The 7 best and most economical ways to renew your pasture naturally

Mainstream agricultural science tells us we need to renew our pasture to maintain full production of our pastoral systems. There are sophisticated calculators and plenty of new varieties that are supposed to make your pastures stronger, faster, better……….. 

Many renewalists claim pastures need renewing every 5 to 10 years. This would mean between 10 & 20% of your farm needs to be renewed each year. With the average size New Zealand farm at 232 hectares and a pasture renewal cost of about $600 per hectare, this means the average farmer would need to spend between $13,000 and $27,000 per year to keep their pastures in top condition.

Conventional pasture renewal requires ploughing the ground and sowing between 30 and 100 kg of seed per hectare.

But, there may be an easier way. At Chaos Springs we believe that the easier way begins with adopting accurate grazing management.  Part of this method involves letting the pastures go to seed at a certain point, which puts out about 300 kg of seed per hectare; none of which you have to pay for.

Can you spot the difference? On the left of the fence is Chaos Springs, and on the right, our neighbour, who uses conventional pasture methods.

Can you spot the difference? On the left of the fence is Chaos Springs, and on the right, our neighbour, who uses conventional pasture methods.

But that is only the beginning of the benefits of internal pasture renewal, so let’s take a look.

Accurate Grazing Management - 7 easy pieces to pasture renewal

Let it grow, let it seed

Letting pasture seed every year or two builds your seed bank allowing a natural return to a younger pasture. We have been practicing this for the last 8 years and it is amazing to see the pastures response after drought: as soon as the rains come back, so does the pasture. 

Vary your rotation

The way you move your animals around your farm will determine your productivity and your animal health. It will also determine the rate of renewal of your pasture. There should be times of the year when you let your pastures get very long and go to seed. When the animals go through these paddocks they will trample a lot of carbon and seed into your pasture. There are other times of the year when the pastures should be grazed short to open up the ground for new seed germination. Our pastures rotation varies from 40 – 180 days and we are specific about what we are after in terms of current production and optimum soil health. 

Trample the carbon

Carbon is the basis of your soil fertility. Growing it is step one. You want to take advantage of the high growth rates in the spring and autumn, and then graze animals to push the excess carbon back into the ground.

Greg Judy, a Missouri farmer, has been managing pasture for about 50 years. He has been practicing this technique for most of his career and has been able to eliminate other fertilisers completely from his farms. In addition, he continues to see new pasture varieties appearing, even though he has never put any seed out. His theory is that as the pasture changes and improves, species that have not been seen in many years return. Most recently he has had a grass called Big Blue Stem appear; this is the species that the buffalo grazed on for centuries but was thought to be extinct.   

Add your fertiliser little and often

We have adopted a practice of putting our soil amendments on after the animals come out of these long pastures. We use a combination of liquid composts and vermicast along with plant extracts made on our farm and a bit of mineral such as fine lime or phosphate. As the carbon breaks down and is taken into the soil those nutrients are taken with it. We have found we use only small amounts two or three times a year.

Add seed little and often

We also like to continue to add seed into our mixtures. We add these into the liquid fertilisation and spray them onto the pastures at certain times of the year. This practice is used to add to the existing seed bank. We generally stay away from modern pasture varieties and look to build diversity through adding plants like plantain, chicory and more.

Reduce ploughing

Ploughing is expensive and murder on pastures. It can take years to build up good fungal levels in your soil and you can push them backwards quickly by ploughing. Spraying out is equally bad and both of these practices should be rejected. Accurate grazing management and precise fertilisation can eliminate most of the need for ploughing.

Beware of new varieties

There are a lot of claims about the “new and improved” pasture varieties coming onto the market but many have failed to live up to the claims. If you choose to use any of these new varieties, get your recommendation from someone who has had success over time, say 10 years or more. Never rely on just a couple of species in your pasture; a good pastoral system should be made up of at least 12 species and many more if possible.  

Other problems: New pastures may be future weed threats. Bio Protection New Zealand claims ”new fast-growing grass varieties that produce more seeds and are resistant to drought, pests, grazing and disease may inadvertently be creating the next generation of invasive weeds”

Keep it simple and follow natures example; you will save a ton of money and your pastures will be far better off.