By Spencer Smith. This article was also published in Acres U.S.A.
Holistic Planned Grazing is defined as a pillar of regenerative agriculture. It is one of the most beneficial actions to improve ecosystem function, and soil health, on a farm or ranch. However, it is not quite as simple as just adding graziers to the system and expecting beneficial results to be the natural outcome.
In other articles that I have written for Acres U.S.A., we discussed Holistic Planned Grazing and how proper planning of animal impact at the optimum phase of a plant’s life cycle will create cascading and compounding beneficial effects. Just as important as selecting the correct time to move your graziers to a pasture, we also need to plan for the recovery of those plants.
Allan Savory’s work in developing Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG) focuses on grazing from the plant’s perspective, and planning for adequate recovery of the forage species in the pastures under management. This is fundamental to good grazing management, and is often misunderstood.
When you ask graziers what is most important in good grazing management, most will first explain that high stock densities are needed to get adequate dung distribution and even trampling of biomass. This is true. Then, they will explain that you need to allow the pasture to recover until animal impact is used again. The question that I find that many graziers have is, how long is the proper recovery period? What happens if I come back too soon or wait too long? How might this differ if I am grazing cattle stockers compared to pairs or grass finishers? What about other livestock species? So let’s learn how to assess proper recovery times, and how a Holistic Planned Grazing sheet (when properly filled out) can take the mystery out of all this.
But first, let’s discuss how grass grows.
How Grass Grows
When the soil reaches the correct temperatures, and adequate moisture is present, grasses awaken from dormancy. They are doing so with the energy they constructed last fall, and stored over winter. This emergence is the beginning of Stage 1 growth on the growth curve. At this stage, it is important that we allow time for these plants to grow and develop. Planned recovery begins now. This is because we must continue to allow for proper recovery from the grazing last fall, and allow grasses to photosynthesize enough to build up their carbohydrate reserves in the plant.
Once we are in Stage 2 growth, the plants in our pastures will be strong enough to benefit from grazing pressure. Grazing any sooner than Stage 2 will cause a plant to slough roots and you will be overgrazing the perennial grasses in your pastures. Stage 2 of the grass’s growth curve also coincides with the best mix of proteins and carbohydrates in the forages itself. If we allow too much time to go by before grazing the plant, it will continue to develop into Stage 3, this is characterized in grasses by the emergence of the seed head, or the grass flower. If the grasses in your pastures have reached Stage 3, then photosynthesis is shutting down, as the plant’s priority is shifting from creating and storing carbohydrates to reproduction. At this point, the leaves will begin to lose vigor and nutrition as the plant prepares itself for the weight of a seed head full of heavy seeds. For the grass plant to keep the flower upright in the wind, evolution has adapted it to lignify its stem and leaves. When the plant reaches Stage 3, many farmers call the plants in the pasture “rank” or “woody.” Total digestible nutrients (TDN) drop very quickly during this transition, and forage quality can drop in what seems like overnight as plants transition from soluble carbohydrates to structural carbohydrates.
Spencer Smith is a Savory Field Professional and a huge fan of dung beetles. Savory Global Network hubs provide accredited Holistic Management and regenerative agriculture training and support across the world. Abbey and Spencer Smith manage the Jefferson Center for Holistic Management, the Savory Global Network hub serving Northern California and Nevada. Learn more and contact the Smiths with your grazing and dung beetle-related questions.