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Advanced Cell Grazing – Permaculture Livestock Systems at Zaytuna Farm

Cell grazing is not a new option when it comes to large animal management. However, brewing at Zaytuna Farm is a dynamic and advanced cell moving method that combines age old and newly discovered techniques and strategies.

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It has been said before, and most of us permaculturists have used our power of observation to see, that nature will opt for balance. This becomes apparent when we see an overgrazed pasture begins to degenerate and before long the cows and/or sheep start getting intestinal parasites. Or we see this when we over plow soil and the result is that we get an abrupt influx of weedy legumes to accumulate nutrient. In the end nature wins.

The Zaytuna Grazing Method (ZGM), invented by Geoff Lawton, hybridizes a multitude of different animal management systems from Allan Savory to Joel Salatin and Regen Ag. The ZGM then incorporates a permaculture twist that will regenerate landscape and grow both productive food, crops, and even vegetation for other uses such as timber, nutrient accumulation, and wildlife habitat.


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The method starts with the construction of a permanent solar powered 9000 watt electric fence called a “laneway” (see photo above, red lines are the laneway), which was also created according the features of the land, much like a swale is created on contour. If possible the laneway should be preplanned in the earthwork stage (at the beginning) of a farm’s creation. On this 66 acre farm the laneway travels through a very diverse landscape of food forest, pasture, swales, ponds, river flat, road frontage, and regrowth forest. The diversity of such landscape provides a multitude of benefits to the grazing animals such as biodiversity in their diet to ensure animal health and proper nutrition. Ideally the grazing cells, after a herd has grazed on it, should remain fallow (left alone) for up to 70 days at a time for regrowth. This cuts down on pest and disease infestations.

It is important to note that if you take in an animal that was not born on this type of diverse landscape and has only had grain feed its entire life, then it would be wise to carefully wean the animal onto the new, more diverse diet or the animal may get shock and die.

The laneway has a series of gates about every quarter acre to half acre and also has switches about every five acres that turn large portions of the laneway on or off to consolidate energy when not in use. The gates allow access to grazing pastures that are created using spindles of electric fence woven through pigtails to create temporary grazing cells (see photo above) where the animals stay two, four, or seven days at a time before being moved to another pasture. Keep in mind that with 25 or more acres you can have two or more groups of large animals being moved across the property at the same time and still not compromise on the amount of time allowed for the cells to regrow after grazing. If you’re working with a smaller property, then use your own judgment on the amount of land and the quantity of animals with your diversity and your landscape in regards to whether it’s suitable to use one or more grazing herds at a time.


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Permaculture, with all of its practical techniques, has another dimension of strategy. When we add the element of time we are allowed to be creative to plan for soil rehabilitation and even reforestation using grazing animals. The image above portrays an example of stacking a laneway, a swale, a food forest, pasture, slope, and time. This is doing something very clever. By using the slope of the land we are allowing the manure from the grazing animals to be washed into swales where their nutrient is then spread via rain that fills the swales — causing it to travel and infiltrate across the property. Below the swales are food forests which take up some of the nutrient for the production of food and biomass. The area below the food forest and before the next swale is called the interswale. In this system the interswale is a grazing cell where the animals are eating fresh pasture and depositing more manure for even further nutrient penetration further down slope. (Example in diagram below.)

It is important to note that the diversity of animals and manures that hit the pastures and swales will have a great beneficial impact on the soil. If we were to move a chicken tractor over the cells after the cows have grazed on them then we will deposit a different diversity of nutrient and also clear the area quickly of pests and even greatly diminish conditions favourable for unwanted vegetation (weeds). It is also important to note that large animals typically enjoy tree leaves and the cells should be placed just out of reach of the food forests, unless we are wanting to thin them holistically with the herd.

By using these methods a farm can maintain a healthy, disease- and pest-resistant landscape that benefits all life in both created and natural ecosystems. Savings on purchases of food, antibiotics, and medical treatments for the animals will be of great value using the ZGM as well. Many farmers are also looking for multiple income streams and gaining the best possible yields while improving the soil structure and resale value of their land. This system allows for just that. With swales and ponds on the property there is the additional option of aquaculture. The food forest systems can grow food for not only aquaculture, but also the grazing animals, and for humans that live on the farm or to sell in markets. The pastures produce beautiful organic and lush grasses that provide for a healthy herd that can be used for dairy or meat — products that will call top dollar as this method of grazing far out-produces organics in nutrients. And a large crop can be planted in an interswale. The crop can be rotated every growing season which will allow the grasses in the interswale to regenerate when not being used for a crop or grazed on.

This system also allows for just a few employees or ranch hands, because once set up, moving the cattle between cells is the hardest part of the job – which isn’t that hard at all.

P.S. The recently created Zaytuna Farm Video Tour – Part II has a section on cattle laneways. It’s worth a watch.

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31 thoughts on “Advanced Cell Grazing – Permaculture Livestock Systems at Zaytuna Farm

  1. I am attempting to do something similar to this for our horse on my 5 acre block. We have been told its almost impossible to keep horses on small acreage in a sustainable way. A horse requires a lot more freedom to move around than other livestock, making it harder to focus their grazing on small cells of pasture. But I think we have found a way by setting up a track around the perimeter of our property that the horse always has access to, that can then be opened up to small new patches of pasture using temporary tread in post fences. So we expose a small section of new pasture at a time and the horse always has access to larger spaces in the track to stretch its legs. There is also an added benefit in that horses are quite territorial, so having one patrol the perimeter of your property can help keep dogs and the like away from your other animals.

    1. I’ve just signed up for Geoff Lawton’s PDC (very exciting) and in particular I want to look at how horses fit into permaculture. Have you seen Jaime Jackson’s “Paddock Paradise” track system for horses? Similar to Permaculture Laneways but usually without the grazing cells – the idea is more to keep the horses moving to mimic what they would do in the wild.

  2. One of the many things that I have some difficulty in understanding is how the laneway works when crossing over swales. I have seen other posts discussing the possibility of pipes swale crossings, but these seem expensive and destined to fail over the lifetime of the entire system. Are there other options of systems that are being used on Zaytuna, or anywhere, that have primary access and laneways that cross mainframe swales that do not have piped crossings? I have thought about the possibilities of stretching the swale system to create a more gradual sloping effect(the berm would still get compacted and the spillway would still need to insure against overtopping the swale at the crossing). What about wooden bridges that would certainly break down over time, but they seem like they could be replaced more sustainably and easily than piped crossings? All of this depends on what is crossing the swale…people, livestock, trucks, tractors. Thanks!

  3. @ian
    This is a wonderful idea and it also exists on Zaytuna Farm. We do however close some of the gates so the horses arent 40 acres away when needing to met them moved but still have access to the laneway as well as the cows. Thanks for bringing that up!

    @Luke Kirkley
    A bridge is not a bad idea especially if you have an outer zone with a timber forest in mind for creating structures. As for pipes – with class 9 pvc or metal culverts, they are more than capable of creating an extremely low maintenance swale crossing. I have experienced multiple days with 8″ of rain per day and the swales crossing pipes didnt flinch. Contact me if you have any questions.

  4. Hi Nick, it sounds fantastic. Two ideas, I am chipping away at is I often find lanes as areas of degredation, as they are often not part of the plan and have animal action – grazing and impact, that reverses biodiversity. The construction of laneways to control animal movement verses planned animal movement (creativity) and upskilling in animal handling skills often drops out when tested due to the source of the energy used in each option – mineral verses solar.
    The other area that I am working on is not to restrict grazing animals natural tendency to move up and down slopes – in summer they move up to get away from biting insects and to the cool breeze and in winter to get away from the cold that settles in the valleys. This natural habit helps restore nutrients to the tops of slopes for when large graziers get up after resting they tend to deposit dung and urine. Where possible not running fences across the slopes aids this as well as giving the animals a greater dietary selection. Some thoughts for the pot!

  5. Hi Nick.
    Your article documents well the system at Zaytuna farm.
    If you could explain what determines a two, four or seven day stay in each cell and why you have chosen a fixed number of 70 days recovery time it might help people with smaller or larger properties to use their own judgment on the best system for their farm.
    It is important to note that recovery time for a plant fluctuates with the seasons and overgrazing is when plants are exposed to grazing for too long or too soon after the plant was last grazed. 7 days may be too long and 70 days may be too soon.

  6. Hi Georgi, this is my own adaption of rangeland management and cell grazing systems integrated into a very diverse and intricately patterned permaculture farm system. It has been one of the most dramatic and positive design applications that I have ever developed, increasing the overall fertility of the farm quite dramatically while also reducing overall maintenance and increasing accessibility to many broad acre resources that would otherwise be very difficult to access. One unseen asset of this system is that we are regularly walking the whole farm and observing everything, which is not so easy in a complex polyculture which your typical permaculture farm development is, and this means we can make informed decision on what needs to be done when.

  7. Thank you all for the information you’ve posted about managing horses. I’ve been looking into the Paddock Paradise system but don’t like the idea of horses eating only hay all year round. Can anyone tell me how the track and grazing cell system mentioned above woks for them in winter months? Or do you still need to take horses off the land?
    Many thanks
    Demelza

  8. Hi, I live in the south west of France (almost at bottom left corner) and trying to design cell-grazin at a friend’s farm. He has 55 cows, 50 ha. How big should we make each cell for a decent return period in this region (temperate climate, in the winter, most of the vegetation is dormant) ?

    Thanks

    1. Hi Louis, consider that there are only two ways you can overgraze plants – staying too long in the paddock or coming back too soon. For most areas, staying up to 3 days in a paddock will result in little or no overgrazing of plants. Returning too soon has far greater risk of creating severe overgrazing as just about every mouthful of pasture will constitute overgrazing. So if you believe you need 60 days for a severely grazed plant to recover its pre-grazing volume the you would require 21 subdivisions to ensure adequate recovery of plants (90 days of recovery would require 31 subdivisions and so on). These may be temporary divisions with temporary electric fencing.

      if you wish to create animal impact to create a shift in landscape function – trampling/dunging/etc. then the more density the better, again this could be created with temporary fencing, attractants such as licks or hay, or just herding and bunching. May I suggest having a look at Holistic Financial planning and in particular the Weak Link concept to guide the implementation of your fencing plan, so the fencing does not cost you money but makes you money.

      Regards

      Brian

  9. Hi Brian, thanks a lot for your answer. I understand that if the animal stay 3 days on a paddock, I need 21 paddocks to ensure a return period of 60 days. But now I need to know if I have enough land for the number of cows I have, I mean how come you don’t mention the number of animal to the area of the paddocks ?
    I mean if I split the 50 ha into 21 paddocks, each paddocks is a around 2.5 ha…is it enough to feed 45 cows for 3 days ?

    Thanks for your advice on Holistic Financial Planning, can you provide a link to where I can find it applied to an example of a beneficial fencing plan ?

    Thanks again.

    1. Good morning Louis – good point, the number of animals you can carry depends on how much sunlight you capture and how much grass you grow, I don’t know theses figures. I assumed you were focusing on improving landscape by stopping overgrazing of plants and using the tool of animal impact. You said the farm already had 55 cows and I assumed this is what the property normally ran which would be a good starting point – all you are now doing is running the same number of animals over the same number of hectares bunching them up to insuring they don’t overgraze plants. The number of animals you may carry on any piece of land will fluctuate depending if you are currently in the growing or non-growing season and then what kind of season you are experiencing or experienced. There are various methods of measuring the volume of pasture available http://issuu.com/hmi-in_practice/docs/_136_ip_highres/1 outlines the STAC method which is very quick and easy, personally I prefer the Feed Square Method as outlined in the Holistic Management handbook.

      Ultimately if you put the animals in the paddock for the required 3 or so days and they are bellowing/walking the fences/hanging on the water or not achieving rumen fill by mid-morning you could have too many animals.

      Hope that helps.

      Regards

      Brian

  10. Thanks Brian, that helps a lot.
    I can’t find the Feed Square Method explained. I have downloaded the documents from Holistic Management but I can find this. Can you point me where to find it ?
    Thanks
    Regards

  11. hello Louis I have copied below some notes on the method. It’s beauty is it is so simple and quick and easy and folks get very accurate and confident with the method very quickly:

    Feed Budgeting (after Savory, 1999)
    STEP 1
    To answer the question “is there enough feed for my stock?” you need to know:
     The number and class of stock in the paddock (“Animal”).
     The length of time that you plan to graze the paddock (“Days”).
     The size of the paddock (in hectares).

    STEP 2
    Animal Days per Hectare (ADH) = Number of Stock x Number of Days /Area of Paddock (in hectares)

    STEP 3
    Calculate the area of land that must feed 1 animal for 1 day = 10 000m² / ADH

    STEP 4
    Pace out and mark this area in the paddock.
    The length of the one side of the paced
    square = square root of STEP 3.

    STEP 5
    Look at the pegged area. Is there enough vegetation/feed in the square to feed 1 animal
    for 1 day and still leave enough for kangaroos, rabbits etc. and without degrading the land? If there is, then the paddock is not overstocked for the length of time you are
    planning for.

    STEP 6
    If there is insufficient feed in the square to feed 1 animal for 1 day, you can:
     Reduce stock numbers.
     Reduce the time of grazing ( beware as this reduces recovery in all other paddocks)

  12. Ok Thanks a lot Brian. I see this method is all about the farmer’s “feeling” about this final small area for 1 animal for 1 day. I submitted the idea to my farmer friend, because I calculated that he actually feeds 1 cow for 1 day on 40 m²…which is not much…I didn’t get a clear feedback from him yet…I think he is processing the info. The other thing is that he is not 100% grass-feeding his cows, at all. He gives them a lot of corn.

  13. Good morning Louis glad to be able to share some thoughts. An average 460kg dry cow will consume about 11.2kgs dry matter, so it would be simple to work out what % of the cows diet is being feed from the bag and what needs to come from the paddock and then make adjustments to the grazing plan. I am guessing you would have quite a large bulk of feed for a feed square of 6.3m x 6.3m to feed a cow for a day. However the beauty of having lots of small paddocks is you get very quick monitoring results as to how accurate your pasture assessment was. With a group of farmers last week we threw up a temporary fence in 20 minutes to put a herd of 52 cow calf units in for a day – we had feedback on the accuracy of our estimate the next day and made adjustments!

  14. Hi Louis, I have just reread your original comments and I question why you need to constrict your animals to just a 6.3m x 6.,3m area? If you have 50 ha or 500 000 sq meters of pasture, divided this by your 55 cows to get 9090 sq.m. per animal. If you then divide this by your estimate of 40 sq.m. per cow per day this gives you 227 days of feed for your herd or about 227 days of recovery for your plants? Possibly I am missing something?

  15. Hi Brian. Thanks for your comments.
    Yes that’s it, 227 days of grazing, for 55 cows, and 50 ha. I then chose a 60-day return period, and I computed that a 3 day paddock should be 6558 m².

  16. Good morning Louis, not sure if I have got it right. To give a 60 day recovery for growing plants in 3 day temporary paddocks, you will need 21 paddocks. 50 ha divided by 21 is 2,38 ha per paddock or 23 800 sqm.

  17. Hi Brian, Good morning to you (depending on where you are ;-) )
    Yes that’s it.
    I am having a little doubt about something: what height the grass must be when the cows enter the paddock ? I mean, my friend grazer is telling me that it must not be to high because the animals can lay down the grass and it can be difficult to eat. I can’t seem to find a recommandation about this in the holistic management document.
    Thanks

  18. Good afternoon Louis (Eastern Australian Time). When planning your grazing to limit overgrazing of plants, plant height is not a major consideration. The best and most nutritious plant in the paddock will be chewed down to the ground within minutes of the herd entering the paddock – this you cannot control. These plants often take longer to recover the energy lost when grazed and unless you allow these plants enough time to recapture the energy, they will disappear from your pasture mix and the cows will start the process on the next most desirable plant. The paddock shifts to a composition of poorer species. Before animals return to the paddock the volume of the most severely grazed plants in the paddock must have resumed pre-graze volume or the wind-down of energy has begun.

    Your friend is absolutely right plants left too long may become rank and lignified, Increasing cattle density (small paddocks) increases the graze to trample ratio, so more of the tall pasture will be trampled to create litter to protect and feed the soil – to produce more productive pasture.

  19. Although there is nothing more satisfying than watching a herd of cows graze lush pasture, a close second is watching them all poop and pee and observing all that rich nutrient soak into your soil and plume downslope where you will pasture them next week!

  20. Having seen the real thing up close while doing the PDC at Zaytuna, I have to say that at the time I didn’t understand the scale and extent of the cells. Seeing it on a map like this is incredibly helpful. Thanks. All the beneficial repercussions were also not clear all at once, so thanks also for tracking all the benefits possible limitations. I saw the solar system feeding into the fencing, but could not make out the name of the manufacturer. Can you advise? Thanks. .

  21. Hi, I wonder how you initially establish the grazing cells when you start with a weedy paddock? Do you crash graze, then put compost and mulch and seed the plants you want? Or do you chuck good quality hay and let the animals eat it until the seeds from the hay germinate?
    Greets, An

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