Brittle Grassland Pasture Update: Photo Essay

The longest journey you’ll ever make is from your head to your heart.
Sioux saying

Brittle grassland is one of the most difficult systems to manage. After a lot of research Shaen decided to use Allan Savory’s methods as outlined in his Holistic Management: A New Framework for Decision Making. If you are looking for more information about what Allan Savory has done to heal grassland in some of the toughest environments on the planet, please see the Savory Institute or watch this video called Keeping Cattle: cause or cure for climate crisis?

I highly recommend putting aside some time to watch this lecture. This video will explain ideas like: slow-oxidation in brittle grassland, fast-oxidation fire, high-impact controlled grazing, predator prey relationships, dangers of over-resting pasture, and holistic planning. He also explains why we are an omnivore scavenger and why species extinctions have always followed humanity. Be ready to have your paradigm challenged or changed. This may be the most important video on this website.

Below is a short video outlining the salient points of holistic management.

All these pictures of the pasture were taken on April 28, 2012. The pasture is located on a north facing slope of a series of hills just inside the southwest corner of the City of Kamloops. The elevation of the pasture ranges from 777m to 817m (2560ft to 2700ft). The average yearly rainfall is 38.1cm (15″). We are considered zone 3 or 4. We leased 1.8 hectares (4.5 acres) two years ago for this experiment. The owners leased us another 0.6 hectares (1.5 acres) last year.

Below is a picture of the typical over-rested grassland in the Kamloops area. An over-rested grassland is an area where there are no herbivores to stomp down the dry, dead growth and break up the clumps of bunch grass. The cattle also urinate and manure the ground which brings in needed moisture and nutrients. Without herbivores, we see the greying of old growth which much later decomposes by slow-oxidation. Slow-oxidation is not a good way to decompose plant materials. Slow-oxidation is a chemical breakdown of plant material rather than the faster bacterial decay. If too much slow-oxidation occurs in a pasture, the pasture will transform into desert.

Next time you look at a cow, I want you to imagine the cow is a fermenting vat on four legs.? Herbivores carry water around in their digestive tracks and have a highly evolved symbiotic relationship with their gut flora. During the dry season, herbivores eating grass stop slow-oxidation because they carry the water and bacteria around in their gut and help the plants decay faster by using bacterial action.

slow-oxidation-grass

Here is a picture from over the fence of ungrazed brittle grassland. You can see the slow-oxidation in the grey color of the older grass. The new grass has trouble getting light and has a tough time growing through the stubble. This pasture is slowly dying and will turn to desert.

Below is an example of what a brittle grassland looks like after grazing without mulch. There is a lot of variety in plants but the system is very fragile and prone to damage. Without biomass, the surface layer dries out extremely quickly in our hot, dry summers.

typical-grazed-grass

This is an example of grazed brittle grassland without mulch.

Below is an example of grazed brittle grassland after one year of hay mulch and high-impact controlled grazing. You can just barely see the pieces of cow pie that our pastured hens will scratch apart to get all the undigested grains. Maggots also grow in the cow pies which the hens and wild birds feast on. If the maggots are allowed to grow without bird predation, the cattle are plagued by flies. The cattle and birds really help each other out. This is an example of the beauty and complexity of natural system design.

grazed-hay-mulch-1

This is an example of grazed brittle grassland after one year of hay mulch.

Below is an example of a grazed brittle grassland after two years of hay mulch and high-impact controlled grazing. We have only 2275 liters (500 gallons) of water per day to irrigate 2.4 hectares (6.0 acres). That’s not very much water so irrigation didn’t do this. The hay mulch protects the topsoil and helps retain moisture. Any rain that falls will have a better chance of staying where it landed and not pour off the hills. Hay mulch also adds seeds to the pasture. We bring in local hay with seeds that are better adapted to the area.

grazed-hay-mulch-2

This is an example of grazed brittle grassland after two years of hay mulch.

Below is an example of standard grazing on the left. Note how the ground is almost bare. The soil is exposed to the elements. During bad rainstorms the soil will just roll off the hill into the gully. On the right is the property we lease from a neighbor. After we heavily graze an area with cattle, the cattle naturally stomp and break down the old growth and naturally urinate and manure the area bringing in moisture and nutrients. We then lock the cattle out of the area so the ground can recover. We then cover with hay mulch any soil that becomes exposed or any area that looks like it needs more biomass. The hay mulch also has seed which naturally seeds the pasture. We use local hay so the strains are better adapted to the area. The upper right field has only had one year of hay mulch and very little irrigation. The lower field has had two years of mulch. This area was used as a wintering bedding down area. The area has not recovered yet.

standard-vs-savory

Our neighbor on the left is using standard grazing methods. On the right is the leased property we have been managing. Any open soil is covered with hay to hold moisture and protect the soil.

Below, on the left, is an example of our lower pasture. On the right of the fence is over-rested land. What you can’t see is how bare the ground is on the over-rested area. (See the first picture in this series.) All the dry, dead plant materials make it hard for the new grass to get light. According to Allen Savory, without herbivores stomping, urinating and manuring the grassland it will slowly die out and become a desert. Grasslands and herbivores evolved together and need each other to survive.

savory-vs-rest

Our leased pasture is on the left and on the other side of the fence is over-rested pasture. Without herbivores, over-rested pasture will desertify.

Below is our lower pasture. It has had two years of high-impact controlled grazing and hay mulch. After two years we can visually see how much greener the area we manage is from the surrounding properties. It appears Allan Savory’s methods work very well for brittle grassland in the Kamloops area.

hay-pasture

Here is an example of our lower pasture after two years of controlled grazing and hay mulch. This method requires bringing in fertility from other areas until the land can support the herbivores.

cow-patty-wild-birds

The White Crowned Sparrows and Rock Doves have learned that they can find undigested grains and maggots in the cow patties. They happily break-up and spread the manure for us.

9 thoughts on “Brittle Grassland Pasture Update: Photo Essay

  1. This was a comment from the Weston A Price Foundation board:

    Caroline,

    This is really neat! We also are about to start mulching with wood chips. We are in east Texas and have been in drought for almost two years. We had extensive wildfires last year and lost a lot of small trees that need to come down, so we went ahead and bought a chipper so we can mulch all our pastures and build up the organic matter.

    If you are able to run any kind of poultry on your pasture, we have had MAJOR improvement in fertility in just 1 year because of our pastured chicken operation. I don’t have a good picture of what it looks like now, but back in February, here are two pictures of our north pasture–one where we ran chickens, and the other not. All of our fields looked like the “before” when we moved here two years ago.

    http://us1.campaign-archive2.com/?u=c85011abe594d015cb5be942e&id=01c85399b8

    If for some reason that link doesn’t work, go to our website and click on the newsletter from 2/15/2012:

    http://shadygroveranch.net/newsletter-archive

    Now, where the chickens were last year, the grass is literally over 3 feet tall, some of it as high as 5 feet! Our dog and our 2-year-old get lost playing in it! And we had at least 4 varieties of clover (that we DID NOT PLANT), lots of rye grass, legumes, and other native species. Previously, it looked just like your “grazed brittle grassland without mulch” picture, with hardly any forage at all. It was just amazing what one season of chickens could do, despite a drought and fire.

    Good luck on your ranch!

    Jerica

  2. Hi Jerica,

    That is a very good question. Last year we had a maximum of two lactating dairy cows, two heifer calves and one yearling bull. We had four hogs, forty laying hens and fifty broilers. There as lots of wild bird life including a small flock of pigeons which grew to over hundred birds during the summer. We moved the cattle around mini-pastures ever three to four days using electric fencing. The birds naturally followed the cattle. This was a lot of work for Shaen. The land got a lot of disturbing, almost too much we were thinking. We tried to have faith in Allan Savory’s method.

    By the fall, we had removed most of the animals except one dairy cow and one bull calf. The hens came back to our property and spent the winter in a hoop house.

    Presently, there is one lactating cow, her heifer calf, and the yearling bull. We haven’t returned the hens to the leased pasture yet. We are trying to give the pasture some spring growing time before we bring back the laying flock. We are going to bring in only two hogs this year. We are not going to have the broilers on the pasture this year because we had serious raven predation last year.

  3. Hi Caroline,

    Thanks for the info on your project. The photos are very descriptive. I was wondering how many cattle you use, and are you keeping them only on this area, or do you move them to other fields that are not part of this experiment when they have moved through these fields?

    I am interested in using cattle on our place for their pasture improving effect, but we only have a small acreage similar to what you have in the fields you describe and I have always thought that it wasn’t big enough to be able to support cattle efficiently. If you have time, I would be interested to hear more about what you are doing and whether you are farming to make an income or to grow beef for your own use etc.

    Many thanks,

    Nitya Akeroyd
    Woodsong Hollow Farm, PA

  4. Hi Nitya,

    We only had the 4.5 acres for two years and 1.5 acres for one year. Last year we had two dairy cows, one yearling bull, and two calves. By fall we were down to one dairy cow(pregnant) and one bull calf for breeding next spring. Using electric fencing, Shaen would move the herd around the pasture. Shaen would move the group even 3-4 days. It was a lot of work because the land has so much topography and we would have to milk in some challenging areas. I would read Allan Savory book after listening to his lecture. He has fifty years of experience that he shares in the book.

    The owner of the leased property told Shaen yesterday that he can see the greenness from the highway! The owner is very pleased.

    Feel free to call Shaen Cooper at 250.374.4646. He would enjoy talking to you about the pasture.

    Cheers,
    Caroline

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  6. Allan Savory has just made a new change to the language of holistic management. He has replaced the concept of “holistic goal” with the new concept of “holistic context”. It is hoped that this change in language will help people make the appropriate paradigm shift in their thinking:
    http://www.savoryinstitute.com/2012/05/current/allan-savory-introduces-holistic-context/?utm_source=Savory+Institute+May+Newsletter&utm_campaign=SI+Newsletter&utm_medium=email

  7. After 48 years of experience in grassland management and stewardship, I would be most pleased to have a chance to chat face to face.

    Jim White
    Professional Agrologist
    Certified Professional in Rangeland Management

  8. Hi Jim,

    Shaen would be very happy to talk with you about his grassland project. It would be good to do it soon. The owner of our leased pasture is selling their property, and when they sell, we will lose our lease. Nevertheless, we have learned an amazing amount about pasture development and are very grateful to have had this opportunity to learn.

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