A Savanna Life in a Technological World

Serengeti grazing lessons Part III

Serengeti grazing lessons Part III

As a rule, so far in our history, when we humans try to do natural, we end up doing a different kind of artificial. For us ranchers that can break down a few different ways. Sometimes when we set out to do something natural as time goes on we find out we are back to doing things the way our parents or our neighbors do things. Sometimes this isn’t perfect, so we listen to “experts,” and we start doing the artificial thing they advocate, even though sometimes they say it is natural. Government offices, conferences, and books are full of ten thousand artificial ways of doing natural. Or, heaven forbid, blog posts. Not that anyone would take a blogger seriously. Why would we care what someone has to say about nature when they are melting into their chair in some dungeon. Alternately, we could go over and look at what is happening in the nature preserve next door. We could put in the time to make a careful study of what happens there noting how plants respond from year to year under different conditions. For all the people who think they are grazing in a natural way, I have never met anyone who has ever done this in a serious way. Not that it would work either. Due to the extreme level of change that has happened on all of the earth’s grazing ecosystems, the nature preserve next door is another kind of artificial. But at least it would be unique. To find out about ‘natural’ as far as grazing is concerned, we need the Serengeti. I will try my best to convey the Serengeti’s lessons as best as possible, but I know I won’t be a pure projection of nature’s lessons. In other words, disclaimer.

But first I am glad to report that I can skip the Almanac section this week, the section where I usually reluctantly talk about what actually happened here on the ranch instead of talking about ideas and daydreams. The reason that I can skip that section is that I was sick and very lazy and filled out bureaucratic forms, which doesn’t make for gripping reading. So I didn’t have to go out and do stuff at the beginning of the week when it was very hot for us here. It almost got up to 80 degrees. Fahrenheit. I’m not sure how anything survived. But we pulled through and on Friday the weather turned sharply cooler and we got a little coastal drizzle. The smell in the air made my brain release a sweetened condensed version of all the feelings I have ever felt during the fall.

Before I got sick, Hanna got sick. Since I was trying to be good I took care of Abel at night so that Hanna could sleep. Abel slept a lot better. Hanna was particularly convinced that Abel slept better, now that I think of it. But it made me remember my research on hunter-gatherers. When the next baby comes along, all the hunter-gather people that I have researched put the first baby over on the far side of the hut, next to Dada, to sleep. The changes in the savanna ecosystems of our ancestors have affected us in many many ways big and small, near and far. This might be an example of another one. But I will let you discuss that one among yourselves for now because I am supposed to keep the Almanac section on the surface level. Besides I’m not even doing the Almanac section this week.  

In April and May, on most years the grass has exploded on the Serengeti. In response, animal numbers have also exploded. Most of the wildebeest, zebra, and Thomson’s gazelle in the ecosystem converge on the Southern part of the ecosystem, where it is driest and where the grass quality is highest. By that time, wildebeest and zebra calves have all hit the ground and they need a lot. Half of these calves will die before they are a month old, eaten by lions and hyenas. But between births and in-migration, even with grass growth hitting the gas in a big way, practically all the grass on the plain is gobbled up before it can turn brown.

McNaughton quantified that phenomenon in a few ways. He regularly counted gazelle numbers grazing around some of his plots. He found there was almost a perfect correlation between gazelle numbers and green standing crop in the Serengeti plain. Rainfall in the Serengeti is very erratic with big thunderstorms dropping tons of rain on one spot and yet leaving an identical spot a few miles away completely dry, like the southwest US. Within three days of a rain, herds start to pile on and they keep coming until standing crop levels out. At which point they start to leave to find the next rainstorm and by the time things have dried up, there are very few gazelles left.   

It is at this point that I am again reminded that truth is always much more interesting than fantasy. Why? Because it is at this point that McNaughton brings up the term ‘grazing lawn.’ I came across this term every once in a while doing my research and I think ol’ SJ might have coined it. He uses this term to describe a specific discrete ecological condition where the timing and intensity of grazing events create suitable conditions for rhizomatous and stoloniferous grasses to… oh, give me a break. You all know what a lawn is. Put the word ‘grazing’ in front of that and what do you get? Yeah, grazing lawn, exactly. The mind-blowing part is not what a grazing lawn is, but that they actually exist, all over the Serengeti. They are the preferred habitat of both the wildebeest and the zebras.

As humans, having a term for something can be pretty important and it is worth slowing down for a second to digest this term. Grazing lawn is just two words put together, three syllables said with appropriate pauses. But it can help us out a lot. I have been routinely trying to keep our grass short (but not too short!) for years now. But thinking about it as a ‘grazing lawn,’ as a habitat type with an unimaginably deep history, I feel differently about it. Before humans showed up, large animals were overwhelmingly the rule and not the exception, everywhere in the world. By putting linguistic parameters on it, we can start to ask, Are there species that need grazing lawns? Are some of the plants and animals that are rare for mysterious causes ‘grazing lawn obligate species’? What plants or animals were lost that we don’t even know about? I think of Walt Davis many years ago advocating for why his Bermuda grass pasture should not be dismissed simply as ‘not tallgrass prairie.’ At the time, I thought he was protesting out of a guilty conscience. Now I wholeheartedly agree. Either that or I feel guilty too. Bermuda grass is an African grass, a quintessential grazing lawn species. 

It would be easy to underestimate how important this is. Even though some of my recent blog posts have focused on hands-on practical grazing, my book takes key observations from that realm and applies them much more generally.

For instance, tigers in the zoo pace. They don’t know why they pace. Its probably because they are tracking the deer and antelope that live deep in their psyches. We didn’t know why we made lawns. Until now. The fact that we marshal so many technological resources, so much money and effort towards surrounding our dwellings with these funny little habitats say a lot, and I go way into it in my book. But the first takeaway is this; forget wildebeest and zebra, grazing lawns are the epicenter of human habitat. I suggest that this means that our responsibilities as grazing managers stretch far beyond how many extra pounds of beef we can grow or how it affects some bird or butterfly.

We have a long way to go before we can say that we have translated the idea of ‘mimic nature’ into good practical land management. There are many reasons for this, not least among them the fact that most of what we assume is ‘natural’ is actually highly modified. Conversely, some of the things that we assume are highly modified are much more natural than they first appear. What could be more artificial, in the mind of the average nature geek, than the suburban lawn? So, we are going to have to look for nature in some unusual places. I think that one good method would be to take what the agronomists say, to take what your neighbors and your parents do and did, and understand it through the lens of the Serengeti, as presented by ecologists. For instance, I look at my neighbors clipping their pastures. Then I look at Serengeti grazing lawns. Voila, I have a much better sense of what is going on than either the extension people or the ecologist. That is certainly better than just assuming I was born knowing what ‘natural’ is. I think that ecological lessons from other (non-Serengeti) ecosystems should be viewed with suspicion and treated much the same as we treat the information that comes from agronomists, or bloggers; as though it were full of impurities and in need of distillation. Though in future entries I will look into how the Serengeti might not be as pure as I assume, I suspect that we will get a better glimpse of ‘nature’ by creating such a composite view. Better not to take our neighbors, the agronomists, the ecologists or the gurus at face value.

Next week we will follow the herds (and McNaughton) as they enter the mid-grass savannas of the Serengeti. This is where the herds reach their highest densities and this is where we learn some lessons about ‘mob grazing.’ They might be different lessons than you would assume. But if you’re surprised by that idea then you haven’t been paying attention.


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