Saturday, October 24, 2009

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:


  1. Thanks for sending this to me Will. It's more than interesting - fascinating, and I know my readers would be as intrigued as me. I bet you got some good pictures when you were there - any chance I could use them?

    Have just finished the latest issue of Farm IDEAS and so can look forward to new features and projects. You're so lucky being able to travel like you do.

  2. Mike - there is more to come of this type of thing but different farmers I meet have different interpretations. The principles remain the same however.

    I have some pictures and will try and get them on. The thing is though as everything is so seasonal my pictures are not the best.

    Thanks for reading.

  3. Hi there:
    Glad to see a like minded traveler! I don't do much currently, but after I graduated college I traveled much and discovered a ranch that uses Holistic Management Methods in Wyoming and haven't looked back. Now I am part of a Certified Educator training program, and also getting a masters degree in sustainable agriculture @ Iowa State. I got the chance to hang out with Neil when he came tova grazing event in Nebraska last August. What a fun guy; I love talking to folks about his fencing ideas.