A new type of grazing system inspired by old-fashioned farming is currently all the rage, so here at Pipers Farm we’re giving it a go to see what all the fuss is about.
As you travel around the countryside or drive along the motorway you might have noticed something that looks a bit odd: large herds of cattle or flocks of sheep confined in little strips of a field, held back by an electric fence. Sometimes wistfully looking at the greener grass on the other side of the fence. This looks a bit odd because we’re used to seeing animals ranging far and wide in huge fields, allowed to graze what they want when they want. But there’s a new philosophy in the world of grazing and we’re trying it out on Pipers Farm to see if it works for us.
What is mob grazing?
Intensive Rotational Grazing – more catchily known as ‘mob grazing’ – mimics the effect vast roaming herds of ruminant animals would have had on the grasslands of old. To protect themselves against predators, these herds stuck closely together, evenly eating the nutritious tops of the grass and evenly dropping manure before moving on to the next patch. Mob grazing also mimics the effect animals had in the days before intensive agriculture, when fields were small and enclosed by thick hedgerows. Today fields have been made much bigger, to accommodate modern farm machinery and bring as much land as possible into cultivation.
A mob grazing system is simple, the animals are held in a tight area of pasture, contained by electric fencing. Every day or so, the fence (and water) is moved and the animals move onto fresh pasture. The area they’ve moved off is then left for a good amount of time to recover. For the system to be effective, the pasture needs to be diverse – with a mixture of grasses, herbs and legumes (such as clover).
The benefits of mob grazing
Firstly, the limited space and increased competition encourage the animals to eat the grass (or ‘sward’) evenly, taking the nutritious top portion and trampling down the lower stems to ‘top dress’ the ground and return nitrogen to the soil. Grass wastage is reduced and where mixed species are present, the animals get a more balanced diet.
Secondly, regulated grazing maintains diversity within a pasture, giving each species the chance to thrive without allowing any individual to dominate. Which is great for controlling weeds.
Thirdly, dung – nature’s very finest fertiliser – is evenly spread over each area. In large fields, animals will often have favoured ‘rest’ areas that get more than their fair share of fertiliser.
Ultimately, the intention is to have a permanent pasture that abounds in diversity plants and grasses, needs no chemical fertiliser and is as nutritious as possible. Healthy pastures with deep-rooted plants improve soil structure, lock in carbon, and protect against drought and erosion. They also support insects and small mammals. And while moving the fence and water every day might be a bit of a chore (but not that time-consuming if set up efficiently) it means that it’s possible to do a close-up check on the whole herd or flock every day – which isn’t so simple if they’re spread far and wide.
So at Pipers Farm, we’ve started our herd of young Devon Red Ruby cattle on this system. They’re chomping away enthusiastically and efficiently. And, like all cattle, they love routine, so when it’s time to move the fence, they’re happy to head to pastures new. Like all innovations, there are believers and detractors of mob grazing. It’ll take us a while to assess the impact this system has on the land and the animals on Pipers Farm, but so far we’re optimistic.