Natural Systems

Permaculture, or permanent agriculture, is a design system for sustainable living devised in Australia by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the 1970’s. It is one of the movements that can help us use the land in a cleaner and less costly manner, making it more resilient and resistant to extreme conditions. 

Equine permaculture integrates the principles of permaculture design with other sustainable farming practices that can be implemented on horse properties, however large or small. 

In this and the next article, Mariette van den Berg will lay out some of the founding design principles in Permaculture, and provide examples of how they apply in an equine setting and can benefit horses, people and the land.

Natural systems

Understanding the fundamental principles that govern natural systems is the key to becoming more sustainable and is the start of applying Permaculture. While some may be acquainted with Permaculture, its concepts and principles, others may be wondering what it all means and how it can be applied to their horse property!

In fact, Permaculture is common sense design that can help create a better environment and lifestyle. Permaculture is an approach and philosophy for managing the earth’s and our social resources that aims to design sustainable human settlements that preserve and extend the systems found in nature.

Permaculture can be applied in an urban, rural or productive farming context at any scale, and can certainly be applied to horse properties, whether large or small.

Understanding the principles that govern Permaculture design and applying them will help create better environments for horses, and this is especially critical if we are going to manage more and more horses in small suburban acreages.

The Law of Return

We are consumers and horse graziers that take a lot from the land, but often fail to support its need for energy return, so that it can replenish itself.

Natural systems will always attempt to restore equilibrium (balance) and, if we mistreat, overload or deflect such life systems and processes, we get a reaction that may have long-lasting consequences. Good examples of this are topsoil loss, erosion, weeds, compaction, reduced pasture availability, water pollution… The list goes on.

Our typical reaction has been to treat these problems with what’s known as ‘prescription farming’ (targetted herbicides, chemical fertilizers, etc.) and additionally, by importing larger quantities of feed to sustain the needs of our horses. This is neither good for the environment nor our pocket! The gloomiest part about this loop of import is that is is so widely  accepted in the horse industry.

Is it because we see our horses more as pets, rather then ‘grazing livestock’ and we have been somewhat indoctrinated into buying feed from the shelves?

Have we placed our endeavour to become grass farmers and manage the land in the ‘too hard basket’?

Most likely it’s a combination of many factors, including education on how to best manage pastures. The subject can be confusing because agricultural services typically educate on the basis of reductionism science. Most ‘agricultural solutions’ that are based on scientific (green revolution) evidence seem to tackle only one element at a time.

As an example, science has shown that plant growth can be supported by the addition of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (so called NPK), but what about the rest of the minerals? By only spreading these NPK fertilisers, we are reducing the associations the soil and plants make with other minerals and nutrients. This will make plants and soils less nutritious and resilient, which will lead to the following problem: Weeds.

The next solution is to develope (through science) a herbicide product that kills anything that isn’t the pasture or crop of your choice! By looking at our pasture problems one element at a time, we end up in a continual loop of buying in more items. Such an approach does not seem to work long-term, and could even be very unhealthy for you and your horses.

Complex, adaptive systems

In nature, living organisms do not lend themselves to strict scientific definitions because they are complex, adaptive systems that are always in a process of change.

Living organisms are typically part of a whole within a bigger whole – within a system. Therefore, we need to view the parts (w)holistically and be aware there are connections everywhere.

An example of a (w)holistic approach is that we don’t directly feed pasture plants, we feed them through a process of breaking down organic matter with the help of many soil-organisms – the bacteria and fungi in the soil that have a symbiotic relationship with plants and exchange many nutrients – and even water – with them.

This doesn’t mean that we cannot apply science and study the individual parts, but we clearly need to regularly step back to also study the system as its whole – and in its even bigger whole whenever possible!

Integrative and interdisciplinary science can be difficult to comprehend, and some researchers may be of the opinion that it is almost unmanageable because having many factors could influence an outcome. Still, by studying both – the parts and the whole systems – we will advance our understanding and could apply management tools much more efficiently than is currently being done.

Permaculture provides tools that are based on an integrative approach and emphasises self-reliance, responsibility and the functions of living things.

Using energy

One of the founding principles we need to be aware of when working with natural systems is that we need to think in terms of energy. Everything around us contains energy; organisms, populations and ecosystems. This energy may be stored or transferred from one form to another, but it cannot disappear or be destroyed, nor created (this is known as the first law of thermodynamics).

The energy can be the rain that is collected in the mountain rivers that run all the way to the sea. It is the food (pasture) that keeps your horse warm, alive and mobile.

What we consider ambient and useful energy storages are degraded into forms that are less useful to us until they no longer serve our system (entropy or gradual decline).

By understanding this cycle, we can then ask ourselves:

How can I best use energy before it passes and leaves my property or system?

Our strategy should be to store as much as we can, ‘from source to sink’.  To capture as much water in our hills to drought-proof our farms, and increase vegetative growth (capturing the sun’s energy) for food and soil building.

Life systems constantly organise and create complex energy storages from diffuse energy and materials, accumulating, decomposing, building and transforming them for further use. We can find ways to use this in our property management and design processes.

Take manure, for example. Horses are fibre processing machines, turning grass and hay into nutrient-rich manure 24/7.

One approach is to leave horse manure on the paddocks, and harrow it to help it break down and return nutrients to the soil. While this may be a productive use, it only achieves one function and is not a very good practice unless you can also remove the horses for a period of time to prevent them being exposed to parasites.

On the other hand, composting the manure can create humus-like material that you can spread on both your pasture and gardens.

If you do it the correct way (aerobic hot turning), you can turn the compost into compost tea and spray it directly on the pasture. The compost tea acts as a gentle tonic for the plants, encourages microbial activity in the soil, helps to break down organic matter and releases nutrients for plants.

A paradigm shift in perspective

In summary, when we review pasture management and property design using a permaculture perspective, we should really think in terms of how the resources and energy consumed can be best used to conserve and regenerate renewable energy in living systems.

This style of thinking is what led to the establishment of the design principles described in the following pages.

The Permaculture Design Principles:

As an approach or philosophy, Permaculture is based on a set of principles that can be applied in any context, including on your own horse property.

Understanding the principles that govern Permaculture design and applying them will help create better environments for your horses, your family, your land and the wider community.

1. Work with nature, rather than against it. 

This principle highlights the importance of learning to recognise natural systems and patterns, because they will help us to become more efficient, saving us time and money.

When looking at the design of a horse property, we need to look for the natural patterns, such as water flow, wind and sun angle. These patterns dictate the best and most energy efficient location for a dam, house site, access road or horse shelter.

When applied to weed management, for example, we can go against nature and use herbicides on a long-term basis, but this is linked to degraded soils and plants developing resistance to the chemicals used (which, in turn, leads us to reinvent new chemicals to deal with the resistance problem). On the other hand, we can work with nature; view weeds as pioneer species that grow in soils that no other (grass) plant can occupy, and use them as organic matter that can help build soil by slashing and mulching. Once slashed, the weed roots die off and the mulched plant returns organic matter high in minerals that can restore balance in the soil.

2. The problem is the solution. 

If weeds are the problem, use them to create the solution – healthier soils! The difference between something being advantageous or not is only in our perception – how we see it. Therefore, if you have something on your property that is a problem, look at in a different way and turn it into the solution.

For example, if you have a rocky area in your pasture that refuses to grow grass, could you turn it into a track paddock or the central point for your horses, which will help with keeping their feet dry, and may aid hoof wear and hoof health?

3. Make the least change of the greatest possible effect. 

A good example on a horse property is choosing a dam site by selecting the area where you get the most water for the least of amount of earth moved.

Another example is to use portable, rather than permanent fencing to set up laneways, paddocks or a central point system (such as Equicentral) to move horses and keep them off the pasture – reducing over-trampling and overgrazing, and aiding recovery of the soil.

4. The yield of a system is theoretically unlimited. 

The only limit on the number of uses of a resource possible within a system is in the limit of the information and creativity of the designer. This means there is always an opportunity to find more uses for parts of your system or to add to any system.

For example, when planting trees and shrubs to create a shelter belt, why not plant specific edible fodder trees for your horses and/or nut or fruit trees for your own consumption? While many horse owners will instantly focus on meeting the needs of their horses, they may  forget the property could also be used to produce food for both the horses and their own family!

5. Everything gardens. 

Everything has an effect on its environment. What this means is that nothing in nature works on its own, including us. Even when we can’t see it, there are many connections. Instead of trying to control everything in our gardens or pastures, we can get better results if we sit back and let other organisms do some of the work for us.

Taking the example of weeds and soil building again. If you know this, you can ensure that your effect is a positive one. For example, by pasture planning (cell grazing) or rotational grazing management of your horses you are gardening – allowing recovery and plants to regrow.

Encourage a questioning approach

Permaculture is best skilled using what’s known as the Socratic questioning technique because most people already know what Permaculture is but, initially, they don’t always realise it.

Socratic questioning and teaching is the oldest and still most powerful teaching tactic for fostering independent, critical thinking, because it focuses on giving students questions, not answers. It models an inquiring, probing mind by continually probing into the subject with questions.

Permaculture is common sense. It’s a lot of intuition and a goodly portion of counter intuition. Permaculture appeals because deep down, people know that permaculture is our duty, our destiny, the basis of all wealth and human survival. It is also the way forward for the horse industry to create better environments for horses and people, especially if we are going to manage horses more and more on smaller acreages around the cities.

In addition to being fun to apply, Permaculture is the embodiment of progress in the context of any flailing civilization and, when we think of the upcoming struggles of our future generations, Permaculture is an act of thoughtfulness.

In the next article, we will describe in more detail the concept of resource management and how we can obtain yields in a more sustainable way.

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