This article was written by David McLean, the general manager for Resource Conservation Services, who are based in Australia. I was lucky to meet Terry McCosker who runs this company while I was on my Nuffield travels to Aus, and you can read my blog on my meeting here. To read the article below in full and on the RCS website, please click here.
A lot of money has been invested in research to determine which grazing system is best. Unfortunately the research is flawed with regards to giving us good, commercial information that is relevant to what graziers actually do.
Here is why......
In the early 1990s, Dr Terry McCosker travelled around the world looking at grazing systems. He looked at ones that worked and looked closely at systems that failed. On the back of this, a set of grazing principles was developed. RCS graduates would know them now as the RCS Regenerative Grazing principles. Here they are in order of importance:
1. Plan, monitor and manage
It's pretty simple really, have a plan, monitor against that plan, and manage / change things as you need to along the way. One of the primary tools for staying on top of this is the grazing chart. If you elect to operate a more intensive grazing system without one of these you are flying by the seat of your pants. They are an invaluable management tool.
2. Control of time is adjusted to suit the growth rates of the plant
This is all about doing our best to increase the proportion of the plant in phase 2 leaf in the paddocks. It's about allowing them to recover after grazing and not keeping them in phase 1 with minimal yield and shallow root systems. It is also about not letting them rest too long and go to phase 3 (lignification). How people do this is very different for clients depending on where you are based.
3. Matching sticking rate to carrying capacity
It is appalling how often these two terms are interchanged as if they mean the same thing. They don't! This would contribut eto the fact that as an industry, we do a very poor job implementing this principle (with the exception of those reading this article). Carrying capacity is what grows up in response to moisture, temperature etc. Stocking rate is the number of LSU or DSE we are running.
4. Manage livestock effectively
This one is all about animal performance. It covers animal husbandry, stock handling and education, nutrition, water quality and quantity, distance walked to water / feed, gross margins etc. This is the part where we convert plants into kgs of protein and then money.
5. Maximum stock density for minimum time.
This principle is the horsepower for parid changes in a system. When used as a tool in conjunction with the first four principles it is really powerful. If used by itself it can cause some major issues.
6. Use diversity of plants and animals to improve the ecosystem
Do you want to eat celery for breakfast, lunch and dinne? No, neither does any other organism! Diversity gives us resilience.
These principles are implemented across three continents in nearly every imaginable landscape - wet / dry, hot / cold, high/ low, big / small etc. This is the beauty of principles, they work everywhere. HOW they are implemented in each area is completely different though, as they should be. We are working in a complex environment where each year is different. The seasons vary and as a result the plant growth rates vary as well.
Whenever something goes wrong with a grazing program, you can easily identify which principle/s were broekn, regardless of what 'system' it is. So, let's consider these principles in the research that is going on.
Last year I visited a reseach station in the Northern Territories running a long term grazing systems trial, comparing 'cells' to set stocking. Here's what I found in the 'cell' grazing system:
1. Grazing charts were kept on and off. It was pretty intense, with 31 paddocks in the 'cell' . Unfortunately. the grazing chart wasn't used for decision making (a reason why most people stop filling them in).
2. The time between grazes was not adjusted due to the actual growth rate. In this year, some paddocks had three grazes in three months before the wet season had even started. The root energy reserves in those plants would have been depleted and hence would have really struggled to get going once the growing season started. They were kept on only a 30 day recovery between grazes right through until April the next year. I doubt the plants would have been top of phase 2 when they went back in. We recommend a maximum of two non-growing season grazes; they had been grazed three to four times in the non-growing season.
3. The same stocking rate was applied between both systems (to remove variables in the research). Stocking rate was not adjusted to match carrying capacity. Good managers adjust their numbers and which paddocks they allocate to a mob. Unfortunately this doesn't fit the research methodology resulting in a rigid system being enforced, regardless of the current reality.
What I saw here was not a cell grazing system. It was a number of small paddocks with animals being moved. It was rigid and did not represent cell grazing practices, and this is where the research is flawed. In reality, a cell grazer will apply the regenerative grazing principles to their situation, adapting and changing as the situation requires. In this example the first three principles were not applied, and as a consequence the trial is not representing a cell grazing system. Yet alarmingly, the resutls are bein used to report comparisons between a cell grazing system and a set stocking system.
I appreciate that researchers are honestly trying to provide useful information to benefit the industry. Unfortunately the research methodology does not align with good management decisions or represent reality.
I'm not saying that everyone should be a cell grazer. In fact less than 5% of our client base are running intensive grazing operations. What I am saying is, if you want to run a successful grazing system, you must apply the principles. The good graziers we see are the ones who best implement these principles each year. They are not cell grazers, or rotational grazers, or set stockers they are Regenerative Agricultural Warriers (RAW) and constantly adapt how they implement these principles.
Don't get too caught up on systems. I reocmmend you focus on whichever grazing management program is profitable and leaves your farm in better condition by implementing the principles in the best way you can. This will be different for everyone.
To find out more about RCS and the courses they run click here.