Embracing Disturbance As Part Of Your System


We, as movers of soils and animals, understand that we can manage but we cannot lord over nature. The recorded history of our planet is scant and scattered, making our understanding of the earth’s cycles tenuous at best. And yet we still attempt to control our land, to nudge our properties, and to work against nature when we feel like it is working against our particular enterprise. Every year I get this way around the fall freeze. The soil freezes at night and thaws during the day. Last night’s ice melts and certain areas of my farm are transformed into a muddy goulash complete with bits of floating detritus and manure. Managing cattle in a holistic system requires attention to detail and attention to destruction. Every year I fret and moan over the loss of production due to the intense animal pressure, but every year I also welcome the verdant sward that is created after the disturbance, and more importantly, after the rest has occurred.
Disturbance is part nature’s cycle. Earth’s plants and animals have evolved a symbiotic relationship with disturbance and rest cycles, and it is our responsibility to utilize these cyclical occurrences to the best of our properties. Fires, floods, wind events, large mammal tracking, and insect feedings are all considered large-scale disturbances that temporarily change the landscape in which they occur. There are both positive and negative disturbance events, defined by their overall impact on that particular ecosystem. Obviously, systems change over time, but if we consider the system for what it is at this moment, these disturbances can have drastic effects on the land.

Positive events are those that are ultimately productive to the system. In the case of fire, certain tree species are triggered to produce more seeds, the under-story is cleared for the process of regeneration, and the system evolves. In the case of the cattle farm, the increased impact and pugging that accompanies heavy hoof traffic in the wet conditions will help to bring new seeds to the surface, spread manure, and encourage new plants to compete for spots in the nutrient-rich pasture. The key to the positive impacts of disturbance is rest. For the system to evolve, there needs to be time for the evolving units to express themselves in the new system. In the case of the ranch, these areas are the ones that I will not graze until the very end of the cycle. By managing both the disturbance and the rest, the system is able to recover and evolve to be more varied and productive.

Negative disturbance is most common in monocultures. Nature is built on diversity, and the degradation of a monoculture is a direct result of the natural world exploiting the vulnerabilities of an unnatural system. Lack of rest can also create negative disturbance patterns. If I were to begin grazing the muddy area of the farm along with the other paddocks, it would further stress the area, leading to decreased production and exponentially increasing the rest time required to restore balance. We as movers of land and animals can learn to understand and embrace the disturbance even if we cannot visualize the patterns and connections that are at its core.

A note for those of you grazing in sacrifice areas.  These areas require rest to come back to their previous perennial mixture.  Over the years have noticed that in the most heavily impacted areas there is a predictable succession to the plants that re-grow.  In the first year the area is usually populated by less desirable species and “weeds” but if given the opportunity to rest a second time over the winter a new succession of typical pasture species will begin to take hold.  This is important to realize for those of us that bale graze in fields and use sacrifice paddocks as opposed to designated winter loafing areas.   The first year you will find more weedy plants but within the next year, if allowed to rest and recover, the pasture will come back better than ever.


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