Mob Grazing with Neil Dennis
Dec 3 2012
Canadian farmer and mob grazier Neil Dennis spoke a few weekends ago at the Gage County Extension office in Beatrice, NE. A packed room of farmers, vendors, and agents listened and laughed as he showed slide after slide of photographic and mathematic proof that high stocking density can make a difference.
Hailing from Wowota (“deep snow” in a Native American tongue), Neil started rotational grazing over twenty years ago. He attended a series of holistic management classes between 1998 and the early 2000s, and since has begun experimenting with his own forms of pasture management and grazing regimes. While initially he balked at the idea and started testing grazing practices to prove some of the speakers wrong, he ended up proving to himself that mob grazing made sense, and how has come full-circle and teaches the practice himself.
Definitions of mob grazing vary between people and regions. Neil affirms that what you call it doesn’t matter so much as that you get the soil and cattle working for each other and for you. His method of mob grazing involves daily moves for the cows, and nearly constant availability of hay as supplemental forage or as fertilizer. While he started grazing at just over 30,000 lb/ac, he now has gone as high as 1.3 million. He has found that mob grazing improves livestock use of forages, eliminates negative environmental impact of poor pasture management, improves net farm income, and improves soil health. While there are drawbacks – the initial fencing and labor cost, the learning curve, increased need for water while the pastures adjust, and risk of compaction with improper management. However, those challenges are often minimized as time goes on. He hasn’t observed compaction, except when cattle are not moved frequently enough to new paddocks. While building fence and moving cows is time-consuming, with some practice and innovation, he’s found that he has more spare time than he used to. On his own farm, he’s observed greater beef produced per acre, increased biological diversity, better year-round yield and quality of forages, improved manure and urine distribution, reduced mechanical harvesting of forages, improved soil and water quality, reduced machinery use and expenses, reduced mineral consumption of his cows, and reduced flies and internal parasites.
One of the biggest mistakes of new graziers, particularly those attempting high stocking density grazing, is not allowing pastures adequate rest. “Rest is not the same as recovery,” he advises, saying that recovery depends on time as well as resources like water required for the plants to regrow. Neil aims for a minimum of 80 days of rest, though in a pinch he’ll regraze at 60 days. Part of this is to make sure the forage has recovered, but another factor is urine. It takes about 60 days for the ammonia smell on a urine patch to disappear – until that time, cattle won’t regraze that forage.
Another important aspect of proper grazing management is to observe, and to think deeper. Consider imperfections in the pasture – for instance, weeds – to be symptoms rather than problems. “It’s a lot easier for a company to sell you chemicals if they say you have a [weed] problem, rather than if they say you have a symptom.” Don’t look at the weeds as the problem – rather, consider why weeds are more prevalent than desirable grasses. Is the soil fertility so low or is compaction so high that only deep-rooted thistles can reach minerals and water? “We can’t solve problems with the technology that started them,” he affirms. Foxtail can break up hardpans – so its presence indicates a compaction problem. Thistles mine for minerals deep in the soil profile. Both of these weeds can be grazed for removal – it just takes proper timing and management.
Neil grazes his fields an average of 1.5 times per season, and manages for maximum sugar content. While he started using Brix testing – getting up to 20 or so through his second round of grazing – eventually he learned to “read” the animals’ behavior and manure patterns to tell whether or not sugar levels were appropriate.
Couldn’t many of the benefits of mob grazing be observed with less labor and management? Rather than moving cows daily like Neil, couldn’t the cows just stay on four times as much land for four days? The answer is no. Manure and urine distribution won’t be as uniform, and the cattle may not be forced to eat some of the weed species. Dense stocking on wooded areas breaks down fallen and dead trees, allowing succession of grasses and forbs in future seasons. And the impact of thousands of hooves ensures that litter is smashed down to the soil, where it can be decomposed by microbes and turned into organic matter.
Some of Neil’s more unique methods include bale grazing and “deep massage.” Particularly in the winter, when stockpiled forage may not provide adequate dry matter, Neil lays out hay bales about 15 feet apart and fences rows of them off into strips. The cattle are allowed a new strip every 3-4 days. As they eat the bales, they distribute manure in a rough line down between the rows of bales. Any uneaten hay can either be re-grazed after a few months, or can be left as fertilizer.
“Deep massage” is a technique Neil developed himself for pastures in serious need of renovation and reseeding. The pasture is divided into one-acre paddocks. On day 1 the cows graze the first acre. On day 2 Neil rolls hay bales out, leaving enough space between each for another bale. Cows eat the hay and return many of the nutrients either as manure or wasted hay. On day 3, another set of bales is rolled out between the first ones, as the cows eat those. On day 4 the cows move to the next one-acre paddock. While the pasture looks a mess for quite awhile after this process – often done when the soil is a bit wet to allow some “hoof tillage” – after adequate rest, the pasture will regrow from the seedbank and hayseeds, with the benefit of all the nutrients and organic matter that were incorporated. Neil tested this on some fields whose carrying capacity was in the mid-20 animal-days per acre. A year after the “deep massage,” the pasture could support over 110 ADA. However, the technique must be used wisely. The same field cannot be hit with this “controlled chaos” multiple years in a row, else forage persistence might suffer and soil structure might be too damaged.
Another technique Neil has experimented with is “skim grazing,” where cows are only allowed to eat some of the plant matter (maybe 20-40%) and the rest is left. The plants will then regrow quickly because of lots of remaining leaf area, will go to seed, and then during regrazing the seed will be scattered. This doesn’t result in as high of a carrying capacity or weight gain as does mob grazing, but will help renovate and reseed patchy pastures.
A master of innovation, Neil also shared some of the tips and tricks he’s developed to ease the management of his cattle. He’s developed some un-heated cattle waterers – nearly freeze-proof, even in the harsh Saskatchewan winter. Eschewing gates, he’s trained his cows to go under raised fencelines, and he has developed paddock and laneway plans to ease handling and expedite movement. Fenceposts near water risers get a blue tin can nailed to the top; corner posts get a red can, and support posts a yellow. Thus it’s easy to tell someone where to mark off paddocks, or to direct interns and assistants to the proper pasture. When setting up fence, he rigged a four-wheeler with a rack and ‘shelf’ system that can carry a few reels of wire (and let it out as he drives) and loads of pigtail posts, which he can shove into the ground without leaving the seat. A cordless drill attachment fits into the center of fencing wire reels to quickly wind the wire up.
Neil Dennis knows he’s one of a small (but growing) group of cattlemen who seek to feed the soil and the forages as well as the cows. Some of his unique views and observational habits he attributes to being dyslexic – a trait he shares with Darren Doherty, Gene Gowen, Chad Peterson, and Allan Savory. Thankfully, he’s very willing to share his views and ideas, so that the rest of us can benefit as well.