What this is all about is turning grass into people food while increasing the stability and health of the food system. The means to that end is intensive rotational grazing.
Grass: A brief primer on managing forage
Virtually all food energy is solar energy, and all solar energy capture for food happens first in the leaves of a green plant. Moreover, forty percent of the world’s land mass is grasslands, diverse perennial ground covers that capture and store carbon and water in the soil and host literally millions of different animal and microbe species. Turning grass into people food is arguably one of the most important jobs in the world, and managing grazing animals so that they become vital cooperative members of the healthy grassland community and feed the human beings is the most fascinating and rewarding exercise we can imagine.
This is not as hard as all the negative press animals get make it out to be. Grass (by which we mean most of the stuff that’s not bushes or trees) needs to be pruned, or its old growth smothers fresh new leaves. Grazing prunes top growth to let sunlight get down for seed germination and to fuel new growth points. It also triggers a correspondent root-dieback – as the plant sheds roots to balance its root mass with its aerial parts – that leaves masses of organic matter below the soil surface, where it feeds worms, insects, microbes and fungi, and leaves openings in the soil for air, water and new root growth. This is in addition, of course, to all the fertility a grazing animal adds at the surface, in the form of manure and urine. It’s not too much to say that grazing grows fertile soil – lots of it.
But there are lots of people out there saying that farm animals are what’s wrong with the environment –that their manure and urine pollute the atmosphere, that unmanaged grazing degrades grasslands – and these things are also in some sort true. Behold what happens when we try to remove the intimate human touch from land and soil husbandry, or attempt to put too many animals, or too much land, under an oversimplified management regime: degradation, erosion, waste. But those who would advocate a vegan future for agriculture would put out one fire by starting another, exchanging poorly managed perennial polycultures for poorly managed annual monocultures. Only gross ignorance – of the benefits of good animal husbandry, and the huge environmental costs of large-scale commodity cropping – can don its righteousness cloak and claim to hold the obvious moral high ground for eliminating food animals, and most of the flag-waving and name-calling is being done by people with not a shred of real knowledge of the subject. You can pick your team, and you can root for it, but if you don’t know the first thing about the game you’re just cheering for the jersey.
Good grass management goes by a lot of names – management intensive grazing, intensive rotational grazing, mob grazing, and so on – all with their own emphases and aims – but the substance of the matter is that when animals graze they are impacting the environment and we need to be paying attention. In the wild, grazing impact is managed by numbers, competition, and bunching as protection from predators. These things ensure that animals graze hard and move on. Where these elements are lacking – in your back yard, for instance – we manage grazing impact with string: that is, we either tether an animal, or we set up temporary electrical fence (‘polytwine’ – plastic string with conductive filaments woven in), to restrict each day’s grazing to a small area. As each area is grazed we move on, not coming back to that spot until it is fully recovered, usually a month or more. The actual chore takes just a few minutes most days. Planning the movement to take advantage of seasonally available forage, water and shelter makes the job interesting. For learning how: books are helpful, watching someone who knows how is more so, but in the end one learns by doing, as with riding a bike. Intelligent grass management is the heart and soul of good farming.