Otago Daily Times Comment "Over the Fence" · We all need a Change to Shake Things up a Bit 11 February 2013

04/09/2013 at 22:08 in Otago Daily Times

“Disturbance is good.  Don’t believe me, have a baby” a farmer once said to me.

The great farming scientist Andre Voisin demonstrates in his books examples of what happens to farm production when practices remain the same for years.  Production eventually collapses.  Research he used shows while pasture quantity increases, quality declines leading to sick livestock, higher animal health bills, and lower profits.

Effects of any new idea or technology usually reduce over time, if not they create other issues.  This is the false hope of silver bullets.  But what if it’s not the technology itself but the act of changing from one kind of disturbance to another that lifts land function and farm production? 

We readily see this principle in genetics where everyone understands the influence of hybrid vigour.  Crossing one breed with another produces the greatest performance lift in the first generation.  Subsequent generations lose this vigour unless a new breed is added to the mix.

Can it be the same regarding tools we use to influence land function and productivity?  More frequently or severely we apply technology or management practices, the less impact it has over time.  We see this in the dairy industry where big herds of large livestock graze 1 or 2 pasture species at high densities in short rotations for years on end result in soil health problems.  This leads to higher inputs, more pollution, and less public support and understanding.  It’s like a CD player stuck in a groove, there has to be disturbance, a bump to move out of the rut for music to continue. 

A surprising example of disturbance is pastoral fallow.  Locking pasture up for a year produces hysterical laughter and disbelief by farmers when suggested.  Yet those who practice pasture sabbaticals find land responds much better to livestock the following season.  It’s like the significant lift in pasture performance when going from set stocking to rotations of between 30-60 days.  But as years go by, productivity under rotations eventually declines, called pasture burn out, especially if the same practices are done at same time of year in same paddocks.  Any critical thinking is limited to which off-the-self product can fix symptoms, not the cause of problems.

One of the issues with modern farm production is rotating livestock as if it is the only tool to manage land with, just like Department of Conservation removing livestock as if resting land from all disturbances is the only way to improve its function.  This one tool fits all is the biggest fallacy in land management. 

We see the same with technology: more fertiliser, more pasture renewal, more drugs, more recording, etc.... the faster and harder approach to farming.  In the end sticking to such ‘best practices’ always prove unsustainable.   While acknowledging short term gains, farm production and ecology scientists seldom record impacts beyond three years because of funding limits.  Check out the aftermath of monitor farms.  Ex-monitor farmers drop ideas which are too intensive to be sustainable because labour required reduces quality of life or results in boom bust cycles.

There is a range of free tools farmers can use to improve landscape function and create new and different outcomes; resting land (removing large livestock), grazing, animal impact (herd effect and stock density to push vegetation on to soil surface), fire, living organisms (other than livestock), as well as technology.  Industry focuses on technology and high density grazing because processors reward farmers for volume, never real quality.  Quality is limited to health and safety around shipping and handling and seldom nutritional density.  The domination of one link in the supply chain affects innovation and reward for all.

Could councils reward farmers for improving land function; not just celebrate planting native species but creating soils which absorb and retain more moisture, have high levels of organic matter and fertility, and longer growing seasons than their neighbours.  Such properties reduce frequency and severity of droughts, improve stream water quality, and experience more reliable productivity.  These properties need less environmental monitoring and policing, therefore less of a burden on council services therefore lower rates.

In fact farmers should charge councils for such services as they do in the USA where local authorities contract livestock mobs to reduce and prevent wildfires where grazing is normally prohibited.  Grazing cattle and goats lowers fuel loads in forests, roadsides, and public areas.  This reduces insurance rates and any fires that do break out are less intense.  In some wildlife refuge areas, goats graze lake and pond edges to create more habitats for waterfowl.   A change of tool from rest to grazing produces a new and better outcome.

The city of London found that grazing livestock not increased biodiversity in its public parks, they stimulated more visitor to see them in action.  The public saw livestock in a positive role. 

Disturbance, as in swapping one land management tool for another, is a change for good.

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