Taking grazing to the next level

'There has been a little bit lost in translation with regenerative farming coming to New Zealand.'

By Karen Trebilcock

Regenerative farming coach Siobhan Griffin is not a big fan of sunflowers.

“The colour yellow I like to see in paddocks is that of dandelion flowers.”

Next Level Grazing regenerative farming coach Siobhan Griffin.

The long tap roots of the dandelion plants plus their ability to grow in early spring and in summer dry puts them on Siobhan’s list of perennial pasture species for dairy, sheep and beef farms along with ryegrass, cocksfoot, timothy, chicory, plantain, brome grasses, red and white clover and a host of others.

“There has been a little bit lost in translation with regenerative farming coming to New Zealand.

“Growing sunflowers and other annuals is for arable farming. For animal grazing we want persisting diverse perennial pastures.”

And her Next Level Grazing clients throughout the country are proving it’s working.

“Regenerative is any type of farming that grows soil carbon. And the more soil carbon you have the more grass you will grow and we want to grow more grass each year per hectare than the year before it.”

She said farmers should monitor their pasture production per hectare and make sure it is growing year on year. She teaches farmers how to keep track of this data on grazing plans designed to help farmers achieve optimal pasture recovery all year round and grow more grass.

Although New Zealand farmers knew to wait to graze ryegrass until it reached the three-tiller stage, she said few managed to do it, especially in the summer.

Instead, most farmers grazed pastures when ryegrass was not optimally recovered at the two or two and a half leaf stage, which was at the same time as the faster growing but less palatable brown top and fog grasses were at the four-tiller stage.

“And as we know grass grows so very quickly (that) brown top and dogstail and all the other grasses we don’t want start to dominate.”

It was one of the reasons why our ryegrasses were not persisting, she said.

As well, perennial ryegrass root structures were not good enough to hold up cattle in wet weather, especially in winter.

“And then you get mud and you damage your clovers and your ryegrass roots. A web of deep diverse roots from pasture plants including timothy and cocksfoot hold up livestock better in wet conditions.”

Symbiotic relationship of rye grass

Siobhan said pure swards of ryegrass and clover is not what nature intended.

“Ryegrass likes being around other grasses. They have a symbiotic relationship, not a competitive one, and it can grow easily to the four or five leaf stage if it’s supported. Clovers are the same.

“You don’t lose clover growth because of shading.”

A mix of perennial grass and clover species also provided protection from drying winds and sun if allowed to reach optimal recovery which is just before plants put up a seed head. This keeps soils moist and cooler for longer in summer – the conditions ryegrasses like.

“We get the most solar energy from the sun at the height of summer but often our pastures are very short by then from drought and we get no benefit from it.

“Our farms are big solar energy collectors, and we have to think of them like that.”

But getting to a mixed sward, if not starting with a bag of seed, takes several years.

“If you start slowly you will get there. Don’t try to do it in one year. Mother Nature takes her time but she gets it all done.

“Start with grazing ryegrass at the three-tiller stage all year round, then the following year target the three and a half-tiller stage and then the four-tiller stage and you will start to see the difference in the pasture species coming through.

“On most farms the seeds of timothy and cocksfoot and other plants are already there. You just have to give them the recovery time and the residuals they need to grow.”

As covers lengthen, she said it was important to lengthen residuals by the same amount.

The grass left behind, if most of it is trampled, builds soil organic matter.

“I used to think it was just cow dung and urine that fed the soil but they’re just like the compost inoculant. It’s the trampled grass that is important. That’s what feeds the worms and everything else living in the soil.”

Appropriate mob sizes and shifting stock four times each 24 hours made sure all of the sward was evenly eaten, instead of fussy cows eating what they wanted. What is not eaten should be trampled if animal density is correct.

“In regenerative grazing, quality is achieved by non-selective trampling instead of high utilisation and this allows the soil biology to have a feed as well as achieving the best animal performance since the livestock gets the best quality at the tops of the plants.

“Each time of the year has an optimal recovery time for pasture. In late spring it can be between 15 days to 22 days and in March it will be about 35 to 45 days, depending on where you’re farming.”

“Don’t look at your plate meter, look at your grass. You want all of the leaves to have points before you graze it again.”

Siobhan is not against fertilisers, though she prefers fertilisers like fish and seaweed which do not damage soil biology.

“The land used to be covered in bush and we have imported to it a Eurasian ecosystem – the pasture species, the animals, even the worms and we’re still changing it.

“This country probably used to raise more kilograms of poultry per hectare than it now does in lambs.

“So we’ve got to focus on building soil carbon, top soil, to recover what productivity we’ve lost.”

Spreading the pastoral farming story


Worried by increasing supermarket space taken up with “fake” meat and milk in the United States, Siobhan Griffin believes New Zealand’s pastoral farming systems is the good news story that will make sure we stay a premier food producer.

The former New York State dairy farmer, and now a Next Level Grazing regenerative farming coach based in South Otago, said the way our soils sequester carbon using livestock made a joke of vegan’s claims that cows were not good for the planet.

“There is the consensus out there that cows are causing climate change, but it couldn’t be further than the truth.

“Cows grazed on regeneratively managed pastures create a deep carbon sponge underneath them in the soil.

“Green growing plants supply liquid carbon via their living roots to trade with the network of soil life including fungi who make minerals and water available to the plants in complex symbiotic relationships.

“This is how regenerative grazing can increase mineral associated soil organic matter which sequesters long lasting carbon.

“Regenerative grazing with livestock is the only form of agriculture which can build topsoil on a landscape scale and this can result in far better environmental outcomes than growing annual crops for fake meat and milk.

“Having animals grazing grasslands sucks carbon out of the air and if only half of the farms in New Zealand were regenerative it would offset all of the country’s climate change emissions.

“My farm in New York State increased soil organic matter by 0.5% per annum which worked out to be 7.54 tonnes of carbon/ha or 27 tonnes CO2/ha. (7.54t/ha x 44/12 = 27t CO2/ha)

“If New Zealand pastoral farmers increased soil organic matter half that, the 7.8 million ha of grassland would sequester 105 million tonnes of CO2 per year. New Zealand emits 81 million tonnes per year.”