such worries, with deep rills eroded by the flowing water running across the cultivated land. What would the morning bring......?

Mob grazing, hah, it works.....!

It was the feel of the soil under my boots that I noticed first, spongy and forgiving, like walking across a giant mattress. Laid on top of the soil was a mass of dead stems through which sprouted thousands of new clover and grass seedlings. Greg explained, in his Mid-West drawl, that the soil texture was due to the high levels of organic matter he, or rather his cows, had helped to create through being mob grazed.

Within moments, he was down on his knees, peeling back the dead stems, or litter, to show us the soil. It teemed with life. Earthworms, centipedes, beetles and myriad other creatures scurried away from the daylight. He grabbed a handful of dirt and immediately you could see he was a man in his element. He enthused about the life in his hands, urging us to touch it, to feel its texture, to smell it. (Incidentally, Greg's record for the most earthworms found in one cowpat was 462. Four Hundred and Sixty Two!)

Greg Judy enthusiastically grabbing handfuls of earthworm-laden soil. Ian Mitchell Innes (more about Ian in a later blog) is in the flat cap and green coat at the back of the group

The cattle were in an adjoining block, a couple of hundred South Poll suckler cows. The spring calving season was just getting underway and the out-wintered cattle looked thin but surprisingly healthy. Average temperatures in winter are below freezing and high rainfall is the norm throughout the year, and yet Greg has no sheds on his land to house the cattle, nor does he own a tractor. The cattle do all their own harvesting work, and they spread their manure for free too. He does give them an occasional feed of hay, but only when ice storms have sealed the ground with an impenetrable layer of rock-hard ice. Snow, apparently, doesn't trouble the cows as they just scrape through it to the stockpiled grasses below.

That's one of the secrets of mob grazing. You get your stocking rates right, and time your moves during the growing season both to ensure adequate regrowth of the grasses before the cattle return to the same patch of ground again, and also to ensure you build up a surplus of grass around the farm. When the growing season ends, this stockpile of fodder can be utilised very cheaply.

New season grass growth. This area of ground had been covered in large amounts of stockpiled forage which had been grazed off during the winter. The two patches of brown are places where the litter can be seen lying on the soil surface. As well as seething with worms, these areas were also covered with hundreds of new seedlings, predominantly clovers.

Another secret is the stocking densities. The cattle are stocked at very high densities, especially in the summer months as the land gets drier (in winter, they're given a little more room, and moved very frequently to avoid poaching the ground). Remembering that the grasses are taller and more mature than is usual under a conventional, rotationally grazed system (especially later in the season), these high densities mean a significant proportion of the grass stems are trampled rather than grazed. To paraphrase Greg, this is worm fodder. It forms a layer of dead and decaying material on the surface which feeds the incredible amounts of soil life we saw. It also protects the soil from the deleterious effects of wind and rainfall and provides a beneficial microclimate for the aforementioned bugs.

A group of bulls being moved to a new paddock. Predominantly South Poll, they're a range of ages from freshly weaned yearlings to over two years old.

Of course, one thing I haven't mentioned is the economics of the system. I am not going to go into detail, in fact I am not going to provide any data at all. Instead, I will say this: If you are in the cattle game, grab a pen and paper and write a list of all the costs you incur in keeping cattle (eg Muck spreading, silage making, milling grain, feeding silage, mucking out pens etc etc). Now divide them up into two columns headed "Summer costs" and Winter costs". Now cross out ALL the winter costs and replace with a very small amount of labour, just enough to put up a couple of temporary fences each day. This is roughly where Greg is with his system. Incredibly simple, incredibly efficient and with the same numbers of calves to sell as you and I have under our ridiculous, fossil-fuel-driven systems.

Mob grazing doesn't just work. It rocks!

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