Evenings last week–and early mornings–were spent pouring over a Word document version of Allan Savory and Jody Butterfield’s latest edition of Holistic Management. I am honored to be part of the committee reviewing and providing feedback on this version. One of the chapters I reviewed was on timing. This is one of the four key insights guiding the practice of Holistic Management. The other three insights are:

  1. The brittleness scale: the environment of each ecosystem can be located along a brittleness scale, with non-brittle environments at one end and brittle at the other. Non-brittle environments are classified as those with an even distribution of humidity and rainfall throughout the year. Brittle environments have uneven distributions of humidity and rain fall throughout the year.
  2. Nature functions in wholes: Natural systems are complex and self-organizing and must be managed differently than complicated, mechanical or man-made systems.
  3. The predator-prey relationship: the grazing animals of the world’s grasslands evolved with  pack-hunting predators. The impact the predators had on the herbivore behavior influenced the way the grasses and soils of the grasslands evolved.

Timing, the fourth insight is the hardest for people to really grasp. Holism is the most challenging to apply to real life, but to simply grasp the concept of timing is difficult. For me. For workshop attendees. And for the academic world apparently as so many people use the terms rotational grazing and mob grazing interchangeably with Holistic Planned Grazing. They are not the same and the fundamental difference is the insight of timing that led to the development of Holistic Planned Grazing.

Holistic Planned Grazing, Rotational Grazing, Mob Grazing, Set Stocking Explained

Let’s look at each of these grazing options in turn to understand their differences.

  • Set stocking: this is where cattle or other livestock are turned out and they are allowed to stay on the same land for a long time. Most public land grazing permits are managed this way. There is an (often huge) area that the cattle are turned out on to and they stay in this area until they are gathered up at the end of the season. There is no management of their behavior in set stocking. This is often the practice in the Western United States where there are large herds of cattle and sheep grazing on vast expanses land in brittle environments.
  • Rotational grazing: This is a method of managing livestock so that they are moved from one pasture or area to the next. The management of rotational grazing simply considers the moves, not the timing of the moves. The growth rate of the plants are not considered nor the recovery time of plants after grazing. Often times rotations are set. The cattle or livestock will often times rotate in the same pattern through the same pastures each year. This is often practiced in non-brittle environments, like England, with small herds and small pastures.
  • Mob grazing: This is high stock density, short duration grazing, where there are high numbers of animals bunched together to increase animal impact. They are moved frequently, as often as 3 times per day. It is more related to rotational grazing because the cattle or livestock are kept on a set rotation, typically. The recovery time of plants is not planned for in mob grazing.
  • Holistic Planned Grazing: This is the practice of charting grazing moves that consider the time that an plant is exposed to a grazing animal so that the recovery of plant is planned. Holistic planned grazing may look different from brittle to non-brittle environments and even from ranch to ranch as social, economic and environmental factors are considered in the grazing chart for each year. For example, if a family vacation is planned for a time during the summer, this is accounted for in the plan so that the grazing moves allow for this time away from the ranch. Or if it is important for the decision makers to enhance the habitat of certain wildlife like elk, deer or quail on the ranch, then the grazing plan would account for the nesting or breeding seasons for these species, for example.  Using holistic planned grazing, the planned moves are usually shorter and faster during the fast plant growth period and slower during the slow growth and non-growing seasons. This is because the timing of the moves are driven by plant recovery. Holistic planned grazing doesn’t dictate rotations or the same pattern of movement through available pastures. It is the practice of making a yearly grazing plan considering plant recovery, stock days per acre, rate of gain in livestock, as well as other calculations and factors. The essence of holistic planned grazing is “grazing like the plants matter.”
holistic planned grazing, Springs Ranch, Jefferson Center for Holistic Management
Cattle grazing at Springs Ranch according to the family’s holistic grazing plan

Why timing matters

In the newest (yet to be released) edition of Holistic Management, Allan and Jody explain how Allan came to understand the importance of timing in using livestock to reverse desertification. This insight was gained from the work of Andre Voisin who worked in the non-brittle environment of Western Europe with a method he called rational grazing. 

Allan writes: “He had established that overgrazing bore little relationship to the number of animals but rather to the time plants were exposed to the animals. If animals remained in any one place for too long or if they returned to it before plants had recovered, they overgrazed plants. The time of exposure was determined by the growth rate of the plants. If plants were growing fast, the animals needed to move on more quickly and could return more quickly. If plants grew slowly, the opposite was true. Suddenly I could see how trampling also could be either good or bad. Time became the determining factor. The disturbance needed for the health of the soil became an evil if prolonged too much or repeated too soon.” – Holistic Management, Chapter 6

Holistic planned grazing in action

Here is a video taken from the upland areas of Springs Ranch looking down to the cattle in the field that are moving according to our holistic grazing plan for this year.


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