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Holistic Management for Horse Properties: Part 5 Practical Guidelines

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Management guidelines. In the previous edition we discussed the process of decision-making and the seven tests that assist you with determining if you are making economically, ecologically and socially sound decisions for your horse property. This has been so far very theoretically, and in real life things may turn out differently.

 In this part, I will highlight some practical guidelines for management to help you better use the tools to manage the ecosystem processes on your property.

The management guidelines will influence any further decisions you test because they in fact help to shape those decisions – providing definition and detail that might otherwise be lacking.

 MANAGEMENT TOOLS

So first an update about which tools are available to us to manage the four ecosystem processes:

Money & Labour: One or both of these tools is always required.

Human Creativity: Key to using all the tools effectively.

Fire:  The most ancient tool.

Rest: The most misunderstood tool.

Grazing: The most abused tool.

Animal Impact: The least used tool.

Living Organisms: The most complex tool.

Technology: The most used tool.

MANAGEMENT GUIDELINES

The following insights and ideas derive from the practical experience of people who are using these tools. The different guidelines apply different tools or situations:

Learning & Practice (Shifting Paradigms) relates to Human Creativity.

Learning how to manage your property holistically is very much a practical exercise. The theory that was provided in the previous articles may help you in understanding the concepts, but in action we can see the results. There is no doubt that you will encounter challenges when you change your plans and management on your property. For example, you may have managed your property for a long time in a certain way, so trying the new approaches may feel daunting; however by practicing you will find out what works and what doesn’t – this is what the feedback loop (see page 46) is all about. It helps us in monitoring the decisions and plans we have made for restoring and improving our horse’s pastures.

Organization & Leadership (Nurturing Creativity) relates to Human Creativity.

Holistic Management is a proactive process that will ensure that what you want to happen actually does happen. Your ability as an organiser to for example, make your property a better environment for your horses, will depend largely on how you think, plan and create. You therefore have to at times be creative and change your plans to get a more desirable outcome (feedback loop). If you are running a (horse) business you may have to review your leadership skills and practices to be able to support creativity in your organisation.

Marketing (Developing A Strategy in Line with Your Holistic Goal) relates to Human Creativity.

This guideline will apply for people that run a (horse) business and include the basic steps to develop a marketing strategy for your products or services.

You need to develop a product (if you are looking at starting a business or adding a services or product to your business); identify your customers and meet their needs; get the product/services to the customers; promote your products and services; establish a price for your products and services; and retain your customers.

In the Holistic Management framework however, you have to test your strategy to make sure that it is in line with your holistic goal.

Human creativity is dynamic and every person will use the formula that best applies to their situation – there is no right or wrong answer. You will have to test your new developed plans or actions and by using the feedback loop (described in more detail later) you will adjust accordingly to achieve your personal, property and horse goals.

Now lets move on to the guidelines that specifically address the management of land, livestock, wildlife, crops, and populations of living organisms.

Time (When To Expose & Re-expose Plants to Soils) relates to Grazing.

If you own horses (even if you don’t have your own property) you will be connected to the land, and will benefit from the optimum functioning of all four ecosystem processes (see part 3).

When managing paddocks and pastures it is important to safeguard enough foliage for your horse’s dietary needs and avoid overgrazing, compaction and all those other problems we regularly encounter on horse properties.

In part 2 of this series we talked about the 4 key insights in Holistic Management – one of these insights was that overgrazing is linked to the time plants are exposed to animals rather than the numbers of animals. So what does this mean?

If you manage 4 horses who live together in 5 acre paddocks and have a rotational grazing system of 3 months per paddock, unless you carefully look at how your grasses are responding over time, you actually have a set-stocking situation.

In natural systems herbivorous herds will move in large numbers to different foraging areas and will only spend a short time in each area before moving on – so you have high impact but only for short time. This is something Holistic Management takes as a guideline and why they refer to ‘time grazing’ rather than ‘rotational grazing’.

But how do we time the exposure and re-exposure of plants and our horses?

There are a number of variable factors that affect one’s ability to plan the moves of animals to minimise overgrazing, so a systematic accounting for time is nearly impossible.

Grazing animals select different plants and different parts of plants in different seasons. Different plants recover at different rates and the plants on the different parts of your land will have different growing conditions. So the best we can do is to monitor the results, and modify necessarily. Monitoring, growth rates, recovery periods and time grazing will be described in more detail in following articles dedicated to Holistic Grazing Planning.

Stock Density & Herd Effect (Using Animals to Shape the Landscape) relates to Animal Impact.

Animal impact refers to all things grazing animals do besides eat. It includes trampling, dunging, urinating, salivating and rubbing. Some of these things have generally been considered as inconvenient – but can be a very important tool to restoring land, especially in brittle environments.

What does animal impact do?

Hoofed animals tend to compact soil, as at every step they concentrate a big weight on a small foot. Herds of animals have been used to compact road beds and earthworks.

When animals are excited or closely bunched, their trampling causes breaks and irregularities.

Animals tend to speed the breakdown and reduce the volume of plant material returned to the soil surface through their dung and urine. They also speed the return of uneaten old plant material to the soil surface by trampling the litter down.

Whether any of these tendencies works good or ill on the land depends entirely on management, particular time factor, not their intrinsic nature.

A long hold belief is that the ‘numbers’ of animals are the cause of the problems we experience on our properties and land. However it is ‘time’ that is the most important factor!

When herds of animals are exposed for short periods to the pastures and land you can see rapid recovery and growth of plants during the resting period. In contrast, if you set-stock and don’t time the grazing period of your animals, you may find that grasses are so damaged that the recovery time is slow or no growth is happening at all due to the compaction and erosion

 Burning

(When & How, and What To Do Before & After) relates to Fire.

Monitoring the soil surface for change will help you determine how frequent a burn should be. When a periodic fire every twenty to fifty years can do well, a burn every two years, by exposing soil, can lead to tragedy. So have a look at the ‘cause and effect’ before you use fire as a tool to manage your property (see part 4).

 

When you manage holistically, the most common justifications for burning include:

  • To invigorate or freshen mature or senescent grass plants, for some reason, animals cannot use, or in cases where you want to sustain fire-dependent vegetation.
  • To invigorate and thicken up bush as cover or feed for wildlife
  • To expose soil in patches to create different communities that can support greater diversity of plants & animals.
  • To reduce woody species that are fire sensitive
  • To provide intense disturbance to a community n which many dead plants are hindering growth.

Population Management & Cropping (Look to Age Structure Instead of Numbers, Diversity Instead of Single Species) relates to Living Organisms.

The living organisms tool, involves all life i.e. plants & animals; and plays a role in the forms of production and the future resource base you described in your holistic goals, regardless of the type of business or institution you manage.

When we nurture crops or domestic animals we tend to forget that these living organisms are the context of a dynamic community. We assume that the communities they inhibit will adapt and sustain themselves – which is generally not the case. We then hope that technology will enable us to protect our harvest, or improve our pastures (chemical pesticides and fertilisers).

It is best to take some time to understand ecological processes and how they function in order to better understand the relationships that exist among the living organisms that populate any biological community. This will enable you to concentrate more on preventing the problems and less on developing band aid cures that, in damaging ecosystem processes, only create more problems.

These guidelines help you work with Nature (and humans) more effectively in using the tools to move you toward your holistic goal.

The Feedback Loop

Once you create your plan, or implement a decision, you should determine what you will monitor to ensure the plan is on track or the decision was the correct one. If you find you are going off track, then you need to implement some form of control (change what you’re doing) to get back on track, or replan entirely if things have gone too far.

You must monitor to produce the result you desire, not to see what happens. The feedback loop is essential to creating a responsive plan. People usually make a decision or develop a plan and then hope for the best. If you recognize that creating a feedback loop is actually part of the decision, then you develop a habit of determining monitoring criteria as part of your plan or decision so you can easily correct course at the earliest point rather than waiting until there is a train wreck. The key is to discern the earliest indicator of change and be sure to complete the feedback loop by controlling or replanning when things go off track.

When your plan or decision concerns the environment, always assume you are wrong— because nature’s complexity is more than we can ever fathom. In monitoring your financial plan, you know you will never come out right on the money, so monthly control is imperative. In a social situation, don’t assume you are wrong at the outset because a negative attitude can seriously affect morale, but still monitor carefully.

Mariette van den Berg, PhD, BAppSc (Hons), RAnNutr

Mariette van den Berg has a PhD in Equine Nutrition and Foraging Behaviour, is a RAnNutr equine nutritionist, a Certified Permaculture Designer and a dressage rider. She is the founder of MB Equine Services.

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