The philosophy and soil building capabilities around the topic of rotational grazing have been covered in much greater depth in other articles in this blook: Animals intro and rotational grazing in the soils chapter. However there is more to the topic than just the philosophy, there is the design parameters that I hope to shed light on in this particular article. So yes we mimic the grazing tendency of animals to bunch and cause animal impact. We leverage the principle the use of biological resources as to make animals in the system producers not polluters. Yes we rely on diversity, a diversity of animal species fitting different niches and stacking in space and time with them. Yes we care for them by meeting their basic needs and allowing them to be key components in the cultivated ecology.
Below are designs/pics to set the stage for a practical application from Treasure Lake as I design future animal integration at Treasure Lake. It shows the assessment phase of design as the grazing is just one part of the greater whole. We will zoom on one of the areas seen below to bring further detail to the pattern.
The Basic Pattern
Animals are rotated into different pastures or ecosystems at different times of the year allowing for intensive grazing and extended periods of pasture rest. It is like shepherding from the old days but instead of animals being taken to new spots day after day and then eventually back, they are
moved more with fencing. These systems enhance the ecosystem by not letting it get over or under grazed. As for the animals themselves, it promotes health through them not getting sick by having ample and nutritious feed and not eating where they have been defecating for too long. Parasites and the associated chemical treatments are horrible for the environment, the animals themselves, and those who consume it in the long run. The manures become poison instead of biological stimulants as the soil is dewormed of valuable worms and larvae. Furthermore, the animals positively impact the ground they are grazing on thus renewing grass growth rather than damaging it. Soil builds and carbon is sequestered at a high rate because of this guild of you the manager, the animals in rotation, and the photosynthetic magic of the plant kingdom. It also often involves the bird kingdom, wild or livestock and most definitely the soil microbes driving the system.
Now that the pattern has been set, there are some very tangible design factors we must account for to execute such a management style. It is more work, in the short run in particular, yet will eventually lead to a more resilient herd and overall system.
The greatest limiting factor of rotational grazing in animal systems may indeed be the water part. It is heavy if you carry it and expensive to pipe it everywhere. It creates labour or is a major overhead in your operation. But it is absolutely necessary for their existence. Furthermore for the animals to thrive, it should be clean and abundant. Rotational grazing aims to keep water quality high where as normal ranchers allow livestock free access to water bodies where they infect it with pollutants, parasitical in nature, and then apply chemicals to the animals to combat it. This of course cascades through the ecosystem causing grave consequences. If watershed management does not occur, the waterbodies also become overrun with nutrients and sediments causing a decline in water quality. Imagine taking a bath with no soap and then drinking that water later.
So the design question becomes, how do I efficiently bring water to my animals on rotation without damaging their health nor the health of the ecosystem? As your paddocks are set up, water troughs are either carried to the new position or numerous fixed ones serve this. Bill Mollison in the Intro to Permaculture book when talking animals, had a design where a central watering point occurred and the entirety was surrounded by a circular fence divided into essentially pieces of triangular pizza. This allowed for rotational paddocks to occur but one central water element. A great design if possible and of course there are an infinite amount of possibilities of this fitting your context. The watering hole may become damaged overtime though due to intensive usage. This is why mobile water tanks can be helpful but do add in extra labour and costs. See the practical design drawing below looking at the distance of a water pipe or a walk that would actually be longer due to fencing and gates.
consideration because if the animals are mobile, then so must be your structure. The chicken tractor is a method of this and has become widely visible in the blend of Permaculture and Regenerative agriculture. As an example, I used semi mobile goat pens in the summer of 2018 at Treasure Lake, KY with my goat herd of 17. It was light enough that four people could fairly easily move the structure around the uneven ground. Goats are tough on structures so a lighter structure would have been better for moving it but it also would mean that I might have spent time repairing the structure. Luckily I have a good community, which responded to my asking for help when I had exhausted all the available pasture that could be reached with my available electric fence rotations and the position of the house. So the design question becomes, what mobile structure can I employ to give my animals the protection they need and the mobility that rotational grazing dictates? Of course, like the watering hole above, if you have a fixed house for the animals paddocks that can be divided with electric fence and rotated from there with always having access to this structure. You may need multiple structures, which maybe better for your context if predator pressure is really high.
Structures will also hold water often and other infrastructure like feeding troughs, hay feeders, mineral supplements holders, and any other necessary pieces of the puzzle. Also structures can be outfitted for the seasons, winter vs summer, rainy versus dry. Structures differ also during birthing season depending on the livestocks needs and predator pressure. sometimes. These all become design factors balancing moveable structures and permanent similar to fencing seen below.
Electric/ Permanent Fence
Electric fence, often combined with fixed perimeter fencing, is the common tool of practitioners utilizing rotational grazing. It is mobile, can be powered by a solar panel and battery, and is flexible in its nature allowing an animal steward to craft pastures of varying sizes over and over again. Normal fencing operations divide
pastures to the least they can so that this overhead cost doesn’t eat into profits, again often causing disastrous affects. Permanent fencing is expensive indeed, laborious to setup, and is permanent, it doesn’t move. Electric fence allows you to bunch the animals closely and just when overgrazing can occur, you simply build a new paddock and allow the animal to march into it and eat the new grass. Don’t get me wrong though, electric fence is work, and the pain of taking them down and putting them back up is real. And if you are using the poultry netting type there is two drawbacks. One is you have to come through with a weedwacker or trimmer or machete first and knock the vegetation back to the ground so it doesn’t trip out the electric pulsation from the battery. And when i say knock it back to the ground i mean, because every little nub the fence gets stuck on and slows you down and wears out the fence. Second is baby goats and sheep may get stuck in the fence and essentially be shocked to death by the repeated shocking. I have had baby goats get stuck in the poultry netting style electric fence when I had it turned off. Whether or not they would have been zapped back before this happened, I simply don’t know. An animal farmer friend and past PDC student of mine advised me against this style of fencing saying that he moved away from it cause he was losing too many lambs from it. So instead of the poultry style there is the setting up of multiple strands of wire. While it maybe more work, it will save you time in other areas and may prevent animals from being killed or severely injured. However the poultry netting goes up quickly, and does allow for several different species to be integrated together. Alternatively permanent fence gives you a certain amount of peace of mind with your baby livestock not being injured by electric fence and an extra layer of predator protection. Knowing when birthing season is and the planning around that will lead you the designer to have your birthing permanent pastures well stocked with grass. So the design questions becomes, how do you order your electric fence paddock moves? Which style of fence do you buy? Is any permanent fencing required? Electric fence can be of course combined with permanent fencing. Here is a video below of rotational grazing of goats at Treasure Lake in 2020.
This abstract factor is the key behind this system of management just as Bill Mollison asserts in the Use of Biological resources principle. Timing and management I should say. When raising goats at Treasure Lake in 2018, I would diligently watch the pastures dwindle day after day in a surprising fashion. There
were 17 goats and I did have 600 feet (180 m) of fencing but still it went quickly even in the humid and warm time of the year where growth is full on. So they would eat back the vegetation they could reach and easily work for. I would then leave them in there for a day or two more and supplement with the cut and carry/coppice/pollard method from in or out of the electric fence area. They could then gorge themselves on the foliage I made available and then go back to foraging stuff that was a little more effort for them to eat. In this way I had the animal impact I was looking for and they stayed nourished. I could easily tell not only with my eye on how much forage was left but also by the demeanor and behavior of the goats. When food was low they were a little more agitated and escapes were attempted if I waited too long. Once I would give them fresh pasture to roam in, they were fine. The design question becomes, what will be my time availability for making electric fence moves as well as their housing and making sure they have ample water and general care?
Shepherding indeed is a type of rotational grazing if done properly. This invaluable position is past culture (and still present in some) knew how to keep animals on the move and keep the pastures regenerating and animals healthy. Their travels were based on the often fixed points of the housing and water sources. In some larger ranches, outposts called shepherds huts were dotted around the ranch and were constructed with corrals for the animals. While the corrals were rudimentary, this allowed the Shepard to not always return home each night or really take the animals on a semi seasonal migration pattern. Land use now with so much private property and little land held in commons does make this tricky. In the south of Spain where I worked on and off in the hills outside of Rhonda, there was still a tradition of shepherding. When going to town, it was common to see an enormous herd of goats and their Shepard and dogs doing a public service of maintaining the vegetation along these back roads (fire prevention). Almost all properties are fenced off in that area allowing for the Shepard to ferry his animals down the road day in and day out. They would also be invited into certain lands depending on the users needs. We also had a large, 600 flock of sheep, Shepard in that same area. We brought him, his assistant, the flock and dogs in to eat down our recently keylined field after the regrowth had happened. It was 7 ha (17.5 acres) in size and full of the lush green grass that thrives in the mediterranean rainy season. We needed the vegetation grazed back to cycle fertility and they did just that. The Shepard would allow them to move through the hillside but when they would spread out too much he simply would whistle and his shepherding dogs would bolt like they had been let out of a cannon. Quickly and efficiently they rounded the sheep up. A couple of barks, some sprints, and maybe a fake nip at a leg of a wandering sheep and voila they were back together like a school of fish. Another form of this is the work of the cowboy on horseback. They would circulate animals through vast areas and be a protector against predators and other humans, both looking to pick off animals. Lastly, shepherding was a big part of traditional communist systems to help feed the populace with land that was held in common. I saw the remnants of it in Bulgaria in the countryside village areas where shepherds would lead their flocks out and bring them back to large barns on the edge of the village. Their manure was combined with straw grown in those same outskirts regions of the village to create compost, which was delivered back to the villagers who all had forest gardens.
Also with my goats at Treasure Lake in 2018, I would simply let them out and have
them roam the forest or walk with them to areas that I wanted animal impact to occur at. They could browse at their leisure and stayed fairly together. Unwanted, usually non native, vegetation would also be felled for them to eat whilst on our walks or prior to knowing they would come and joy this fallen treat. This was within a disturbed native forest and my objective was opening space around our native fruit tree, the Paw Paw. Goats, nor deer, do not touch the plant so it is actually a great guild; goats, humans, and paw paws along with the forage around. I also would take them to the dam wall, too steep for me to manage, for them to eat down and then simply call them back to the electric fence area. See video below, I spoke Portuguese to them, it somehow helped.
The design question is how can shepherding become one of the strategies for the animals to be grazers and for the ecosystem to have animal impact?
Of course there are more design questions around your context such as the following:
- climate and brittleness scale
- type and breeds of animals
- age of herd/flock
- soil conditions present
- quality of pasture/ silvopasture
- unusual weather events (drought, too much rain, high heat, etc)
The timing behind it all is indeed a built skill based on observation. So can anyone present you a recipe for success? No, not really because the above questions are just a few that will help you build your context of planning and executing this regenerative technique.