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Report From Down Under: Holistic approach is working

Management changes for the growing conditions producing benefits

This is a dramatic fence line contrast showing two types of grazing systems. On the left is the pasture of a neighbouring sheep operation with season-long grazing. On the right side of the fence is Kim Nielsen’s pasture used for rotational grazing for yearlings. His pastures get about 180 days of rest between grazing.

My wife Helen and I took a six-day course a couple of years ago learning the principles of The Savory Institute’s holistic management as they apply to grazing. In a nutshell, the course taught the process of decision-making and planning that give land managers the insights and management tools to understand nature in the restoration of pastures.

The intent was to look at the “whole,” making better, more-informed decisions that balance social, environmental and financial considerations. While I had heard about Holistic Management and attended tours and visited farms in Alberta that practised HM, this in-depth course was the first time I was in an audience of keen graziers exploring HM.

I was also motivated to learn more about grazing in this part of the world as we had just bought our Australian farm and intended to graze some cattle knowing full well it would be entirely different from grazing up on our 4-Clover Ranch near Rocky Mountain House in west-central Alberta. The course was held in the Western District of Victoria, sponsored by the Glenelg Hopkins Catchment Authority. The resulting friendship of likeminded folk led to the formation of a “grazing club” that was later named South West holistic farmers.

Setting values for holistic management

While we were all eager to roll up our sleeves and delve into the grazing portion of the course, there were some well-spent hours creating our own individual “holistic context” defining the decision-makers, people resources, land resources and financial resources. The holistic context would also set out the purpose for our farming venture, define our values, identify strategies to create each value, set actions to create them and build a vision for what success would look like in 20 years. Values would be set for people, land and finances. I had been involved with strategic planning process before while working with the Ag Service Board and staff at Clearwater County in Alberta but it felt quite different implementing similar steps on your own operation. Nonetheless it was a very good exercise and a very important component of the course.

These are some of the yearlings Kim Nielsen pastures on his land in Australia. Following a holistic management rotational grazing system (and if the rains come when they are supposed to) he hopes to be able to double carrying capacity.
These are some of the yearlings Kim Nielsen pastures on his land in Australia. Following a holistic management rotational grazing system (and if the rains come when they are supposed to) he hopes to be able to double carrying capacity. photo: Kim Nielsen

Since the course we have had a chance to put the theory to practice on our own farms. The subsequent visits to see the transformation has been very enlightening as we discussed challenges and solutions. It was inevitable that there would be changes on our farms and the HM course listed seven testing questions that we needed to ask of ourselves before implementing them. There would be very lively debates on:

  1. Cause and effect: Does the change/action address the root cause of the problem?
  2. Does the change strengthen the weak link socially, biologically and financially?
  3. Which change provides the greatest return in terms of the holistic context for the time and money spent?
  4. Will the change contribute to covering the overheads of the business?
  5. Will the change be an appropriate use of energy or money respecting the holistic context?
  6. Will the change lead towards or away from sustainability as described in the holistic context?
  7. Will the change give you a mental picture you feel comfortable with respecting your cultural and social values?

Managing for conditions

We have had two very dry years and, while the end of the current El Niño appears to be in sight, all of us in the South West Holistic Farmers group have faced some real struggles in the transition towards Holistic Management grazing.

The southwest of Victoria receives roughly 700 mm (about 27 inches) of rain annually but most falls in winter. The summers are hot and dry. With the right species and pasture management pastures can grow year-round although only very slowly during winter. In the absence of summer rains the plants go dormant. While our ranch up in Rocky Mountain House only receives 520 mm (about 20 inches) on average there are benefits from the lack of evaporation during the long winters. Suffice to say on the Allan Savory Brittleness Scale, our environment is without a doubt much more brittle on our farm in Australia. The more brittle the environment the slower the dead vegetation breaks down and standing dead vegetation will oxidize and not form part of the crucial buildup of litter and soil organic matter. These phenomena require a different approach to grazing than we practice on 4-Clover Ranch with much longer rest periods between grazings, while at the same time ensuring an adequate animal impact during grazing on the litter left behind to create the soil contact for mineral cycling and to avoid the oxidization losses. The rest period we are striving towards is somewhere between 150 and 180 days. The long rest period caused many of the participants to rethink their livestock management with marked destocking, reducing the number of mobs of sheep, changing calving times and increased stock densities.

Overgrazing and soil losses are phenomenal issues across our farming community. Many producers offset the losses by adding inputs either in the form of reseeding pastures as often as every four years and annual applications of fertilizer.

It is a difficult decision for many to destock when worried about the future loss of income. On the other hand increasing the production inputs create a loss of income as well. One of the repeat comments from grazing club members were the satisfying and therapeutic rewards in seeing the positive response in the pastures. This creates a quality of life component that holistic management often talks about. The common denominator from everyone was a desire to move away from the high-risk, high-stress lifestyle of high-input, high-cost systems. Holistic Management has a more defined focus on enterprise profit more so than getting sidetracked and pre-occupied by the gross returns. †

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