Are your pastures increasing in moss and rush?
As I have been walking around the pastures and meadows in the Lake District where I live, I’ve been astonished by how prevalent moss and rush is becoming in fields that were once dominated by grasses. I’d like to throw around a few ideas about why this is happening.
First, you must understand what a grass plant needs to be healthy and thrive. For a species or several species to succeed we need to create the life conditions they like.
A grass plant is ‘overgrazed’ when the leaf is bitten, then bitten again before the roots have fully recovered and it has regrown its leaf. In a field where grazing animals are left for a prolonged period (are re-grazing the same plants) or they are returned to a recovering field too soon, the plant will become weakened. If this continues to happen year after year, then the plants will die; the variety of species will reduce and you will be left with only species that can tolerate being repeatedly stressed.
The only other species that can thrive in an overgrazed field in these damp (non-brittle) parts of the world are those which the livestock don’t like – rush and moss!
Rush is doing particularly well in these parts at the moment because the management conditions – set stocking regime – of much of the UK’s grassland is creating a compromised water cycle.
When the water cycle is dysfunctional, the infiltration across the whole pasture is limited by poor root depth, increased bare ground between plants and loss of surface leaf litter as well as an overall reduction in soil organic matter. The result is less water ‘held’ in the pasture or passing into deep layers of soil and more running down the surface into the lowest areas of the field. The lower, wetter areas are perfect for rush to thrive and it can successfully spread from these strongholds.
The more rush and moss and the higher the grazing pressure on the grasses and herbs – hey presto, you have a pasture very quickly unable to sustain your livestock numbers.
A grass – just like the animals that eat it – need a broad range of nutrients to thrive and survive. On a grass plant, the roots and foliage are balanced; the height of the leaf above ground is generally represented in root depth below ground.
Minerals – especially in our climate – are constantly washing (leaching) downward; they need deep rooted plants to bring them back up to the surface and then the dead plant litter from those decaying plants replenishes soil fertility. If your grass is never allowed to grow any height, your roots are never going to reach those nutrients. The tightly cropped grass plants have no leaf litter left to decay and mulch on the soil surface and you soon have a broken mineral cycle leaving your plants sick and dying out.
If your animals are grazing these sickly plants they will not be getting a good range of nutrients either; the extensive use of mineral blocks and boluses is a very new phenomenon!
In a traditional livestock farming system fields were small often divided by walls and hedges. This wasn’t simply to create an attractive landscape or stack up field cleared stone. Our quintessential English landscape was created because farmers once understood that plants needed. By keeping flocks and herds together, using short grazing periods followed by long recovery they could create resilient, healthy, diverse pastures which fed animals without fertilisers, pesticides, feed blocks, sheep cake, wormers, antibiotics, mineral supplements and vaccines.
Chemical fertilisers may temporarily replace some of the nutrients and can offer a flush of grass growth but this is an addictive and false way of growing grass which does nothing to improve natural mineral cycling, animal health or your bottom line! Farm yard manure can also help but if the animals are not getting minerals from healthy grasses in the first place the quality of your manure will deplete over time too.
So, what can be done?
Holistic management and planned grazing helps assess the functionality of your ecosystem processes, it can help you understand what conditions are required to support the habitat you want to see.
We start by creating your ‘context’ which outlines what you want to manage for; a livestock farmer may want productive grassland with low feed and fert bills; a conservation organisation may want diversity of species and abundant wildlife.
We then help you get there by teaching you how to use a set of cleverly devised ‘testing questions’ to be applied to every management decision and creating one or all of the holistic plans; financial plan, grazing plan and land plan. We use ecological monitoring to follow our progress towards the goal/context and ensure we have a feedback loops in place to pick up when we are off track.
When you understand how to ‘read’ the health of the ecosystem processes and fully grasp the implications of the tools available to us for managing the land, you can get fast and sustainable results at no cost.
Holistic management and planned grazing are used all over the world to improve grassland health and productivity. Many farmers have seen dramatic increases in soil depth, grass density, diversity of species, the productivity of animals, livestock carrying capacity and a reduction in input costs.
If you want to learn more, please send an email or look at some of our other articles and resources.
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