Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Best practices

As I sat in my hotel room on the morning before my final visit of the trip, I reflected on what I had seen and what I had learned. Mob grazing is a catch-all description for many subtly varied ways of high-density grazing. Most were successful, in terms of improving plant recovery rates and increasing stocking rates, as well as making pastures more drought-tolerant (and better able to stand heavy rainfalls too!)

The majority of practitioners were also practicing holistic management, focusing on its three entwined measures of success, namely financial, environmental and social measures.

However, there were still certain things eating away at me. The main one was weed control. Would UK pastures, in our non-brittle environment, revert to a mass of inedible weeds in a few years? What type of management strategy would need to be adopted to avoid this? Would we be forced to top our grassland with mowers to prevent this or could cattle alone be used?

If weeds did invade, how easy would it be to manage them away in favour of grasses and other more desirable plants?

The trip to see Dr Allen Williams that day could not have been more timely, and provided a whole host of the answers I had been seeking.

Allen was an academic, specialising in genetics, who has more recently changed tack to become a farmer. He brings an investigative and inquiring mind to the topic of mob grazing, coupled with a rigorous intellect, a habit of postulating theories, recording results and drawing sensible conclusions.

Three years ago he, and his business partner Al Smith, took on a block of CRP land. This had been within the CRP programme for 25 years which, as no grazing, cultivating or topping was allowed, had reverted to scrubland and semi-mature woodland. The first step taken by the partners was to clear the larger stems with a bulldozer. After that, they made the decision that all subsequent clearing work should be done by cattle. No more mechanical operations would be undertaken, chemical controls would be avoided and burning was out of the question.

The woodland is in the background, the cleared land in the foreground. Allen had purposely left elongated stands of trees to provide shade from the worst of the Mississippi summer and shelter in the winter

The results were nothing short of amazing! The impact was made greater because this was so much a work in progress. Land that had been properly managed by Allen for three years had transformed into lush, rich grassland in which cows grazed on shoulder high grass stands, the seeds all naturally occurring in the soil from the (at least) 25-year-old seedbank!

Allen's management had transformed the land from weed-covered scrub to dense, productive sward after only three years of mob-grazing. Incredibly, no reseeding had taken place, the clovers, grasses and other legumes were all either already in the seedbank (and had been dormant for the past 25 years+) or were carried / blown in from elsewhere.

Those pastures being exposed to only their first year of grazing were covered in weeds, mass invaders designed by nature to provide speedy ground cover, protecting the soil from the ravages of sun, wind and rain. This showed what the vegetation would look like without intensive management of the grazing (the first step towards reverting back to woodland).

After only one year of grazing, annual weeds still dominated the pasture land. More intensive grazing / trampling needed!

Next stop was to look at a pasture in its second year of grazing. Allen had concentrated the animals really tightly, encouraging them to eat all the weeds, leaves, grass and vegetation down to ground level. The perennial grasses were just starting to regrow and would quickly form a thick, dense sward, out-competing the annual weeds that had previously towered above them.

Allen had mobbed up the cattle tightly, forcing them to eat everything virtually down to the ground. There is a risk of cattle performance suffering if you ask them to do this too often, though Allen used dry cows who are better able to cope with a high roughage diet of relatively low nutritive value. As can be seen, the pasture looks more like a sheep-grazed field. This allows the sward to thicken up and it will outgrow any annual weeds this year and in future years.

As a final contrast, he also had a paddock that had been properly managed for the first three years but then for this year had been set-stocked with a group of purebred angus cattle. The sward was showing typical signs of overgrazing, with thin, bare patches interspersed with unpalatable ageing tussocks.

The set-stocked land. Bare patches interspersed with tussocks show how selective grazing allows cattle to overgraze some plants, returning time and again to eat off newly emerged leaves, whilst leaving other plants standing to seed, die and slowly oxidise. Adequate rest next year should allow the pasture to start to recover.

The variety of pastures on view was a natural result of the gradual progress Allen was making in improving the land. However, it had all the appearances of a scientific experiment, with control plots and various different 'treatments' on view. Quite fitting for a former academic!


  1. Tom, Have read all your posts of your trip - absolutely brilliant! Keep going and hopefully see you at the conference next month. Cheers. Michael

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