Monday, 9 May 2011

Mob grazing roots

Not, as the title suggests, the approach that needs to be taken when you've run out of grass, but instead a look at where the modern mob-grazing concept came from and how it has evolved into a wider land and business management tool.

The practice of mob grazing was developed by a man called Allan Savory. He grew up on the continent of Africa and believed over-grazing by domesticated livestock was the cause of many of the continent's problems. Overgrazing leads to loss of ground cover leading, in turn, to soil erosion, poor fertility, even less ground cover etc etc.

At first, Allan believed the cure was to remove animals completely to allow the vegetation unhindered growth. However over time he observed that this didn't solve any of the aforementioned problems either. So he started to study areas where grasslands did flourish, namely the African savannahs where high temperatures and months without rainfall were the norm. He realised that grasses have evolved in sync with migratory grazing animals. The grass plants are subject to short periods of high density grazing and trampling as the huge herds pass through the area, followed by a long rest period in which to recover and regrow before the herds returned. Allan could see that grasses actually flourished under this 'pulsed growth' and he started to change the grazing patterns of his own domesticated cattle to replicate this system on his own ranch.

Over time, Allan has refined best practices for mob grazing as dictated by the climate and local environment. He also evolved a wider management tool, known as 'Holistic Management'. There is now an organisation known as "Holistic Management International" (HMI) which helps and educates people as to the benefits of adopting this approach to management (

Ian Mitchell Innes is a Certified Holistic Management Educator' with HMI and did his best, during the three days spent with Greg and Jan Judy, to explain to us the basics of Holistic Management.

Ian Mitchell Innes teaches us how to read the environment, pointing out cow grazing patterns and emphasising that managing holistically relies on careful and constant observation, looking for signs that influence future decisions

As with all good management guides, one of the first pieces of advice is to set yourself some goals. However, Holistic Management guidelines state these goals must be towards achieving three things:
  1. What you want your quality of life to be?
  2. What are your preferred forms of production?
  3. What do you want your future resource base to look like in the future?
Importantly, everyone involved should have a say in the above and Ian emphasised the importance of all family and work colleagues pulling in the same direction. So, for example, under "Quality of Life", it might be necessary to tailor your workload to give you weekends off, of a longer break in the summer if you, or other family members say this is important to them. Or, under "Future Resource Base", your aim might be to increase the number and diversity of plant species growing in your pastures to make them more drought tolerant and to widen the growing season.

Subsequently, every management decision should be measured against these goals to ensure your business is heading in your desired direction and towards the agreed holisticgoals.

One of the reasons Holistic Management is so successful is that it allows complex problems to be understood, at least in part, by us. Ian pointed out that our thought processes, and those of computers, science etc, are linear. Give us one variable and we can deal with it - hence scientists try to keep everything constant except the item being measured. Give us lots of variables and we get hopelessly lost!

Unfortunately, nature is infinitely complex. Change one thing - say the amount of carbon in the soil - and it has knock on effects to such things as water holding capacity, mineral flow, atmospheric carbon levels and consequently global warming, to name but a few. Changing each of these then has a knock on effect on myriad other parts of nature, far too many for us to comprehend. Holistic management provides a way of simplifying and presenting this complexity in a form we can understand.

It's not an easy subject to understand, and I am only just starting to grasp it (though a seasoned practitioner may read the above and say I am a long way from doing so....!) For anyone interested, Allan Savory has written a couple of good books about it. I recommend everyone involved in land management reads them. Holistic Management is a new way of looking at land management and, even if you decide not to follow its doctrines, it can redefine how you think.


  1. Hi Tom

    Great blog and really interesting subject. I'm trying some cell grazing for my sheep this year having been inspired by what I saw in NZ ... I'm sure its the way forward IF I can design a system that takes a short time dedicated to putting up fences! Good luck - I'm jealous but looking forward to hearing what you find out.

    Cheers Michael

  2. Thanks Michael, and at the risk of sounding sycophantic, I've really enjoyed your blog too - and now there's a second one, about grazing sheep!

    Fences are an interesting subject (to me anyway....) and I've seen (and am implementing) a novel way of combining temporary and semi-permanent fences where the latter is always live and the reel holding the temporary fencing acts as the 'switch'. This means whilst unrolling and staking the temporary wire it is 'cold' then when you're done, hook it onto the semi-permanent wire and it becomes 'hot'.

    Of course, I'm only dealing with a single strand, for cattle. Three strands, in my limited experience, becomes exponentially more difficult. Good luck!


  3. Good stuff Tom!

    Makes me wonder about getting a Holistic Educator over to the UK sometime..

    Let me know where you are going later on as I have some decent contacts in NZ, Oz, Canada and USA. Possibly Brazil/ Argy as well if I ask around

    And get a copy of Jim Howell's book "for the love of the land" as well if you can

    Keep writing!

  4. Thanks Will.

    I've already bought and read Jim Howell's book, it's an excellent read.

    I'm planning to go back to the US & Canada in August, then in October I will be going to Argentina, so any contacts you've got will be most welcome.

    Did you notice I gave you an honorable mention in my first blog, as the person who (unknowingly) introduced me to mob grazing and started me on this incredible journey?