Overcoming inertia in grazing
Human arrival into new lands can be traced through archeological records. We have been masters in modifying landscapes and biodiversity wherever our feet took us; from early aborigines adopting fire and exterminating the megaherbivores, NZ Maori fire and the giant land bird the Moa. The first nation peoples, who played a role in making rhinoceros, camels, horses and even the American cheetah extinct around 12,000 years ago[i]. More recently there have been massive historic shocks to grasslands all over the planet due to poor management, exotic invaders and commonland grazing.
What surprised me the most from working with Californian grazing operations; there’s no ground cover in summer. A look back into history books is revealing. In 1880 there were an estimated 500,000 elk, 2 million sheep and 1.5 million cattle grazing in California just before a devastating flood and drought hit. An estimated 1 million animals died during this 3-year period, and the cattle industry was brought to its knees[ii] [iii]. By removing every blade of grass during that drought, palatable native warm season perennial grasses and forbs declined. With loss of habitat and open season on hunting so too did the elk, with a population down to 3,500 just one hundred years later. In Australia, another brittle environment, a similar grazing dynamic happened and the green summer cover is all but gone.
Soils need armour and cover all year round, and the best management in the world won’t help if soils are exposed for nearly half the year. Introducing diverse deep-rooted summer dry perennials will protect and improve soils, open up compaction and bring up minerals. I have no philosophical reservations about using native and non-native species.
In my mind it is an absolute priority that these landscapes re-introduce summer covers. What we see when soil health processes begin to kick in, native species not seen for decades begin to appear again. In California there are native grasses that are ideally suited to these environments like big bluestem, Indian grass, Eastern gamagrass, switchgrass or introduced species like bermudagrass and the old world bluestems. In barren summer environments in Australia, there is an increasing diversity of warm season species now available to fill this niche, like Gatton panic, Rhodes grass, blue grasses, Digitaria, Paspalidium spp and buffel grasses. Don’t forget the forbs and legumes either. I’m not a grass or seed specialist, however I see that there are significant opportunities for producers who can grow and harvest warm season native grasses for commercial seed production.
Sadly, many rangeland systems around North America are growing grass on subsoil left behind from historic poor management decisions. Their forefathers literally robbed Peter to pay Paul, as every blade of grass was taken off the land and topsoil blew or washed away. It is possible to restore function to these lands overtime with grazing, however if you’re like me, I’m just not that patient!
The high impact, long recovery model proposed by many grazing advocates is challenging when the environments produce little groundcover. I have clients in semi-arid environments that are struggling after 20-35 years adhering to this system. There are multiple challenges trying to kick start the composting process, many graziers have created significant compaction or created dust bowls if they hit their land with high concentrations of animals without adequate groundcover and root systems.
One rancher who has been working with adaptive grazing principles for over 30 years is Steve Charter. The “2 lazy 2” Ranch is located halfway between Billings, and Roundup Montana. Billings was a town founded on cattle and its rich mineral reserves of coal and oil. Whilst Roundup rests on the banks of the Musselshell River, an area where one of the last surviving wild buffalo herds were found. Steve runs 200-400 cow calf pairs on two blocks covering over 8000 acres. The southern block is drier and easier terrain, while the summer block is a good 2 days trail ride to the nearby Bull Mountains with its stunning buttes, native lookouts and protected valleys.
Steve has never been one to accept the status-quo of thinking, he has always been motivated to do well by his land and leave it in better shape. His mother was an outspoken opponent to the coal industry on whose land they border and lease. Steve is a soft-spoken man, but as you can imagine growing up in a household rejecting one of Montana’s stable industries Steve hasn’t been too perturbed to ruffle some feathers. Creating prolonged and uneasy bedfellows!
When Steve first took over the family ranch the Soil Conservation Service provided the mainstay of information, advice which Steve found to be “unsatisfactory”. “They wanted us to plow native pastures and plant in crested wheat, which didn’t sound right to me.” Their advice to the ranching community was; “don’t graze early they said. Don’t graze when it’s going to seed, or when its putting down root reserves. So when exactly do you graze?!” The area hit a prolonged drought, and Steve was clear that if he’d followed their advice, the ranch and its soil would’ve blown away. Repeating a signature written by the first homesteaders as they left their legacy on this land.
Luckily this questioning led Steve to a chance encounter with Allan Savory, of Holistic Management fame, in the early 80’s. He became an early adopter, with fantastic success on his mountain meadows. In his sizeable open meadows, cattle would remain in favoured areas, overgrazing the meadow floors and ignoring places further from water and on steep faces. Electric fences were laboriously laid, many over a mile long, to break up the open pastures. Electric fences in these environments offer unique challenges from elk and deer. Keeping Steve occupied as they regularly leap, tangle, tear and drag fences down the meadows. The high meadows replied to the change in grazing with diverse and dense plant cover; providing excellent summer feed. After the snows melt, these high meadows get a good spring grass flush and experience far less searing heat and drying winds than his lowlands. However, over the past 30 years of managing his semi-arid lowland grasslands, where cattle are moved across 160 acres at least every 5 days, there have only been minimal improvements. The land did improve, but mostly Steve felt like he was taking two steps forward and one step back. The land around the house was dominated by moribund crested wheat and sage surrounded by bare ground. He’d begin to wonder if they’d met the potential for the land, and this potential was not great.
Steve was curious about biomimicry, what would the natural groundcover and grazing patterns on this land been? It’s hard to find any agreement. Looking back into historic records there are some clues from buffalo jumps and first nation people’s stories that the original bison herds may have only migrated through these areas every 5-7 years[iv] following good grass years, not every 3 months, or every 2-year rotations that Steve’s been practicing. This migration will have allowed for ample recovery and then high animal impact, in effect creating a layer of litter and composting materials. At the turn of the last century poor grazing and the plow led to the lowlands losing much of their species diversity, carbon and topsoil. The predominant short grasses, like blue grama and buffalo, and midgrass species; needle and thread, prairie junegrass, sand dropseed and western wheatgrass nearly disappeared. Now there is not the option to leave areas ungrazed for long periods of time, as a deteriorating biological situation sets the scene “sleepy” soils ideal for sagebrush, cryptograms and bare soil.
I might be off the mark, but I suspect that the Holistic Management model was developed on high base mineral soils, which experience periodic heavy rainfall events. This rainfall created flushes of grass that could be trampled and left. Steve’s place would very rarely see this. Not all management practices fit every ecosystem, particularly now that so many are so degraded. I’ve seen American cowboys turn New Zealand soils to muck and ruin, and NZ farmers turn US lands to dust. Listen to your landscapes and research their past; there is never one prescription that fits every case. There are some basic rules in natures; keep ground covered with diverse living species for as long as possible. Unless you’re in a sandy desert or the Arctic.
For Steve it was the mindset switch, from the aboveground to what was happening belowground, that lifted the lid to untap the potential on his ranch. Four years ago, Steve started to take the actions I only dreamed were possible on extensive rangeland; he’s been applying biological stimulants and mineral catalysts.
Steve built a custom slurry sprayer and mounted it onto an old army truck. In the first year he trialed 4 different treatments over a 400 acre area, with mixes of molasses, fish, seaweed, rock salt and vermicast. Within weeks the dung beetles flew in to much fanfare. In Steve’s living memory there have never been dung beetles. It was also all he could do to keep horses out as well; attracted to the lifts in quality. The results have been “fantastic”, in the first year the quality of the crested wheat began to lift, and by the second-year native grasses began to appear again. In this community ranchers have been looking at ways to reduce the monoculture dominance of crested wheat, and Steve is now seeing it being out-competed by Western Wheat through switching the biological signal. The pasture sward is thickening, and bare soil is reducing.
Steve’s cowhand Jodie, born and raised in this country, reflects that he’d seen big changes where the treatments had gone on. “I’ve never seen grass like this, in places it’s knee high to waist height.” He’s been impressed with the way cattle shine up when feeding on the dry standing grass through the snow. Jodie has caught the soil bug! Improving forage nutrients also means there is more grass in front of the cattle, enabling stock numbers to increase in the future and grass to be trampled. Steve cautions those wishing to adopt Holistic Grazing methods by doubling numbers for impact, in this environment that could be catastrophic; “You gotta have the grass and then increase your numbers”.
Steve has also been focusing on lifting plant diversity, adding seed to his cows mineral. Since 2014, when riding to check cattle, Steve sprinkles forage kochia seeds (Kochia prostrata) leaving a trail behind him like a mounted Jonny Appleseed. Forage kochia, is a small perennial shrub, which has a definite place on arid and semi-arid rangelands. Interestingly, seeds strike better were soil is poorer. Seed struck superbly well around prairie dog towns where the prairie dogs inadvertently planted the seeds for Steve… making conditions slowly unsuitable for the wee rodents, so they’re now on the move to the neighbours. Through the action from the bio-stimulants the once locally extinct grasses are returning in droves. It’s an experience to ride out with Steve, as he knows his grasses. He’ll leap from his horse in delight pointing out emerging populations of native grasses. Grasses like needle and thread and western wheat, prolific before sheep arrived, are again returning to his land.
Steve was so taken by the early results in the trial areas that he set about building his own worm farm in 2015. Through the postal service $500 worth of worms arrived and were bedded into 100 meters of windrows made from yard straw. The worms were fed a diverse diet of leaves, sugarbeet waste, manure, hay and wood chips. A perfect blend to grow beneficial bacteria, fungi, protozoa and nematodes. There was a plan to feed pumpkins too, from waste delivered after Halloween; instead it helped to feed a new generation of marauding deer. Overwinter, under deep snow the worms kept working away, covered by a Compostex breathable cover and haybales. At the end of 2017 the wormfarm was producing around 30,000 kgs of a high quality biologically diverse worm elixir. Most has been sold to progressive cropping operations who see the benefits from the microbial catalyst provided by vermicast extract.
In 2016 Peter Donovan, from the Soil Carbon Coalition, established carbon monitoring sites as part of the global soil carbon challenge[v]. These soil cores were taken to 1 metre depths and will be repeated in 2020. Microbial and mineral baselines were taken in 2014 and will be repeated this year. Steve has been confident enough without lab tests, that in 2017 he treated 3,000 lowlands acres before taking his old army truck into the rugged Bull mountains to cover another 1,000 acres. Not much scares this man!
Steve had nearly given up after years of struggling to achieve the results that ware implied by the change in grazing.
Steve is now a man passionate about soil health and its wider implications, “since we’ve embarked on new actions, I now feel more empowered and positive about what is possible here and for all of agriculture”. He’s clear that a paradigm shift is needed across society if we wish to interrupt this cycle of moving from one disaster to the next “We need to humble ourselves to nature. To understand more deeply how it works. It’s a beautiful and sophisticated process. Once we co-operate and work with nature then things really start working.” Steve’s mindset around learning and land regeneration enables him to take steps and experiment in a landscape which many see as too degraded and risky to afford to make the changes required. We are well overdue a global re-imagining.