The omni-benefits of regenerative pasture

Early stages of Holistic Planned Grazing with Dexter cattle awaiting their daily move at Haye Farm, Worcestershire. Photo: Stuart Norgrove.
Early stages of Holistic Planned Grazing with Dexter cattle awaiting their daily move at Haye Farm, Worcestershire. Photo: Stuart Norgrove.
Managing grasslands in a way that mimics natural grazing by wild animals improves water infiltration, reduces erosion, conserves nutrients, reduces costs, raises production and increases profits, writes Natasha Giddings. Why isn't everyone doing it?
These production methods are more financially viable for the farmer - and independent of the inputs supplied from across the world by huge agri-corporations.

Farmers are often scapegoated for the problems we face regarding soil erosion, pollution, and particularly this year, flooding.

But they too are worried about how to sustain productivity under current and future economic and climatic conditions, while also protecting the environment.

Holistic Management (HM) including Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG) can play a critical role in addressing these challenges.

The UK is natural pasture land

In agricultural terms, most of the UK is best suited to pastoral farming of one type or another. For instance, steep hillside fields are highly susceptible to erosion if ploughed up for annual crops.

A lot of land lacks sufficient soil depth for arable farming, or is at too high an altitude, and hence too cold for crops to grow well. Many westerly areas get too much rain for cereal crops, which thrive on warm, dry summers to ripen the grain.

Even in areas where intensive arable systems are possible, forward looking farmers like Tim May are converting their estates 'back' to mixed farming to reap the benefits which diverse production systems including wisely managed pasture can endow.

In Tim's case he is making use of insights not available 100 years ago when mixed farming was still the norm, monitoring the results to optimise interventions.

Allan Savory's insights on pasture management - which apply especially to semi-arid rangelands - have come to mainstream attention via his TED Talk. But many people are still unaware that the practices which benefit 'brittle climate' ecosystems are also relevant in temperate climes such as ours.

The UK's pioneer land managers

Fortunately there are already pioneer farmers in the UK, practising HPG and demonstrating that in only a few years carefully planned systems can have impressive beneficial impact.

The archetypal UK pastoral scene involves fields under 'set-stocking' or 'extensive' management. Some farmers have moved on to strip grazing or 'New Zealand' methods. These have increased production - but at the expense of biodiversity, and certainly without making any contribution to alleviating flood problems.

Holistic Planned Grazing can mitigate both flooding and drought, as well as increase grass productivity, biodiversity across genera, and animal welfare.

The key to implementing it well lies in understanding how ecology works across disciplines - how plant ecology, animal ecology and soil ecology interact.

Traditional stock management

In a set-stocking system, the grass generally remains quite short and grazing animals are put out on a large area for months on end. They take a few bites here, a few bites there, and then wander on, and take some more somewhere else. They can be picky - and will generally keep eating the plants they like best.

These production methods are more financially viable for the farmer - and independent of the inputs supplied from across the world by huge agri-corporations.

As a plant is eaten there is a corresponding 'pruning' of the root system as its roots and foliage remain in balance. The animal will then come around again, eating more leaves - again with corresponding root pruning.

The plant, however, won't have had the chance to regrow enough to fix much energy, maybe not enough to even replace the original roots shed.

After a considerable number of weeks the animals may be moved on and the ground rested - hopefully long enough to have some sort of impact on the life-cycle of associated parasites, but probably not for long enough for the pasture to fully recover unless the animals are taken off, for it to be used for haymaking.

As a result of this sort of grazing, plants which are beneficial to the animals easily get selected against by over-grazing, and other plants which the animals aren't so keen on have an advantage - plus the root mat remains shallow. Strip-grazing and the New Zealand method are somewhat different, admittedly, but neither of them allow the sward to develop much.

When one takes into account how the plants, animals and soil interact, and plans grazing according to this, benefits which are impossible under these systems start to kick in.

Natural grazed ecosystems

As natural ecosystems developed, with grazing animals and their natural predators living alongside one another, the grazers tended to keep quite close together so that when danger threatened they could bunch tightly.

This way they could protect young in the middle of the flock / herd - perhaps fending off predators with powerful rear legs. Or they could stampede away, keeping close to one another because as soon as an animal was isolated, it was vulnerable to attack.

Remaining close, they grazed intensely. Equally intense was the defecation, leaving a thick but even spread of manure. There was a lot of trampling as well, knocking plant material to the ground as well as disturbing the ground. But it only lasted for a short period, until they moved on.

The animals wouldn't come back for a while, until the manure had properly decomposed and the plants had also fully recovered. This also restricted parasite populations, since species with life-cycles which involved a stage on the land would have no host animal to return to for a long time.

Increases in biodiversity

Plants benefitted from intense recovery and although they were grazed harshly, they would not be over-grazed. What's more, that intense recovery period gave time for much more extensive root systems to develop.

And each time the plant was then 'pruned' when the animals returned, the corresponding root pruning would also be much greater than under current mainstream management practices. This had significant beneficial impacts on soil carbon and structure.

With a longer recovery period, many more herbs were and are able to flower and set seed, and plant diversity consequently mushrooms.

This plant diversity increases alongside insect and bird diversity - as well as soil biodiversity - and thus we have a much more resilient as well as productive system, with those deeper roots facilitating a much higher above-ground production.

Improving water infiltration, conserving nutrients

Soil is less prone to erosion when there are better developed root systems, and more organic matter in the soil from litter and the greater manure input from higher animal productivity.

The litter which is trampled, protecting the soil surface eventually breaks down and is incorporated as organic matter, but along the way it affords protection to the soil, both reducing evaporation and improving water infiltration.

This means that rather than running off and taking valuable soil with it, water tends to percolate in, eventually replenishing ground-water supplies too. Water which does leave the land is much clearer and cleaner.

Organic matter holds minerals as well as water, and builds a soil structure that maintains aeration and drainage. Currently, leaching of minerals is a serious problem, often creating eutrophication (pollution from an excess of nutrients) problems further down the catchment which can impede drainage as well as destroy ecosystems.

Inputs can be reduced

However, extensive rooting systems plus increases in organic matter and soil biodiversity means that minerals are held more effectively within the living elements of the ecosystem instead.

With minerals cycled much more effectively the need for inputs is significantly reduced and in many cases eliminated completely, which reduces both input costs, embedded carbon, and labour requirements.

Deeper rooting systems and the incorporation of organic matter by the soil biota can also even reverse compaction problems from heavy machinery, and a healthier soil leaves it less prone to water-logging so the animals can be kept out for more of the year - which is generally in their interest as well as that of the farmers.

With careful planning so that grass is held in store in the fields for later in the season and stock numbers and management are matched with fodder availability, much need for silage and haymaking can also be eliminated.

One 'early adopter' of these methods told me that he had previously needed three tractors for his farm. But after implementing the changes he didn't even make full use of one. Climate benefits aside, that meant a huge saving in the cost of fuel, maintenance and labour.

Quality of pastured livestock and livestock products

In his book 'The Carbon Fields', Graham Harvey cites several studies which evidence the increased quality of both dairy and meat products when the animals are grazed predominantly on pasture.

In the UK, the Pasture-Fed Livestock Association is creating the accreditation structure for a labelling system so that consumers can identify the difference between animals which are fed purely from pastures (including on hay and grass silage), and other animals which may have been fed considerable amounts of grain.

As well as being unsustainable grain also increases the acidity - and with it compromises the health - of the grazing animals. By contrast increased plant diversity also enables the animals to self-medicate with herbs.

This can be enhanced further through agroforestry designed for grazing animals to browse the hedges as well. This labelling aims to help farmers who are using regenerative methods to gain a market premium for their higher quality produce.

The big picture

These production methods are more financially viable for the farmer - and independent of the inputs supplied from across the world by huge agro-corporations. They also support healthy ecosystems, including human health which naturally arises from good nutrition.

What's more, when the pastures are ploughed in to grow arable crops as part of a mixed farming system, the benefits of these natural cycles provide the fertility for what is a truly regenerative agriculture.

Finally, carbon is being sequestered back into the ground, at rates which even conservative estimates rank as significant relative to our emissions whilst also building fertility.

HM and HPG in the UK

Many UK farmers are aware of HPG, but very few are implementing it at all, let alone fully. Furthermore, many people are unaware that HPG is part of a much wider framework for decision-making, namely 'Holistic Management'.

Therefore RegenAG UK have arranged for Kirk Gadzia to return to the UK to share his expertise as well as visit/consult on some pioneer farms.



The course: Holistic Management Farming & Grazing Course (HMFG)
with Kirk Gadzia takes place 29th-31st March 2014 (3 Days) At Kingsclere, Nr Basingstoke, England.

Natasha Giddings advocates for Regenerative Agriculture.  She seeks to facilitate the connections which are necessary for collaborative change and to empower stakeholders (all of us) with accessible relevant and useful information - from producer, to scientist, to consumer, and on.