Sermon on benefits of ‘mob grazing’ system

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A CHAPEL was the meeting point for a discussion on ‘Soil, Forage and Carbon Management’, near Bedale, and it felt like an appropriate place.

The two dozen who turned up at Hunton Methodist Church were all, in some way, followers of a new farming gospel.

Main speaker was Canadian farmer Neil Dennis, wrapping up a tour organised with the help of North Yorkshire farmer David Hugill and some funding from government quangos EBLEX and LandSkills and the US-based Earth Analytics Group.

Mr Dennis reckons he saved his farm by learning “holistic resource management”, which led him into what has become known as “mob grazing”, meaning packing small areas with cattle for a short time.

Mr Hugill told the Hunton gathering that the ideas involved were being discussed in farming books in this country a hundred years ago.

When he started looking for ways of reducing inputs, he was put in touch with Mr Dennis, went to see him and came back enthused.

The Canadian farmer claims to get more beef per dollar using an extreme version of rotational grazing over his 1800 dry acres in Saskatchewan.

He will sometimes run more than a million pounds weight of cattle on an acre but will move the animals on up to 10 times a day. He has redesigned his farm, making smaller paddocks and installing automatic gates. Now, he says, he works less hard, needs less kit and makes more money than he did trying to boost his grass production artificially.

The key benefit, he told his Yorkshire audience, was better root development, giving more resilience to the ground and faster recovery to the plants. He said: “Nobody ever told me to look after the soil but now I spend more time monitoring the soil than the animals.”

He explained:

n Grazing only the top third of a plant does not interfere with its root growth, whereas taking grass down short will stop it for two weeks or more.

n Massed cattle trample down plant litter so worms can drag it into the soil.

n The ‘deep massage’ of thousands of hooves turns up buried seeds.

He added that cattle moved on before flies hatched in their manure or parasites got out into of it into the grass. Also, en masse, they ate weeds when they came across them. He needed no minerals and less medication.

He said: “I’ve not found a weed I can’t get rid of by manipulating the grazing.”

Mr Hugill, who farms beef at Scugdale, near Stokesley, said not everything Mr Dennis did could be simply copied. But everyone could learn something. He had created 83 fields for ‘mob grazing’ on his own 160 hectares and planted a lot of chicory because its tap roots went deep and made a way for others. He was already counting the benefits. The system suited Higher Level Stewardship because it was easy to deliver long stubbles for wading birds. His cattle were learning to eat thistles and docks. He was learning to allow them to trample long grass because what they seemed to waste came back as fertiliser.

His new awareness had made him aware of the importance of dung beetles and how rare they now were. One reason was wormers and he now looked for products with the beetle-friendly active ingredient moxydectin.

As a starting point for those interested, Mr Hugill recommended a thread started by a contributor called The Ruminant in the Livestock & Forage section of www.britishfarmingforum.co.uk/ A first post in June 2010 had picked up 415 responses.

The gathering moved on to look at West Arrathorne Farm, Hunton, where Paul and Ruth Simpson run a dairy herd. Mrs Simpson was inspired to start a drive for sustainability by A Farm For The Future, an evangelical documentary by Devon farmer Rebecca Hoskins in 2007.

She is exploring ‘keyline ploughing’, meaning tactical cutting and loosening of turf, to distribute water along contour lines instead of letting it run straight downhill.

Mr Hugill commented: “We see a lot of money being spent on flood defences and this is the cheapest form of flood defence you can get.”

Mrs Simpson said she was also considering following her cows with hens, which eat flies and beetles off the cow pats and contribute to a good spread of manure.

chris.benfield@ypn.co.uk