Days 32 – 34

Screen Shot 2014-06-30 at 20.59.25I’m fairly certain it is a legal requirement of a Nuffield Scholarship to visit at least one of Dwayne Beck, Gabe Brown, or Neil Dennis. I feel now that my life is complete, as I have accomplished the trifecta. Why bother with anything else?

Neil Dennis is a grazier who lives just south of Wawota, in Saskatchewan. He farms 1200ac with his wife Barbara, and the occasional helping hand from a summer intern. But Neil is no ordinary grazier, he is an über-mob-grazier [For a very detailed, and readable, explanation of mob grazing, I would suggest reading Tom Chapman’s excellent Nuffield Report]. In brief, it is the practice of grazing cattle in a tight space, but then moving them frequently before all of the grass is eaten. Most importantly, and what really differentiates it from standard rotational systems, is that the pastures are left to recover for a relatively long time after they have been grazed. The exact period depends on a number of factors, such as climate, time of year, and what plants are present. It could be as little as 50 days in perfect conditions, or over a year in a brittle climate. Neil will not return within 60 days at a minimum, and preferably 80. The reason is because it takes this amount of time for the ammonia to dissipate from the urine patches, and so the cattle will be happy to eat all of the grass.

Notice the layer of decomposing plant material under the surface. Soil building in action

Notice the layer of decomposing plant material under the surface. Soil building in action

I’ve been doing some mob grazing at home, and am pretty sold on the benefits, having compared it myself with more traditional methods. But I am an amateur compared to Neil; I move the cattle once a day, Neil will do it 6 times. If this sounds like a lot, it is. However, the process is pretty streamlined, and normally he will have all the day’s moves set up in a couple of hours each morning, and from then on the automatic gate openers do the hard work.

The two most important factors for Neil are the rest periods, and the amount of animal impact. Longer rests mean healthier plants that grow faster and more efficiently, and recover quicker. Animal impact is basically the density of cattle at any one point, and the higher the better. Higher stocking densities mean that urine & dung is more evenly spread, and the uneaten leaves are pushed effectively into the ground, which increases soil quality and plant health – a great, positive, cycle. Most farmers will look at this system and see the trampled grass as being “wasted”, as it has not gone through a cow. But consider that Neil manages to stock his farm with almost twice as many animals per acre as his neighbour, and achieve almost the same growth rate. When you’re being paid a daily rate to look after cattle, this is a good thing. Bear in mind also that he uses effectively no inputs at all, including any type of fertiliser.

A paddock after grazing. It will now be left to recover for at least 80 days

A paddock after grazing. It will now be left to recover for at least 80 days

Unfortunately my visit didn’t follow the script it was supposed to. As I’ve mentioned in the last couple of blog posts, this area of Canada is very wet at the moment. The day I arrived it started raining, and kept on all day, and all night. We went for a drive around in Neil’s UTV (no doors or windows), and within an hour or so my wellies needed the water emptying out of them – and my feet were probably the driest bit of my body. The next morning there was 4″ of rain in the gauge, and a LOT more water everywhere. Time to call Noah.

If you click on this photo to enlarge it, you can see the top of a fence post sticking out of the water. Bearing in mind that this is an electric fence, the problem is fairly obvious

If you click on this photo to enlarge it, you can see the top of a fence post sticking out of the water. Bearing in mind that this is an electric fence, the problem is fairly obvious

I had come hoping to see some stocking rates of over 1,000,000lbs/ac (that’s around 3,500 animals per hectare, or one animal per 3.5 square meters), but the farm was, to quote Neil “wetter than I’ve ever seen it”. All plans went out of the window, and instead of 6 moves a day, they went to one. I guess it goes to show that flexibility is important – there’s no point sticking to a plan too dogmatically if the situation changes; a good lesson for life. Actually I was lucky that this rain didn’t come 5 days earlier – the main road across Canada was closed due to flooding, so I would have been stuck in Winnipeg.

Soil from a no-till arable field next to a mob grazed paddock. The arable soil would not hold together in a lump. When we inspected them up close, Neil said "I can see they are different, but I don't know how". Join the club!

Soil from a no-till arable field (left) next to a mob grazed paddock (right). The arable soil would not hold together in a lump

This was the arable field that soil sample came from. I've never seen such soft ground in a field. Lucky I didn't lose my boot...

This was the arable field that the soil sample came from. I’ve never seen such soft ground in a field. Lucky I didn’t lose my boot

Despite the weather not playing ball, it was still a useful visit. Neil makes it look easy, but he obviously has a natural, and unusual, talent for working with cattle. He makes use of a lot of his senses (although not taste as far I can can tell) to monitor how things are going. The paddocks will smell just right after grazing when the protein levels are correct, and the cows’ digestive systems are in order when “the shit sticks to the wheels” just so. I don’t think I will ever be at this sort of skill level, or have the dedication to stock at such intense levels. Even though Neil says he has a lot of spare time, I suspect it would be a difficult system to manage without one’s full attention. But, as with Gabe Brown, I love to marvel at what is possible, even (especially?) when most people say it isn’t.

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Neil’s modified UTV. The front attachment means it can be driven over electric wires, and fence stakes are always to hand for setting up new paddock subdivisions

One thought on “Days 32 – 34

  1. Pingback: Days 41 & 42 | Improving yields & profits by improving soils

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