It seems to be generally accepted that an area of land is of a fairly set productive value. The thinking is that yields can only be increased by the addition of fertilisers or reseeding with more ‘productive’ grasses, otherwise the only way to increase livestock numbers – and therefore profits – is to buy or rent more land.
Conservationists are focused on reducing stocking rates to increase biodiversity. Farmers are keen to maintain stocking rates and increase ‘productive’ grasses. Both parties are missing an important distinction: the most successful and profitable livestock managers in the world understand that their job’s actually about harvesting sunlight.
Sunlight is converted into potential food for livestock at the ground level through growing plants.
Some livestock farmers prefer to feed their animals grains which are human bred plants which require man-made conditions or additives to grow successfully. Some farmers prefer to make more use of the grassland they have available on their holdings. Some will bring their animals indoors in winter and rely on winter forage and grain. Some will run an extensive system where livestock winter out. Some will keep breeds of animals that fatten quick on high quality forage and concentrates. Some will rear native breeds which thrive on low nutrient pasture or moorland.
Either way they’re all feeding plants that have converted sunlight into livestock food.
So why don’t we concentrate on converting more food per acre at the lowest cost possible?
Hmm I’m not sure. But perhaps it’s because we’ve been supported by subsidies that don’t focus our minds on this issue. We’ve been weaned onto a system that worked brilliantly with cheap artificial fertility and low-cost grains, but now we realise it’s rather costlier than we thought!
Lucky for us in the UK, other parts of the world who couldn’t access artificial fertiliser, imported grains or weren’t supported by subsidies have gone a long way to perfecting the craft of maximising the productivity of their land without inputs.
These guys understand that they aren’t livestock farmers; they’re sunlight farmers.
Think of sunlight conversion as a pyramid with the plants at the base. Photosynthesis allows the plant to take in CO2 and sunlight then convert it into growing leaf. There are three ways we can think of this photosynthetic capacity: time, area and density.
Time: A growing season is generally something we can’t control, so the earlier and later we can access the available light in the year and the more hours of daylight we can make use of, the better off we will be. If you have a mono culture or a few species of grass plants that only start growing in full daylight and warmer temperatures later in the season then the potential per metre of growth is limited. If, on the other hand, you have a range of early season, mid-season, late season, shade loving, full sun and dappled light loving plants they will be making food at every point of the season and every point of the day – nice!
Density: If you have areas of ground that are bare at any point in the year or your plants have spaces between them – often the case with only one or two species of grasses and certainly the case for most arable operations – you’re just not converting as much sunlight per metre as you could be. If you have a large range of species who make the best of being tall, short and make use of the nutrients available in the different layers of the soil from their wide-ranging root architecture and nutrient preferences then you’re maximising potential per metre.
Area: Think of a solar panel; you try and make them as large as possible to convert as much sunshine to power as possible. In grasslands and natural habitats this happens through a mix of leaf shapes and angles of growth – broad-leaves are particularly good at doing this. If you have a small range of grasses all with narrow leaves then frankly you’re missing a trick.
Another way solar conversion can be assessed is by looking at the photosynthetic rate. This is the speed and effectiveness that plants can convert light into food. This can be dependent on available nutrients and the health of the plant which is most often influenced by the effectiveness of the mineral and water cycle and how well the ‘microbial bridge’ is performing. We now know plants form amazing nutrient networks through mycorrhizal fungi that not only help them access food, water and phytochemicals to help ward off disease, but allow them to share it all around too! (1) (2)
Ploughing, using artificial fertiliser and ‘icides’ all contribute to destroying these amazing networks of fungi and other microbes in the soil. Leaving ground bare or reducing the diversity of your plant life reduces the ‘liquid carbon’ being pumped into soil through plant exudates and leads to compaction of soils, reduced moisture holding capacity and a reliance on soluble or artificial fertility. All of this reduces your conversion rate of sunlight to animal or human food. (3)
Christine Jones, world renown soil ecologist, who started ‘Amazing Carbon‘ says if you can see the livestock’s feet then it’s time they moved out; you’re not managing your grasslands to its full potential. For many in the UK who are used to short cropped pastures and uplands, this may come as a new and potentially ‘wasteful’ concept.
Much work has been done in this area and the results are well tried and tested. Jones claims that it’s most important that don’t graze more than 50% of the total leaf of the plant if you want a quick recovery, it’s best to only graze when a plant is fully recovered. This is down to the effect of grazing on the plant roots – you know, those things that are out of sight yet responsible for making the plant grow again when you’ve lopped off their solar panels! (4) (5)
Up to 40% of leaf area remover = no effect on root growth
50% of area removed = 2-4% root growth inhibition
60% of area removed = 50% root growth inhibition
70% of area removed = 78% root growth inhibition
80% of area removed = 100% root growth inhibition
90% of area removed = 100% root growth inhibition
Thanks to Christine Jones for this information available in her talks.
As livestock farmers, we’ve a bit of an obsession with the ‘utilisation’ of the grass as if it’s simply a feed the same as sheep cake or bagged silage that we shouldn’t waste or allow to be trampled into the ground. This thinking doesn’t fully consider the complex living systems at play and in a continuous grazing situation can lead to slow recovery rates. The biggest potential we have as livestock farmers to grow more grass is to feed your living soil and harness nature by understanding how to work with these natural systems – this is what holistic management is all about.
By allowing the livestock to take of the top of the taller longer rested plants they are still accessing the best nutrients but avoiding the parasites that tend to be more prolific near the base of the plant. The woodier part of the vegetation is trampled back to the ground with a nice splattering of organic fertiliser to boost the composting effect. This method super charges your recovery rates and tops up your biological bank account which increases your free fertility. Holistic planned grazing can help you understand how best to achieve this over your whole farm and calculate forage requirements and optimal recovery periods.
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