MEDIC PASTURE

 Establishment on the parcour 

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CHAPTER HEADING

SUMMARY OF CONTENTS

The first stage in convincing farmers to adopted medic pasture is to produce a simple budget. This shows the changes in costs and returns when medic is grown and the increase in profit. Some sample budget forms are provided.
If the extremes of over-grazing and under-grazing can be avoided the medic pasture has a much greater chance of success. Some simple planning to provide a rough balance between the area of proposed medic pasture and the number of sheep will make grazing management much more straightforward.
The traditional method of medic pasture establishment in the WANA region over the last 25 years and in Australia for 80 years has been to sow medic seed into a well prepared seedbed. Medic seed can be costly and seedbed preparation and sowing is difficult for small farmers who lack the proper equipment.
Establishing medic pasture using pods is an innovation that offers many potential benefits particularly for small farmers. The method was first developed by ICARDA in Syria in the 1990's and now forms the basis of the Zaghouan rotation in Tunisia. It potential in the WANA region is considerable.

YOU ARE HERE

The parcour or rough grazing land occupies more than half of the cereal zone in the WANA region. Pasture establishment using seed has been difficult but pods may be a better option.
Grazing the green medic pasture is vital in make a profit, to control weeds and produce ample supplies of pods for future years. Farmers in the WANA region have developed innovations that take their grazing management to higher levels of efficiency than those achieved in Australia.
Pods provide a valuable feed supply in summer for sheep and are needed for the regeneration of the pasture in future years. Farmers must find a balance.
Measuring the pods is an important part of grazing management. We have made a separate topic so it can be printed and used as an extension guide for farmers.
The medic pasture has completed its first year. The pasture regenerates with the autumn rains. Farmers must decide whether to cultivate the land for cereals (the classic medic - cereal rotation) or leave it for another year or more. The options are discussed.
Making hay from medic is not as simple as it may seem. This chapter discusses the options and innovative rotations for medic hay production.
Turning the medic pasture into profits is the objective. This chapter shows how live- weights are increased, death rates reduced and lambing percentages increased. The new flock structure is more efficient and produces greater returns.
A check list of possible failures and what to do about them.
  

FOUR COMMON ROTATION ON THE GROUND IN THE WANA REGION

SEASON

ROTATIONS

CEREAL - FALLOW

CEREAL - MEDIC
( Traditional rotation)

CEREAL - VETCH

CEREAL - GRAIN
LEGUME.

AUTUMN

Cereal crop sown

Cereal crop sown

Cereal crop sown

Cereal crop sown

WINTER

Cereal crop grows

Cereal crop grows

Cereal crop grows

Cereal crop grows

SPRING

Cereal crop matures

Cereal crop matures

Cereal crop matures

Cereal crop matures

SUMMER

Cereal crop harvested
Stubble grazed by livestock

Cereal crop harvested
Stubble grazed by livestock

Cereal crop harvested
Stubble grazed by livestock

Cereal crop harvested
Stubble grazed by livestock

AUTUMN

Weeds germinate naturally

Medic regenerates from seed
produced 18 months earlier.
No cultivation of the land required.

Land cultivated and sown to vetch or similar forage legumes.

Land cultivated and sown to grain legume such as lentils or
chick peas.

WINTER

Weeds grazed. Low stocking rate.

Medic pasture grazed. High stocking rate.

Grazed or more often left for hay.

Grain legumes grow.

SPRING

Land cultivated for fallow

Medic grazed. Pods produced for future regeneration.

Cut for hay.

Grain legumes mature.

SUMMER

Bare soil vulnerable to erosion.

Pods and stubble grazed.

Stubble grazed.

Grain legumes harvested.

Stubble grazed.

AUTUMN

Cereal cycle begins again.

Cereal cycle begins again

Cereal cycle begins again

Cereal cycle begins again

 

What is the parcour?

  The parcour is translated as rough grazing. It is the land that is not arable. It is too stony, too steep, too shallow a soil profile to cultivate for cereals. The parcour is used only for grazing. It occurs on individual farms or in large areas that are grazed on a common basis.

    The parcour is a most important resource. There is a greater area of parcour in the cereal zone of the WANA region than there is arable land for cereal production.

A typical landscape in Algeria south of the Atlas. The land in the foreground is arable but the hills behind are parcour. The photo was taken in winter but cultivation and heavy grazing make it look like summer.

The zone between 500 mm and 250 is called the cereal zone but it could equally be called the parcour zone.

It has been neglected because government policy had been more concerned with cereal production than livestock. Very little of the parcour receives any fertiliser of any type.

It is usually over-grazed - at least in relation to the existing pasture.

The output of pasture and livestock products is only a small fraction of its potential. It can therefore be more accurately described as "under-pastured" rather than "over-grazed."

    The parcour stretches across many zones besides the cereal zone. We will discuss the parcour more fully in these zones as it becomes the completely dominant land use.

Development models for the parcour

    The parcour has been neglected in the development programs of the countries of the WANA region.

Governments have seen cereal production as being more important.

The effort that has been put into livestock has been into more intensive livestock production. There has been an enormous expansion in poultry production based on imported cereal grains.

There has been an increase in feeding grains to sheep and cattle.

The development that has taken place on the parcour has been concentrated on botanical curiosities.

This may seem a harsh judgement on the plantations of spineless cactus, acacia, atriplex and other fodder shrubs but their value as livestock feed in limited. They have been developed by scientists with an exaggerated view of the aridity of the zone and a belief that "real" pastures must be based on perennial plants. There has been a strange reluctance to admit that drought evasion rather than drought resistance is a more suitable mechanism for pastures in arid and semi-arid zones. The drought evading plants such as short season legumes have been dismissed by botanists collectively as ephemerals.


     Disadvantages of the fodder shrubs approach:

    Cost

    High cost is an overwhelming disadvantage of fodder shrubs.

The fodder shrubs have been established in the past using nursery grown seedlings. The cost has been huge and totally out of proportion to any return from the pasture. For this reason it has been done with government or aid funds not the investment of farmers. The cost is both the establishment cost and the waiting time for the shrubs to come into production. Direct seeding of shrubs into the parcour will reduce the cost considerably but it is still an expensive option.

   Grazing management

    The fodder shrubs are difficult to graze.

We will explain this more fully in other sections on the rangeland and marginal zone.

Briefly mature fodder shrub pastures present many years of growth to the grazing animal. This is the fodder "on offer." Grazing has to be managed so that roughly the annual growth (or less) is eaten each year. If all the fodder on offer is eaten in a single feeding frenzy the shrubs will die or at least take five years to recover.

Grazing management to is difficult to organise in the WANA region as it is in complete contrast to present grazing systems.

Fodder shrub pastures are like offering a feast to a starving man.

When one fifth has been eaten he is told to come back next year.

In Australia and other regions fodder shrubs are successfully grazed. The system is quite different. Small numbers of livestock are left on large areas to graze freely for long periods. Usually they graze for the whole year. The farmer can adjust the number of livestock to be in balance with the annual growth over a number of seasons.

 In the WANA region the social and cultural conditions are totally different.

Spineless cactus growing in Tunisia. There is a debate about its value in the rangeland but here in the cereal zone with about 300 mm rainfall legume pastures are a better option.

Livestock cannot be left to roam freely. Areas are not fenced. Instead of low densities of livestock for long periods there are high densities of livestock for short periods. Flocks (both large and small) roam over the parcour and graze at a high level of intensity. Ideally they should do so for a short period. This would balance the amount of fodder eaten with the amount grown. The ideal is difficult to organise. If five year's growth is "on offer" it is tempting to eat it all.

The amount of cactus "on offer" look extremely impressive. Remember this represents many years growth. Research shows that the ephemerals (annual grasses, legumes and broad-leafed weeds) growing between the cactus provide as much feed and are more palatable to livestock.

 If the pasture is a common grazing area the flock-owner would be stupid not to eat all "on offer" as other flock-owners will do so. One solution to the problem that has been advocated is to cut and feed the fodder shrubs to the livestock. This may be a short term solution while there is cheap family labour on farms that is not occupied more productively but hopefully in the longer term as family incomes rises family members can be more productively employed.

Of course the same applies to shepherds guarding livestock grazing on a pasture. The difference is that cheap electric fences can mechanised grazing and will do so as soon as family labour becomes more expensive.

The mechanisation of fodder harvesting from shrubs is more difficult and expensive.

   Speed of development

    This becomes more important in the rangeland and will be discussed in more detail there.

Essential the problems of grazing management become greater when the livestock numbers are out of balance with the pasture. (see  Planning the medic area )

If all the pasture can be developed quickly and if the development increases the productivity of the pasture then grazing management (as long as livestock numbers stay the same) is easy.

If there are only small areas of developed pasture they become "honey pots" for the livestock and harsh controls are needed to prevent over-grazing.

Fodder shrubs are slow to plant and slow to come into production.

   * Fodder quality.

    The botanical curiosities that have been selected as fodder shrubs have been evaluated on their ability to grow in the WANA region not because they are resistant to grazing or produce high quality and palatable fodder.

In fact many arid zone plants survive because they are unpalatable. Atriplex for example has very high salt levels. There have been many reports of digestive upsets with diets that contain high proportion of spineless cactus. Unpalatability is an excellent survival mechanism for plants but does not produce high growth rates for livestock.

    * Lack of soil nitrogen.

    With few exceptions most fodder shrubs have been selected for their drought resistance.

Pasture experts have given rainfall the greatest priority but there is plenty of scientific evidence to show that pasture production is limited by soil fertility (phosphate and nitrogen) as much as by rainfall.

    * Are fodder shrubs an illusion?

    Fodder shrubs certainly look impressive but that is because they represent many years growth.

They cannot survive at a high density because of competition between plants. Between the fodder shrubs there is a spontaneous growth of those much despised ephemerals. These ephemerals are more palatable to grazing livestock. They provide more fodder to grazing animals as they are heavily selected by them.

There is evidence from research conducted in Australia where large areas of fodder shrubs exist that the annual grasses, legumes and broad-leafed weeds produce more available nutrients in total than the much great quantity of fodder shrubs and the real advantage of the fodder shrubs is to introduce grazing management and allow the ephemerals to thrive.

The difficulty is that the management of the fodder shrubs and the ephemerals is sometime different. The fodder shrubs take priority because of their high cost not because they are more important.

    * Greater risk.

    Some fodder shrub plantations in the WANA region are kept as national monuments.

This is because the government agency that planted them believes the risk of grazing is too great. If they are over-grazed and killed replanting is expensive. If other pasture options fail through poor grazing management they can be re-established at a less cost.
 

Advantages of fodder shrubs
 

    * Protection of the soil.

    Fodder shrubs provide the best protection of the soil against erosion. Annual pastures are excellent in most season but are inadequate during a severe drought.

    * Drought reserve.

    A drought reserve may be the best use for fodder shrubs.

Instead of trying to graze them on an annual basis they may be better as a drought reserve. Hand cutting may be feasible on an emergency basis.

* Other reasons for growing fodder shrubs

I am a little prejudiced against fodder shrubs because I see them as the icing on the cake in WANA. Medic pasture are the easy, cheap and quick option for making a huge improvement in feed quality and quantity. It seems obvious to establish medic first. After that fodder shrubs have a valuable role and can provide benefits for sheep owners. Dr Dean Ravell of the CSIRO in Australia has described them in an article on new applications for fodder shrubs.


Alternative Pasture Development Models

     Because of the high cost of the fodder shrub model of parcour/rangeland development some organisations (for example IFAD in Morocco) are funding pasture development on the basis of natural regeneration. The program involves resting and grazing management.

Using medics and other annual legumes on the parcour
 

    * Using seed.

    Broadcasting medic and other annual legume seeds on the parcour does not work.

I know I have tried it on a number of occasions on my farm in Australia. Seed broadcast on the surface of the hard soil is eaten by ants and other insects. Any seed that survives finds the environment too harsh for the seedlings to germinate and establish.

 Legume seed has to be sown into a seed bed. While the parcour is by definition rough grazing land that is too difficult to cultivate the reality is different. It is certain not possible to cultivate, sow and harvest cereals but special heavy duty machinery can sow legume seed and fertiliser over rocks and boulders and other difficult terrain. To our knowledge this has only been done on a large scale in Libya and to a more limited degree in Iraq. In the Jebel al Akhdar region of eastern Libya many large areas (20,000 ha. or more) were sown in a single season with medics and phosphate fertiliser using large tractors and heavy duty seeders. The results were excellent.
In Iraq a smaller area at J'Ravi (about 5,000 ha) was sown in this way.

The political and economic culture of the WANA region has changed since the Libyan developments on the 1970s and it seems unlikely that state sponsored development on this scale and with this foresight will be attempted again.

    * Using pods.

    Pods can be broadcast onto the parcour. Some will be collected by ants and other insects but not as much as seed.

The pod provides a good environment for the seed to germinate and seedlings to establish themselves.

The pod contains seed with a range of seed hardness. They will germinate over a number of seasons if the first germination fails.

Pod holding medic

Pod harvesting

Assisted natural regeneration
 

  This is of course a contradiction. Pasture improvement cannot be both natural and assisted.

What is being attempted is the natural regeneration of the pasture through resting and grazing management (see above) with the addition of some medic and other annual legume pods.

This will help the natural pasture to recover faster and push it in the direction of high quality pasture rather than unpalatable species.

    * Pods are harvested using the ICARDA harvester.

    * They are broadcast on the parcour in late autumn. The best time is just before or after the autumn rains. This is different from the establishment of a medic pasture over a cereal crop. With the parcour we want to save the plants from the first germination whereas in the cereal-medic rotation the first germination of medic seedlings are weeds in the cereal crop.

     In practical terms farmers may not have the time after the rain because of important work preparing the seed bed for the cereal crop. In this case broadcast the pods before the anticipated date of the autumn rains. Leave it as close as possible to the anticipated date of the first autumn rains as the longer the pods remain on the dry surface the more they will be harvested by ants.

    * Seeding rates should be as high as those on the arable land if this is practicable as a good high density medic pasture will be a strong competitor to weedy species.

    * Pod mixtures should try to include cultivars with low levels of seed hardness.

Many of the long term adapted species and ecotypes have a high degree of seed hardness. This is an excellent characteristic over the long term as it gives the pasture many layers of seed reserves.

It can regenerate again and again from false germinations and drought.

In the short term it means that pods harvested in early summer and stored in sacks and then broadcast will have a very low germination in the first season. Less than 5% is common.

Unlike pods harvested for the Zaghouan 4 rotation it would be better to harvest the pods later in summer and to store them on the hot roof of a house to try to break down more of the seed hardness.

Farmers will want a better return from their efforts in the first year. If half the mixture is a ecotype with low seed hardness there will be a good germination in the first season. Over the years the hard seeded ecotypes will probably become dominant as they are better adapted to erratic rainfall conditions.

Fertiliser

    Rainfall it the overall limitation on pasture production on the parcour.

Within that limit soil fertility is vitally important. The addition of nitrogen fertiliser is totally uneconomic and impractical. It is therefore essential for pastures to contain legumes and these will be more productive with additional phosphate.

Even fodder shrubs will benefit from a legume under storey enhancing the soil fertility.

    The rate of phosphate application will vary with the rainfall but within the cereal zone (500 mm to 250 mm) an application of 100 kg per ha (the same as medic grown in rotation with cereals) is a good starting point.

   Some experiments have shown that phosphate levels on the parcour are so low that higher rates are needed for the plants to even notice that there is any additional phosphate.

Instead of the normal declining response curve there is a strange hump. High rates produce higher returns per unit of phosphate applied up to a certain level before declining in the normal way.

Once the initial 300 or 400 kg of triple phosphate has been applied normal top up rates of 100 kg or less can be applied. In these special circumstances it is better to apply all the 300 or 400 kg needed in the first year. The alternative of applying 100 kg per year will produce no response until 300 or 400 kg has been applied.