Friday, July 07, 2006


About Abe Collins

Abe Collins was the first overseas member to join the Carbon Coalition. He is a 'share milker' at Cimarron Farm in St Albans, Vermont, USA. He is also an educator.

Cimarron Farm will host the following workshops this winter and spring
Holistic Management® Planned Grazing Workshop
Holistic Management® Financial Planning
Keyline Land Planning and Soil Building Workshop
Achieving An Agricultural Solution to Climate Change Within a Decade
Building the Green Windmill for Home and Farm Power
Grain-Free Dairying: Lessons Learned in All-Grass Dairying on Cimarron Farm

Achieving An Agricultural Solution to Climate Change Within a Decade - sounds fantastic.
Here's ABe's description of the workshop:

"By combining Planned Grazing and subsoil plowing we can convert subsoil to topsoil at astounding rates. The resulting robust photosynthesis and rapid decay of pasture roots transforms atmospheric carbon dioxide into stable humus in topsoil. If enough of us farmers embrace soilbuilding, we can reduce atmospheric CO2 from current levels to near pre-industrial levels within ten years. In other words, we can stabilize climate-change as a by-product of profitable, ecological farming._This discussion will go beyond using less hair-spray, driving less and the Kyoto protocol; we will address the root causes of climate change, and examine policy and citizen action that can harmonize people, land, water and atmosphere. Energy and fuel issues will be tackled._We will discuss the important insights that Allan Yeomans, author of Priority One: Together We Can Beat Global Warming, and Allan Savory have brought to the global discussion of climate change._Together, farmers and our conscious customers can restore biodiversity, build deep topsoil and stabilize climate change. The choice of our legacy to future generations is before us; this presentation will give you new and empowering information to incorporate into your farm and daily life._This presentation is free. Pre-registration is required. Refreshments will be served."


New Soil and No Grain: Planned Grazing on Cimarron Farm

By Abe Collins

This article first appeared in Holistic Management In Practice Quarterly
As an all grass, no-grain dairy, we pay close attention to our grazing. Our experience with transitioning from management intensive grazing to planned grazing on Cimarron Farm has been rewarding. I am confident that planned grazing gives us the best results possible, and things just keep getting better. Some benefits that should be noted up front include:
ß Everybody on the farm enjoys taking a few days during the cold of winter to contribute to a plan that they can see and work with through the whole season.
ß The cattle end up where they are supposed to be, when they are supposed to be there. Thinking through the year before-hand often opens up new possibilities that we hadn’t considered before.
ß We don’t “run out of grass” or commit what Voisin termed “untoward acceleration” during slow growth periods, as we have planned moves based on slow growth.
ß Animal performance keeps improving, and recovery periods keep decreasing.
ß Grazing planning is a great way to “enter the mind of the land”….we approach it like a game of biological chess, where everyone wins.
The basic ecological principles outlined in Holistic Management have also led us to experiment with some grazing and soilbuilding strategies that differ from management-intensive grazing (MIG) convention in these parts. The results have been encouraging and are the main subject of this article.
I will qualify what follows by noting that we are located in non-brittle Vermont, we are running cows, (about 70 mature cows and 40 youngstock, this year) and this farm was rotationally grazed for twenty years prior to planning our grazing. I write in the spirit of experimentation. We have made changes in management that have yielded positive results. We are still monitoring!

Grazing Tall: Raising forage energy, deepening topsoil, increasing growth rates.
The standard advice in management intensive grazing circles is to graze 4- to 8-inch (100-200 mm) pastures down to 1-3 inches (25-75 mm). Reasons offered include even re-growth, high digestibility, high protein for high milk and meat production, avoidance of poky stems causing pink-eye, higher clover content due to less light competition, and better water cycling due to less leaf transpiration.
This strategy comes with built-in problems. Our challenge in lush pasture grazing is to provide enough energy to balance the very high levels of “protein,” including non-protein nitrogen. When stock are forced to eat short, lush, high protein pasture, the microbes in the gut still need to get energy from somewhere, so amino acids, proteins etc. are de-aminized to get at the energy stored in underlying carbon bonds (i.e. protein is turned into energy). Energy is freed up, but the cost is ammonia that the liver and kidneys are forced to deal with. It takes a lot of energy to run those filters. Additionally, oxygen in the blood is replaced by ammonia, in effect leading to oxygen starvation.
Mark Bader, of Free Choice Enterprises, was the first to alert us to the fact that by grazing very lush pasture, we were creating alkalosis in the herd. The smell of ammonia in the milking parlor was very strong, and the manure was similar to green paint.
Andre Voisin also warned about the dangers of non-protein nitrogen in Grass Productivity, and Jerry Brunetti, of Agri-Dynamics, helps grassfarmers manage for forage that minimizes “funny protein.”
To counter the negative effects of low fiber and alkalosis that result from grazing such immature pasture, most producers around here feed supplemental hay, silage and grain during the grazing season. Having chosen to pursue the all-pasture path, we determined to figure out how to better meet the nutritional needs of the stock entirely in the pasture. This led us to experiment with “grazing tall.” (We should note that we do feed free-choice minerals, as well as supplement apple-cider vinegar at the rate of 2-3 oz/head/day in the drinking water.) For more information on the benefits of cider vinegar as a supplement for livestock, see D.C. Jarvis’ book Folk Medicine.
The benefits of the “grazing tall” strategy, though not called this, are laid out in the chapter on energy flow in Holistic Management. In practice, we let pasture grow up to the early boot stage (at least 12” tall, usually taller), graze at high stock density, and leave a well trampled, high residual (say 4” to 7”.) We still generally achieve 55 ADA, but the harvested forage is shifted higher up on the plant.
This practice keeps growth in the steepest part of the sigmoid curve rather than repeatedly knocking the grass back to the bottom, shallow slope of the s-curve.
Grazing tall leaves lots of leaf area to kick-start re-growth through above-ground energy reserves and photosynthesis.
Our recovery periods dropped by about 15 days when we began grazing tall. Our maximum recovery period dropped from 60 days to 45 days in one year. Other factors, such as spring management, also figured into this.
Grazing tall results in much more developed root systems, deepening the topsoil-building zone and enhancing mineral cycling. The greater depth of root development is a plus during dry spells, as roots can tap deep water in soils. It also leaves a nice mulch layer that seems to reduce soil drying/evaporation so water cycling is generally enhanced.
Malcolm Beck points out that the dense litter that results from trampled residual also leads to high levels of CO2 from litter decay in the pasture tangle, which localizes and accelerates carbon cycling, and keeps leaf stomata closed longer and more often, reducing transpiration. This makes sense to us, and our experience confirms it.
Grazing higher on the sigmoid curve is where we find the best energy/protein ratio, and accounts for some of our better animal performance. With our cooler weather here in the northeast, we have fewer problems with lignification than grassfarmers in warmer climes.
Allowing the animals to graze the top portions of the plant, and leave the bottoms, also increases the energy levels in the grazed forage. As the cows happily graze the tops of the pasture plants, I suspect that they are telling us that glucose levels are highest in the upper portions of the plant, where photosynthesis is actively occurring.

What about clumpy regrowth?
Grazing at high density (we aim for stock density of between 400-800 animals/acre or 1,000-2,000 animals/ha) tramples most everything down, and results in even re-growth, not at all clumpy, even when the grass we turn the animals into is over-mature. It means a lot of moves in the course of a day, but that is the best part of our job.
High density is not generally used in management intensive grazing, but we have found it to pay off. Clipping pastures to deal with “clumpiness” is becoming a dim memory.

Afternoon Strip Grazing for High Sugar Forage
Another boost to production has come from afternoon strip grazing. This stimulates the animals’ appetite when the sugar levels in the grass are substantially higher. We realized an increase in milk production of 5 lbs (2.25 kg) per day per animal once we started restricting morning grazing and emphasizing frequent moves during afternoon and early evening grazing (four and more moves between 11:00 am and 6:00pm, with a larger break for the early evening meal). Hot days need to be accounted for, as we don’t want to overheat the cows, but observing the general principal has been rewarding in terms of cow condition and milk production.

Increasing Pasture Productivity Through Spring and Fall Management
Jim Howell's article on Llewellyn Manske's research into rangeland ecology at North Dakota State University was an eye-opener for us. The realization that the secondary tillers generated in the fall by a grass plant become lead tillers in the spring leads us to be cautious with fall/winter grazing, and leave the residual or re-growth, where possible, so these little tillers stay intact.
Dr. Manske’s research is rich. Like eating an artichoke, we just keep finding good stuff as we peel away. Dr. Manske points out that light defoliation after third leaf development in the spring results in high levels of carbon exudates from roots that stimulate soil life in the rhizosphere, enhancing mineral cycling and energy flow and promoting accelerated plant growth through the season. This is very exciting stuff to us, and complements Christine Jones’ illuminating writings on the same subject.
Manske's research shows at least a 40% increase in growing season grassland yield when cool season perennials’ lead tillers are lightly defoliated after third-and-a-half leaf stage in the spring. That's a lot of extra grass. In addition to the carbon exudates, grazing after third leaf-plus, and before seedhead formation, increases tillering.
Ever more so I am realizing that we have to abandon the high-production mindset and attend fully to the needs of the plants and soil dwellers before production and performance can really begin to climb.
Management intensive grazing recommendations that I have encountered actually encourage the opposite of the above information. The MIG advice is to get your animals on pasture way too early, so forage doesn't get ahead of you, and to set up a grazing wedge (staggered forage volumes in paddocks).
In translation on many farms, this means that animals hit the ground very early in the season. Many farmers graze through every paddock before any substantial growth even occurs, or start grazing when grass has just “achieved a definite green color”, and by the time they get to the last paddocks on the farm they are hitting the grass at a reasonable height. This knocks back that pesky spring flush of grass and sets up a grazing wedge, but at a tremendous cost; many plants in many paddocks are overgrazed at the beginning of the season. Remember, overgrazing occurs when we stay too long, come back too soon, or graze too soon after dormancy. If a plant is grazed that is growing from carbohydrate reserves, rather than from active photosynthesis, it has been overgrazed.
If the “graze really early” advice is combined with the advice to graze down to 1-3 inch (25-75 mm) residual throughout the rest of the season, the effect is that we bite off the babies' heads, expecting them to grow into healthy adults, and then keep them doing arithmetic, rather than multiplication, for the rest of the season (i.e., they are maintained at the low, shallow section of the sigmoid curve).

Establishing Our Grazing Wedge the Fall Before
Just waiting longer to turn the animals out in the spring, though, can lead to the troubles of a big winter hay bill, low nutritional levels late in the cows’ pregnancy (we calve in the spring), no grazing wedge and many acres of low-value, over-mature feed. There are many creative ways to address this.
One way we have stumbled onto grew from thinking through step five in the grazing planning aide memoire - (note and address unfavorable grazing patterns.) What we are working with now is setting up our grazing wedge the fall before by allowing substantial re-growth in some paddocks, higher residual in others, and a normal graze-down on last graze in still others. This staggers the carbohydrate reserves (and the survival of fall tillers) that plants have going into winter within various paddocks. Spring growth responds consistently—lots of carbohydrates means early, robust spring growth. Since this is all recorded on our last growing season plan, it is easy to make the following growing season plan with reference to the record. The result is that we are not forced to overgraze any plants, we get that necessary grazing wedge, and we increase overall grass production through the season on the order of 40% and more. From our experience with this, the gain in grass production manifests itself in increased plant vigor and growth rates, and even higher plant density.

Winter Grazing for Delicate Cows
Winter grazing has an effect on all of this, but it can still be accounted for with the grazing plan.
We have not been wildly successful with our winter grazing yet. We are usually on the bedded pack in the barn by the end of November. Admittedly, we have been struggling to overcome the common, profitability-impairing attitude that afflicts many northeastern graziers: “We can’t winter graze because…too much snow, delicate cows, diesel is still cheap, we like supporting feed suppliers, we love making hay…etc.”
This doesn't mean winter grazing, and attendant planning, is not a good idea. We just haven't done much with it yet. I suspect that when we do, that's when we’ll need a shovel to deal with the cash flow. (Winter feed and bedding are our biggest expenses.)
In the recent past our land was overstocked, in that we grazed much of our summer growth, and bought in a lot of hay for the winter. I suspect that this common strategy for dairy graziers will not hold up well in the face of decreasing oil supplies.
Toward matching our stocking rate to the carrying capacity of the farm, we have de-stocked, and now carry about 1 animal to 1.8 acres. We expect that the land will be able to carry more animals as we build soil health, but we are growing into it.
Beginning this summer, we plan to experiment with some winter grazing work. We have the advantage of a new Keyline Flood Flow irrigation system, which will enable us have optimal moisture/ temperature conditions for growing experimental forage varieties we will be planting this year.
We will be reseeding with improved perennials this year, with herbal ley ingredients tossed in for good measure, due to earth work related to the Keyline® irrigation system. Experimenting with varieties that hold up well to winter grazing will be part of that.
We will also experiment with planting turnips and kale into close-grazed pasture this year. We expect a beautiful crop of kale for the cows to graze through the snow once the ground freezes. Think of the energy tetrahedron, and the implications of lengthening the time side by growing a forage that effectively harvests sunlight through mid-December. Brassicas also hold their sugar better than perennial grasses once it gets cold….another contribution to more effective harvest of solar energy and animal performance.
The cost benefits of brassicas are sustantial, and the energy input is minimal—especially with zero-tillage (and zero herbicide) seeding. We have been assured by a few other farmers that brassicas can be planted successfully into standing pasture with herd effect, which we achieve daily by stripgrazing with very small breaks.
Is planting annuals sustainable? Given the energy used in putting up hay, as well as the effects of machinery on the land, I suspect it will be. Granted, we need brassica seeds, which had to be grown somewhere. Current prices are a few bucks a pound, and the seeding rate is about 2-4 lbs/acre (2.25 kg/ha).
Along these lines, it has been illuminating to read Newman Turner’s Fertility Pastures. His tried and true strategies for outwintering dairy cows match and pre-date our ideas by over 50 years.
We aim to minimize the energy/money/time investment in stored forage. Beyond winter grazing, we will be experimenting with buckraking un-wilted cut grass into vacuum silage clamps early in the season, when dry hay is hard to make. Later in the season, we will make loose hay-stacks. Our equipment costs for transitioning from round bale and wrapping equipment to old hay loaders, buck rakes and so on has been very affordable…most equipment has been found in hedgerows and old barns.
I spoke with a farmer in mid-state New York who gets 175 ADA (438 ADH) during winter grazing on turnips at negligible cost, although he does disc harrow and culti-pack to establish the crop.
We’re early in the development of these ideas, but we’ll keep folks up to date on progress.

Building 6” of topsoil a year with grazing, animal impact and the subsoiler plow.
As part of the general Keyline development of the land, which I would like to describe in more detail in a later article, we have been subsoil plowing pastures.
P.A. Yeomans discovered over 60 years ago that subsoiling land after grazing and prior to rain or irrigation, during warm weather, led to very fast rates of topsoil formation. It is the experience of the Yeomans family that four to six inches of subsoil can be converted to high-humus topsoil per year!
Grazing of grass and legume pastures at about early boot-stage prunes off a large amount of high carbon and nitrogen root-mass, which composts readily in the high oxygen, moist environment of land that has been subsoiled. Trampled pasture residual further creates the ideal microclimate for soil life at the soil surface. The combined effect of these tactics is an explosion in the activity of soil life. Creating multiple biological climaxes in the soil through planned grazing and increasingly deep subsoiling yields stable new topsoil.
Three years of twice yearly subsoiling, in concert with planned grazing, can give us 18" and more of new topsoil that can be maintained indefinitely through continued planned grazing.
New topsoil, rich in high-carbon humus, holds lots of rainfall in soils. The same humus also represents enormous amounts of sequestered atmospheric carbon dioxide.
Drawing on a lifetime of experience with soilbuilding, Allan Yeomans, son of P.A. Yeomans, predicts in his new book Priority One: Together We Can Beat Global Warming, that we farmers, with the support of conscious eaters, can stabilize climate change within a decade through rapid soilbuilding, and greatly decreased fossil fuel use.
His book is highly recommended. It can be purchased or downloaded for free from
Our monitoring of carbon sequestration through planned grazing and subsoiling will begin in earnest this coming spring. I did spend a good portion of my summer on my hands and knees in the pastures, with my arms up to my elbows in the topsoil, and what I found there gave me a lot of hope.
All of the ecosystem processes were visibly enhanced by subsoiling within planned grazing. Root growth was incredible. The smell was just right. Soil structure in formerly compacted clays was crumbly and loose.
This leads me to share an assumption that is fore in my life. I believe that we holistic grassfarmers are humanity’s front line in restoring biodiversity. There is so much room for meaningful creativity in our work, and it is really helped along by the use of the planned grazing procedure. The insights offered by people like the Yeomans family, Lee Manske and Christine Jones are gifts that we do well to take advantage of
I can’t help but think, too, that the synthesis of knowledge and practice we are able to achieve on our little plots of earth give us the marketing message of a lifetime:
"By purchasing the food we grow for you, you will help create the new topsoil in the next few years that will feed a thousand generations. Together, we can localize the mineral cycle, create an effective water cycle, stabilize the atmosphere, increase biodiversity, provide your family with perfect nutrition and true food security, enable you to power down while your life improves, and enable you to practice the deepest environmentalism possible at every meal.”

We’ve learned a lot about what is possible with holistic planned grazing over the last couple of years, and the future looks exciting. We feel we are just at the beginning of an explosion of knowledge about grassfarming. Keeping open, and not restricting our ideas of what is possible to prior experience within various grazing systems has been of benefit to us.

Through better planning, we can help heal the planet, provide healthy food, support local food systems, and improve people’s lives.

Buying Clubs—
Part of the Solution

One thought which I repeatedly come back to these days has to do with holistic social forms that can serve as fulcrums in achieving deep social change toward localized, powered down societies, the need for which is becoming more apparent daily. I look to the future resource base, the parts where it says that the land, water and air are all healthy, nutrients are cycling locally and farms are prosperous. Somewhere back in forms of production in our holistic goal there was mention of eaters and farmers directly connected in the process of realizing perfect nutrition while increasing ecological health.
When I ask what the shortest route between where we are now and the future resource base we’ve described, I always come back to farmer management clubs and eater/consumer buying clubs.
Benefits of buying clubs would be:
-Everyday people organize to meet real needs (good food) in a long-lasting way that builds community and consciousness.
-Perfect opportunity for non-farmers to support each other in learning/practicing holistic decision-making.
-Buying clubs place large orders to farms, greatly decreasing the amount of energy farmers need to invest in marketing, and dropping costs for eaters. CSA's and similiar arrangements have already laid a strong foundation for this type of arrangement.
-Farms and buying clubs merge into new wholes that connect people, food, farmers, and ecology.
-Buying club members can contribute labor at critical times on farms.
-Energy expenditure per food unit is greatly reduced, due to locality, shared transport, and so on.
-Buying clubs form the social network that can provide the political power needed to advocate and protect farmers in this time of increasing pressure/attack on family farms.
-Buying clubs open the door to other arrangements such as cow-share corporations, which dovetail perfectly with buying clubs. In this way, we all become holistic grassfarmers. Goodbye desertification; hello topsoil and food security.

We have formed a buying club with about a dozen other local families, and I can say from our experience that it is an exhilarating experience. We can see a real web of connections growing, and it is tying us all together, as well as meeting our desire to support other farmers, increase land health, and decrease fuel use.
To me, buying clubs are one of the most simple, effective ways for society to begin the immediate "Power-Down" process that we owe a thousand generations of our descendants, starting today with the kids in the U.S. and around the world.
One way to help jumpstart this buying club movement might be for us holistic grassfarmers to publicly offer what no other farmer in history has been able to offer --Abe Collins

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