Which Grazing System?

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A sure-fire way to spice up a barbeque debate is to state your opinion on ‘cell grazing’. 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 the 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 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 in the NT vs those in Victoria.

3. Matching stocking 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 contribute to the fact that as an industry, we do a very poor job implementing this principle (with the exception of those reading this article, I’m sure). 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 rapid 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 dinner? 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 broken, regardless of what ‘system’ it is. So, let’s consider these principles in the research that is going on.

Last year, I visited a research station in the NT 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 (I hope they started again after my visit). It was pretty intense, with 31 paddocks in the ‘cell’ (see the chart below). Unfortunately, the grazing chart wasn’t used for decision making (a reason why most people stop filling them in).Grazing Chart
  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 results are being used to report comparisons between a cell grazing system and a set stocking system.

I appreciate that the 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 (contrary to popular belief, we are more than just ‘that cell grazing mob’!) 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 Warriors (RAW) and constantly adapt how they implement these principles.

Don’t get too caught up on systems. I recommend you focus on whichever grazing management program is profitable and leaves your country in better condition, by implementing the principles in the best way you can. This will be different for everyone.

To learn more about these principles and how to implement them in your situation, join me at the RCS Grazing Clinic in Scone, NSW on 8-9 May 2017, where we’ll cover them in-depth, along with grazing charts, planning tools and property design. Click here for more information or call us on 1800 356 004 to book your spot.

Alternatively, if you’d like to cover all of the above as well as the principles around nutrition, reproduction, business and people management, why not come along to one of our GrazingforProfitTM SchoolsCowra GFP is coming up soon (31 May – 6 June), Emerald GFP is 2-8 August, or head to Townsville GFP, 22–28 November. Find more information on the GrazingforProfitTM Schools here or call us to enquire on availability.

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David McLean
RCS General Manager

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