So, you’ve bought, begged or borrowed some new land in the country and are ready to begin a homestead. Congratulations! Now, whether this new land is the perfect farmette with fenced green pastures, new barns and in-ground water systems or the roughest of neglected, damaged or abused land on poor soil thick with weeds and briars, the two things any homesteader wants to begin doing immediately is growing food and growing fertility. Fortunately, you can start to do them both right away with pasture permaculture.
We don’t mean just throwing a fence around the farm and shoving animals in there. We mean ecologically sound, planned grazing of native and naturalized plants. All good homestead management (and this includes management of pasture) absolutely requires the kind of attention, restraint and respect for natural systems that are at the heart of permaculture.
And all good permaculture absolutely requires animals! Pasture permaculture is a match made in heaven.
Pasture + Permaculture
What is permaculture? Well, the word itself is revealing. “Permaculture” is a contraction of the words “permanent” and “agriculture.”
There should be a special emphasis on the “culture” part: Permaculture is particularly about how people dwell in a landscape, to the mutual benefit of everything living there. At the heart of permaculture is the conviction that human beings belong to the natural world and have a beneficial role to play in it.
And when we’re doing our job, the whole system works better — much better.
A Different System
Permaculture is very different from the present Western commercial farming model, a model based on nonrenewable petrochemical energy and fertility. A permanent agriculture—one we can reliably expect to extend into the future—can’t be essentially dependent on imported, finite energy sources.
Neither can it generate wastes, which eventually build up to be pollutants and nutrient deficiencies. All the results of permacultural farming must become feedbacks into the system.
Instead of an energy flow of machines, petroleum and annual commodity monocrops, permaculture directs natural forces such as gravity, rainfall, sunlight, shade and long-living biological communities, in such a way that the resulting healthy, stable landscape supplies all the needs of its living populations—including humans—for the foreseeable future.
We can’t think of a better description of really good grazing.
Along with an upsurge in permaculture practices, the past several decades have seen a real development of the principles of regenerative pasture grazing. This is the management of grazing animals in imitation of natural herds, so that they become a dynamic force for moving an environment or an ecosystem toward a stability of abundance.
Good grazing builds soil, biodiversity and fertility, as part of the very act of eating. So, when we manage our animals to feed ourselves, we’re also planning meals for future generations.
The principles are pretty basic. In nature, large herds of grazing animals tend to move in migratory swings, impacting a given area relatively severely—but only for a short time—and then moving on. The move is necessary because of the severe trampling and dunging that happens where there are large herds.
Grazing animals won’t eat near their own feces. Manured forage is distasteful to them. And that’s a good thing, because avoidance of their own manure helps keep their internal bugs in healthy balance.
Another good thing is that when herds graze and move on, grazed forage gets a chance to recover. Complete regrowth and recovery between grazings is important so that plants renew their root resources for future growth. Not only that, the manure, urine and even the trampling of the herd cause beneficial impact, depositing nutrients and driving seeds into the earth.
This additional biomass builds a healthy soil. Recovering plants can grow bigger, stronger, healthier and more nutritious before animals graze it again.
Pasture Permaculture Requires Rest
A long rest completes the cycle. Plants recover fully. Parasite larvae die for lack of an appropriate host.
Manure incorporates into the soil, and germinating seeds grow and establish themselves. By the time the grazing animals return to this spot, a new banquet will spread out before them, ready in its turn to nourish the herd and receive nourishment from it.
You’ll run into a lot of opinions about what good grazing should be called—rotational, holistic, intensive. But good grazing, by any name, is pasture permaculture. It honors the character of the land.
And—good news!—the land, the climate and whatever grows there will teach you how to do it.
Learning pasture permaculture doesn’t require that you take any special courses or buy a whole lot of books. There are many excellent learning aides out there. But before these will mean a whole lot to you, you need experience.
And, fortunately, experience is easy to get. You just begin!
Adding a grazing animal or two to your homestead pasture will teach you a great deal very quickly—especially if you keep in mind the principles of permaculture.
Our first move on coming to any piece of land must be to observe what is already happening there and begin to interact with the land and the living community. What presently grows here?
First among our renewable resources are the plants in this wild pasture or field—the native and naturalized plants that are already growing. Without any human assistance, they already work to capture and store at least two kinds of energy:
- solar energy, in the sunlight they convert to biological energy in plant tissues
- kinetic energy, in rainfall held in soil and roots, rather than running away downhill
Sunlight and retained precipitation are two more of the renewable resources this land will offer you.
Here are the makings of a food system that costs nothing to run. The problem? You can’t eat most of the stuff. Fortunately, however, your animals can. And they can convert the energy to forms available to the whole farm.
You can work with what presently grows on your land. Keep in mind that these native and naturalized plants grow there because they want to. And the conditions of nature, climate and topography encourage this particular kind of growth.
So, it doesn’t take any energy—human or petrochemical—to keep them growing.
You can’t be sure the same would be true of any good forage plants you might think would make better pasture. Even if what’s already there isn’t, properly speaking, “pasture” at all, no problem. It’s breakfast for somebody.
If we bring in the right species, we can start harvesting solar energy right away.
Briars and underbrush call for some goat impact. Tethering goats where they can reach aggressive undergrowth is the best way we know to begin moving very wild land toward a more human-friendly landscape.
All of the impacts are beneficial. The briar load diminishes and sunlight gets through for growing grass. Goats also press down soil for better seed contact, adding their own potent fertilizer to the mix to boot.
For Sheep & Cows
If the pasture is mostly dense weeds such as Queen Anne’s lace, ironweed and goldenrod, that’s the perfect dinner for sheep. Two or three strands of temporary electric fence will keep in a small flock.
Outline a small area and see how fast your ovine helpers demolish the weeds, bringing sunlight down to the level of the soil. Frequent moves and long rests before you bring the sheep back to this spot will let grass start to take a bigger role in the pasture composition, for even more efficient solar-energy harvest.
Just plain grass, or grass and weeds, makes a good dinner for cows and sheep. With proper management—grazing small areas and then moving on, not returning to an area until it’s completely recovered—the pasture will grow denser, with more nutritious forage, much faster than you might expect.
Waste or Resource
No matter what kind of ruminant you graze, they’ll deposit manure and urine. In a confinement setting, concentrations of animal wastes are at best a job—and at worst a pollutant.
But good pasturing automatically produces no waste.
Pastured animals deposit urine and dung where soil life can carry them below the surface to feed the next flush of forage. So instead of building up to contamination levels and breeding pathogens, these deposits of captured sunlight, nitrogen and carbon—more renewable resources—become part of your soil bank.
Self-regulation and feedback are the heart of good grazing on pasture, just as they’re essential in any good permaculture. Instructed by nature, the regenerative grazier applies animal impacts around the farm, directing these natural forces where his or her observations and deductions say they’ll do the most good.
Erosion is checked when planned grazing eliminates overfrequent impact on vulnerable banks and slopes. Forage is harvested during the stage with the most nutrition. Old plant material gets removed before it begins to smother new growth points.
Pigs in the Woodlot
Pigs come into their own in a woodland setting. When we pasture pigs in the edge of the woods, we design from pattern to detail. That is, we use a trick from nature’s book.
While pigs aerate the forest litter and eliminate some underbrush, they harvest nuts, fungi and leaf mast, cycling nutrients for the next harvest. Using animal impacts to alter landscapes is something nature continually does. And the permacultural grazier uses animal forces to raise her farm ecosystem to new levels of health.
Little Things Count
When so much of the life of any ecosystem is microscopic, it’s not surprising to find that little things matter—a whole lot.
Small grazing paddocks mean short-duration impact. This leaves time for large-scale recovery. You’ll have a lot more grass than you ever imagined!
Instead of imposing a whole new pattern on your land, you’ll invite the collaboration of all the life that’s there. Each individual impact is tiny, but the overall effect is transformative.
Minimizing permanent fence, a common aspect of regenerative grazing, means animals, plants, even topography remain parts of an integrated whole. Without permanent fence lines, you can access every place on the farm.
You can include lane verges, orchard floors and forest margins paddocks. This increases available forage and gives animals access to nonforage plant species. These are plants not normally appreciated as food species but include a host of medicinal varieties.
Power in Restraint
Good grazing, like good permaculture, is at least as much a matter of what we don’t do as what we do. Humility is at the heart of permaculture in the pasture. Although we may have some marvelous visions for the piece of nature under our care, land—and the living things that call it home—responds better to suggestions than to orders.
The restraint we associate with well-conceived permaculture is echoed in the patterns that characterize regenerative grazing: Through the mouths and feet of our animals, we propose small alterations to the living community. The long rest and recovery we build into the system allows time for the environment to respond to our suggestions.
With so much time to observe results, we come to each decision with greater understanding and patience.
Grazing native or naturalized plants—rather than eradicating whatever grows on our land and replanting with forage species—leaves successful wild species in place and capitalizes on their success. So, we match our grazing animal to the type of forage that is already there: Cows and sheep to grass and weeds, goats to brush and briar.
Alternate grazing and recovery keep soil protected and active. Well-armored soil protects the watershed.
In this way, native diversity is preserved and actually enhanced. Native animal species continue to enjoy their habitat. And the livestock and humans eat well
Nowhere is permaculture more comfortable than plants and animals together make a natural guild—a community of interdependent, mutually beneficial species. And grazing animals and pasture plants benefit one another as well as benefiting us.
When we manage our pasture with the respect and restraint of a permanent agriculture, it will offer us food, fertility and a future in this place. You might even call it home.
Sidebar: Permaculture & Pasture Principals
Twelve principles have been identified as the rules governing a healthy, ongoing human impact on an ecosystem. They are the same rules that govern regenerative grazing. With these principles informing your plans, you can be sure your homestead is going to start out on a good footing with the local biological communities.
- Observe and interact; watch and manage your animals.
- Catch and store energy; grass is the largest terrestrial solar collector.
- Obtain a yield—grazing turns solar energy into milk, meat and manure—and more animals.
- Apply self-regulation and feedback; let the farm teach you how to graze.
- Use and value renewables such as sunlight, grass, rainfall and manure.
- Produce no waste; in a pasture setting, everything goes back into the soil.
- Design from pattern to details; all decisions must imitate nature.
- Integrate, don’t segregate, like mixed herds and native perennial pastures.
- Use small, slow solutions; grazing happens one bite at time!
- Use and value diversity; more species means more natural services.
- Use edges and value the marginal; graze banks, understories and verges. Everything has value.
- Creatively use and respond to change; good grazing lets nature, not human plans, take the lead.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Hobby Farms magazine.