While we are by no means experts on permaculture, sustainable grazing or any other concepts which we are currently trialing at KBS, we do have the advantage that we have used, loved and observed our land for almost 13-years, and kept horses on it for five.
During this time we’ve also watched, read and written to, as many of the pioneers involved in sustainable grassland management and natural land systems as we can.
We’re exceedingly lucky in the fact that everyone involved in developing these systems, whether in Zimbabwe or Texas, Australia or Austria, are all very much determined to share their trials and findings with others.
One thing for certain is that everyone involved is driven by a passion to conserve what they have and regenerate what has been lost. They also all observe and fully acknowledge that the climate is rapidly changing and our current land practices are only hastening the degeneration of land.
You’ve Gotta Know what you’ve got!
We initially bough the site, because of its incredible position, high on a hill at the end of the village, looking out over Sakar mountain. We grew veggies, kept chickens, goats, pigs and a horse, nothing too strenuous was ever really asked of our land, until we bought more horses!
The deep clay soil churned in the wet. The steep gradient washed our topsoil, seed and nutrients straight into the neighbours fields. The delicate indigenous grassland, already battered by decades of overgrazing, all but vanished under our horses hooves.
Already interested in and having already used some permaculture/sustainable principles in our garden and yard, we decided to try taking them out into the fields and invest time and money in sustainable grassland and water management.
Traditional Horse Keeping Methods
Traditionally people in our region tether horses, and regardless of how you might feel about the system from the horses perspective, from that of the land’s- it’s almost ideal.
A little like ‘mob-grazing’ one small specific area is grazed per day. Its trampled and defecated on, the horse is severely restricted in browsing possibilities and therefore eats both the most delicious grasses and those those they would prefer to leave behind. This not only kills the weeds before they seed, but the rope movement flattens what remains and drags and breaks down the manure. The following day, the horse is moved to a different site, allowing the land and plants to regenerate and regrow.
From the horses’ perspective there are clear pros and cons. It is clearly a good system for fatties who require portion control during the spring flushes of new grass. It also forces them to eat those less desirable plants they would not naturally choose if in a larger grazing area, meaning they gain more varied nutrients.
However, the issues we, and I think most people have with the system are that it forces horses live alone, with no interaction with others. There’s also the inherent danger of rope/chain injuries and the fact the horse can not move freely, and if it tries it basically lunges itself on an extremely restrictive and ever decreasing circles.
From a human perspective, it is also extremely laborious to move horses and pegs on a daily basis. It can also be pretty dangerous, try deflecting a stallion which has pulled its pin and galloping at your tethered mare who’s clearly not in season! In fact, our neighbour is still recovering from a badly broken leg- thanks to a loose horse and tether pin!-
So while tethering was clearly not for us (or our horses), observing the land management aspects of its use, we did find much of interest. Our thoughts then moved to how we could mimic the systems positive effects while negating those detrimental to the horse.
The Track System
In 2019 we trialed a track system with controlled mob grazing. The track runs around the perimeter of the property, encompasses a small pine forest for shelter, plus a large field shelter, two water trough sites, and the regular night paddock. Hay is delivered throughout the day at various points around the track to encourage movement and interest.
As almost all of our horses had been tethered prior to joining us, the track was a huge lifestyle change, but they all clearly enjoy the freedom, movement and social aspects.
Thanks to the gradient on the track and the incredible amount of movement they do on a daily basis, their overall fitness has improved dramatically and those that are ‘not so youthful,’ are significantly less ‘creaky.’
For 2020 the plan is to extend the track to include an additional five-acres. This will mean they will walk further and enjoy additional enrichment opportunities (such as; hawthorn bushes, an additional forest area, fallen trees, etc.)
Mob Grazing/Equicentral Grazing
By sectioning off and controlling access to specific areas around and within the track system, we can allow the horses to graze as a herd, where and when- we want. The horses do not remain on these areas for any prolonged amount of time, usually one to two days and then we move them elsewhere. In many ways, this mimics the tethering process, (beating down the long grasses, eating more than just the most delicious nibbles, spreading and breaking down the manure), and yet they can participate in the process freely as a herd, unhindered by ropes.
We have already seen from trials in 2019, that this system extends our grazing season, when we compare it compared to simply allowing the horses to have full access across the entirety of the land (as we did in 2018). The full effects and possible benefits to the land however, are still not yet analysed, and won’t be available until the new grass comes through sometime in March.
Premaculture Principles in Regeneration of Land
The biggest land regeneration project we’ve undertaken to date, is the attempt to regenerate a 1.6 acre paddock using sustainable/permaculture grassland principles.
Although this newly acquired field produced a nice initial burst of grass in the spring, we could see it had been over-grazed for decades and lacked in any significant root structures. It was also heavily laden with weeds and set on a steep gradient with top soil and nutrient run-off.
In the summer of 2019, we begun several experiments on small scale samples, then monitored how site reacted to various topical applications of manure and differing mulches.
In early Autumn we acquired almost 50 tonnes of well-composted cow manure and covered the field, (much of the final preparation was done by hand with spades and mattocks!). After several months of exposure to the elements, we then covered it with decaying organic mountain hay.
If all goes to plan, we will have started the process of creating new topsoil, the seeds from the hay will drop through into this and help regenerate the field with local and indigenous plants. The hay layer will offer protection from the sun, wind and any aggressive heavy rains, while trapping any dew and/or mist and stopping evaporation. And, over time is should slowly mulch down to also become part of the new topsoil.
However, we are currently experiencing the driest winter in living memory, which could see this process hampered considerably. For now we’re monitoring the process and not planning any immediate use of the field until the processes have created the environment we want.
By August our region is like a tinder-box and regularly sees dramatic and vast wild-fires covering many hundreds of acres of land. Given our location (at the end of the village backing onto the grassland we use) our land is in a precarious position when it comes to fire.
For this reason, each land process we implement requires careful consideration should we have another wild-fire.
To date we’ve trialed the use of a small lucrene crop planted directly behind our buildings as an immediate fire break. Lucerne is one of the few crops which does not require irrigation in the hot summer and stays green plus it inhibits the growth of other plants.
As we acquire more land, we move the track system to ensure it is always around the perimeter of our farm. Although this means if a fire does break out that we could lose our posts and wire, it does, in effect create a four-metre wide, grass-less, firebreak around the entirety of our property.
We’ve experienced several fires now around KBS and in Srem. Regardless of how promptly the fire engine is called, it does take time to arrive from Topolovgrad our nearest town, and while the village waits, everyone who can- is expected to help beat the fire.
The last fire back in 2017, saw most of us working to remove horses, meaning less manpower to assist with the beating.
In 2019 we were lucky enough to have Josie join us for several months. An Australian, experienced in working with horses, she identified several issues she saw around KBS.
Her observations and ideas have led to the creation of large empty paddock for fire situations, the horses remain safe (as there’s nothing to burn) and we can concentrate on fire-fighting.
The Pros and Cons of Swales
Back in 2011, long before Konna Baza Sakar began we added swales to the small (weedy and over grazed) area behind the house. This was primarily to stop water running down into the foundations of the house and to allow us to plant fruit trees on the area.
Viewing Google Maps over the years, the system has clearly worked as intended, with this specific piece of land remaining greener for longer each season than anything else around it.
While swales do work for gardens and land used by humans, we have found issues as we moved into animal keeping. The biggie; swales inhibit land access for machinery, and are also less than ideal for people or horses to continually climb over and through.
For these reasons, we are looking at adapting the swale system for future use on other land areas, although this is still in the planning phase.
Grey Water Runoff
Both the house and the stable yard utilise grey water run systems directing water back into our land. House run-off has allowed for significantly less water to be used on the garden and the yard has supplied the plum and walnut trees, which have not required any additional summer watering.
For 13 years we have run our home and stables exclusively from our three wells located onsite. However, for the past six years we have observed the year-on-year disappearance of our ground water.
After an analysis of the rainfall and climatic changes over the past ten years and taking into consideration the projected climatic changes expected in our area in the decades ahead, we have decided to begin investing in a new and ongoing series of rain water collection systems.
We’ve observed it and the statistics prove it, weather patterns in our area are changing. Gone are the years of deep snow and long winter rains, where water percolated slowly through the soil and rocks in to our wells. In their place we now experience dramatic summer rain storms, dropping huge amounts of water in a short amount of time and with longer periods of no precipitation in-between.
Between the house, the field shelter, the stables, and the various barns and sheds, one thing we do have a lot of , is roof area for rain water collection.
The initial 2020 phase has seen excavations already leveled in preparation for water tanks behind the field shelter. This means after heavy rainfall, we can rest our wells and allow the horses to drink the stored water. An additional site for collection from the stable block has also been identified and will mean we can water the garden more freely in the summer months.
Weather and Climate Monitoring
Up until now we’ve been using the rain and weather data from the Elhovo weather station 20kms away. Although this has given us some really usable data, we realise its not truly accurate given Srem has its own micro-climate, so we have therefore begun collecting our own data.
Starting super-small we’ve now started generating our own rainwater and rain day data collection system.
A final Thought…
Far from perfect, far from finished and far from ideal, yet our small interventions are moving forward slowly but surely. We don’t profess to be experts in any of this, and in reality finding any information or analysis on sustainable grazing systems using horses rather than ruminants is really few and far between.
For all of us though, i think the biggest development has been the mental one. The conscious decision to stop ignoring the data and simply continuing along the same path, to truly register the changes, analyze the projections and acknowledging that our climate and environment is changing rapidly.
Once we made the mental leap, everything became interesting and a potential possibility. Harvesting rainwater from roads in Zimbabwe, productive swaled mountainsides in Austria, land management techniques from India and groundbreaking Savannah management in Africa, they all offer potential ideas into what could work for us…