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Some New Angles on Grazing Cells

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The Big Scrub is gone; destroyed by loggers and cattle farmers a century ago. What was once Australia’s largest subtropical rainforest—900km2 of biodiversity—is now largely home to cows and grass. Even between these two components many landowners still struggle to enforce balance. Thistle-covered paddies, eroded hillsides, compacted soils with sparse vegetation—scars from this struggle cover the region’s rolling lowlands..

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Erosion and thistles of a neighboring farm.

Yet the struggle is an unnecessary one, as one farm in the region is demonstrating. Observe nature; learn to work with it rather than against it. These are principles of permaculture and the basis of the Grazing Method at Zaytuna farm (ZGM). We know that the most sustainable—the most balanced—designs are those that most closely mimic natural ecosystems. As Joel Salatin observes:

“Herbivores in nature exhibit three characteristics: mobbing for predator protection, movement daily onto fresh forage and away from yesterday’s droppings, and a diet consisting of forage only.”1

Hence the ZGM practices short-term cell rotations. Cattle remains disease-free; soil structure and nutrient flows remain intact; vegetation flourishes. This method avoids the overgrazing that scars so many nearby farms. In fact, grazing that’s periodic rather than constant, according to Allan Savory, actually benefits grasslands with its regenerative pruning and fertilizing services 2. A sort of symbiotic exchange occurs between cows and grasses – a meal for a haircut. And for us that means sustainable production of meat, milk and compost.

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The central feature of the ZGM is a laneway that circles Zaytuna Farm, connecting grazing cells and facilitating movement of cattle between them. Nearly two years ago it was completed and documented (see Nick Burtner’s article for a comprehensive layout of the system)3. Since then, Farm Manager Salah Hammad has been employing new strategies and observing new benefits.

1. Portable Power

The first new development is our portable solar charger. This option means cells may be more flexible and easier to change. Power usage may be reduced to the cell itself, rather than the entire laneway back to the central power supply. Maintenance and brush-clearing around the laneway’s power lines may be less necessary. While models vary in capacity and cost, we use the Premier1 RS 50 with its 30mile/100acre range and around 300USD retail price.4

Note: The device should be placed in a sun-facing clearing beyond the reach of curious cattle.

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2. Sleeping in the Laneway

The next new strategy is locking the cattle in the laneway overnight. Concentrating their impacts away from the grazing cell and into a smaller laneway segment for half the day provides several advantages. First, it concentrates their manure, making it easier to collect for compost. Second, it concentrates their compaction effects, assisting in the laneway’s gradual conversion into a drivable access loop. Moreover, the grazing cells suffer less disturbance—from both the hoof and the shovel—preserving soil health and vegetation growth.

Note: We only apply this strategy to our beef cattle. Dairy cattle are afforded 24-hour grazing access to maintain milk production.

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3. Cells and Swales

Another revelation is the complementary relation between grazing cells and earthworks.

Picture a gradual hillside, sliced every 25 meters by contoured swales. With their function in mind (to stop the runoff of rainwater and nutrient, stockpile it and distribute it among vegetation downhill) swales may help inform our cell placement. Let’s stake the ideal cell on our hill. It should occupy the paddock between two swales, one swale forming its uphill boundary and the other its downhill boundary. On each swale we have now stacked additional significance. The upper swale supplies the grazing cell, assisting in its re-vegetation until the next cattle rotation. The lower swale receives nutrient runoff from the cows’ manure, fertilizing the area below—a food forest site perhaps.

The location of existing swales, therefore, may form a basis of design for a cell grazing system.

Note: The swale should lie outside the cell. Cattle should not be allowed direct access to the swale to preserve its shape, soil structure and plantings.

References

Joel Salatin, “Salad Bar Beef

Allan Savory, “How to Green the World’s Deserts” TED Talk

Nick Burtner, “Advanced Cell Grazing

Premier PRS 50 (Solar) Energizer & Kit

One Comment

  1. Very good stuff. I love the flexibility and resilience permaculture provides for interconnectivity between design elements :) I particularly like the idea of simply holding the beef cattle in the lane way over night for manure collection since I used to do this at PRI!! Hell of a task :)

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