The book Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making (affiliate link) sets out a guide to developing a holistic goal for your farm or business.
This part of the book describes the practical application of the theory of holistic management, through the experience of the author and others. Some of the chapters include information of a general nature, with others specific to land management:
- Learning and practice - tips for yourself and others
- Organization and leadership - how to structure for creativity
- Marketing strategy
- Stock density
- Population management
I will focus on the chapters relating to land management.
Time: When to expose and re-expose plants and soils to animals
Given that overgrazing is linked to the time that animals are exposed to plants rather than the absolute number of animals, how do we get that timing right?
In a brittle environment, you need to monitor the perennial grasses, as they provide the most consistent ground cover (and certainly in our pasture, I would be watching to make sure that the most tasty grasses were not being over-grazed). Since we planted our perennial pasture I have heard from several neighbours that we will need to re-plant it in 5-7 years. This is the case if you let animals overgraze and eat all the tasty perennials so that they are replaced once again by the less desirable grasses. It all comes down to effective management.
The recovery period is just as important as the grazing period, if animals return to the pasture too early they can still overgraze an area. This all depends on the growth rate, which depends on the season/rainfall/temperature etc. Any grazing plan must consider both the grazing time and the recovery time of each paddock.
Dividing a property into many paddocks will make management easier (although the fencing and water infrastructure required will be more work and cost, electric fences are very useful for flexible paddock sizes). You wll also end up with:
- More even grazing/trampling/dung coverage
- Increased energy flow (because plants are grazed more evenly and not overgrazed, they recover better)
- Improved animal nutrition - assuming that more divisions = smaller paddocks = moving animals more often, they have better access to fresh pasture, more variety and less parasites
The risk with this method is that cattle left too long will overgraze and that can happen in a matter of a day if the paddocks are small. With larger paddocks, while the pasture improvement will be less effective, you are less likely to overgraze as you have more time to make your management decisions.
Grazing plans also need to consider dormant periods (low rainfall times), when the grass is not growing and dung etc is not incorporated into the soil. I find this part particularly difficult as we never know when we will have a dormant period! We typically have low winter rainfall, but we can also have a hot dry summer, we may have over 12 months of dormancy. It becomes very difficult to plan, however the theory is that the more paddocks you have, the more options you have and longer recovery times will help even during dormant periods. It is also better to graze a paddock and let it recover than to try to save pasture for a drought time, mainly because it will actually be less productive if it is not grazed.
We have a lot of fencing to do before we can try this properly, but even with the paddocks that we have, we try to make sure that they have enough recovery time. The main problem we have is managing our bull and sometimes we have two groups as the bull can't go into paddocks next to our neighbour's bull (they fight, sigh).
Although I mention cattle frequently, it occurs to me that chickens in movable tractors have played the same role on our property, and any number of other small animals could be used in place of cattle, particularly on smaller properties.
Stock density and herd effect: using animals to shape the landscape
How can we use animal impact to improve pasture?
It is often said that animal hooves damage and compact soil, however animal impact can be managed to have a positive effect. At high stock densities you can achieve a "herd effect", which means that the animals mill together and trample forage.
This works best with large herds, over 200 animals, and doesn't really work at all with only 2-3 animals. One option is to buy a large number of cattle, graze your property and then sell them all, starting again after an adequate rest period. We currently fluctuate numbers, but never have than many cattle. When we have the fences/paddocks set up, we will have to see if 20-30 cattle are enough to create some herd effect or if we can actually carry more cattle using this method.
Cropping: practices that more closely mimic nature
How can we mimic nature to enhance water and mineral cycles, energy flow and community dynamics?
"In the past 50 years we have tended to treat our soils merely as a medium in which to hold crops upright while we pour chemicals over them. In reality, soil is a living organism, one that respires and reproduces itself, as most living organisms do, and it has to be nurtured. To do so we must strive to created an agriculture that more closely mimics nature, one that enhances, rather than diminishes, water and mineral cycles, energy flow and community dynamics."
This requires a new way of thinking about cropping. Concepts include:
- Keep soil covered throughout the year - using methods such as conservation tillage, cover crops, intercropping, using animals rather than ploughing or burning
- Do not turn soil over - this disturbs the delicate balance of microbes in the soil layers, so the methods above are also useful to minimise disturbance
- Maintain diversity - avoid monocultures and use edges to create habitat for beneficial microbes and animals, and stop using hybrid seeds!
- Incorporate livestock - as per previous chapters, there are many advantages to using animals on the land
- Minimise irrigation - as it can cause either leaching or waterlogging unless properly controlled
- Minimise energy consumption - feed soil rather than plants (target limiting nutrients and build microbial life),
Burning: when and how to burn, and what to do before and after
Burning is a tool that was discussed in Part 5 and can be used in some cases to improve pasture, however it must be used for the right reasons and not just because it has always been done or the neighbours think its the only way to manage pasture. As with any management decision, burning must be tested toward a holistic goal, as described in Part 6. For example, some good reasons to use fire include:
- create extreme disturbance when animals cannot be used for some reason
- to sustain fire-dependent vegetation
- to expose soil in a mosaic pattern for diversity
- to reduce fire-sensitive vegetation
The main reason that we have considered using fire is because we have fire-dependent vegetation areas on our property and without burning we will actually lose biodiversity in these areas. Read more about the property fire management course we went to last year. Apart from that I am not a fan of burning pasture.
Population management: look to age structure rather than numbers, diversity rather than single species
Rather than the absolute number of a species we need to consider the age-structure of the population (i.e. a range of young and old shows that the population is sustainable). This chapter also discusses the dangers of focusing on promoting a single favourable species or killing a certain predator while ignoring the ecosystem as a whole. Each species depends on a diverse biological community for survival, so understanding the entire system is vital for success.
Below are some Amazon affiliate links to books related to Holistic Management. If you would like to read my reviews of these books, see the following links:
Joel Salatin's books
Peter Andrew's books on Natural Sequence Farming