Saturday, October 24, 2009

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:


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