Farm Regeneration is about Results
A lot of potential pasture growth and money is being left on the table on overgrazed farms and it may be why New Zealand soils are not increasing in soil carbon as you would expect with so much pasture. The same result was happening to me on my farm in the temperate north-eastern US where we grow all the same species of pasture under 750-1000 mm of precipitation.
We managed for perennial ryegrass and white clover for eight years and our soil organic matter percent never went up. Once we switched to mob grazing in 2008 and managing for diversity, our soil organic matter result was a lift of three percent in six years from 6 to 9 percent. I had never been able to keep my cows from getting ahead of the grass in the summer until I started using a grazing plan. We managed for green vegetative pasture and three years in we got the results we wanted – a more diverse sward, more pasture of better quality,healthier livestock and better tasting healthy milk and meat.
Regenerative farming is about results not practices. If you want to score high on the Savory EOV regenerative certification, a grazing plan is essential. The regenerative farmer who bought my farm sent me recent soil test results and he has maintained soil carbon 3% higher than his district average for his soil type and I expect it to continues with the practice of mob grazing as taught to him by Ian Mitchell-Innes who has been to both of his farms. This mimics the same process which built fertile topsoil on American prairie up to six meters deep. I believe he is "upping" his topsoil volume too as we saw as evidenced by fence posts shrinking.
This experienced and highly skilled regenerative farmer kindly reported in an e-mail recently “thank you for the care that you passed on to us. Your 18 years of caring for the farm continues to benefit the whole farm picture. This year with all the dry that we had we didn't run out of grass and have to stop grazing. That was a blessing”. This is the most important result for the environment because the longevity of green according to Dr. Walter Jehne will help cool the planet! See his u tube video links in the next level grazing website learning center.
This is a photo of the same paddock the soil test was taken from back in 2015 when we were grazing some deferred grass (graze your deferred grass while it is still green. With mob grazing enough seed will slip through the cracks and go to maturity to provide plenty for your seed bank). Chicken tractor in the paddock behind. Notice the timothy in the foreground - one of the plants we were managing for.
Over the past six years I have been in New Zealand, the most pastoral country in the world, I have been shocked to see pastoral farmers ripping up their pasture to plant “diverse cover crops” in the name of regenerative farming. Pastoral farms don’t need annuals to build soil like arable farms do. They need to reduce their over grazing and it is much cheaper to do. All you need is some training and a holistic grazing plan. You can teach yourself by getting Allan Savory’s two books on the subject or John King at https://www.succession.co.nz or I can teach you.
I asked Gabe Brown about the use of annuals on pastoral farms and he agrees with me on this and recommends holistic planned grazing in the pastoral farming context in temperate locations.
I still meet pastoral farmers who are stuck in their mindset that regenerative farming requires sunflowers and the like because they saw it on TV or a screen somewhere. One farmer I recently visited had planted a diverse cover crop last spring and when we measured the production from actual grazing days over the whole year, she had only harvested four tonnes and much of the soil was laid bare in the very wet winter. This not only is a bad look, but it would not pass the holistic testing process where profitability is one of the three pillars we want to achieve along with environmental and social positives. There is nothing sustainable about a farm that goes out of business. I showed her how a grazing plan can help her easily measure the pasture performance of each pasture to see what is working best and she saw that her permanent pasture had no bare soil and produced more than twice as much forage as the annuals. The “belief” that what she saw on TV must be regenerative was so strong that she ignored her own less than regenerative results and wants to plant another annual crop on the same paddock even though it involves more soil disturbance. Ow! Annual cover crops have become as much of a belief in regenerative pastoral farming as monocultures in conventional farming, but I have yet to have a farmer show me they are profitable when all opportunity costs are accounted for and this includes fodder beet monocultures.
If pastoral farmers do want to go ahead with annual crops anyway (as you do), I urge you to start a grazing plan and track (by measuring grazing days and converting it to kgs of DM) the tonnes harvested per paddock annually so you can easily figure out and track hard data on what is making you money. These results then inform your plan for next year and also become a measure of regeneration itself. Once divided by mm of rainfall, your whole farm pasture production for the year can be compared to the next to see if you are increasing your farms primary production. If you are building topsoil this should lift going forwards.
I get it that annuals are an opportunity to out compete poor-quality pasture and achieve a diverse sward quicker than through grazing management alone and I am all for that if you can afford it and still make a profit. If new diverse pasture is the objective, I recommend planting a mix of summer annuals by themselves (no expensive perennials yet) in late spring when your grazing plan informs you that your time of true grass surplus has arrived. Graze these diverse summer annuals at optimal recovery when most plants start to go to seed say in two or three months rather than waiting to graze in winter and you have lost quality. Then you will have time to do a proper seed down in early autumn with all your desired perennial species and establish a dense sward with no bare spots for weeds to exploit. The annuals would have pumped liquid carbon into your soil and shaded out the sod forming weedy grasses. Once annuals go to seed, they stop feeding the soil liquid carbon so get er done and on to your new permanent pasture establishment and you will not only keep your soil fed but will grow a lot more pasture. As Gabe Brown said "there is no better cover crop out there than a very diverse perennial mix". I recommend at least 14 species in your perennial mix at a high rate per hectare of up to 35 kgs/ha so you end up with a dense sward. Plant the small seeds very shallow separately from the large seeds or broadcast on the soil surface and press down for seed to soil contact. Oats as a nurse crop at 35 kgs/ha works well when establishing permanent pasture in the spring to reduce weed pressure.
WARNING! If you want your high energy plants like timothy and red clover to persist, give them the recovery times they thrive on. If you manage for perennial ryegrass and other sod forming weeds that is what you will end up with. Have a great growing season!