Holistic Grazing

3 May 2023

Holistic grazing can be also referred to as mob grazing or adaptive paddock grazing. This concept focuses on maximising grassland yield whilst safeguarding soils and encouraging soil fertility. Grassland management is vital for forage production, converting sunlight into energy has benefits to the health of livestock and the economic efficiency of a business.

Milk and meat from forage is reliant upon good grassland management. The premise of holistic grazing is to plan the time and area which livestock have access to, thereby managing above and below-ground productivity. The system is designed to manage swards to be more resilient, fertile, and longer-lasting to provide an economic and nutritional return for livestock production.

What is Holistic Grazing?

The concept of holistic planned grazing (HPG) is a process that was initially developed in Africa and has been adapted and tweaked to be applicable globally. The process seeks to meet the needs of both livestock and plants. The plants are provided enough time to recover and advance through their lifecycle. This strategy works to maintain animal performance whilst moving towards sustainable land productivity goals throughout the grazing season. Holistic grazing seeks to mimic the behaviour of wild herbivores. In the wild, grazing animals move in groups, intensively grazing one patch then moving on to another.

Holistic grazing seeks to incorporate planning for the grazing of the entire area, during either the growing or dormant season, for the purpose of improving the plant productivity and diversity across the farm or landscape with the option to focus on specific small areas as needed. Holistic grazing differs from set stocking, strip grazing in that the recovery period for plants is incorporated in a planned movement of livestock. Grazing mobs interact with the grassland in a way which enhances soil and sward health, alongside that of the environment and animal productivity as well.

Benefits of mob grazing

Mob grazing can improve productivity in comparison to other grazing systems, helping strengthen the financial bottom line whilst contributing to rebuilding soils and restoring ecosystem processes. Placing emphasis on the whole system, including wider ecosystems outcomes, this approach works with natural processes rather than seeking to control them.

When grazing is managed holistically it can play a critical role in conservation and increasing biodiversity. There is also growing evidence that it can play its part in reducing atmospheric carbon. As such, livestock should be seen as a cornerstone of sustainable farming systems, rather than a hindrance to biodiversity gains and GHG emitters. Principles such as ‘The Golden Hoof’ demonstrate the importance of livestock within an agricultural ecosystem to stabilise nutrient cycles. Grazing animals remove vegetation and return it to the soil through manure, maintaining the fertility and enhancing the biology of soil.

Mob or holistic grazing ensures that manure and nutrients are spread more evenly through the movement of livestock. The action of trampling longer grasses into the soil, which may have traditionally been viewed as poor grazing practice and poor grass utilisation, is incorporating more organic matter back into the soil. This leads to better ground cover and soil nutrient cycling, during the recovery phase leads to longer grass and a more extensive root mat. This can aid water infiltration, reducing flooding, mitigating drought, and restoring depleted aquifers.

How it works in practice

Farmers around the UK have been adapting this approach to meet the constraints of their farm and landscape, moving animals to fresh land sometimes as frequently as twice a day. This is typically done using electric or virtual fencing to control the stock, by regulating the size of the areas being grazed to ensure the animals are well fed but also have the desired impact on the land.

As dramatic as this type of grazing can be, careful consideration must be given to ensure that there is enough kg of dry matter (DM) of available forage for livestock to eat and trample, that the soil profile is sufficiently dry and structured well enough to handle the “stock loading” especially in vulnerable soils.

To operate such a system may require higher management and labour requirements to ensure decisions are made to make the most out of the system. This type of grazing will not be sustainable on all fields for some of the year, due to rainfall and soil constraints. Therefore, considerations of these restrictions are required when planning a rotational grazing system.

Considerations and questions to ask yourself:

  • Will you be using livestock to regenerate arable soils?
  • Will livestock be used to enhance other ecosystems (woodland, heathland, grasslands)?
  • What total dry matter of forage will the land under management have to supply in the current planning period?
  • How much forage will an average hectare/acre of land have to supply?
  • What landscape are you trying to create?
  • How long will livestock spend in each field / paddock / compartment and how quickly will they return (the vital recovery period grazed plants require)?
  • Where and when will you need to concentrate livestock most to maintain healthy grassland, reduce weeds or woody vegetation, or prevent soil erosion?

Key Principles

  1. Run as few herds as possible
  2. Maximum stock density – shortest period of time
  3. Maximise your recovery times.
  4. Base stocking rates on the sustainable volume of forage DM the farm can produce.

Run as few herds as possible. For simplicity and best grazing results one large herd or flock is best. One herd provides the best graze-to-plant recovery ratio (shorter grazing periods and longer recovery periods). Each additional herd results in less growing time provided to plants, and thus reduces productivity of both plants and livestock. This can often be adapted easily to your current system through the implementation of these principles into what you already do.

Maximum stocking density for minimum time is best.  High intensity stocking leads to the process of cattle chipping the soil surface with their hooves and trampling plant material helps cover the soil, enabling air and water to enter the soil and create opportunities for new plants to grow is what is desired.

However, to what extent you can achieve this, will be a trade-off of management time and labour availability to move electric fences and groups of livestock. When the animals are concentrated into one large herd you have less groups and fences to move. Ideally you do not want animals on the same area for more than 3 days and as stated previously some farmers are moving groups twice a day into day and night paddocks. Plan to maximise the plant recovery time, before grazing.

Where grazing rotations are planned often the process is to graze fields, or paddocks that are neighbouring each other, going from field to field around the farm.  The process of planning a mob grazing is very different. The emphasis is on going to the field with maximising recovery period, not the nearest or most convenient field. With good management – convenience and best results can be achieved.

Base stocking rates on the volume forage growable on the farm. Think of it as the carrying capacity of the farm. Stocking rate used to be defined as the correct number of animals to avoid overgrazing.  We now know that overgrazing of plants is not related to animal numbers but to the time the animals are present, stocking rate is still a useful concept and should not be discarded.

What you don’t want

Low density stocking and disbursed groups of animals have less impact on the soil surface. Their hooves will create less litter to cover the soil surface. If animals are left in any one place too long, or if returned to it too soon, they will overgraze plants leading to weed management issues and can compact soils creating a less resilient landscape.

Set stocking often exposes livestock to vegetation for extended periods of time resulting in re-grazing of plants as they try to regrow; the plants are still using stored energy in the rooting system to reform leaf, which can alter the below-ground matrix because of stress, reducing the resilience of the vegetation. This process is normally used following dormancy when plants are growing new leaves from stored energy. Re-grazing the sward soon exhausts the plants energy stores and will lead to lower species diversity.

Further Reading

Dairy Production – Farm Carbon Toolkit
Blable Farm, Wadebridge – Farm Carbon Toolkit
Measuring Soil Health – Farm Carbon Toolkit

Useful Resources

 AHDB Mob grazing – what’s it all about?
Soil Association- What is mob grazing?
Savory Institute- holistic planned grazing