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The “Why” of Planned Grazing

Posted by Bestprac on Jan 30 2013

by Angus Whyte

Below are some examples of the type of questions people are asking when they are faced with a shift to a planned grazing system?

  1. Why would anyone wish to change their grazing management from a system of stocking that seems to suit their properties, the people running them and has worked well for a hell of a long time?
  2. Why would we want to change to running big mobs of stock that will be a nightmare to get in and handle and will graze our country down to the boards, as well as ripping it up with their feet and causing erosion etc?
  3. Why shift to a system that will only create more work (and stress on us and the animals) in the form of shifting stock around, when we only need to get our stock in 2-3 times a year?
  4. Why change our current management system, when all we need is more consistent rain and, right now, we seem to be going back to a more “normal” rainfall pattern?

I will endeavor to give a perspective on these questions and then you can decide the rest for yourselves. I will start by describing what I see in the landscape across the southern rangelands of Australia:

In this whole area there is a decline in the amount and species of grasses. More and more the vegetation is being made up of woody scrub/bushes and broad leaf annual plants. Predominately, there are very low levels of species diversity (<6) and this leaves a very simple ecosystem that is vulnerable to attack from outside weeds, pests and diseases. The lack of grasses means that after a burst of growth following a wet period, very quickly, the annuals dry up to very little and often all that is left to eat are the bushes and trees. Obviously, vegetation and soils work together, so they can be hard to separate.

The soils in this area are naturally light (fragile) and don’t need much encouragement to erode. They are held together by a lot of moss and algae (cryptogram), as well as capping from heavy rain. While this keeps the soil together, it only allows very low levels of water infiltration and so there are large areas where there is a monoculture of cryptogram. Cryptogram is a valuable plant when it is part of a complex ecosystem; yet, when it is allowed to dominate the landscape it can be a “weed”. There is a risk here as, if the fragile soil crust is broken, then they may blow or wash away, however, if the crust remains intact then very little vegetation will grow.

Merino sheep dominates the area still; however, there is a large shift to “cleanskin” (shedding sheep, Dorpers for example) and only low numbers of cattle. There are also a significant number of people farming goats, or at least harvesting them for an annual income. The type of livestock tells a story, when you are linking it to the type of vegetation; cleanskin sheep and goats are much better browsers which means there is going to be more food for them. When there is very little grass, there isn’t much attraction for large numbers of cattle as they can’t graze to the low levels that sheep can. There are many more factors than just vegetation driving the change in livestock; many of these issues are very closely linked; you impact on one and you can impact on many.

There are large numbers of kangaroos, emus and goats through much of the area and, with the spread of waters through poly pipe, they are saying “thank you very much”. Kangaroos and emus tend to move in on isolated thunderstorms and grab the fresh young grass; they have the good behavior of dying when things get dry, as opposed to the goats.

As the margins have become smaller then this has led to farm build up, which in turn has meant less people living and working in the rangelands (in the grazing area, lots more people in mining). This has been another driver to cleanskin sheep, as they don’t require shearing or crutching so, with less labour requirements, they are more suited. With larger properties and less people, this can result in the land not being looked after that well as each person has so much to cover. Add to this that, after the long drought, we have just been through a lot of landholders who are looking to reduce their long term carrying capacity by around 20%, as they no longer have the confidence that they will have the seasons to look after the stock. With the reduction in grass available, there is probably 20% less feed available year round; this has been about a normal reduction, after every significant drought since 1890, just looking at stock figures for the western division.

Now this isn’t a pretty picture, as I’m generalising and I’m sure that, unfortunately, I have offended some people who are in a better position than this and I apologise. I think that all of these issues are linked and the end result of less people in the area and the breakdown of communities really worries me; we don’t just need diversity in our ecosystems, we need it in our people too. There are no simple solutions to this; certainly, locking the area up into a wilderness area is only going to continue the decline (maybe at a slower rate!) as has been proven around the world to occur in semi-arid rangelands.

So we have to manage our way out of it; I put it to you that right now the biggest risk comes from doing what we have always done. A form of planned grazing that suits you and your landscape could be the answer should you wish it to be.

Some interesting sites to get more info on this are:

Angus Whyte and his family are landholders from Wyndham Station Wentworth (NSW) and Angus is also an associate with Principle Focus.

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Last changed: Jan 31 2013



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