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A guide to healthy pastures

Chris FerreiraCountryman
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As I write this, New South Wales and Queensland have just been blanketed in tens of thousands of tonnes of precious top soil, blown in by horrific dust storms that stripped the mallee regions of central Australia.

It is a brutal and tragic loss that underpins just how damaged and fragile so much of this wide, brown land is, and it is a timely reminder of how important it is to do all we can to maintain healthy paddocks with our soil intact.

Remember the reputation of all pastures — be they annuals or perennials — far exceeds the reality.

Pastures are not super plants, and if you don’t manage them correctly, they will die and you will end up with paddocks that look like the back blocks of the Gibson Desert.

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At all times, but especially when the hot, dry weather kicks in, grazing should be carefully monitored and managed.

Balancing the needs of your land and your stock is a fine art. The following rules outline how you can keep stock without killing off your land.

Rule One

Always use stocking rate guidelines to determine your mob or herd size. There is a good reason for the rates given in these guidelines, and if you exceed them, you, your stock and the land will suffer.

Rule Two

Where possible, have twice as many paddocks as mobs that you plan to carry. This gives you the flexibility to allow areas to rest when they need to (at the height of summer when the property is gripped by a heatwave, they will need to rest). Portable electric fencing is a terrific boon to help you to make divisions within existing larger paddocks.

Rule Three

Use rotational grazing, moving animals well before pasture shows signs that it is suffering. The trick is to know when it is time to move animals on. The concept of a ‘magic corridor’ means you don’t let the grasses get too low, nor let them grow too tall, in which case they can become rank and inedible.

Rule Four

Create walk-ins, walk-outs, or at least a sacrificial area, so paddocks can be rested when they need it. When times are tough, these sacrificial areas will be a godsend, since they will give you the fall-back opportunity to preserve the integrity of your pastures.

If you must graze when times are tough, then restrict it to short spells of one or two hours in the early morning or evening. Remember, it is when you graze pastures during these desperate times that you are most likely to kill them off.

Rule Five

Halve your stocking rate, especially over summer and autumn. The productive potential of land in all but the winter waterlogged paddocks of this great country plummets in the dry months of summer and autumn, so aim to reduce your grazing pressure accordingly.

Good farmers do this routinely, selling off excess animals prior to summer.

I have just spent some time in western Kenya and Tanzania and much of that drought-stricken landscape is buckling under the added weight of high grazing pressure by the stock of Masai herdsman. Fortunately, these herders are being taught the benefits of sustainable grazing and the merits of tailoring stock numbers to the carrying capacity of the land at any given time.

Some people I know who own vastly different properties swap stock pressures with their friends over the course of the seasons. The one with clayey soil has the largest share of stock over summer and autumn when these soils are likely to support good growth, while a swap occurs over winter and spring when the owner with the sandier — and better drained — property takes the bulk of stock.

Rule Six

Establish trees and shrubs as shelterbelts and feature clumps. Strategically placed trees and shrubs in shelterbelts will significantly improve conditions for stock and pasture and they are crucial to effective pasture management.

Rule Seven

Graze animals as a herd or mob. Grazing animals have a primal ‘hardwiring’ to be in a group. It is partly a safety in numbers thing — no one wants to end up as someone’s dinner — and it also satisfies their needs as a social animal.

Consequently, animals in groups have been shown to do much better, be less ‘loopy’, suffer less from stress and tend to damage themselves a lot less than animals in isolation.

Just watch the poor horse pacing up and down the fence, as it desperately tries to get to the horses on the other side. We may think this nothing more than the actions of an irrational animal, but its need for company is no different from its instinctive need for food, water and protection. Not only is such an estranged animal more likely to hurt itself in an attempt to reach its mates, but it will burn up more energy unnecessarily and wear down paddocks in its ceaseless activity.

Even if said horse is beloved ‘Muffy’, the priceless and prissy dressage show pony that you fear will get killed if put with the commoners of the herd, in reality she will quickly find her place in its complex social hierarchy and soon little or no altercations will take place.

Instead, Muffy will be a much happier animal as she grooms her mates and flirts with the geldings.

Interestingly, short-term rotational grazing or strip grazing combined with herd grazing has been shown to have huge environmental and productivity benefits, and has become a core component of many theories and practices of sustainable land management.

The theory is that grazing your animals as a mob means that the animals, now in higher density, graze evenly across the paddock, bringing it — weeds and all — down to the same height at about the same time. They also leave large amounts of fresh manure that will stimulate soil health and pasture regeneration.

If the animals are quickly moved onto the next paddock to repeat the process there, then the one they have just left will regrow quickly and evenly, meaning it will be ready for its next grazing stint sooner and with more vigorous and palatable growth.

Research has shown that such grazing increases the productivity of paddocks, while helping to tackle weeds and resulting in healthier and happier stock.

Rule Eight

Split your paddocks so there is only one soil type in each. This makes sense and follows the Land Management Units principles that are the backbone of sustainability on the farm.

If you have two or more soil types in the one paddock, the weakest link will erode and degrade, because it won’t be able to carry the same grazing pressure.

Rule Nine

If you own horses, cross graze whenever you can with sheep or small cows. Horses are the most finicky and fussy eaters you can have on a property, and they will gradually eat out the good plants and leave the less palatable weeds. Sheep and cows are a lot less fussy, and so will do a better job of keeping weeds under control — especially when the weeds are young.

Rule Ten

Keep pasture growth even and free of rampant weeds. Mowing, slashing and cross grazing is essential to prevent weeds from taking over paddocks. If paddocks are kept at an even height — regularly mowing out rough and high patches — weeds will not only stop seeding, and hence spreading, but it will give you the best chance of having even growth and palatability on your paddocks. This should help to stop the preferential grazing that can lay some areas bare, while leaving other areas underdone.

These long or rough patches that stock tend to hate are usually on the sites of old urine and manure patches that have become rank and sour. Not only are they wasted patches, but they tend to harbour weeds. In fact, research has shown that these patches can have 15 times the Strongyle (worm) larvae contamination.

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