This is Part 3 of my interview with rancher and grazing educatior Daniel Suárez about how he manages his cattle ranch using Voisin-style Rational Grazing.
In Part I Daniel introduced us to his ranch in Mexico. He also explained the four universal grazing laws and the concept of the "optimal rest period," as well as how Rational Grazing differs from other rotational grazing strategies.
In Part II Daniel explained how he set up his pastures (and water system) for Rational Grazing. He also described his day-to-day pasture management routine and shared his observations of how his pastures (and his farm balance sheet) have improved since switching to this grazing management strategy.
In this third and final part of the interview Daniel covers a wide range of practical considerations, including drought reserves for the dry season, weed control and fertilizer use in his pastures, as well as parasite control in his cattle herd. He also explains his strategy to encourage tree regrowth in his pastures to create shade. And finally, he provides some links and recommendations for where you can learn more about Rational Grazing.
If the paddocks are grazed during the rainy season (and not left as reserves), each paddock will be grazed 6 to 8 times per year. If the pasture was left as a reserve for the critical season, it will only be grazed once per year.
Yes, we graze year-round. We used to make silage and hay, however, both the silage as well as the hay that we made was very low quality because in our climate you cannot take the machinery into the fields during the rainy season. So we decided to stop making them and use the cattle to harvest this grass instead since the quality of these leftover grass reserves is no worse than the quality of the hay or silage. We are now learning how to use protein and energy supplements when grazing these low-quality pastures in order to utilize this grass reserve while keeping our production costs low.
As I mentioned, during the rainy season we decide which of the pastures we will use for intensive grazing and which will be left as reserves. The paddocks that are intensively grazed will be grazed at their Optimal Rest Period, while the rest will simply be left ungrazed until they are needed during the critical dry season.
At the moment we still have more land than cattle, so we have a lot of extra pasture in reserve in case of emergencies. At some point the stocking rate on our ranch will reach full capacity, however, in Voisin-style Rational Grazing all the calculations are based on the critical season, so we should never run short of pasture if the calculations are made correctly.
We used to do this. However, as we have gained experience, we have refined the grazing pressure on the pastures and are learning how to use protein and energy supplements so that the cattle can successfully consume all these leftovers without leaving large volumes of uneaten grass. This is helping to reduce our production costs still further.
No!!! A resounding NO!!! Herbicides and synthetic fertilizers are the worst enemies of the soil. They create nutritional imbalances and favor the growth of plants which are weak. These agrochemicals also cause some of the proteins in the plants to break down (a process called proteolysis), which leaves the plants more vulnerable to attack by insects.
One of the main things that we should understand as agricultural producers is that our most important resource is the soil, which we should take care of and work to improve before everything else. Again, I return to the phrase, “you are what you eat,” which is equally applicable to cattle as it is to the plants and the soil. So, if we want to have more healthy productive cattle and a lower production cost, we need to have healthy pastures that are highly nutritious and low-maintenance. This is only achievable if we maintain a healthy soil that is biologically diverse and rich in minerals.
Instead of using fertilizers and herbicides, we use a machine that fertilizes the grass and attacks weeds at the same time. That machine is the cow. The four legs (trampling) and the muzzle (grazing) are the weed control mechanisms of this machine. And the manure is the fertilizer mechanism of this machine.
There is no better or cheaper fertilizer for the soil (notice I said soil, not plant) than manure, in our case cattle manure. A 500 kg cow produces approximately 25 kg of manure every day. If we consider that we have a stocking density of 200 cows per hectare per day, we will deposit a total of 5000 kg of manure per hectare. No one else fertilizes their pastures this much. And there is no cheaper or more evenly distributed manure than this!
As a last recommendation, this manure should be free of chemicals, because the soil microbiology (bacteria, fungi, beetles, worms, protozoa, etc) would be exposed to these chemicals and would process and spread these chemicals to the plants. The main poison that occurs in cattle feces are anti-parasite agents like Ivermectin and similar chemicals. It is very important to stop using these anti-parasite agents in order to take advantage of the fabulous skill that a cow has for fertilizing pastures using the grass that she grazes.
Regarding weed control (I prefer to call them undesirable plants), before we switched to Rational Grazing there were a lot of weeds on my ranch. Now we only have two, though not because we eradicated the rest, but rather because we reclassified them by changing the criteria. The first is Senna obtusifolia (sicklepod), which is poisonous to cattle and has a very strong foul-smelling odor. The cattle do not eat them and even avoid the grass immediately around them. The other is called Lantana camara (wild sage or tickberry), which causes liver damage and photosensitivity in cattle.
The rest of the plants that we used to consider as weeds, now the cattle eat them. The reason the cattle eat them now is because of the high stocking rates, which puts much higher grazing pressure on all the plants. The high stock densities cause cows to abandon their selective grazing habits and switch to devouring everything that they find, causing them to eat almost everything in their path.
So it is important to note that, before switching to this type of grazing system, you need to identify and control or eliminate of all the potentially toxic plants that could affect the cattle. In this type of grazing system, in which cattle graze so indiscriminately, it is highly probable that the cattle will eat the toxic plants if they are part of the pasture mix.
There are a lot of silvopasture options for reforesting our pastures, from timber plantations to planting hedgerows. (Silvopastoralism is the practice of combining forests and pasture grazing to exploit the complementary relationship between trees and pasture). In the year that I set up the first paddocks for Rational Grazing, I planted trees every 2.5 meters along the electric fence lines. It was a lot of trees, but not more than 5% survived. It was a huge waste of money.
Last year while we were “cleaning up” pasture reserves that had not been grazed all year (before learning that we could do this with the grazing cows), I noticed that these areas had trees between 2.5 and 3 meters in height, mostly of which were trees from the Acacia genus (Quebracho, Huizache, and Espino Blanco). These trees had reached that height in only a single year!
It was then that I decided to let nature take control of the situation and reforest itself. Most people think I’m crazy and others use even stronger words, but I have not looked back. Those who live in the tropics need to understand that the majority of the ecosystem in which we are working, other than in a few select areas, are not native pasture lands. These areas are naturally forested with various types of trees.
In order to maintain our grazing land we constantly have to keep the ecosystem out of balance because it is always trying to return to its natural habitat - the forest. That is not to say that I advocate letting the forests return to their original habitat. I am suggesting that we should work with the ecosystem and manage it so it remains as close as possible to its natural stable balance, while fitting our cattle business into this ecological balance.
So I have decided to take a zero-cost approach to my reforestation program because I have already spent a lot of resources on earlier reforestation attempts, and this method is faster with much lower investment.
The benefits of this zero-cost reforestation approach are:
For the moment, at this early stage, I am letting everything grow that emerges, but at some point I will have to control the tree population to avoid having too many trees that interfere with the grazing activities in the paddocks.
(Disclosure: I get commissions for purchases made using Amazon links in my post.)
The main resources are André Voisin’s books, especially Grass Productivity#CommissionsEarned and Dynamics of Pasture, although these books can be a bit difficult to find in print.
I also recommend the book by Luiz Carlos Pinheiro, called Pastoreo Racional Voisin: tecnología agroecológica para el tercer milenio (Spanish edition, published by Editorial Hemisferio Sur), which offers more hands-on information about the design and management of Voisin-style Rational Grazing. Pastoreo Racional Voisin is sometimes available on Amazon.com#CommissionsEarned, but you can usually find better prices elsewhere on the web.
And another great English-language resource is Greener Pasture on Your Side of the Fence: Better Farming Voisin Management-Intensive Grazing#CommissionsEarned, by Bill Murphy.
There is also a Facebook group called Pastoreo Racional Voisin, which is a very active group with members from throughout Latin America as well as some from Europe who are practicing Rational Grazing on their farms. They share their progress, their mistakes, their achievements and doubts. The group includes expert advisers, large cattle producers, and even students that barely know anything about the subject and may not yet even own a cow. They all have the desire to share the information that they have and learn from the others in the group.
If they are on Facebook, they can find me here (Daniel Suárez on Facebook). I am always publishing photos and courses that I teach on my ranch. And here is the link to my farm's website: Rancho El Yaqui. I also recently started a new website about sustainable cattle farming called Ganaderia Regenerativa you can learn more about my cattle farming techniques.
I hope you've enjoyed this interview with Daniel Suárez and that it has given you some new ideas to apply to your own pasture management. Thank you Daniel for taking the time to share all this fantastic information with us!
I hope this introduction to Voisin-style Rational Grazing will inspire you to dig even deeper into this powerful grazing management strategy. And make sure you continue to follow Daniel's work, or even consider taking one of his courses on his farm. He speaks excellent English in addition to his Spanish.
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