Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ultra low cost small scale grazing

Greg Carlton, Knox County, Nebraska

Greg Carlton won't mind me saying this, but he has had to work from the bottom up. Having worked on or around farms for years he is now working on getting his own unit up and running.

His first philosophy is never to get attatched to anything. He is renting a small farm and he tells me if a bigger landholding came up at anytime he could be ready to pack up and go at anytime. And I thought the idea of the West being footloose frontierland died out ages ago! He says its important to keep flexible and not invest in any equipment or needless distractions from the main goal of gaining production without using capital. He says he never got on well with banks anyway and is proud that he doesn't need them now!

He has improved stocking rates on land that had previously been very denuded, by three fold. He wants to keep his sytem low tech - as you can see by his one significant cost on the left - the bale unroller.

Greg's strategy is to mob graze cows in the summer, he'll calve may and june. They then will go to standing corn and then rolled out hay on the corn field or some outlying land.

The following are bits of advice from my notes when I spent the afternoon looking a Greg's system:
  • Keep it simple and low tech. Holistic planned grazing will maintain species diversity, build organic matter and enhance the mineral cycle. Thats your capital.

  • Aim for low fossil fuel use and high animal use. Always look around for what you can use instead of buying it.

  • Never make your own hay! - If you need hay buy it. Five years out of six hay is cheaper to buy in than make. You need to count the nutrients and organic matter your adding with hay.

  • Green corn (standing maize) is a great feed. Half the price of shelled corn. He no-tills maize into pasture to extend his season and strip grazes it.

  • The herd will teach an animal everything he needs to know.

  • A heifer calving at three will last much longer than one at two. Don't push them

Greg's aim is to grow slow and steady, without debt. I couldn't help be impressed by his attitude and his efficiency. The picture where he is bale unrolling means he is adding organic matter to an area of the farm that needs more.

Sometimes a lot of the bigger graziers are wondering what Greg is doing because although a small farmer, he is known for his innovation and they want to see how much they can translate to their operations. The grazing corn thing is a case in point with a lot of farmers being risk averse to doing it even though the economics stack up very strongly in its favour.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Where the Buffalo roam.

Chad Peterson, Sandhills, North Central Nebraska

Chad Peterson farms some tough land. The sandhills where he farms are pretty much just that - sand. Coupled with the extremes of the praries climate you've gotta be a tough farmer and a tough cow to make your living out here.
Chad used to farm buffalo out here but now he has changed tack and breeds cattle, with the precaution that he needs to have a cow as tough as the buffalo as he can possibly get in order for them to survive on the poor grasses and the harsh weather.
His inspiration for this comes from when he related a story from his grandmother in the 1930's when there was a very tough winter. They had Buffalo and Cows in those days and throughout the winter his grandfather needed to attempt to feed the cows throughout the winter at much cost. In the event a large number of the cows died but the following spring the buffalo were all there - quite accustomed to the natural way of things.
He currently breeds Highland cows crossed with a Hereford bull. The result is a fairly hairy looking Hereford which he hopes the meat trade will accept well. He tells me he is particularly hard on his bulls in the winter - "I get them from a guy in Montana who makes them live quite a tough life and forage for what they can get. And then over the winter I will stick them on some of my grazing pastures and they just hasve to stick it out. If they die, they die. I've got to breed strong enough for this type of system because I don't want the costs of winter feeding etc. The Highlands are particularly well adapted to this system as well as mothering well and being calm enough to corral once or twice a year. He expects his cows to last about 20 years, calving each year.

Chad mob grazes in the summer months to maximise compensatory growth and improve his pastures, in the winter he will stockpile an area for the cattle and leave them roam on this. A mob grazer will say overgrazing in the winter is not a problem as the plant is dormant. He can do this as his landbase is very large.

On the left is Chads water tank. In the summer when mob grazing his 600 strong herd all he has to do is drag this portable tank to the graze area which takes 20 minutes a day and then lift his electric fence. In the height of summer he will graze 600 animals extremely tightly for around 4 hours a day. The resultant hoof impact and manure on the tallgrass prarie is helping build dark brown organic matter where once was pure sand. For comparison we looked at areas that were not mob grazed as intensely and the lack of fertility was clearer. Its all to do with greater intensity of grazing yielding yet greater intensity underneath.

I asked him what his neighbours thought - he said they think its crazy as they're so used to making hay. He tells them "you know whats in hay?" "what?" they reply "Grass!" he said with a big booming laugh. He doesn't want to make hay, he doesn't have to drag anything to them in winter - he can leave if out in the field in standing buffet form for the animals.

Chad doesn't finish any animals yet. He still has a niche buffalo meat enterprise though. He took me in the truck to see them and we chased them in the around in the 4 wheeler. The buffalo actually seemed to enjoy it - its their bit of sport for the day, the adrenalin seemed good for both parties I thought. Chad only has 100 buffalo now but as we shifted them across the dunes and seeing them striding out as a herd I felt I may have got just a minute glimpse of what the power of a 2 million strong herd may have been like 400 years ago - what collective energy!

Chad feels that the potential of grazing has been for too long ignored. Not only are these animals actually building organic matter and therefore carbon in the soils but he thinks they are more efficent than any other method of producing beef.

He gave me this idea to chew on. "It is often estimated there used to be 60 million Buffalo in the US before the Europeans turned up. They reckon there are about 30 million cows in the usa now. If we stocked the same density and system throughout Nebraska as I do here - and this is not the best land - we would be able to stock 20 million cattle in Nebraska alone, and improve our soils better than any feedlot system."

So he put it to me that actually counter to what we are all being told if you want to save the planet - EAT BEEF!

Pioneering Holistic Management

Terry Gompert, Knox County, NE Nebraska
(Terry on left with George Wagner)

Terry Gompert has been working in agricultural extension service for most of his working life. He has always been interested in Sustainable Agriculture and low cost farming in its various interpretations and has clearly respect for the farmers that he engages with. Its fair to say this is a pretty remote part of Nebraska, and that means its a pretty remote part of the USA! Well to me it is at least, when a Gas station, motel and bakery constitutes as a town!

And it is probably this geographical isolation that has allowed Terry to develop some concepts that colleagues elsewhere may not have have been able to. But of course its not just that - Terry is willing to say what he thinks, and think about what he thinks and it seems Holistic Management is the one area that has continually fuelled him for the past 30 years.

In 1985 he first went to a meeting when Alan Savory - the man who set up the holisitic management framework - did a talk in the locality. He left the meeting thinking "I want nothing more to do with this stuff" as Savory's abrasive style really offended the status quo of conventional grazing management thinking. Equally the problem is a lot of the things holistic management measures, or is willing to consider cannot be quantified in the university system. For example production vs environment vs. quality of life; This is what HM attempts to do, it may be only the first attempt to look at things this way, it will probably evolve.

But 10 years later it started to make a bit more sense to him. He could see that a lot of grazers were having problems making the system pay, that the input heavy corn/soybean rotations put pressure on the land and also that new young blood found it difficult to farm input heavy crops which rely on a lot of bank security - therefore grazing is another avenue for them.

"If I go to a Cropping meeting I know the average age of a farmer wil be 50 plus and that generally the attitude will be one of not particularly wanting to change practices. This is fine - it works for them. If I go to a grazing meeting there will be a lot younger age profile, even women (shock horror!) and the objectives of the farmers are a lot more fluid. For example they will say we want a good quality of life, we don't want to be chained to the bank or in the thrall of chemical companies, we want to produce good quality stock but we also want to build and enhance our environments." says Terry.

This has led to him becoming one of the leading certified educators in Holistic Management and he has taken the time to introduce other farmers to it.

"The key to it all Will, is shaping your holistic goal" he told me "you have to ask yourself, your family and those who work with you. What do I or we want? And once you figure out that then you move on to using various tools which allow you to get there - of which things like mob grazing is one part."

Generally a holistic goal - best described as a Whole-istic goal, as in looking at the Whole operation - will involve things like improving your soil, maybe getting out of debt or better controlling your debt, making sure you have an annual holiday. Heck if you decide you want to have a bulldozer for no other reason than you like driving it put "I will have a bulldozer" in your holistic goal. Thats fine. Essentially its all about management planning - planning for now and for the future.

Terry was kind enough to show me around the area and send me to speak to some of the most interesting farmers in the area, they will follow this.

Harvesting the Profits - No Till in Kentucky

Phil Needham - Owensboro, Kentucky

LEFT: Kentucky along with the UK was once of the pioneering areas of No Till back in the 70's.

Phil Needham, a British expat has been working with the farmers in Kentucky and the US for the past 20 years. Phil originally came over as a specialist Wheat agronomist at a time when wheat was very much the cinderella crop for the US. To an extent this has remained so but advances in breeding, agronomy and crop management has meant that average yields in the Kentucky area have moved upwards of about 1 tonne per acre over the past 15 years.

Phil has also become an advocate of No Till for the potential of reducing costs and increasing timeliness. Not every farmer in Kentucky buys into the concept with plenty of them preferring to disc three or four times before planting wheat. There are however plenty of people in Kentucky who have been no till for twenty years surrounded by other farmers who insist it doesn't work!

What I noticed that was really different in speaking to farmers is that a lot of them liked to no till for corn (maize) and soybeans but were less keen on doing it for wheat. Preferring to disc for this. This to some extent is the opposite of the UK where most farmers percieve that for beans or maize tillage is a must whereas wheat is slightly hardier. My only conclusion is that you do what you do according to what everybody else does!

Spending time with Phil these are the key things I picked up:

  • Disc is best. Single disc is even better. Phil says that tines have more negatives inculding thsat they just move too much soil. He concedes that in the early stages of no till there are advantages to a tine but in the long term he finds discs are better. "So you may as well start with a disc, than buy two drills" he says.

  • Be concious of travelling on land. We walked through a field a farmer was no tilling wheat after soybeans into. He pointed out the wheel tracks and this is where the drill didn't place the seed as well. "It does get better over time" he said " but after harvest, sprayers, chaser bins, fertiliser spreaders etc you may traffic up to 80% of your field." Therefore you need to try and minimise this for greater success.

  • During may visit it was pretty wet. We noticed the tine seeders tended to pull up wet chunks which could not be consolidated on top of seed.

  • "What tillage does" says Phil " is give you lots of large soil pores. The reason you have those small pores in the first place is the tillage. you've broken down your old soil pores. It can take your four or five years to get the distribution you want in no till. And if you roll again you after till you are creating compaction of the future. Because compaction is a result of pressure plus soil characteristic. There is no evidence that deep tillage/ subsoiling makes a lot of difference in the longer term either."

Phil realises that a lot of time no till is not easy to adopt, he has even designed and released his own range of equipment to enhance seeding performance when drill design leaves more to be desired.

More on Phil Needham:

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Married to the Mob

Greg and Jan Judy, Rucker, Missouri

An afternoon with Greg Judy was particularly enlightening. Greg runs South Poll cattle and St Croix cross sheep on his 1400 acres in the rolling central Missouri pastures. His environment is relatively non-brittle, meaning growth is stronger and more even thoughout the year. Its not like the UK but it is more like the UK than it is like the brittle extremes of heat and cold in North Dakota.

In the past few years since he adapted the system he refers to as Holistic Planned Rotational Grazing which he moved to from Management Intensive Grazing (MiG) his production has come on leaps and bounds. In fact he says his production has increased 240% in about 6 years. And with much more to come.

LEFT: Greg Judy's fixed costs.
"Okay forget about everything Will" he said with his midwestern burr. "Forget about tractors, and fertilisers, forget about what the coffee shops say, forget about the research and sales supplements, forget about making hay and silage. Forget about it all and concentrate on your mob." he enunciated this last bit slowly, it was clearly important.

"Everything you need to run a farm for stock they will and can provide. They know what they want you just need to create the conditions to provide it."

LEFT: Pointing out the worm casts
Greg concentrates on grazing tall and dense. His has reclaimed several denuded ex-cropping or overgrazed pastures around his area and has doggedly set about improving the land with them. "Will, a lot of people are going around saying cattle are destroying the land, causing erosion and assisting climate change. Lemme' tell you this. Animals are the only hope we have. The only one for building soil carbon and the soil."

Its all to do with how they're grazed. Greg took me out to a piece of pasture of his and pulled over a bit of the thick sward. "Look at this!" he exclaimed "look at that!" What he pointed to was small soil particles which had just been excreted by worms. "Worm poop!" said Greg "those worms are building more and more soil for me every day." By grazing tall and leaving plenty of trash on the surface of the soil after the mob have been through he is providing food for his soil life. He claims that for every one leaf he tramples in, nature will pay it back more than fourfold, possibly eightfold.

Greg started doing MIG about 20 years ago. The problem was that he always ran out of grass. "I would go back to a pasture after 40 days with MIG the sward hadn't had enough time to recover. Sure it looks nice and flat but scratch around and you will see that the grass was not dense enough. I didn't have enough solar collectors. This means that I am not using my field to its productive capacity." That meant when using MIG he was still having to make hay - with all its costs. He used to move 8 times a year with MIG, now he moves 2 or 3 and never runs out of grass.

When he moved to grazing taller he found a big difference very quickly. He has increased his stocking rate and now he claims he needs to add more animals. The mineral cycle is moving so much faster that it is producing more lbs/beef acre.

LEFT: The Winter Feed:
Now to many that looks a mess but to Greg its perfect winter feed. Even the tall weeds have a place either bringing minerals up from the ground, slowing the wind down or providing energy from seed heads.
It would be easy to scoff at all this. But cruciallu Greg's stocking rate is increasing, his costs rock bottom and his soil improving. He has no debts, runs his business on cash, building a stock asset and has the lifestyle he wants.
All Greg does is move his mob. He will get them in once a year for selection and sale. He runs the whole herd as a mob. Cows, bulls, yearlings, heifers. He insists that the herd instinct settles itself and benefits the whole. He is currently selling breeding heifers for other people who want to adopt the system. He says there is no disease problem because of the frequency of movement.

For the sheep he uses St Croix crosses. These have a parasite which means they shed wool in the spring. 25% of a sheep eats is wool- and its worthless , he tells me. So he runs the St Croix in a different flock from the herd and then alternates them with the cattle at a time of year to break the parasite cycle. He doesn't move the sheep as often - perhaps only once a week as they impact less than the cattle.

He will lamb on pasture late. About May. He says that the month of green grass in April is too high in protein whereas the May grass is better balanced and is better for the ewe to lamb later. He gives his sheep nothing and the 300 sheep lamb on a 20 acre paddock for a month at 1.8.

His advice to would be mob grazers is don't get more animals in the first year. Your animal may dip until the energy flow increases. The shorter you can stay on a pasture the closer the plant density and therefore the more "solar collectors" as he put it, you have.

More on Greg:

Monday, October 26, 2009

Who eats who?

Kristine Nichols, Microbiologist, Northern Great Plains Research Centre, Mandan, ND

Kris Nichols is part of an elite group of people - the world of soil microbiology is pretty small. Some of her most recent work has been investigating Glomalin. This is a glycoprotein which was found to be a major component of soil building organic matter. Basically for the layman, Glomalin is something protects something else that transports soil nutrients and may be very important in building soil carbon!

As we were talking, Kris said she always analyses her work from the point of view of her Dad who farms in Minnesota. "I always look at my research and I ask myself - is this something my Dad could understand and apply on his own farm?" This is probably the reason that Kris is often asked to speak at no till and soil conferences packed with farmers, a scientist with the ability and desire to make sure her research can be practically understood and applied. Thats good then, a research scientist with a bit of mud on her boots!

"My advice is to manage the soil environment as a first consideration and everything else will fall into place" says Kris. She said soil has historically been called dirt but to her what separates soil from dirt is organic matter. "We need more of this organic matter and again all these microbes are like people - they need food and shelter."

These are a few key things I picked up from Kris:

  • High clay soils need plenty of OM. Clay minerals bind themselves together and it is difficult to break their postive charge to each other. So you need to grow organic matter; this means clay won't bond to clay so much. This organic matter bonds the soil with microbial action and improves water holding capacity.
  • Suprisingly crop residue's in fact provide very little carbon to the soil. About 1%. Most carbon from crop residue never gets into the soil. The living plant and its roots contributes most carbon to the soil. 70% of Carbon produced by a plant should be in the soil.
  • There are limitations to conventional soil tests. We only measure plant availible nutrients not total availible nutrients. Plants do not operate in a closed system like this.
  • Why does manure tilled in show a decent crop reaction? - When you bury manure you feed one particular set of organisms and they utilise this food source very quickly. But they are only one set - after this food source has gone you will be left with famine and nothing for your other creatures. A balanced, varied diet is key.
  • Cover crops and crop mixtures are good because they release a variety of different sugars and energy sources which are used by a range of organisms. This will have positive impacts on soil fertility later on esp. with regards to providing or making nutrients availible - for free! These sugars have a positive effect on growth - when we talk about getting the soil to warm up in the spring it may not be a function of temperature thats important but the function of biological activity.
  • Pesticides and Soil: She ranks insecticides as the worst. Fungicides next and herbicides relatively harmless. That said even though microbes use herbicides as a carbon food source (for how else do they break down?) they can lead to an imbalance of what she calls aggressive "piranha-organisms." Ones which push others out of the way. The less the better.

There is so much more to say but it is much better communicated by Kris. There is a vid of her in the link. I left here with the feeling that the potential of soil biology is massive - its strange how small pieces of information can lead to a better understanding and a different way of thinking.

More on Kris:

Field of Dreams - The Soil Food Web

Jay Fuhrer, NRCS Office, Bismarck, ND

Do you ever remember the film Field of Dreams with Kevin Costner? Well if you do you may remember the phrase "if you build it, he will come". Well this is the analogy Jay Fuhrer uses for soil health building microbes.

Jay works as head of extension work in the Burley County office of the Natural Resource and Conservation Service Office in North Dakota. My instinct tells me that this office is a bit of a rare breed in that they have such a healthy two way relationship with some the farmers in the area.

In fact Gabe Brown and Gene Goven (see other posts) to name two seem to be constantly cross fertilising ideas within the NRCS office to find innovative ways of maintaing the environment as well as increasing productivity. Gabe and Gene both hung around the office when I was there, feet on the table, lobbing around new ideas with other staff - an environment conducive to innovation, and a culture that no idea is too stupid . I imagine very few ideas are dismissed before being considered from various angles.

Jay Fuhrer's big interest at the moment is the potential of soil health to improve productivity. "We don't know half, Will" he said "we don't even know 1%." Jay has studied the Soil Food Web data with Elaine Ingham (google her) and is trying to apply it to agriculture and seeing what happens. I found this particularly refreshing as for me a lot of the soilfoodweb stuff has always seemed a bit far out - but fundamentally its just about biology of microbes, so the principles of it were brought into focus by Jay.

The latest project is to maximise the soil health and also play around with things like compost tea, multiple cover crops and to see what happens. Jay took me on a trip around the state and to a presentation in Fargo, Eastern ND we went to a Soils Conference. When Jay does his presentations its fair to say some people do a bit of eyebrow raising. Some in the audience had some trouble amalgamating their knowledge of the physics and chemistry of soil science with the burgeoning biological side. Thats ok with Jay - he doesn't know what he's doing all the time he says, but unless you try these things you don't know what you can or can't do. One thing that I did notice is that talking of soil biology in agricultural arena seems to be considered a bit of a soft or effete discipline. Therefore those who like their information with charts of two columns proving a hypothesis are left frustrated as there is so much left unproven. That said there are plenty who are getting it or as Jay says "they're on board."

Here are some things which I noticed as interesting when listening to Jay's presentations or when just chatting:
  • The aim is to build sustainable soils. That is building soil aggregates with low fossil fuels
    If we keep armour (soil cover) on the surface we can do great things - it also keeps it more weed free.
  • Try to promote the use of cover crop or forage cocktails - and therefore provide a balanced diet for the livestock. The above ground ground ones and the below ground ones.
    From the soil food web data. A forest soil will be fungally dominant and low in bacteria. A Prarie soil would be bacterially dominant and low in fungus. The ideal balance is as close to 1:1 - for to maximise crop production you need a balance. He told me when they tested Gabe Brown's farm they found it was about 2:1 bacterially dominant - this may be as close as they can get a farm soil. At this 1:1 ratio there is more weed suppression, less compaction and higher nitrate availibility. That said to have the fungi you need lignin so maybe its better at 2:1 than 1:1
  • Cover crops cocktails are seen as vital for no till cropping systems. Firstly they produce much more than monocultures or two species. Much, much more actually in lbs/acre. This means there is more food. Cover crops also accelerate biological time - the roots and exudates etc. speed up the production and respiration of all the microbes.
  • You need to consider the Carbon:Nitrogen ratio as well. Common no till crops such as corn (maize) and wheat and carbon heavy. A designed cover crop will bring the N ratio back up.
    A cover crop also maintains pore spaces in the soil. They know that traction of vehicles and rain compresses pore spaces and pockets and this will stop microbes accessing the nutrients. Nodulation of legumes is also inhibited where there is soil compaction.

There is a lot more to say but Jay really brought some things into focus. Not least that farmers need not be afraid of finding more about soil biology - the potential of it is exciting. "It's basically about who eats who, Will" says Jay "like us, soil creatures respond to a balanced diet and if they get that balanced diet they will repay you in spades. Its like sending a son to college, you get him a place to live, make it comfortable, stock his fridge with beer and then leave him get on with it, its the same with soil critters".

"We are constantly seeking to evolve" says Jay "I started my job designing drainage watersheds. They'e pretty much redundant now thanks to No Till. There was a time that I wanted to just get farmers no tilling to save soil, then I wanted them to only use disc drills to move minimum soil, then I wanted them to use a cover crop species, then it was two covers in a mix, now its multiple cover crops and next it could be soilfoodweb and composting, who knows?"

Jay told me that he could retire soon but has decided that things are getting pretty exciting around there so to use another baseball linked analogy he said "I wanna slide into first base when I've really run out outta gas!"

Better just keep practising that sliding technique in the back yard for a few years longer yet then, Jay!

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Mixing Grazing and No Tillage

  • Gabe Brown, Browns Ranch, Bismarck North Dakota

    Now its fair to say that Gabe Brown likes a challenge. As a first generation farmer maybe he doesn't have the baggage or the weight of expectation that sometimes impacts on generational farmers.

    Indeed as he said to me "Every year you've got to plan to fail at something. If you don't fail at something then your not pushing the limits. You won't know what you can and can't achieve"

    He farmed conventionally until the early 1990's - the typical rotation of the area on these plains would have been wheat and then a year's fallow. Farmers would typically disc a few times over the years fallow to keep the land free of weeds. Needless to say - the prarie winds took away a lot of the soil...

    He moved to no tillage in about 1993. He had some tough years with this between 95-96 he got hailed out twice and lost all his crop. That meant for three years in a row he had no income. In his desperation he knew he had to change his system somehow - the risks had become too extreme; his system and income too lopsided.

    Gabe now runs a mixed cropping and ranching enterprise. He has expanded to 4500 acres in the past ten years, from 640 acres.

    For No Till he insists that there is only one machine on the market that currently works well enough. The John Deere 750 or one of its offspring. Everything else either cannot deal with the levels of residue cover, or is not well built enough. "It has to be a disc not a shank" he says "I need to aim to do invisible seeding. If I move soil, I burn up organic matter, destroy soil habitats and it promotes weeds."

    He says he ultimately focuses on soil health . Every decision he makes he asks will it improve the soil health? If not, he finds another way to do it. He says by focusing on soil health it means that the natural fertility of the farm remains good. He has not used any commerical fertilisers for a number of years - his microbes when fed will provide him with the fertility he needs. He didn't get here overnight though - he has built this fertility over a number of years. Nitrogen is provided by soil activity, phosphates from deep root systems and mychorrizae.

    So how does Gabe manage this?

    Some of Gabe's farm is permanent ranchland and the rest is mixed cropping and annual forages.

    After every cash crop such as maize, soybeans or wheat he will immediatly seed a cover crop. Originally he started with single species covers, then mixes of legumes but now he tells me he will put in as many species as he can - up to 8 or 12. "Mother nature cannot get enough of diversity" he says "all the time she if fighting for the need to provide diversity. There is logic behind this. All plants coexist and feed off each other. As do the microbes." Gabe quite happily uses GM products though is pragamatic on their usage - "its just another tool" he says "not something to base your farming on entirely."

    "I don't have a crop rotation" he says "I don't know what I'm gonna put in each year, it keeps me flexible and you can be sure that if you have a fixed rotation mother nature will figure out and you will get weeds and disease." This means some years its peas, or alfalfa, or corn..

    His soil structure is now so good that all rainwater (12" in 24 hours in once) is all absorbed by the soil and humus. We dug a hole and it was full of soil building worms. "Thats my plough" he said.

    Because Gabe has used this cover cropping rotation so much and so intensely that he no longer needs to use fertilisers. He doesn't fully know whats happening nor do the microbiologists working with him but essentially he has such a mass of soil fauna and flora working and respiring they are providing plant fertility. Also because of this microbial activity his growing season is longer - the plants benefit from the symbiosis and don't shut down in the cold so quickly. The only agro chemicals used on the farm are herbicides. He doesn't require fungicide or insecticides all fungicides will kill soil microbes, these microbes such as mychorrizae are crucial to maintaining his soil fertility, besides he says his healthy soil promotes less disease.

    Gabe mixes his cattle with his no till fields. He is not worried about compaction because although intensively paddock grazed they are never on the fields long enough. Possibly 500 head of cattle in a paddock - they almost look like they're touching each other but they're quite happy. Herd instinct means they prefer the company of each other at such densities.

    Some of the land Gabe has taken on recently has been ex-CRP land. This is land that the government had paid farmers to take out of production and left to a nature as wildlife habitat. In truth the habitats that have developed are pretty poor for wildlife. They reach a peak after about two years and then become dominated by a group of prarie grasses which don't provide enough variety. The strategy is to add animals and therefore create a more balanced soil biota and above ground biodiversity. If you don't have the animal muck you don't get the insects.

    What Gabe is doing left me thinking Jeez this is it! This is what we should be looking for - mixing high levels of production with a judicious use of pesticides (he generally says he is using less and less each year and growing many grain crops without them and still not getting weeds) and promoting wildlife health. But you just know that Gabe is not going to stop here - to him there is no zenith - he will keep evolving his system and will continue to delight in challenging conventions.

Graze Tall

Neil Dennis, Sunnybrae Farm, Saskatoon, Canada

Neil Dennis' friends liken him to the Duracell bunny. He just never stops bouncing with new ideas. In the eighties he told me he was having a really hard time, he simply could not make a profit out of his grazing land. He was finding the expenses of keeping the stock and servicing the bank loans becoming difficult to sustain. He knew he had to change something or he had to get out of stock.

In 1989 he started to look at Rotational grazing and then this lead him to Holistic Management. Before this he would graze his pastures conventionally and there was no talk of allowing it to recover from grazing pressure during the season.

His strategy is too move his animals around his paddocks frequently. Sometimes within hours. He will have up to 800 cattle on an acre of land sometimes and leave them grazing 3-4 foot tall pasture for just a matter of hours. He says as a result of this Planned Rotational Grazing system his stock carrying capacity is 300% higher, he is excited about the prospect of his stocking rates going higher yet. Neil also likes to graze what he calls cocktails. As much variety of crop types as he can - this gives him a range of advantages. Flexiblity, better rooting, better water retention and infiltration. It also better for fattening his animals as the protein levels are higher.

The environment can sustain this level of stocking rate without overgrazing because overgrazing is a result of length of time, not of stocking rates. This is the best example he gave me.

"Imagine you and a servant lived on top of a mountain and every day you sent the servant down the hill in the same direction to fetch a bucket of water to wash in. And then after a year the servant would have made that trip up and back 365 times - there would surely be quite a pronounced track in the direction the servant walked. Now imagine that 365 of you lived on the hill and you all decided to make the trip down and up the mountain one day. Would there be a track? - Almost certainly not."

His management focus is to own as little machinery as possible, and he uses virtually no chemicals and fertilisers. With just grazing managment and manipulation he has managed to transform previously unproductive pastures into animal fattening swards. He says he likes to see a hoofprint on every sqaure inch of soil after grazing. He will sometimes seed small fluffy seeds on a pasture before cattle allowing the hoofprints to give seed to soil contact.

When he turns his cattle into a pasture he has to be careful with his management. His aim is to skim graze early in the year (leaving 60% of leaf left) then after July 15th he will go back to each of his pastures again for another bite. The rules of thumb are:

40% grazing of sward won't kill the root system
50% grazing kills about 2-4% of root growth
80% grazing stops growth for about 12 days as the plant uses its own root system as a carbon source for photosynthesis. Thus delaying recovery.

Neil tells me there are no ammonia patches on his swards - the animals are not there long enough. Nor does he have a fly problem - by the time the eggs hatch the cattle are too far away for them to reach them.

Neils system is management intensive but not necessarily time intensive. He will tend to have to do a few hours routine work to manage the cattle everyday and has the rest of time for other things. He worked out that riding around on his quad in the sun -(or "warming the solar panel of the sex machine" - as he referred to his bald head!) makes him about $100 hour.

In the winter Neil makes his cattle graze outside on baled hay - he places them very close together, so that the bales have only a gap the length of one beast between them. These means the manure is distrubuted in very close proximity to where he needs it. He also used this technique when he wants ot improve soils - he will roll out the hay or bale it and make the cattle trample it in and eat it in order to provide some food for the soil microbes.

More on Neil Dennis:

Managing diversity to enhance soil health

Gene Goven, Turtle Lake, North Dakota:

Gene Goven has been practising HM since the middle eighties when he first met Alan Savory - the man who developed the HM framework. He was attracted by the idea that Savory was saying that he could double his stocking rate of cattle on his land and still improve his pasture simple by adapting his management. At the time he was continuously grazing on pasture. Almost thirty years later Goven has increased his cattle stocking rate up 350% on a lb/acre measurement. He thinks he could quite easily get to 600% or more if he felt he needed to but at 63 he feels his quality of life may suffer.

The key to Goven's success is Planned Rotational Grazing. This system incorporates many elements of Cell grazing or Management Intensive Grazing but takes it a few steps further on. He has spent much time monitoring and observing the native prarie. "Look" he said, "if you observe the native healthy prarie you will see that they have four crop types - Warm Season Grass, Cool Season Grass, Cool Season Broadleaves and Warm Season Broadleaves. All crop types in the world will fall into anyone of these catageories and a healthy prarie will have them all."

His overeaching goal as he stated many times to me was to Manage Diversity For Soil Health Enhancement. At first it sounds a bit nebulous but as he explains what he does, it gets more logical. Without a healthy soil he has nothing - and a brittle erodable environment like North Dakota demonstrates this more clearly than more forgiving environments.

"In order to profit and sustain my environment I need to build and feed the soil continually. Everything else will work better for me when I have that healthy soil" said Gene. So he views everything on his farm as a tool in order to get to this goal. His livestock are a tool - an additional organism on the land if you like. They turn solar energy from plants into an excretia that the soil microbes can digest and provide surface disturbance for new seedlings Livestock are as much of a tool as chemicals, or machinery, or fertilisers - in fact they are better ones in most cases. Though Gene doesn't exclude the need for the latter three, he plans he system so as not to need them much. He plans his profit because he anticipates what the wants and needs of his environment are: economically, ecologically and socially.

Essentially his planned rotational grazing means that he ensures that his grazing pastures can get adequate rest. Nothing is more crucial for land in brittle environments than ensuring the land is rested. This means that animals are never grazed more than twice in a year in the same place. Usually skim grazed in the spring, taking about 20% of the residue and then later on in the year to take about 50% of the residue. The rest is left for feeding the soil and its microbes. His paddocks are divided up into plots which allows him to move the animals with electric fencing quite easily.

It sounds counter-intuitive to leave grass on the surface as opposed to commercializing it into more lb's beef but Gene insists this is absolutely vital to keep something back to sustain the soil. Without soil food the pasture would run out of steam in a short period and become dominated by one species type, necessitating fossil fuel inputs to get production to increase again - and then only for the short term. Gene is mainly stock farmer but he does have some cropping. He refuses to use GM crops as he feels it encourages dependence of chemicals. He is experimenting with undersowing crops with covers and rarely uses fertilisers. The wildlife populations are high, groups of ecologists have counted up to 140 species of songbird in an afternoon.

The key thing says Gene is to establish continual thinking. If you don't know where you want to go, how do you know your going to get there? It is a managers creativity that dictates personal limitation and ingenuity, technology has its place but can also make a manager less skillful too. If you have an problem you need to make sure to treat the cause not the symptoms says Gene and this is how he trys to run his farm.

His parting shot was a quote from Henry Ford - "Whether you think you can or can't. You're right."

More on Gene:


Sunday, October 18, 2009

Holistic Management -

I'm currently undertaking a Winston Churchill Memorial Fund Travel Fellowship ( around the USA and Australia looking at Holistic Farm Management.

HM isn't really well known about in Europe but as a farm and ranch management technique it is growing in other parts of the world. The aim of this trip is to see what concepts are relavent to farming and the public in general.

Holistic Management is quite a difficult concept to explain in a few short words so I'll do my best and try and explain the essentials as I see it:

Firstly my approach to it is as a result of long been unhappy about the trenchlines drawn between different interests when it comes to talking about the environment and food production. Debates about this are turning increasingly dichotomous so for example we end up thinking about things like conservation land vs farmland, or organic vs conventional, or GM vs non GM. I could go on... but really its too boring!

The point is farming, whilst not natural, operates in an environment that is a Whole. Scientific thinking encourages us to think mechanically and with science we reduce things to a hypothesis to understand them. And as our mechanical scientific achievements (such as chemistry, machinery, breeding etc.) have developed we have had ever increasing problems in our non-mechanical environment - our ecology. We therefore need to make sure we design our farming to manage the whole not just from the perspective of narrow disciplines such as soil science, animal nutrition, economics etc.

I'll stop here before you think I'm some crazy deep thinking hippy! I'm not though - I'm just a farmer concerned that the debate about sustainability and agriculture is not being articulated enough by farmers.

HM encourages us to thing of our farm, our community etc. as not just a sum of parts with various boundaries defined by scientific disciplines but that everything is interconnected and that there wholes within wholes.

Everything effects each other - therefore we need to think and act Holistically. In accordance with the natural systems with with which we operate.

Follow my journey around the world and make your own mind up. I'm as confused sometimes about it as anyone, but please ask questions if you have them. Finally remember there is no one way of doing things - you gotta keep looking at the trade offs, but fundamentally think of this as a management framework that helps us make the right decisions in three ways: Economically, Ecologically and Socially.