Hello, I am looking for information on applying permaculture concepts to grazing pasture, specifically with the goal of improving drought-resistance. I have four acres of pasture and graze, on average, three cattle at any one time. This year, again, is starting out very rough regarding rainfall, but I suspect that swales and a well placed pond or two might be very beneficial.
Can swales be designed in such a way that they withstand the impact of grazing animals? Can anyone point me to books or other resources that address this specifically?
I think swales in pastures are usually combined with tree planting, because of the concern that swales alone may cause waterlogging. Consider improving your pasture with the addition of trees, which can even be of forage species. Keyline plowing is a technique used to rehabilitate grazing land, but it requires special equipment. Managed intensive grazing/holistic grazing/ etc are used to rehabilitate grassland just with the action of grazing animals.
Hi Chris, if you added some location and climate info, that would be really helpful.
Greg Judy's respect for his land and animals is really inspiring. This video's pretty long, but I think it's well worth watching the whole thing.
I was going to post about the Greg Judy video, but thought, with 3 head of cattle, it may not be that appropriate, as Greg is more into a mob grazing system. Since you posted it, I rethought:
With Greg Judy's approach, the roots will go deeper, the plants will be healthier, the soil will be healthier, (and consequently the cattle will be healthier) and the added organic matter will help to hold water longer under drought conditions, plus healthy plants will hold up much better/longer once water is gone.
With a much smaller operation, such as Chris is talking about, the system would need to be fine tuned so as to fully take advantage. At first glance, many might say that Judy's approach isn't "permaculture" because it creates more labor. The labor is not raising the cattle, the labor is creating better soil, better pasture (building infrastructure that will last for decades). The end result is a better pasture (which theoretically can support more cattle), which certainly ispermaculture. The other option is to slowly degrade your soils until they reach the point that they cannot support your herd.
Location: Wellington, New Zealand. Temperate, coastal, sandy, windy,
John, oh yeah, I'm so in love with Greg Judy's management systems, I wasn't thinking numbers
Although three cattle, tightly mobbed and rotated would have the same affect as 100 if the stocking rates are correct, right?
I found this thread on the Permaculture Reseach Institute forums that might be helpful.
I haven't constructed swales, but from what I understand, farmers generally cell/strip/mob (insert term for intensively managed rotational grazing using portable electric fencing) between swales, as stock will damage them.
Chris, how do you currently graze your cattle? what sort of water lines/sources do you have? Rotational grazing requires some seriously well-planned drinking water access.
I'd think a good grazing system, and sowing beneficial pasture species will have a major impact on drought-resistance.
I can't find good links, but I've read that broadcasting seed before mobbing pasture gets really effective germination: cattle break the ground up, push in the seeds, fertilise the area and leave for at least a month
if you are looking for forage plants, just find out what polyculture plants are good for forage and plant as many as you can, I would add Jerusalem artichokes as they grow like mad and are great forage
Bloom where you are planted.
Thank you, everyone, for your replies. There are some great thoughts in there.
When I started grazing cattle four years ago (zero prior experience), the pasture had been an over-farmed corn field that we let go to weeds for many years after we bought it. Then we started just mowing it for a few years and it started growing some grass and clover along with the weeds. I have been practicing rotational grazing on four acres of pasture - this is the fourth year - and the quality of the forage and the water retention have greatly increased. Nearly all of the low broad-leafed weeds have been overcome. However, I still have a very difficult time with periods of drought, especially on the one half of the pasture with a fair amount of slope. That portion has also only been grazed for two years and has not built up as much of a litter bed.
I move the cattle anywhere from daily to every-three days, depending on the specific paddock and the current regrowth rate. I have read Greg Judy's books, several of Joel Salatin's, and have looked at the HMI material. I am doing my best to replicate mob grazing with only a few animals. I have had as few as two and as many as five over the years. The concept does not seem to translate perfectly with so few head, I think. There is really a limit to how small an area can be grazed and the social behavior of three animals is very different from that of twenty or fifty or, especially, hundreds. I think the big result difference is that the trampling effect is not nearly as beneficial. But, it does seem to be working to a less complete degree.
Changing the stocking density in response to the rainfall is also less flexible with only a few head to work with.
For water, I always provide a lane from their current paddock back to a barn that is open on two sides year-round. The cows (Scottish Highland) are very intolerant to heat, but they love our cold winters. We are in mid-Michigan outside of Lansing. The first year I moved the water with the cows, but they suffered too much with insufficient shade. I'd like to have shade to move with them, but haven't had the time, or money, to try building a shademobile. I may need to consider another breed of cattle. I have also been considering switching to sheep to allow me to have greater numbers and more of the mob effect. I could then also afford to keep a ram, which could make the operation more sustainable.
I am hoping that there are some permaculture principles regarding water catchment and control that I can apply that will speed up the improvement of the pasture's water-holding capacity. It does seem like the cattle, or sheep, would damage and compact a system of swales, but maybe I could use hotwire to keep them off of the fragile parts. If anyone is doing specific permaculture/pasture experimentation, I'd love to know about it.
Or even if there is anyone out there practicing rotational grazing in my area, I'd like to meet you. The few people that I have met are only sort-of grazing rotationally.
I think I will try overseeding some new species as the summer continues. I'll sow seeds into the paddock just ahead of the cows and see if their trampling is effective in promoting germination. I may try the Jerusalem artichokes, too. This came up in another conversation as well, so maybe I should pay attention!
Thanks again for all of your feedback. I welcome more!
Location: Currently in Lake Stevens, WA. Home in Spokane
I think that your idea of over seeding some new species into the pastures is excellent.
Each year is likely to bring different weather. If conditions for one species is poor, having different species in the mix will increase the odds that something else will prosper under those conditions. If you have a species that performs well in a drought condition that may only happen once in five years, your seeds will remain viable in the soil until that one year happens. Same for the species that does best if the fields are flooded a month or two later than normal. That seed bank in your soil will pay for itself the first time you don't need to buy hay.
Another consideration for a good multiple species mix is the season/growth habits of the plant. Early, mid and, late grasses in the mix give you a greater flexibility. Having a species poking through the last of the snow will feed your herd in early spring. After you have moved the herd to greener pastures, the later species will begin maturing on the first pasture. You will be able to move the herd onto each pasture several times, as the seasonal grasses reach prime grazing conditions.
(Within reason), the greater the variety, the lower the chances of a failure due to one that performs poorly.
I also think adding sheep to the mix is good. Cattle and sheep eat different things at different stages of growth. Having both could increase the value of your pasture crops. Anyway, who ever says "No" to a barbequed rack of lamb?
I have a quite a lot of experience applying permaculture principles to pasture and grazing animals. We are in the Idaho Palouse region, so our temperatures are pretty similar to yours, but our rainfall pattern is pretty different. We get most of out precip from November to May; it usually stops raining on the summer solstice and stays dry until the end of August, and only raining sporadically until late fall (although the weather is much less predictable than it used to be --climate change!). We have close to 50 head of mostly alpacas, with some llamas, and our pastures basically dry out about this time of year and the grasses go dormant.
Trying to summarize everything that I've learned would be a huge post, but here are some thoughts:
1. Plant polycultures -- I use a mixture of sod and bunch grasses and legumes, which I overseed by overgrazing an area and broadcasting seed. If you don't have forbs like dandelions and plantain and chicory that will seed in on their own, I would add those. If you have mixed terrain in your pastures, different plants in your pasture mix will do well indifferent parts of it. I would also add native tall and short grass prairie plants to it in your location. We are going to try that here, but they may be harder to establish, as they are mostly adapted to some summer rainfall.
2. Plant trees --We are establishing a silvopastoral system, using predominantly willows and poplars, which are easy to propagate, are palatable, and are nutritious (nutrient profile compares favorably with grass). They will be managed as a coppice to keep new growth, which is more nutritious, within reach. There are a lot of different configurations of trees in pasture, and you can decide what will give you the best additional benefits -- shade, windbreaks etc. We are establishing ours in lines just off contour, with each line accompanied by a mulched swale also just off contour, the same way it would be if it were keylined. We decided not to keyline, as we have a heavy clay loam soil, and it tends to slump when saturated with water. Our hope is that the swales will function like the keyline but not hold so much water that the hillside will collapse!
Our treelines are planted on our permanent fencelines, which border permanent lanes and are on the breakpoints of our hills. Ideally we would have them as far apart as the height of the trees that we plant, to get complete wind protection and reduce moisture evaporation from the pastures. We do have to fence the animals out of the trees initially (we found this out the hard way).
If you plant something other than willows and poplars, check with the veterinary toxicologist at your vet school to make sure they are not toxic.
3. Mob grazing -- Each year we have reduced the paddock size we use in our rotations, trying to get the guys to eat things down uniformly. We think we've finally found the
right size but only time will tell (it's 13 animals in a 16x16 ft area). It is very time /labor intensive compared with just turning animals out on the range, but the potential results in soil-building and moisture retention are huge. Mob grazing as a tool is ideal for arid/brittle climates, but not as necessary for other climates, since organic matter will decay into the soil without animal trampling just due to the higher rainfall.
There are some interesting things being done in the midwest in the pasture/ grazing area. I heard a guy from Minnesota speak at a western sustainable ag conference a while ago. I think his name is Mike McGrath. I got a newsletter from him for a while, but that was a while ago. I have a vague recollection that it might have been called the Minnesota project. You might be able to find it online.
We are in the beginning stages of planning an Animals in Permaculture Intensive course for next year, where we will take about this stuff in more detail, so I would be interested to know what things people would like to know on the topic of permaculture and pastures, as well as any related animal stuff.
Deb, I too found your post to be very interesting and full of information. I am sure you will announce your workshop on permi pasturing on this site, I would be very interested in attending. We are just starting on our 69 acres (that has been traditionally grazed) to move toward a keyline and holistic managed system, here in North Central WA. So I have a big interest in your knowledge. I also want to explore tree/hedgerow plantings which provide forage/protein to cattle and also explore (without hurting the herd) winter under snow foraging.
I intend to do some poultry "grazing" hedgerow plantings too, if you have experience in that area, it might be another good topic for your workshop.
I think it is important to have this Permaculture Pastures discussion!!! Thanks for starting this thread....and hello Deb Berman! I hope you are well, and your workshop sounds wonderful, I'd love to attend! My farm is located 35 miles NE of Bozeman, MT. I've got 20 acres of overgrazed zero fertility (no soil OM, no nitrogen) rangeland...and our elevation is high, and growing season painfully short...so, for my farm, the best bet for long term sustainability and soil building I'm thinking is a combination of the right plants, adapted to our conditions, and the services of animals (trampling, manuring, among the other abundant yields). I think developing an amazing mix of species of plants in the perennial pasture is paramount. I started experimenting with pasture seeding and various pasture species in 2008, the first season on the land. Since, I've come up with a seed mix that combines the best plants that I've worked with so far, but I know it can be improved upon. It has 17 species. I'd like to see a dozen more species in the mix, and I'm looking for ideas. I'm also curious to know if there are particular reference texts or articles that experienced broadscale restoration people (Deb Berman, Owen Hablutzel, Neil Bertrando ?) have used when deciding to re-seed a degraded, low-rainfall, cold climate area to research and select plant species? What plants (grasses, particularly)used in these scenarios (Keyline, Holistic Management) have done particularily well, regardless of bioregion, with the least amount of post-seeding management, other than grazing?
I've gleaned things here and there from Acres USA articles over the years, and have found the following books to be extremely helpful in terms of selecting particular species for an "Herbal Ley", another term for a mixed-species perennial pasture: Fertility Farming, and Fertility Pastures by F. Newman Turner. Get these books, you can find them at the Acres USA website bookstore, or via Amazon. I've also observed our nearby mountain meadows for some idea of native species to include. I feel that using adapted introduced pasture species mixed with natives is my intuitive inclination. Often, in conventional landscape restorations of native prairies, the typical method is to seed a prepared area with native grasses and forbs, and then use herbicides to knock back weeds, which considering the slow development of native grass and forb seedlings, come in very heavy the first couple of years. I've found that using adapted introduced pasture species fills the niche in the first seasons that is filled by annual weeds in strictly native plantings. The natives are coming along underneath them. We also mow to knock back first flushes of annual weeds with great results, while the perennials are establishing beneath the weed canopy. The plant varieties I am seeding now are: Grasses: Indian Ricegrass, Western Wheatgrass, Bluebunch Wheatgrass, Orchardgrass, Perennial Ryegrass. Legumes: Ladino Clover, Red Clover, Sainfoin, Birdsfoot Trefoil, Purple Prairie Clover. Other forbs: Annual Sunflower, Chicory, Small Burnet, Yellow Prairie Coneflower, Echinacea purpurea, Blue Flax and Western Yarrow. Other varieties I am interested in are native mints, bee balms, other medicinals, but also other grasses.
I did not include Alfalfa specifically because of the release this year of GMO Alfalfa around the US. I've planted this mix all over some berms and a swale we built last year, as the understory to a fruit and berry food forest. So far so good! On the leeward and water catching side of the berms and swales, the mix is green despite the drought, though we have the fruit trees on a drip line. We did have some Sweet Clover (a plant often utilized by Newman Turner and Sepp Holzer) germinate within the planting, which we have a lot of dormant seed of in our soil, and here and there the Smooth Brome and Crested Wheatgrass is present from the soil seed bank. I'm not a fan of Smooth Brome since it is coarse and aggressive, but my goats like it. I started a thread about this seed mix under the Resources heading, and have some current photos I need to post there. I have about a 1/4 acre dryland seeded from last fall, and it is crispy. Interestingly, the Blue Flax seems to be hanging the toughest of all the plants, holding the soil at least, and hanging on to life. We mowed some Field Pennycress and Lambsquarter coming up in it earlier this spring. Some native wildflowers have started growing there, and the Crested Wheatgrass as well. Not much of the new seed mix even germinated, but now we're digging that area up to add more berms anyway.
Farmer at Cloud Nine Farm, located at 5300' elevation, on Sagebrush Steppe, northeast of Bridger Mountains in the Shields Valley of Montana. We do market gardens, four season growing, build earthworks, plant food forests, raise livestock and poultry, grow and sell plants and seeds, host WWOOFers, and more. Find our farm on facebook!
Welcome to Permies! We used to work together and I'm not far from you, so anytime you want to check-out my pastures and permie projects let me know. I'll be happy to share what has been working for me and hear whats been working for you.
I'm not speaking from a point of expertise or even experience, but I've been reading quite a bit about using dairy byproduct (unpasturized) and applying it to pastures with some amazing results in increased nuturition in what grows and greately reduced compaction. It's my understanding that the reduced compaction gives the soil a better chance of water retention, too. At first, it may seem like a big deal to come up with enough raw milk to make that worth while. However, the application ratios the field tests are coming up with are 2-3 gallons of raw milk per acre. That's not very much, but they're finding no additional benefit by applying more than 2-3 gallons. Several universites are studying this, which is some indication that there is some merit to the anecdotal informal field studies people in the Midwest are conducting. One dairy farmer in Nebraska was simply using a tank truck and emptying his whey out into one of his pastures as he drove along one side. I did read an article in Acres U.S.A. about it and several others. Almost all are reporting improved brix numbers and improved penetrometer testing (better nutrients and less compaction). For me, the proof is in the pudding when the cattle are left to chose for themselves what to graze on, several farmers are reporting their cattle self-select for the pastures that have had the raw milk applied. The theory is the increased microbial life due to the raw milk. With increased microbial life, you have increases in fertility and other beneficial characteristics.
Let's say that one would apply at 2 gal/acre and a gallon of raw milk was $4. For your four-acre operation, that would be $32 an application. I think that's less than an organic fertilizer. Not sure if it's a viable option for people who want to improve their pastures, but it sure seems to be a good way to make good use of some milk that got some hair or dirt in it and can't be consumed by humans. Using what would be waste is certainly a permacutlure principle.
Love to hear of others' thoughts about this, especially if they've tried it themselves. I have seven acres of pasture on my 10-acre farm and am making a determination what I should put on it.
Yes we are applying raw milk to our pastures. This is the first year doing it extensively, so I cant say I see results or not yet. But the theory is sound, IMO. The raw milk is a healthy microbial innoculant for the soil, an immune boost for the plants, and a foliar fertilizer for the plants. We just fill up the backpack sprayer with leftover skim milk, and when moving our electric fence, spray some pasture. Nothing really precise, we just try to apply the milk spray as often as we can, 2-3 times per week. So ideally our pastures all get raw milk every month or so, which is about the length of our total pasture rotation. Raw milk is a lot less work than compost tea, and there is always extra skim milk on a small dairy.
Swales are typically not a good choice for pastures. They are a tree growing system. Now you could add trees and swales or even just swales to your pastures but you need to fences of the pile of dirt on the downhill side of the swale. That is supposed to be loose packed and animals will compact it. But I think that doing a typical mob grazing setup will fix our problems with less work then swales. Right now we run three cattle, two Jersey cows and a dexter bull. We use a single strand of electric string and move them every couple days. We have a much moister climate then you do, but Allen Savory has done some awesome things with the mob grazing in both africa and texas.