Many graziers have a theory that if you look after the soil, the rest of the operation will take care of itself, but Ian Mitchell-Innes looks at it the other way around.
“The biggest mistake that people make after learning about holistic management is they try and save the ground. I did this also when I first started out,” Mitchell-Innes told a recent workshop here. “But, then I shifted to really put the focus on animal performance, ensuring the cows were eating the right nutrients and rations, and the rest of the system looked after itself.”
Mitchell-Innes spent more than 20 years operating his South African farm on holistic principles, and now travels the world sharing his knowledge on grazing management.
“My passion today is to make sure that other farmers and ranchers don’t make the same mistakes as I made and make sure that they get the best animal performance at all times,” said Mitchell-Innes, who is on his second visit to Canada. He held a three-day workshop at the Lenore Community Hall, discussing various aspects of holistic management, mob grazing and soil health.
He says the keys to grazing success are to develop a diversity of species in the pasture, ensure proper rest periods, balance green and brown feed and focus on animal performance.
“Having diversity in the pasture is huge — it is the most important thing,” Mitchell-Innes said. “If we look at natural prairie, it had massive variety of plants. That is what we should be aiming for.”
Select species — plural
He says often producers are too focused on species selection when they should be looking at incorporating as many different species as they can.
“Once a person looks at a certain species and gets fixated on that species, you run into problems. What you actually need is not an ideal species but a diversity of plants so that whatever weather and conditions are threatening us we have different plants that can continue growth.”
Mitchell-Innes said that with a mixture of species growing together, root systems are stronger and the cattle will benefit from the variety of sugars and nutrients the different plants produce.
“Different species will have different effects on animal performance at different times of the year. So, I really suggest not staying focused on a species but on a mixed group of species for the best results.”
Rest is another key aspect to successful grazing. Mitchell-Innes said plants hold most of their energy in the top two-thirds of the plant and that cattle should be moved before grazing all the way to the base of the plant.
“You don’t want to graze down to the base of the plant as that is where the plant holds high levels of nutrients, including potassium, which can disturb the cows’ nutrient balance. If you graze too low you will see a potassium overload and your pastures will be overgrazed and require an extended rest period.”
Mitchell-Innes said that if the plant is continually grazed, the roots will get shorter and shorter and the plant will eventually die.
“Recovery time is extremely important. Overgrazing is a factor of time and not numbers. So, it doesn’t necessarily matter how many animals you have grazing but more the time we expose it to animals to the plants on an ongoing basis.”
Mix your colours
For best animal performance, Mitchell-Innes recommends feeding cattle a balance of green pasture grasses in combination with stockpiled grass or grass from the previous season.
“Green grass without any brown does not supply sufficient oxygen levels to the animal. In the nutrition of an animal, all feed has an oxygen, hydrogen and protein value and we need a fixed value of 40.5 per cent oxygen to make sure that the animal’s metabolism is working correctly.”
Mitchell-Innes warned producers to be patient with their holistic management plans.
“Producers need to understand that working with nature takes time. Every part of the system has a learning curve to new procedures and it will take time for every part of the system to adjust to the new management techniques before you will really get to see the benefits.”