Grazing in Australia

In Apprenticing & Partnering, MY ARTICLES, My Farming Experiences by James8 Comments

shiftingIt’s official, I shifted the cows. This is a follow up article to my last article where I revealed that I’d be spending five weeks in Southwest Victoria, Australia to learn about planned grazing and managing holistically. I know all my readers (mom) have been anxious to hear about how it turned out. The answer is – better than I imagined – although I wasn’t entirely sure of what to expect so my imagination was a bit limited, but it truly ended up being a great time that will not be forgotten. I’m currently in the process of editing a short video highlighting what I learned during my time there. I’ll post it on this site as soon as it’s complete.

We stayed with Graeme Hand and his family outside a small town called Branxholme. Graeme is a certified Holistic Management educator who was trained by Alan Savory. He currently spends most of his time consulting and working with farmers around Australia and internationally who are making the switch or are interested in learning about managing holistically. In addition Graeme had a direct grass finished beef business of his own, and before that he worked in an abattoir and helped develop the Australian beef grading scale. Since his days running a direct beef business Graeme has downsized his farm to around 94 hectares or 230 acres, and runs around 50 cows and calves on it. His farm is now more of an educational farm and of course a wonderful place to live for him and his family.

What Did I Learn?

reelWhere to begin… I learned a lot during my experience. As I mentioned I’ll be putting together a video series going into more detail, but I’ll try my best to run through and articulate what I learned in this post for my loyal readers (mom). The first thing I learned about was the planned grazer’s number one tool – the reel. The reel is like a giant… reel. Imagine a big fishing reel, but instead of fishing line, it’s spooled with a kind of electric tape/wire (non-stick). Any novice grazer will soon learn how to use the reel and hook it into permanent fencing to create smaller paddocks within larger ones. Although I refer to the reel as the tool, Graeme would say perenial grass recovery is the tool and using the reel is one way to get it.  During my time at the farm I was moving the cows up to 7 times in one day. The reason I was moving them so frequently during this time was that Graeme wants trainees to get heaps of feedback and quickly develop expertise and go from looking at a checklist of things to monitor to a point where it’s ingrained and becomes automatic. I’ll go into the monitoring points below. Aside from training another reason I was moving them was their gut fills (more on that later) were low and moving them stimulates eating. So I was giving them smaller sections with more frequent moves – the amount of overall feed for the day didn’t increase, only the frequency of moves which as I mentioned was to stimulate them to eat more. Why they weren’t eating enough is due to several factors but the biggest one was the weather and the quality of feed – it was pretty dry and low in protein.

What is Gut Fill? 

Screen Shot 2014-03-03 at 7.02.49 PMGut fill is something Graeme uses as a leading indicator for animal performance. On the left side of the cow there is a triangle between the last rib, the front of the hip, and below the spine. It’s the area where cattle will swell when they have bloat. Graeme has developed a scoring system to determine gut fill levels, which translate to whether or not the cow is getting enough to eat and whether or not the cow’s rumen is in align with the grass it’s eating. This ties into the next leading indicator of animal performance – dung scores – which I’ll go into. As you’re reeling your tape, or after, you can do a walk through and check the left side of the cows for gut fill scores. If that triangle area is sunken in greatly the cow is performing very badly and you’d give it a score of one and look for corrective action. The scale goes from 1-5 with 5 showing the area to have no indentation and fully rounded out.

Dung Scores  

IMG_5473The other leading indicator for animal performance that Graeme uses is the dung score. Dung score lets you know if the animal’s rumen is matching the grass. The dung score like the gut fill operates on a scale of five. A dung score of one would be given if the dung was very watery, diarrhea like. Usually this is the effect of animals eating young grass that has not yet fully recovered and have too much protein. This is not good as all the nutrients are going through the animal much like when we humans eat a very rich meal that our bodies are not prepared for. On the opposite end of the scale a five would be dung that is very dry and biscuit like. Again this is a sign that the animal’s rumen is not in sync with the grass and corrective action should be made. One solution is moving them to greener younger but recovered grass, or if it’s the dry season and no greens are available you might try using a protein supplement. Fresh available aerated water also helps with this. During my time at the farm it was the dry season and the animals performance was suffering in gut fill, however they had consistently good dung scores. The best dung score would be a three and the dung would have the consistency of a pumpkin pie and have a dimple in the middle. In the photo above it is pocked up from dung beetle activity which is fantastic for the soil as the beetles act as nutrient carriers driving the dung into the soil.

Recovery  

ground coverRecovery and the recovery scale is what Graeme emphasizes the most when looking at the whole of any grazing enterprise. The ability to read the land and know if it’s ready to graze again is crucial for maintaining a low input, environmentally and economically sustainable grazing enterprise. The typical grazer usese high inputs such as fertilizers, seed sowing, hay feeding, and expensive equipment in his/her operation. The fertilizers end up taking a huge chunk out of profits and end up as run off causing environmental damage. There’s money spent on poisoning weeds, some even try to “teach” the animals to eat the weeds. Water infiltration is minimal and farmers end up praying for big rains and buying hay because the big rains don’t come. Animals are struck with metabolic disease and farmers spend money on vet care. It’s an endless spiral that can all be avoided if grazers simply managed their land properly and gave grasses the recovery time needed.  When reading grass recovery there will be two things to look for: The first is fresh (yellow) litter in the plants, and the second is plant tips that are fully developed and show no sign of prior grazing – no chewed tips. Graeme has found that in most Australian environments a good place to start is around 180 days for recovery. This is what Allan Savory is using at Dibangombe in Zimbabwe. For grazers in dryer low rainfall climates once planned grazing is implemented it’s likely they will be able to increase their stocking rate quite quickly.  Currently a lot of farms in high rainfall areas are overstocked and end up using inputs like fertilizers and hay to compensate. Overstocked farms in high rainfall areas have optimized profit and land regeneration after they’ve reduced stocking rates.  Like gut fill and dung scores Graeme has created a 5 level scale to rate the recovery. I’ll be including that in the upcoming video.

What Else? 

grazing chartI learned a few other useful things during my stay which I won’t go into detail about in this post but will mention. One of the most important things I learned was how to plan a grazing chart based on paddock size, paddock quality, and recovery time. I’ll go into more detail about that in the video as well. I learned about watering systems and the importance of location when designing your paddocks. Graeme showed me how to repair fence line with fencing tools – I definitely need more practice with that. I also learned how to track down a short in the electric fencing with the handy remote that comes with some models of fence energizers.

Final Thoughts of a Wannabe Farmer

I did it

Going into this experience I knew it was going to be  a game changer for Anna and myself. Essentially it was going to either bring us much closer to the dream of farming or further away. Either direction would have been positive because it was a test, and test results are neither good nor bad, they just give us feedback and that’s what we were looking for. I am happy to say however that the feedback was what I was hoping for. It was further affirmation that we are heading in the right direction and that we can turn dream into reality. Aside from all the valuable skills, techniques, and science I learned during my time with Graeme the biggest thing I gained from the experience was confidence. “I can do this” was the biggest take away. It’s one thing reading about it, but as we all know doing is the test. And the other questions follow – do I like doing it? Can I see myself doing this into the future? The answer again was, yes. Graeme’s goal in having us with him was to teach two novice wannabes years worth of knowledge in a very short time. His goal which we’ll cover in the video series is to demystify the art of grazing, and I think Graeme does it quite well. Sure, the true test for me will be doing it on my own some day on my own land, but I have the tools to do it, and even more I have done it. 

For more about Graeme Hand you see his work at Stipa where he’s the CEO of the Native Grasslands Association.

In addition here is part 1 of a 4 part series where Graeme talks about profitability through native grasses

Comments

  1. Addye

    Awesome James!! Very informative & well written!! So glad that you & Anna J got to have this experience!! Enjoyed the video as well. Nothing like the real deal, is there? So much better getting to do & experience life in unfamiliar places sometimes! Hugs!

    1. Author
      James

      Thanks. Yes, there’s nothing quite like doing, especially when you’re looking for affirmation. It was an amazing experience that’s given me lots of momentum moving forward into making farming a reality.

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  5. Marine Freyne

    Great article, I learned similar things working with Martin Royds at Jillamatong farm in NSW. Thanks for putting it into words. Do you know how does Graeme philosophy on holistic management differ from Alan savory’s? I heard many good things about his work in Australia and that he has a unique way to look at it but i find it difficult to fin information 🙂

  6. Author
    James

    Thanks Marine. I’m not sure how far Graeme’s philosophy diverges from Savory’s. After spending 5 weeks with him I didn’t see much differing of views. Graeme really believes in the efficacy of using only perennial grasses to restore and build the soil and water infiltration. He also is adamant about longer recovery periods, even more so than Savory I believe. He was trained by Savory and I don’t think their general principles on what is good management diverge much. You can find some of Graeme’s presentations on youtube and Stipa which I linked to above. You could also email him if those venues don’t suffice. Good luck! 🙂

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