I like to think of our farm as a large green biological solar collector, harvesting the energy of the sun and turning it into a living biomass of plant and animal species. For only green living plants through photosynthesis are able to capture and convert solar energy to matter upon which all biological life exists.
To be fruitful sunlight needs to fall on green leaves, if it hits bare ground it produces nothing.
So we need to have no bare ground and as many of these plant solar collectors as possible throughout the year to cover the ground and turn the incoming solar energy into biological energy. As land managers all else flows from this simple but profound realisation.
Consequently we are first and foremost “grass farmers”, harvesting sunlight in our grassy woodland to drive production of plant biomass, sequestering carbon, building soils and producing high quality food from the grazers of the grass.
In order to produce a vibrant grassland we need grazing animals, as they are the major recyclers of carbon, turning old plant material to dung and mulch, opening up the growth points of the perennial grasses to sunlight to allow them to grow and creating disturbance with their hooves thereby providing germination sites for plants.
All grazing though is not created equal and grazing animals can be an immensely constructive or destructive force on plants depending on the timing of grazing and the way they interact with plants and the soil.
If they remain grazing too long in one place or return to re-graze before the plants have recovered then the plants will be overgrazed. This overgrazing depletes the grasses and impacts their ability to harvest solar energy and pump life into the landscape. If continued it will lead to their death and disappearance from the plant community which tends to simplify and become dominated by species more tolerant of the overgrazing.
When managing plants and animals the critical interface to observe is the condition of the soil surface and its associated ground cover. Their condition will determine how effectively the processes at the heart of this biological system function. These processes cover how well water and minerals cycle, how the energy flows in the system (for instance is the sunlight captured by green leaves or lost on bare soil) and whether the whole community of plant and animal species is moving towards complexity and stability or simplicity and instability?For the plants on our farm not only have to feed our livestock, they also have to feed the soil and its future. They provide the carbon that soil life will convert and sequester to humus, the litter and mulch that reduces water runoff and evaporation and the minerals in a form that won’t readily leach so fertility is maintained.
Everyday we manage our animals with these things in mind, so they can not only harvest their own food and thrive but also be the predominant tool we use to influence the plants and ground cover in our grassy woodland so it will thrive and harvest more life giving sunlight.