Nature is certainly a game-changer. While we struggle to adapt to one set of conditions, she simply crooks her little finger and, wham! a whole new scenario is in place. At this point last year, I had just sold half of my flock because there simply wasn’t enough feed to carry them through winter without significant rainfall before the end of the growing season. I experienced the first major grassfire on the property since I bought it in 2000, and even with the reduction in flock size, was not entirely sure the property would carry them through.
These conditions had been gradually developing over the previous 3 years, as persistently low rainfall limited new plant growth. Even with what I was sure was a very conservative stocking rate of 1 sheep per acre, we were still diminishing the natural capital of the system. Shepherding helped—a lot—by distributing grazing pressure over the entire area and giving animals access to, and knowledge about, forages away from the areas they would normally choose to graze on their own.
In May of last year, it began to rain. And rain. And rain. It rained all through winter, racking up an impressive 340 mm (13.4 in) between May and September. Our long-term annual average rainfall is 550 mm (21.6 in), so in those 4 months we received 60% of the annual average. It kept on raining through spring and into summer, resulting in an annual rainfall 20% higher than average. Compared with the average of the previous three years, this year represented a 70% increase in total rainfall.
First, the waterholes filled, then the ground saturated to a depth of a metre or more. Meanwhile, the water ran off into the local catchment and caused widespread flooding. Finally, in late spring as the temperatures warmed, the plants began to grow. And grow. And grow.
In the 17 years I’ve been farming here, I have never seen this level of abundance in the landscape. It’s so good it’s actually daunting. And the flock of 500 I eyed in February of last year, wondering if I should have sold more, now looks like a ridiculously small number of animals to deal with all this bounty. Which is true.
My own reaction to the abundance was to go into a small frenzy of trying to control it. Most of spring I spent asking the flock to eat the annual grasses before the seed heads developed, along with the surprisingly vigorous growth of several small patches of Patterson’s Curse which I’m legally required to control. I even started mowing the lucerne with my little slasher—a futile endeavour ending abruptly when the drive belt melted in a patch of dense tussock grass.
Eventually, I had to admit defeat. Gradually, defeat changed to acceptance, and more recently, to pleasure in the huge gift nature has given me—a “get out of jail free” card which, used wisely, will set me up for the next phase of getting closer to sustainability, despite the abuse the sheep and I dealt out to the landscape over the past 3 years.
The grass is so long I can’t find most of my old farm tracks. The few tracks I have kept open have grass so high in the middle there is a continual swishing sound of grass rubbing the undercarriage of the electric Polaris when I run the dogs. The swishing sound reminded me of an anecdote Allan Savory tells in his book Holistic Management about the oil sump of his Land Rover and long grass.
In 1959, just before an extensive program to limit grazing and use fire to restore grasslands began in southern Zimbabwe, he noticed the long savannah grasses were polishing the undercarriage and even wearing down the plug on the oil sump of his Land Rover. Six years later, all the vehicles had grease and dirt accumulations—the program had failed in its objectives, and there was little dense grass cover. These observations, amid others, lead Allan to develop many of his ideas about Holistic Management, including the need for animal impact in order to maintain a healthy ecosystem.
It’s been a long time since I’ve heard the swishing sound, and it is an indicator of the gift this season has given us. My job now is to use the gift wisely.
Long grass in a production system gets a bad rap. It is certainly true you can get more biomass by grazing or mowing it before the seed heads mature. Tall grass makes the humans’ jobs harder in many ways—over much of the property, I can’t even see my sheep, let alone my working dogs, in the long grass. And asking sheep to enter an area potentially chock full of unseen predators is a thankless shepherding task.
On the other hand, through the process of accepting that I could not even begin to control this level of growth, I began to sit back and just observe what was happening. Perhaps the most significant observation so far is the canopy the tall grass is forming over shorter grasses and forbs (broad-leaf plants), protecting them from evaporation and creating a green understory system. Although allowing grass to grow tall and go to seed arguably reduces grass biomass, the diversity of the sward is increased, and forb biomass may well be enhanced.
The nature of the game, I keep re-learning, is to play it by nature’s rules. She holds all the high cards.