It’s OK to Trample!

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by Kimberly Hagen, Pasture Program Grazing Specialist

“Graziers need to get beyond the paralyzing paradigm of wasting grass if we want to be truly sustainable.”

Those are the words of Ian Mitchell-Innes, of South Africa – farmer, philosopher, punster and no-nonsense world renowned educator of grazing farmers, and wanna-be grazers all over this planet. He was speaking to a group of that sort, at a Grazing Workshop held the Larsen Farm in Wells, Vermont earlier this year, and the timing was spot on for hearing those blunt words.  As I travel around the state, and visit with farmers seeking to develop a good grazing system or improve the one they have, I find this is one of the most difficult of concepts to get rearranged in the mind.  There is a lot of fretting going on about “all that wasted feed”.  But is it really wasted?

Not in the minds of those that promote and practice grazing. While there are varying beliefs and opinions as to what degree of trampling is best, for the most part, the general consensus is that ungrazed residue really keeps you on the right side of the line whether you are looking at the benefits for good feed, the economics, or the ecological impact of that trampled forage.

There’s a strong economic point to be made, notes Dan Hudson, agronomist with University of Vermont Extension, “keeping costs low even if it is ugly to look at, it sometimes does not make sense to clip it”, as one would be spending for the time and fuel to clip.

Mr. Litter, as Troy Bishopp, New York grazing consultant and host for Mitchell-Innes’ travels in the Northeast, has so aptly named him, promotes a ratio of 80% trampling to 20% grazing for soil building, water-holding, carbon sequestering reasons.

“We are in the energy business:  Energy is money, money is energy, and time is money”, Mitchell-Innes says.  “For us to be successful, we must capture the free solar energy by converting plants through the grazing and trampling of the grass by animals and feed the soil with this carbon-based material. One day we will be recognized for our organic matter-building capability by consumers around the world and be justly paid for sequestering carbon.”

For some, grazing tall (greater than 10 inches), at greater densities and only long enough for the animals to chomp the top third of the plant is a bit too extreme. Their comfort level resides somewhere on the continuum towards shorter grazing, or incorporating other management practices to achieve similar goals.

As Hudson points out, sometimes there isn’t a choice. Tall grazing and moving animals along quickly can leave a pasture looking uneven and “raggedy” and if you are renting or leasing pasture land and the owner likes the look of a neatly mowed field, you will have to clip after the animals graze it. However, one alternative that Hudson likes is to allow animals access back into the clipped section after he has opened a new paddock.  In this way the animals trample on the clippings and drag them around, which accomplishes the same goal that Ian puts forth, and sets up a friendly environment for regrowth of the forage as it keeps the soil cool and moist.

If this happens to a different part of your pasture every year, it might work out very well in the long run”, he says, although it can be tricky to get precise results. Weather can send the best laid plans out the window in favor of Plan B or C.   

I have personally explored and experimented with several of these management practices; grazing tall, increasing the density of the animals on a paddock, moving them quickly, or slowing way down depending on the weather, bringing in other, heavier species to do some serious trampling of the downed forage, and I have sometimes clipped – when undesirable plants are numerous and drowning out the diversity chorus.  Many times I have left the paddocks alone, for the seeds to mature and drop to the ground for next year’s foraging. 

Some of these have been wonderfully successful and some have not, but in each case something was learned through the process and maybe that’s a goal in itself. Mitchell-Innes’ ideas may be extreme for the conservative New England mind, but then he has had lots of practice in a very brittle environment and one cannot help but appreciate his push back to farmers to look up from their immediate tasks and step back for a good gaze at the big picture – then return to the farm to observe, observe and observe some more, learning to trust their own  judgement. 

So let those animals trample. Be flexible and try other new ideas.  Then, most importantly, pay attention to what happens, make many observations, and keep good records. Let us know what you discover!

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