One of the most important goals we have for the Rock Farm is to ensure that we leave it in a better state that we received it. I am really excited with the soil analysis results we received last week, as it will provide a scientific bench mark that we can use to measure our progress.
Whilst the soil analysis reveals the mineral composition of the soil, it doesn’t reveal much about the biological health of the soil. This microbial activity is far more important, and if we can get this balance right, we will be doing really well. It is inspiring to read of people who have used various techniques to actively build top soil and repair the health of their land. Somehow I believe the key to our survival is in the health of our soil, because from it we derive all our food.
One technique to improve soil health I mentioned in my last post was grazing management. André Voisin and later Allan Savory developed what we now call holistic management or cell grazing where soil health can be improved by how you graze the land.
Cell grazing involves heavily grazing small areas over a short period, followed by a long rest. It is expensive to set up, requiring lots of small paddocks (fencing is ridiculously expensive and water must be provided to all paddocks), and time consuming to manage, as stock need to be rotated frequently. We are lucky in that the new not-so-rocky Rock Farm was initially established to spell race-horses, so has several small paddocks that we can use for this purpose.
And whilst we have beautiful Wiltipoll sheep to graze our paddocks, sheep prefer eating short grass. They won’t eat the longer grass, leaving it to go rank. And I refuse to waste precious diesel slashing long grass for it to mulch back into the soil.
So enter the cows!
We recently purchased 15 Normande cross weaner hefiers. Their breeding and the reasons why we chose them is another story entirely. The short story is we wanted quiet cattle, and they had to be any colour other than black! The Normande is a French beef breed, but you might see that these cattle have an amazing heritage with the best of many breeds in their blood lines.
But for now, they got right on the job.
Allan Savory recommends a stocking rate of around 60 head per hectare, which is extremely high. The cattle will heavily graze the paddock, eating everything including weeds. Then when the paddock is rested, everything has a chance to recover. Normal set grazing sees the cattle eating their preferred grasses, and avoiding the weeds. This eventually leads to a paddock full of weeds that needs expensive sewing to return to pasture.
Just off our yards, we had a small 1/2 hectare paddock, that was perfect for serving two purposes. It allowed us to spend a week socialising the cattle and it allowed our soil improvement program to get right underway. Whilst our stocking rate is about half recommended by Savory, we were soon quick to see the results. Serrated tussock that had been hidden in the long grass was quickly revealed, making it far easier to hack out.
The small paddock was the perfect place for the cattle to be introduced to the Rock Farm. I set up a water trough in the yards, and kept them in overnight after they arrived. The cattle were also drenched on arrival, as our paddocks have been free of cattle for a few years and we want to ensure that our worm burden remains low.
For the first week, I fed the young cattle in the yards and let them have full access to the small paddock adjoining the yards. It was remarkable how quickly they stopped running away from me and started walking towards the yards with only a gentle word or two of encouragement. In the space of a couple of days, I was able to comfortably push them into the yards by myself, with the minimum of fuss.
I did all my mustering on foot, at a slow measured walk. I found that walking slowly calmed the cattle down, and they rarely would run away from me. The cattle are remarkably sensitive to your body language and where you are looking. A long stick really helps as an extension of your arm, allowing you to direct their movements. The cattle are also curious and soon were happy to watch me as I watched them eat.
These beautiful cattle have settled it quickly. We have started moving them around the Rock Farm, and they are learning that a gentle walk is all I want from them. I am madly trying to fix up fences in the small paddocks in order for me to establish a good rotation for them – it is all good fun.
In the mean time, they are doing a fantastic job keeping the grass down whilst the tractor rests in the shed. And that isn’t a bad thing!