I’ll preface this review by several quotes;
- ‘First, do no harm’, Australian soil scientists Dr Christine Jones.
- ‘Nature never lies’, Australian Brookside agronomists Gwyn Jones.
- ‘Animals are very good analytical chemists’, Australian soil scientists Dr Peter Bennet
- ‘You cannot improve an ecosystem by taking something out of it’,
- ‘The plant’s manage the soil and the animals manage the plant’s’, and
- ‘Grazing pulses the landscape’, the above 3 all by Australian Landmanship promoter Paul Newell.
- ‘Celebrate your successes’, social ecologists Dr Stuart Hill.
- ‘Stand to the side of nature’, is my paraphrasing of many practical, hands on, agroecological farmers I have heard speak over the years.
With all this stuff floating around in my head my Father aloud me some land and stock to manage but I never really started ‘rational’ grazing until 2003 and have only been happy with the feed wedge and diversity I am now promoting after the continued rains of 2010. The ‘rational’ system I use is now based on ground cover and grazing days. The stock, as Dr Peter Bennet said, will eat what nutrition they need if it is available in the grazed area, or in stocks licks. By inference, what they eat we call the palatable species and are satisfying the nutritional demands of that stocks metabolism in that season, which of course changes. As Andre Voisin’s says, ‘feed a man steak for a month and offer him a sausage’, he will eat the sausage not because it is a better cut of meat but because it is a change and furthermore it offers a balance to his nutritional intake. The smorgasbord on offer to the stock ranges from ‘yellow rice to ice cream’, (the presenter of the grazing course hated yellow rice and loved ice cream). If set stocked the stock will eat all the ice cream and we lose biodiversity, and eventually stock health. If on the other hand we move the stock on before they have damage the ice cream plants, (the most palatable) we promote dynamic change.
The managed selective nature of the grazing animal promotes increased growth by pulsing the landscape and promoting stage 2 growth in the plant. Simply a grass has three stages of growth, stage 1; a germinated seed or grazed plant that has insufficient leaf area to photosynthesise energy for growth so seed / root reserve are used. Stage 2; leaf area for photosynthesis is sufficient and energy over that required for growth is stored in the roots. Stage 3; Senescence due to shading or flowering reduce growth and root energy storing. The less palatable plants are minimally grazed and run into senescence, over time naturally reducing their dominance. In this way the animal can manage the plant. The rest period after this pulsing must be long enough for the palatable species to fully recover from grazing, at the moment rest periods exceed 100 days on Palarang.
Now the plants manage the soil. I don’t believe that it is necessary or even possible for humans to understand all that happens under the soil. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and many an idol will find the sacrifices on its alter unpalatable, (the ecological problems of the green revolution and GM’s spring to mind). Having said that I will relate some of the work Dr Christine Jones did soil fungi. (see link Mycorrhizal fungi - powerhouse of the soil at www.amazingcarbon.com) When a seed germinates in a soil that is low in phosphorous, the root exude an enzyme that cause a mycorrhizal fungi to grow. One end of this fungi attaches itself to the roots of the plant and the other ends enlist bacteria to harvest phosphorous from an area up to 500 time bigger than the plants root have access to. One of the many useful aspect of mycorrhizal fungus is that it is a major factor in the storage of soil carbon. When a seed germinates in a soil with soluble phosphorous added the fungi never germinate leaving the seedling to struggle without the full support of the soil.
The grazing rotation keeps the plants healthy but seasonal variation mean that stock health has needed the support of nutritional supplementation. I keep a ‘Pat Coleby’ loose mineral lick out with the stock most of the time, this consists on 25kg of dolomite, 4kg each of copper sulphate, elemental sulphur and sea weed meal. On soil tests done by Gwyn Jones I also add a spoonful of zinc sulphate to the mix. I have used both sea weed and garlic drenches with young sheep but find that ‘rational’ grazing with stock licks normally adequate. Regular kidney fat testing monitors heavy metal and agrochemical levels, which have always been non-detectable in these test. Flys in sheep are controlled primarily with grazing, (fly’s are a sign of excess nitrogen), shearing in December before the fly wave and regular checking and trimming when necessary. Blown sheep are treated with Extinosad, a Biological Farmers of Australia allowed input and tagged to be culled. Homeopathy and Bach / Bush Flower remedies are also use but from experience only work effectively when stock have nearly adequate mineral uptake.
Apart from an amateur interest in grasslands, in particular native forbs, biodiversity is monitored on two 10m quadrats set up by David Eddy, a grassland ecologists in conjunction with a Southern Rivers CMA funded subdivision project on Palarang.
After a visit and subsequent field day by Peter Andrews www.naturalsequencefarming.com, cattle are no longer grazed on the creek, this allowed an explosion of reeds and now whenever I go down to the creek there is always something green and growing or senescence but still holding soil and slowing freshes in the river. Peter also has a good understanding of the ecological function of aspects that are often considered separate or harmful to the landscape. His views on willows are not unique, see Michael Wilson's science (download 2009-MWilson_NSFv2-Willows_final.doc at www.nsfarming.com/Media) on their role in Victorian goldfield restoration, but it was his pointing out of observed but unnoticed cycles that intrigued me. Grass is a almost completely palatable carbon source, to balance this removal we need non-palatable forms of carbon in the landscape like trees or even weeds.
Tree planting has been more a learning curve than a success on Palarang. Future expansion of biodiversity will be built not by replanting what is missing but by attempting, in Paul Newell’s works, to reconnect landscape function. All of the degradation I see in my landscape is due to loss of carbon and the breakdown of the water cycle. A one percent rise in soil carbon on Palarang would mean each square metre of soil could hold an extra 14 litres of water, hence carbon and the water cycle are inexorably linked. Not until the water cycle is reconnected will the trees survive without human help, once landscape function is restabilised the biodiversity will return by itself. Work reported by Suzuki and Dressel in 'Good News for a Change - Hope for a Troubled Planet' describe regrowth of thought missing riparian vegetation in an American national park after cougar’s were returned, causing the deer? (It may have been elk) to more away from the river’s edge. The reconnecting of ecological function allowed the rest and a subsequent miraculous recovery of the riparian vegetation. They also detail equally unexpected native forb regeneration in a rotational grazed landscape in America. The local marketing of my produce can also be seen at an attempt at reconnecting landscape function.
The final quote in the list above, ‘Stand to the side of nature’ refers to our all too easy arrogance with regard to nature.
As Dr Stuart Hill puts it, 'Most of what is remains unknown – which is what wise people are able to work with; so devote most effort to developing your wisdom vs. your cleverness, which is just concerned with the very limited pool of what is known (Einstein was clear about this!)'.
Much can be learnt by getting out of the way and letting the light onto the subject. With due respect to the fact that we are natures creation, ‘a fool thinks himself a wise man, a wise man knows himself a fool!’