Find Your Optimal Grazing Recovery Period

This is a guide for determining what recovery period to use in Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG). Traditionally the process for choosing a recovery period has been left very vague in the Holistic Management literature because there are such a wide range of recovery periods which can be effectively used, depending on the specifics of the situation. However, recovery period is arguably the most important variable in the long term success of HPG, and I have seen too many examples of people using a poorly chosen recovery period and suffering because of it. I have also seen too many examples of scientists researching HPG using recovery periods that are way off the mark and then blaming HPG or Allan Savory for their poor results. Hopefully this guide can address that problem.

 

Definition:

“Recovery Period” is the time, measured in days, which plants are allowed to grow without disturbance between impact events (usually between grazing events with livestock, but impact events can also be things such as fire, hay cutting, mechanical rolling, etc.).

*Note: This guide will only tell you what recovery period you should use during your growing season (“open ended plan” in HPG)… the recovery period you should use in your non-growing/dormant season (“closed plan” in HPG) is governed by completely different criteria and is beyond the scope of this single article. 

The recovery period is arguably the most important variable in determining whether HPG will be beneficial, neutral, or detrimental to the land being managed.  Choosing the wrong recovery period can lead to degradation of the land, and degradation of profits, even when using HPG. Getting the recovery period right in brittle environments is especially important, and using a recovery period that is too short has caused many ranchers and researchers to fail in these unforgiving environments.

This guide has 6 parts:

  1. Review your Holistic Context
  2. Choose your benchmark plant species
  3. Find your baseline recovery period by observing these plant species
  4. Lengthen or shorten your baseline recovery period based on other management factors
  5. Use the correct recovery period in your grazing based on environmental conditions
  6. Assume your chosen recovery period is wrong, and learn to spot the problems and modify your recovery period to fix them

Management Goals, Holistic Context, and how they relate to Recovery Period:

As Holistic Managers, we know that keeping our Holistic Contexts in the front of our minds at all times is the key to success, and things are no different when choosing a recovery period:

We are going to assume here that your Holistic Context includes having healthy land and healthy ecosystem processes. We all rely on these things for our survival, and they are the only source of sustainable wealth; so we should all probably seek to have a healthy land base and healthy ecosystem processes if we are managing land. This is why the process of determining your “baseline recovery period” based on plant growth in your area is going to be the same for basically every situation: because if you deviate much from this, the ecosystem will probably start to move in a direction you don’t want it to.

But there are other things in your Holistic Context which will be totally unique to your situation and which will affect what recovery period you should use. Keep your Holistic Context handy and I will show you how to change your recovery period during this process based on your unique goals.

Choose Your Benchmark Plant Species

Make a list of all the plant species you know of on the land you are managing.

Go through this list and decide for each plant if it is “desirable” (a plant that you want to favor with your management) or “undesirable” (a plant that you want less of on your land). 

We are going to choose a recovery period which is most favourable to the desirable plants on your list, which will tend to increase the vigour and population of those plants while decreasing the population and vigor of the plants you didn’t list as desirable (this process is not perfect; don’t expect it to completely remove all undesirable species!). So, if you choose plants for the wrong reasons on this list it can have very negative long term impacts on your land!

You should choose which plants are desirable based primarily on what impact they have on the Four Ecosystem Processes (refer to the “Holistic Management” book if you don’t know what these are), while also considering your Holistic Context and the HM testing questions (if the government is going to shut you down for having an “invasive” species, for example, you probably shouldn’t have that plant on your desirable plants list no matter how good it is for your ecosystem processes).

For example, many of you may have the choice between favoring bunch grasses or runner-type grasses. If we look at the four ecosystem processes, runner-type grasses are often better than bunch grasses because they form a continuous protective covering over the soil surface without the bare spots between plants that you often see with bunch grasses. Over the long term the reduction in water runoff, erosion, and wind erosion which runner-type grasses provide probably will outweigh the benefits of bunch grasses (typically nutritional benefits).

“Full Recovery”:

For our purposes in this guide “full recovery” is when a plant has started to produce a flower or flower bud. This is stage is the only indicator which we can practically observe (without access to a high tech biology lab!) that indicates a plant has fully recovered from the last disturbance event, or has built enough energy stores to be able to cope with a new disturbance event.

*Note: The flowering stage is not the same as the seed stage! If the plant has already formed seeds, and especially if the plant is beginning to lose colour, it is past the flowering stage.

One of the core concepts of HPG is that grazing or cutting plants before they have reached “full recovery” will tend to harm the long term health and vigor of that plant. We have yet to figure out the exact biological mechanism behind this (are plants losing root mass when grazed, or are they just using up stored sugars in their roots? etc.), but anyone with land can very quickly test the theory and find that yes, grazing/cutting a plant before it has reached “full recovery” will tend to reduce its long term productivity compared to plants that are allowed to reach full recovery before every grazing/cutting

Likewise, allowing plants to continue growing for a long time after they have reached full recovery is also bad (unless you want them to produce seed for some reason). This is something widely accepted even by mainstream range science: that plants allowed to go past the flowering stage rapidly decline in nutrition, palatability and, most importantly, photosynthetic activity.

Observe your land:

Now you have the task of finding out when each plant that you marked as desirable on your list reaches “full recovery” (flowering/bud stage) after being grazed/cut/etc. You will actually need two figures for this: the time it takes for this plant to recover during periods where growth is very fast (wet years, for example) and the time it takes for this plant to reach full recovery during periods of slow growth (drought years, for example).

Finding this information by observing your land is obviously a long process. Here are some less accurate methods you can use in the meantime:

  • Look at photo records of the area. All digital photos have the date they were taken embedded in the metadata of the photo (usually can be found by “right click>properties” for example). So find some digital photos of your area in which you can see some plants on your list that have reached full recovery. Find the date that photo was taken and compare it to the last time those plants were probably disturbed (for example if it is an untouched field in a temperate location then the number of days between the start of growth in the spring and the date the picture was taken can be used as the recovery period for those plants). Google images or google street-view can be very helpful for this process.
  • Ask local people who have been in the area a long time, and who have been paying attention to plant growth very carefully. You will probably have the most luck talking to hay producers, since most livestock producers use grazing management practices (like continuous grazing) which distort the natural regrowth period of plants and so the numbers they give you will likely not work under the radically different HPG management.

Narrow it down:

Once you’ve got estimates of the time needed to reach full recovery for each of your desirable plants, you have to pick one of those plants’ recovery period to use as your “baseline recovery period“.

Usually picking the longest recovery period out of your desirable plant list is the best option (since plants tend to be damaged more by a recovery period that is too short than by one that is too long).

However there can be situations where this is not a good idea. For example, you might have trees or shrubs on your desirable plant list, which generally take significantly longer to recover from grazing than pasture plants. In this situation you will have to make the choice to either lengthen your recovery period to accommodate the “outlier” plants (and by doing so have most of your other plants go way past the flowering stage into dormancy and decay) or to shorten your recovery period to one that is more appropriate for most of your plants (and by doing so probably harm the outlier plants that needed the extremely long recovery period).

For example if I have a list of plants where all the plants have recovery periods between 50 and 90 days, but then I have one or two desirable species which require over 200 days to fully recover, I cannot make my recovery period 200 days without probably harming most of the species on my list, but I also cannot make my recovery period 90 days without harming the species that needs 200 days. A common solution to this problem, if you are unwilling to lose the outlier plant species, is to set aside areas of land where you use a different, much longer, recovery period than what you use on most of your land in order to increase the outlier species on at least some of your land.

Remember to consult your Holistic Context throughout this process of determining which species of plant to favour or to not favour with your grazing management!

At this stage you should have a “baseline” recovery period; ideally with a minimum value representing the amount of time needed for full recovery during good years, and a maximum value representing the amount of time needed for full recovery during bad years. In my specific context, for example, I use 80 days as my minimum baseline recovery period, and 90 days as my maximum baseline recovery period, which are based on the time Smooth Brome needs for full recovery in my area.

Modify your baseline based on management goals

If you use your baseline recovery period in your grazing planning your land will most likely improve rapidly (assuming you picked your desirable species mostly based on the four ecosystem processes), and your animals will be happy.

However, sometimes your situation might dictate that you need to temporarily change your recovery period, and therefore probably reduce the health of your land somewhat. Here are some examples:

  • If you are trying to produce a high quality grass finished meat product from your pasture, your pasture plants will need to be at the peak of nutritional quality when they are grazed… this typically means you need to use a recovery period of about 50-80% of your baseline recovery period.
  • If you are trying to produce forage which will stay green and nutritious during winter you may want to shorten your recovery period a little bit, since plants tend to hold their nutrition during winter a bit better when they are at a younger growth stage (40%-100% of your baseline recovery period, depending on snow depth).
  • If you are just trying to extract as much value from the land as possible in a short amount of time (for example if you know the land is going to be bulldozed or plowed over next year no matter what you do with your grazing) you should probably shorten your recovery period so that your plants spend as much time as possible in the fastest stage of growth (30%-80% of your baseline recovery period generally).
  • There are many other situations in which you might want to change your recovery period temporarily, but just remember that deviating from your baseline recovery period is generally not going to be good for the health of your land, so don’t make it a habit!

Use your recovery period with HPG

Now that you have your min. and max. recovery periods you can use them during the process of making your Holistic Grazing Plan. Follow the instructions in the Holistic Management Handbook and you can’t go too far wrong. Remember to change the recovery period you are using based on whether growth is slow or fast (this is also described in the handbook).

Assume you are wrong, and change accordingly

A core part of Holistic Management is to assume with each decision you make that you are wrong, this forces you to constantly check your results and constantly update your plan. You should do the same thing when you chose your recovery period.

Assume the recovery period you have chosen is not quite right, and look for signs that will tell you if you need to lengthen it or shorten it. The most obvious sign is if most of the plants in your paddock are not at the flowering stage when you are ready to graze again; your recovery period is probably off. The other common indicator is if the forage productivity of your land decreasing over time. This could mean you are using a recovery period that is too short. If the decrease in productivity is accompanied by an increase in woody species it might mean your recovery period is too long. Of course there are other factors that could be responsible for the change in productivity, but too short of a recovery period is a common one.

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