People are most confident when they don’t know what they are talking about. Well, maybe they are second most confident when they don’t know what they are talking about. They are most confident after many years of hard trials, new insights applied with persistence and determination and careful study, then turning that into success time and time again, constantly seeking improvement, for years and years. But who has time for that when you are moving cattle twelve times a day? What is true of people is also true of movements. I think it is high time for us in the eco-grazing movement to admit that we don’t know the first thing about what we are talking about. So, let’s talk about ‘mob grazing’ for a moment.
For me, the problem with mob grazing is not the density of animals. The problem is that when people start putting animals together at high density they tend to let the feed get very mature, mostly because they don’t want to move that fence anymore than they have to. That is a problem. So, for the purpose of this discussion, I will define mob grazing as follows; Mob grazing is the act of giving the livestock as little grass as and keeping them there as long as possible in a paddock, until it is gone or mostly gone, and then repeating that process over and over again. The livestock move through the grass so slowly that the ungrazed grass first gets very robust, then mature, then burley, and then goes rank and remains rank until it becomes more and more ranker. All the while the grazier in charge rubs his or her hands together in greed like Scrouge McDuck. Then rubs his or her hands together in anxiety as the animals fall apart. All in the name of mimicking nature.
I would contend that we have no idea whether this actually mimics nature. When we look at natural grazing systems we find that at a certain point it is not any more natural than the set stocking practiced by our neighbors. Based on the data we’ve collected and what I can glean from the literature about wild grazing ecosystems, they’re both about equally bad for biodiversity and productivity. If you want to say that this means they are equally unnatural I would understand where you were coming from. Now, I’m not suggesting you give up the poly wire for lost but it’s just a little more complicated than that. Though not by much. However, we do have to actually look at the nature we say we are mimicking.
As I have said many times before the first problem is that there are vanishingly few places that I can confidently say bare much resemblance to ‘Eden,’ the grazing ecosystems that dominated so much of the globe over so much of evolutionary history. The Serengeti is definitely the best. Northern Botswana is probably next on the list, Ben. The second problem is that no one bothers to look at those ecosystems to see how they actually work.
I will repeat my plea for research that systematically describes those ecosystems in terms of animal density, daily grazing demand, recovery period, regraze conditions, grazing season, forage conditions, productivity, etc. Someday I will do it if no one else does. Until someone does this we need to reverse engineer those systems; we need to look at the grass that is the product of Eden in order to make deductions about how Eden worked. I wrote a whole boatful of blog posts about what little I could glean about how animals actually move in the Serengeti, linked here. Make sure to read all gajillion posts in the Serenengeti series. Now I want to update everyone on my latest attempt to turn what we can glean on accident from the Serengeti into practical management information.
But first, I traditionally complain about how I need to talk about the real world instead of a world of ideas and theories. Well, an embarrassing and inconvenient thing seems to have happened since the last time I wrote a blog post a thousand years ago. It seems like now I would rather be in the real world than in a make-believe world of ideas and theories. I am not happy about this but I have to face facts. Nowadays I simply enjoy running the ranch without feeling the need to be lost in ideas and whatnot. I admit this is a real problem and I’m not sure what to do about it. This is probably in no small part due to the fact that I now have a fantastic fence, water and corral system and I have gotten over the three year hump here in Oregon. People, if you are having existential angst, I highly suggest you really overdo yourself on your cattle infrastructure before you turn to a therapist, drugs, or spirituality. Anyway, the kids are growing like weeds. Noah is walking all over the place. Abel is still into amphibians and he got his ‘aquatic habitat’ (a stock trough with a frog in it). I will be talking a lot about specific things that happened on the ranch through this post so I will just let that be that for now. I will have to decide how my new outlook on reality colors this section of the blog in the future. For now, back to the ranch.
As I reported previously in that other postecological research in the Serengeti certainly supports the idea of ‘mob grazing’ as an important part of the ecosystem. In fact, as far as I can tell, animals achieve the highest possible densities in this ecosystem. But they don’t do it all the time, mostly during six weeks of June and July, and they really don’t achieve that density over all of the ecosystem. High densities of animals grazing very tall grass (mob grazing) mostly happens in one section of mid grass steppe in the central part of the ecosystem. And not at all in most places. It is important to note that this is the least productive ‘management’ in the whole ecosystem. Our first eight years of grazing data at Sonoma Mountain Institute suggests that this management creates the lowest levels of floristic diversity as well.
So, back at the ranch, for real this time. Through one part planning and four parts luck, I made it through to June 18 without touching 10% of my grass. About half of that was very tall. And, fellers, I mean it was very tall. You do not know tall until you have seen reed canary grass in Western Oregon, untouched all spring. I mean, the spotted owls were about to move in. It was easily seven feet tall, probably got up to eight. I don’t know if I was exactly pleased with it being in that condition but it was the opportunity that I had wanted, so be careful what you wish for. I did a lot of mowing this year, but this was too tall to mow. The ground was choppy and it would have taken me until the mammoths stopped being extinct to get it all done. I also knew that if I turned the steers out over the whole thing they would just punch a few tunnels through the grass and start lobbying their representatives for something better.
My grass always starts to get sleepy around the 15th of June. I think it is a nutrient problem, a nutrient spell N-I-T-R-O-G-E-N, so the kids don’t hear. We are not hot at that time of year and I don’t think it is exactly due to being dry because we irrigate and we pick back up later in the year, about this time, the 15th of August. I tend to start needing longer rotations starting June 15. So, on the 19th of June I entered the jungle, putting half my cattle (275,000 pounds) into their first little half acre brake of towering canary. This is not super high density for some of you grazing geeks, but I had stuff to do. My only objective was to lay down the material. As soon as they had it more or less layed down, I moved them. I figured worst case scenario I could then mow it. I never allowed myself to stand the plants back up to figure out how much grass I was ‘wasting.’ I knew if I did, I would be tempted to force them to eat more. If I had stood them up, I would guess I left way over 90%. Even so, this initial block lasted about twice as long as I expected.
At the time I was reading Eunice Williams excellent new book Smile and Mean It. In it she describes her and Bud’s work in the Arcata Bottoms, very similar to where I am. The grazing management she describes seems pretty similar to what I outlined here, though I wish she would write a 500 page book on grass management. In that book she said that the cattle gained on average 2.8 pounds a day over the course of the season. I don’t know what my gains were while in the jungle, but I do know they were not 2.8 pounds a day. Their rumens were stuffed full, but their coats quickly turned dry. They looked, you know, ‘mob grazy.’
While I was jungle grazing, I watered my willow pole/ trees from out of a pipe connected to the cattle water system. This worked pretty well. I would turn on the water for a tree, go put up a fence, go back and move the water to the next tree, go back to the cattle and move them, move the water to the next tree, move the cattle, move the water, move cattle, move water, and on and on and on. It is a good coincidence that the trees get sad at the same time as the grass and these two jobs happen at the same time. Still, it’s hard to get much done when you are running around like this. When we were done with this first block, I was just as happy as the cattle to get back to six inch high grass on twenty acre paddocks and one move a day.
Over the course of the next two weeks, when I drove past what was once the jungle block, I felt like I hadn’t laid the grass down enough. I was tempted from time to time to mow it, but I never got the time. I’m glad I didn’t. Because, when I went in and walked around, the standing stalks that I saw from twenty miles an hour on the fourwheeler were just widely scattered clumps. On the whole everything was laying down nicely.
When the cattle came back around two weeks later, I did not bother putting them in where the jungle used to be. There were just a few sprigs of canary poking up through very deep thatch. I was tempted to just run the cattle over it again and smash it down but I ended up not having the time to set it up just have to move them a few hours later. I’m glad I didn’t. When I came back around again two weeks later, the jungle had turned into some really nice pasture. The canary was ten inches tall and really looked better than anything that herd had grazed in the last few weeks. The cattle were very happy. Sure there were some patches of tall stuff, but no big deal. Also, not all of the paddock did as well with this treatment as the canary grass. Let’s talk about that.
It should be said, this was not my first grass rodeo when it comes to this little maneuver. I am a grass geek. I have worked all around the world and tried this most places I have gone, with mixed results, none as good as those I achieved here.
The main problem that I have experienced is that the stuff that I want to smash just will not lay down no matter how much smashing I do. The unfortunate but not coincidental general pattern is that the species I want to lay down most are the species that want to lay down least. This is for good reason. Plants that are good forage are good forage because they have a strong symbiotic relationship with ruminant-sized grazing animals. Those plants like a short (but not too short) sward. They thrive in the scrum of a cropped, dense pasture. The taller species that do not have a close symbiosis with ruminant sized grazing animals know that if they go down they are probably never going to get back up, so they fight like crazy to stay upright.
Around here, tall fescue and slough sedge are great examples. Tell me everyone if your experience is different, but I can not make fescue lay down with anything short of extreme measures. Tussock rush is almost impossible to lay down and spike rush is only a little better. In the California annual grasses, most of those species will lay down from the wind that moves off a walking steer. As soon as their seeds drop. Until then, good luck. And in my opinion no one has any business grazing tall annuals after their seeds have dropped without massive supplementation.
The areas that did not have any canary grass, the lower areas dominated by spike rush, responded poorly to this treatment. They were much more along the lines of what I experienced in other places. I will reserve judgement until the end of the season but my current impulse is to go back and mow them, and only let the canary get tall next year. A statement that would sound strange to most cattle people around here, because they don’t graze it with density.
Much of the success that I experienced with high density this season comes down to the unique properties of grasses like reed canary. While canary is most noticible when it is eight feet high, it is also perfectly happy in quite short, though not extremely short, pasture. Six inches or six feet, it doesn’t matter much to canary. The tall grass prairie plants of my youth, big bluestem and the like, behave similarly. I wonder if the tropical tall grasses are the same way. Hyparrhenia anyone? Tall fescue is slow to change its pattern and slough sedge won’t do it. Their form is not as plastic as the canary’s and in a short pasture they often don’t grow new leaves but keep trying to elongate the current leaves. A six inch high canary tiller might have five or six leaves.
A month after grazing, I was getting the jungle block ready for cattle when I noticed something interesting; I had no slough sedge in these mob grazed pastures. I had a lot of slough sedge in them before.
Up until now, I have dealt with slough sedge by keeping the pasture short, grazing it short and clipping behind them. This is definitely working, but the slough sedge persists, and each rotation it gets a little taller unless I mow. This hits reset on the the pasture, and I have a little less slough sedge everytime I mow. But in the mob grazed paddocks it just disappeared in one rotation.
When we bought the property, large sections of it had two and three foot high slough sedge. Around here, when pastures are grazed lightly at low density, they turn to slough sedge. However, important to note, when they are not grazed at all, they turn into pure monocultures of very tall reed canary. Once again, if you find yourself in the ditch going nowhere and you can’t get out, trying going the opposite direction. Maybe the road is much closer than you think.
All this adds up to my current orientation to mob grazing. I have two problems, the flip side of the same coin, and both of them can be solved by mob grazing. Mob grazing with a twist. Problem one, I have way too much feed in the spring, as most of us do. This puts the whole season in jeopardy around here, because if it gets ahead of you, you might never wrestle back control. So I try to get lots of cattle early enough to stay on top of it. This is a fools errand though because come June 15th the grass slows way down, and suddenly I have too many animals, an annoying whiplash.
So what I plan to do next year is bring on a reasonable number of animals, a number I can support in July without any problem, and/or feed them enough silage during that period that it won’t be an issue. In early spring, graze every acre similarly, keeping it short. But not too short (I’m going to make t-shirts with that phrase on them). I will continue to clip behind the animals as necessary. As spring goes on and the grass starts to get ahead of me, I will drop acres out of rotation and shoot to stay on top of some percentage of the grass, lets say 75%, picking some stuff that has a good percentage of canary in it to get tall. I will shoot to keep this percentage perfect and not even think about the other stuff. Come mid June, I will need to transition to my summer rotation by adding an extra week of recovery. To get this week, I will start to dip into the tall stuff, grazing it at high density and feeding to keep performance up. Whenever the short stuff is good and ready, I leave the tall stuff behind, and go back to grazing six and eight inch high grass giving them twenty acres of it at a time, moving once a day or every other day. Whenever I run out of short stuff I go back to the tall stuff, moving them multiple times a day, giving them as little as possible at a time and keeping them there just long enough to lay the grass down. Then next year I will do the same thing, but let a different section get tall until most of the ranch has gotten tall at least once.
I would argue that this is a closer approximation of what a ‘natural’ grazing ecosystem does, adapted to the constraints of a in a managed context. Better than either ‘set-it-and-forget-it-pasture’ or ‘Scrooge McDuck-forever-density.’ By dropping in and out of density we can create a much more complex vegetative structure, in space and in time, than we currently have. I think this is going to lead to much higher biodiversity. We can also fight the twin evils of the spring flush and the summer slump, that rob pastures of their productivity, and grow a lot more grass in the process.