I was sitting in the back seat of a small, open-top Jeep. It was a late April afternoon in the northeastern South African savannah about a decade ago. The breeze was just starting to cool the land from a warm, almost hot, day. A few friends, my wife, and I were taking a safari after spending a month working at a HIV mission hospital in Nigeria.

We were told that if we stayed within the confines of the Jeep, we were somehow viewed as part of the landscape… something like a lumbering elephant, and the predators would not see us as a potential food source. This was only slightly reassuring as we pulled up to a tree where a leopard was resting. She was lounged in the crook of a large branch about fifteen feet (4.5 meters) off the ground which, with us sitting on raised bench seats, put her less than ten feet (3 meters) above us. With no roof. No metal bars. No cage. Nothing but air between us and this deadly, hunting cat. She was well over 100 pounds (45 kg), and she was solid muscle. She lazily turned her head toward us, stretched, and yawned nonchalantly, but I am pretty sure it was just to show off her large canine teeth. We saw what looked to be the front half of an antelope, probably an impala, up in the tree with her.
(Note: in the photo at top, you’ll notice that you can just make out the front of the impala’s head hanging below the branch that the leopard’s front foot is standing on)

We were trying to get good photos, bumbling with our equipment like the tourists we were, when the cat lithely jumped to the ground. We all fell silent. She assumed the classic “cat ready to pounce” pose I had only seen in person with small house cats attacking a toy or a leaf. This cat was looking past our Jeep to a small herd of male impalas who were slowly walking right toward the tree we were under. I immediately took note of the wind. It was blowing from the impalas to the leopard. There was a few scraggly bushes between the herd and the cat providing perfect concealment.

The cat stalked closer for a few minutes, but seemed a little disinterested. In hindsight, we realized it was probably because she was well fed and still had a stockpile of meat in the tree behind her. After a few minutes of us wondering if we would see the gore of a real hunt, the wind changed. The lead ram froze, made a sneezy-grunt call, and then the whole herd lept away in the direction it arrived. The leopard stretched out and laid in the grass for a few minutes, but then is shot up and ran toward her tree.

We were all so busy watching the leopard, and the leopard was so busy watching the impalas, that none of us noticed a single hyena sneak up to the base of the tree with the leopard’s stored meat. The wind that had allerted the leopard to the impalas also likely allerted the hyena to potential food. In just a few leaps, the leopard had reached the hyena who had turned and tried to get away as fast as it could. There was a momentary collision. We heard a loud growl from the leopard and then an even louder yip, howl, and a characterisic hyena laugh. The hyena never stopped running. The leopard watched for a moment and then turned and trotted back to her tree. With graceful ease, she bounded up the tree, seeming to barely even touch the trunk. She resumed the position we found her in, and in a few minutes she was sleeping again.

The group of us in the Jeep seemed to be frozen while watching this Discovery Channel documentary unfold in real life. We realized that none of us took a single photo after the leopard jumped from the tree. We were too awed by what was happening.

Modern beef cattle systems can look beautiful, but they are not very natural.

Modern beef cattle systems can look beautiful, but they are not very natural.

So what does this story have to do with Permaculture and raising livestock?
For us to understand the most productive and sustainable way to raise livestock, we must understand how nature is designed. Permaculture Principle One tells us to Observe and Interact. That is what we need to do. But it is not what most people do, especially those who raise livestock.

Most beef cattle in this country are raised in one or two phases. In a cow-calf operation, a permanent cow herd is kept by a rancher to produce calves. The heifers (females) are kept to sustain the herd or are weaned and raised as beef cows; the males are castrated and weaned (steers). Both steers and beef cows are either kept at the ranch for 1-2 years and sold directly to slaughter, or they are sold to a finishing operation (a.k.a. feedlot). This is a factory farming system where cattle are placed in an fenced area, and feed is brought to them. They are feed until they achieve a certain weight and then sent to slaughter. I am diametrically opposed to the feedlot model in almost any form. I believe it strongly contributes to the poor health of any nation who adopts it… but that is not what this article is about today. Suffice it to say, that a feedlot is an unnatural and unsustainable system.

Whether in the cow-calf operation, the maturation phase, or the feedlot, the modern beef industry is not mimicking nature. When we stray from natural designs, we typically end up with unseen, unexpected, and eventually unwanted consequences. Most modern beef cattle systems cause pasture and rangeland degradation, topsoil and organic matter loss, decreased ecosystem diversity, and ultimately mild to significant desertification. Why does this happen? It is cause by two things: ecosystemic conditions and cattle management.

We almost missed seeing this lion until we were less than a dozen yards (11 meters) away!

We almost missed seeing this lion until we were less than a dozen yards (11 meters) away!
This photo of mine always reminds me of Peter Capstick’s book, Death in the Long Grass.

In locations with a healthy predator population, it is no wonder animals stick together.

In locations with a healthy predator population, it is no wonder animals stick together.

That's me driving through South Africa. Note the Cape Buffalo at the watering hole... mobbing together.

That’s me driving through South Africa.
Note the Cape Buffalo at the watering hole… mobbing together.

Ecosystemic Conditions
Let’s imagine for a moment we were back in the African savannah I described above. What would happen if the Jeep ran out of gas, and we had to walk back to camp. After witnessing the hunting leopard, do you think we would have to tell everyone to stick together? Not a chance! My wife would be glued to my side, gripping my arm so tight it would cut off the circulation. If she thought about it, I am sure my wife would say I am no match for a leopard. But she still feels safer with me by her side. All of us feel safer in a group when we are in a potentially dangerous environment. It is instinctual. It is the way nature is designed.

When we look at any non-predatory species in the savannah or grasslands of the world, we see a common behavior. We can call it clumping, bunching, or mobbing. This is where the herds of animals do exactly what we humans would do when walking through the African savannah… they stick close together. It is a survival instinct. They need to eat. But they have no idea if the grass they are eating is also hiding a hunting leopard or lion or other predator. So they stay close together. There truly is safety in numbers.

In most places where cattle are raised today, hunting and human development has decimated or eliminated the natural predators. Cattle have little to no real need to clump together in the pastures or rangeland. Some breeds and come lineages still retain this behavior, but most have lost it. Modern cattle do not mob unless they have no other choice.

Modern beef cattle are given very large areas, and they spread out a lot.

Modern beef cattle are given very large areas, and they spread out a lot.
This is not seen in natural systems.

Cattle Management
The second factor is how the cattle are managed in the pasture and rangeland. The vast majority of cattle are put out to pasture in a very large area. The cattle spread out and do not clump together. They go through the fields and eat their favorite plants or plant parts first. Then they eat their second and then third favorite plants. Finally, if they have no other choice, they will eat their least favorite plants. In an area this large, they may be able to only eat their favorite foods. This allows the less desirable plants to grow uninhibited and with less competition. These less desirable plants flower and set seed and reproduce while the more desirable plants are eaten. This management practice is effectively selecting for undesirable plants and selecting against desirable plants.

Impalas exhibiting their natural mob-grazing behavior.

Impalas exhibiting their natural mob-grazing behavior.

Raising Cattle the Permaculture Way: Mob-Grazing
If we wanted to model nature, then we would create conditions that allow our cattle to act in a way large herbivores do in the wild. We would encourage them to stick close together. We could bring predators to the cattle. This is not very practical, not cost effective, and probably more than a little dangerous. The other option is for us to significantly reduce the area we allow for our cattle. We can divide our large areas of land into much smaller spaces (paddocks), and with portable electric fencing, this is quite easy and not super expensive. This is called “mob-grazing” or “intensive rotational grazing”.

This has many benefits. Cattle that are bunched together still eat their favorite plants first, but with all the cattle close together, that food is gone fast. They quickly eat all their favorite plants, and they will then eat their less favorite plants. The plants that they do not like get trampled down and crushed. The plants that are eaten are also crushed. All these plants that are trampled create a natural mulching. They are also covering the land with high concentrations of manure and urine. This is all smashed into soil and crushed plant material creating a high nutrient fertilizer. Then the cattle are moved into the next paddock. The recently grazed field is allowed to recover before being grazed again.

We know that if done right, the desirable plants are selected for, and the less desirable plants gradually reduce in prevalence. The top soil increases. The organic matter increases. The soil water retention increases. The soil and pasture/field biodiversity increases. The cattle will also be significantly less stressed, and happier cattle are healthier cattle. The same land can now feed more cattle than when it was one, larger, open field. There is a lot of science and research behind mob-grazing. I am just scratching the surface of this amazing technique… a design that uses nature as a model… that is Permaculture!

Cattle being mob-grazed with portable electric fencing... brilliant design mimicking nature!

Cattle being mob-grazed with portable electric fencing… brilliant design mimicking nature!


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Photo References:

  • All safari photos are mine. Please ask if you would like to use them!
  • http://thebluegrassspecial.com/archive/2010/october10/imagesoct10/cattle-ranch1.jpg
  • http://extras.mnginteractive.com/live/media/site36/2009/0928/20090928__20090930_D01_FE30FDBEEF2~p1.JPG