Landscape Function grazing

Landscape Function grazing

How to design drought proof grazing systems by: Graeme Hand

Current conventional grazing management suffers from inconsistent profits, biodiversity degradation, and excessive inputs.

Our work and the grazers we work with has shown that it is possible to design away from these high cost, high risk practices to consistently profitable, low-cost, low risk practices that enhance landscape function and biodiversity.

My journey with grazing management spans over three decades, beginning in the late 80s and gaining momentum when I trained with Allan Savory in the mid-90s. Since then, I've devoted my career to understanding how to make grazing management successful and restorative.

The heart of my approach is to increase landscape function at each grazing event. “Landscape Function Analysis” (LFA) is the seminal work on soil surface science(Tongway et al., 2004). LFA is a technique to determine soil stability, water infiltration, and nutrient cycling. 

Most agricultural research focuses on boosting productivity. This is the wrong focus if our goal is to  restore biodiversity while at the same time providing low-cost, low-risk profit,enhanced farmer well-being, and the most nutritious food possible. 

 

Addressing the Barriers

Grazing management is complex and has many competing hypotheses from lots of different advisors on the correct way to be successful. Most regenerative grazing advice is focused on increasing production, which falls into the black hole of current agricultural research i.e. methods that maximize yield/productivity with high-input, high-disturbance practices like synthetic fertilizers, tillage, large monocultures, heavy pesticide use, etc. 

To manage these competing hypotheses in a complex area such as land management requires implementing Safe to Fail trials as proposed by Dave Snowden from the Cynefin Company (https://cynefin.io/wiki/Safe_to_fail_probes). In other words, small trials (i.e. experiments) with a fast turnaround cycle to quickly observe how your  land responds to different methods of managment. 

These trials allow for challenging our own assumptions and letting the data the land provides speak for itself, letting us  constantly adjust within the complex and unpredictable context of grazing management. For example, we can test theories of herd density, plant recoveries, plant utilsation, or types of rotational grazing: e.g. leaf-driven recovery versus root reserve-driven recovery.

 

Profit in Perspective

We must shift our thinking about profit in agriculture. Frequently, discussions about Australian agriculture (where I’m based) revolve around the gross value of farm production, just as at the national level we are obsessed with GDP, both of these statistics are more akin to revenue for a business. Yet, it's the net value, or profit, at the farm that matters most to us farmers, which unfortunately tends to be flat or declining. Often, a spike in revenue is mirrored by a spike in costs. This scenario underscores the importance of controlling inputs and debt to increase farm profit.

To make agriculture more sustainable and profitable, we should aim to nearly eliminate risks, not amplify them. Remember, agriculture is not the stock market; it's not about high risk, high reward. It's about ensuring people and profit nest comfortably within ecosystem sustainability and nutritious food production.

 

The Art of Grazing

The true art of grazing management is understanding the dynamics between the grazers and the grazed. A perennial grass plant, for instance, is recovered when there's no evidence of prior grazing and contains fresh yellow litter. Severe grazing followed by a long recovery period allows the plant to mobilize its root reserves, generating fresh leaves. Overgrazing occurs when the plant is grazed during this recovery period before it has replenished its root reserves.

This process is well understood and has been published widely. However, it contradicts some current grazing training. My approach emphasizes that the purpose  of grazing is to increase landscape function and reduce rainfall risk (i.e. increase both drought and flood tolerance) so that you never run out of grass.

 

Trials and Adjustments

Introducing and maintaining Landscape Function Grazing requires significant adjustments in water, fencing and animal phenotypes. Safe-to-fail trials are key to understanding the combination of recovery, stock density, and utilization that works best on your specific land.

 

Risk Management

Risk management is crucial in agriculture. The 3 biggest risks in order in agriculture are: debt, seasonal variation (especially rainfall), and thirdly market price. 

To lower seasonal risk, especially low rainfall, the most successful grazers adjust their stocking rates according to their predetermined recovery period, maintaining a high-level of grass inventory or total standing dry matter. This inventory allows time to react in a profitable way when drought starts or can lessen the impact of flooding.

The downside of this planning is that it requires animal phenotypes that thrive on higher fibre, lower protein, and lower energy perennial grasses.

I hope this discussion has sparked your interest and curiosity about the grazing management that is drought proof.  I look forward to sharing more insights and experiences in future discussions.

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