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Farming: Regenerative Farming - a case study

21 Mar 2019

Last week I introduced the concept of Regenerative Farming as practiced by Ian Mitchell-Innes, a South African guru, using mobs of animals to quickly take off the top third of the swarth and move them on to the next patch.

This week I have the story of how dairy farmer, Siobhan Griffin, turned her farm around in the United States using regenerative farming practices before moving to South Otago where she consults on this form of pasture and stock management. This story was originally published in OrganicNZ.

Next Level Pasture Management

Grazing for Health

By: Siobhan Griffin   -   Grazing coach and Dairy Farmer

This is a story about building soil on a dairy farm. Anyone with land and livestock can do it with the knowledge of how nature builds soil and nothing builds topsoil better than grazing animals in a regenerative grass system. I believe New Zealand agriculture is ideally placed to take on this grazing system and make it her own.

We built topsoil on our US dairy farm by advancing to this next level of grazing. Several farmers in New Zealand have asked me how taller grazing works on a dairy farm, so I wrote it up.

Here is my story. 

My family and I farmed in Vermont and New York State (NYS) for 25 years. Our 134-hectare farm became one of the first certified organic dairy and beef farms in New York State in 1997. We were able to support two families on just 100 cows.

When we first learned about mob grazing, we thought it was just for beef and sheep ranching. In 2009 Greg Judy came out from Missouri to speak at a grazing conference in NYS with slides of his farm. What he was doing made a lot of sense. He was saving heaps of money on feed by growing more forage and his animals looked fat and healthy. No one had done mob grazing with dairy and we decided to give it a try. We grew more quality grass and our cattle became healthier than I ever imagined they could.

We simply raised our grazing and residual heights five centimeters a year over a six-year period. We grew more grass every year by spelling paddocks longer and mobbing up our 100 cows tighter but with more shifts per day, so they were fully fed. We carefully planned to keep the grass green and vegetative.  Next level grass is NOT the tall brown headed out pasture you sometimes see pictures of beef cows on.  With soil biology running on all cylinders the grass is leafy and green all the way to the bottom.

Pasture

None of these pastures in the photos were fertilized with chemicals for decades.

Using next level grazing techniques on our farm we raised the organic matter in the soil on our dairy and beef farm from between 4-5% to 7-9% in just five years. Rotationally grazing organic ryegrass/white clover pastures for fifteen years before had not done this. We didn’t change our simple fertility program which included lime, rock phosphate, and small amounts of chicken litter and cost us less than $5,000 US per year.

By the second year of next level grazing we saw red clover persisting and timothy, cocksfoot, lucerne, plantain, dandelion, birdsfoot trefoil, hairy vetch, meadow fescue, phalaris, and brome grass volunteering. None of these pasture species are native to New York State but all came from Europe/Asia just like they have in New Zealand.  (Earth worms were imported to the US from Europe/Asia as well.)  After six years of holistic planned grazing adapted for dairy, we ended up with 50% legume in the pasture sward and only about 20% in the perennial ryegrass we had started with. 

By the time we sold the farm in December 2015, diversity in the paddock and in the surrounding forest had exploded on our farm because we had lifted our grazing wedge.  A bird expert visiting our farm identified 86 species of birds and he said there were more. Our cows were fat, shiny, and healthy and the herd in-calf rate had improved.  No cows retained their placenta and we only had one case of mastitis that year on 100 cows!  We were saving heaps of money on Vet and medicine costs.  Our Vet asked us why we had stopped calling him.  We had not needed to drench calves for worms in six years.  Our milk and cheese were sweet and delicious. Plant roots in our pastures were going down one meter. The streams leaving our farm were crystal clear and we had cancelled plans for K-line irrigation because the taller grasses and legumes didn’t shrivel up in the hot dry summer like the ryegrass/white clover alone used to.   Rare creatures like the Karner blue butterfly showed up and we knew we were taking the right path.

Animal health and holistic management

For the twelve years prior to raising our covers we farmed with perennial ryegrass and white clover pastures which we used to re-plant every 7 years after grazing a summer crop. In 2006 we started making farmstead cheese. We knew our Milk Urea Nitrogen (MUN’s) were too high in the spring and autumn but never thought they would cause an off flavor in our cheese! The milk company had paid us for quality, but no one EVER tasted the milk. We had some cows with laminitis and wanted better condition on the cows. That’s when we learned that doing TOO good a job with perennial rye grass and white clover and bragging about our 25% protein pastures was a fool’s game. Milking dairy cows require only a 17% protein diet. Our high protein perennial ryegrass and white clover pastures meant the cows had to waste energy to urinate out the extra Nitrogen. The excess protein levels in our pasture was making our cows unhealthy by lowering rumen pH and causing acidosis.  Sometimes our cows would paint the shed green. When stock have diarrhea, they feel like you do when you have it – sick. It also means they are not absorbing nutrients efficiently because passage is too quick. 

For years we had tried supplementing our high-quality ryegrass pastures with grain to “balance” the excessive protein, but two wrongs do not make a right. This simply does not work well in the rumen which is designed to ferment grass, not grain or palm kernel. It is much healthier for the stock and your bank account to grow pasture with the right balance of energy to protein.

The solution was to allow the pasture to grow to the next level and let the cows harvest the top half of the plants where the most energy is to balance the protein better. Energy in a plant is concentrated at the top of the plant closest to the sun. The lower half of a grass or legume has higher concentrations of protein and lignin. There is a reason stock wander through a paddock creaming off the high energy tops first.  They have had millions of years of evolution to teach them this is the most efficient way to grow and make milk. Trust your stock and listen to their body language and you will see the best animal performance.

How do you get started growing more grass?

Raise the whole farm grazing wedge. Every pasture leaf is a solar energy factory and the more leaf area you have at all times, the more potential you have of converting free solar energy into saleable product like meat and milk. A higher grazing wedge before winter provides more winter feed as well as benefits such as drought and flood resilience and protection for the soil. Grass roots go as deep as a plant is tall so the longer your average cover the better your soil is protected from pugging. We managed for no bare soil year around on our dairy farm and this made mastitis a rare occurrence. 

We got the best outcomes by mimicking nature. In the wild, grazing ruminants get away from the area they dung and urinate on quickly because eating near one’s own manure is unhealthy. Wild ruminant herds keep on moving and don’t return to the same grass until their manure has been broken down by the bugs, worms and microbes which have also evolved with the grazers and grass over tens of thousands of years. This means for the best animal performance AND maximum forage production: Mob them up and follow with optimum rest for the paddock.

1.    Graze pasture with as many animals as possible for as short a time as possible.

Combining groups is the best way to jump start your pasture productivity. Larger groups usually mean you need to shift them quicker but returns you dividends in pasture and animal performance.

2.     Provide optimum rest for the paddock

Rest the paddock until the plants have fully recovered but have not yet gone to seed.

South African consultant Ian Mitchell-Innes taught many dairy and beef and sheep finishing operations in the US to adapt holistic grazing techniques to produce high animal performance.   I call this next level grazing because you don’t wait for the pasture to get over mature before you graze it. You do want to give it optimum rest to maximize your solar energy harvest.   We do this by resting paddocks until the main indicator grass plant (the desirable species you have the most of) in the paddock reaches the boot stage. The boot stage is when the seed head is formed but has not yet emerged from the stalk. Just peel open a stem to check. Resting paddocks until the boot stage puts you at the end of the fastest growth stage of the plant so you can be sure you have capitalized on what Andre Voisan called “the blaze of growth”. 

Once I had the biology functioning well in my soil that usually meant the four-leaf stage of my perennial ryegrass or cocksfoot. When I first started raising my grazing wedge it was the three and a half leaf stage.  In a few years as the biology ramped up in my sward the pasture plants remained very desirable to our stock even after flowering but while the grass was still green which was a delightful surprise to me. 

How do you know if you have it right? We targeted MUN levels of 12-14.  You can also look at the dung. We knew we were on the right track if the cattle dung pats were thick like pumpkin pie and had a dent in the middle.  Stock should not have dung sticking to their butt. Sheep dung should be clumps of pellets clinging together which are not hard.

We found when we reached a grazing height of 50cm and a residual of 20cm our stock was the healthiest and so was the pasture. It took us between 4 to 5 years to work up to these heights depending on the paddock.

To grow pastures to the next level we set target grazing and residual heights that were slightly higher than the year before. This meant feeding baleage longer at the end of winter to start the Spring grazing round a few days later to get covers higher from the start. For every bale of hay we fed then we grew six bales worth of feed in the paddocks as the grazing wedge lifted over the entire farm.  We also learned to start with more paddocks in the grazing round than usual on the first Spring rotation. The trick is to move the cows quicker to leave a higher residual. This works best with three or four shifts a day with tighter mobs for an even graze, to keep paddocks vegetative, and encourage tillering.  We had a flexible system so if the children had sports or if I was away, we just shifted stock twice a day after milking and gave them a larger break.

On our first grazing round in the Spring once seed heads emerge, we shut up paddocks for hay or later grazing.  With the right pre-planning we had paddocks which we previously grazed at the right height to return to.

In summer add enough machine harvested paddocks which have grown back up to the rotation to increase your rest period and to keep raising the whole farm cover ever so slightly. This will mean shutting up fewer paddocks for hay or baleage at some point.  Supplement with feed if you are overstocked or it gets hot and dry to keep on target with your heights. You will grow more feed in the long run this way and need less stored feed for winter. With higher covers going into autumn and winter, the cows harvest more feed for you, and they work much cheaper than the contractors.

We quit reseeding paddocks because the pastures we had growing were better than our ryegrass/clover renewed paddocks. If you are in a hurry and do choose to plant one of the new diverse multispecies pasture mixes it is important to raise your grazing height to at least 30 cm and residual heights to above 15 cm right away and not gradually or the taller species such as red clover and timothy will not persist.  Here is an example of a mix which should work well for most farmers if they maintain grazing and residual heights at the next level.

seed table

You may be as surprised as I was how healthy your animals become and how your farm changes for the better.  Our growing season in New York State is only seven months long so I expect Kiwi farmers will get quicker results than I did with your more favorable climate for growing grass. The biggest benefit of next level grazing for me was that my pastures no longer quit growing in our summer dry spell.  High rainfall events soaked in quickly and did not run off either. Although droughts were becoming worse, I cancelled my plans to buy k-line irrigation because my deep roots and soil were holding more water.

New Zealand farmers have all the skills and infrastructure you need to move to a soil building food production system.   You don’t need any new whizbang technology either. No big capital investment. You just need to be true to what has always been your unfair advantage – perennial pasture.

To contact Siobhain email her at next.level.grazing@gmail.com or phone her on 020 4086 3855

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