IMAGINE a rangelands station with all the internal fences removed, but with all the advantages of an intensively subdivided property.
On this property, stock move in a form of managed migration, concentrating briefly on areas of good feed before moving on, barely touching fragile areas, guided by the manager’s knowledge of their behaviour.
Rather than being forced by fences to occupy a certain area of land for set times, the grazing behaviour of the flock or herd is directed in flexible ways that adapt to local landscapes and seasons.
Mustering is done almost automatically throughout the year, as livestock numbers and distribution are adjusted by their own behaviour.
These are some of the possibilities of Rangelands Self Shepherding (RSS), a low-tech, low-cost but sophisticated concept for addressing some of the environmental and cost-price pressures afflicting Australia’s rangelands.
RSS has been developed by Narromine grazier and educator Bruce Maynard, who is building the concept from blocks of proven knowledge on intensive livestock grazing, animal behaviour and diet.
He has pulled the principles from many sources, including the Behave Network led by University of Utah professor Fred Provenza and the Enrich program headed by CSIRO scientist Dr Dean Revell.
Mr Maynard earlier developed the principles of No-Kill Cropping, No Kill Rehabilitation and No Kill Revegetation, all of which aim for production without degrading biodiversity.
He has taught widely on landscape management and livestock handling throughout Australia and in the US.
Discussions with pastoralists in Australia and the US prompted Mr Maynard to look at whether animal behaviour modification could be a basis for addressing rangelands management that adapts to local circumstances.
RSS involves many items of low-cost technology, including guidance fences, attractants and the principles of dietary mixing, braced by a wealth of underpinning knowledge.
Guidance fencing is a strategy in which a fence – wire or hot-wire, depending on requirements – is strategically placed in the landscape to direct how livestock and wild animals move and impact the area.
These fences are open-ended, so animals can flow around them.
In concept, they are like an aircraft wing, which guides airflow into regions of high and low pressure.
Thoughtfully placed, guidance fences can be used to create areas of lower livestock impact, resting fragile zones, while guiding the total grazing pressure “migration” in ways that benefit the land’s productivity.
At mustering, temporary additions to guidance fences can be added to better direct stock flow to yards.
Mr Maynard believes guidance fences can also aid with wild dog management by helping graziers discover dogs as they enter stations, and directing dogs past baits or traps.
Animal attractants are multi-purpose – by attracting animals to an area, they can change grazing and tracking patterns.
Using attractants of different strengths, for varying times, could be used to manage grazing pressure – encouraging stock to congregate in short graze-long rest patterns, passively allowing stock to move to fresh pastures, or placed to reduce stock timidity of yards and other infrastructure.
Attractant formulation can also change behaviour – for instance, the addition of certain minerals or compounds can alter the dietary mixing capabilities of livestock, so stock can browse more widely across the landscape’s plant mix.
Mr Maynard thinks using varying strengths and availability of attractants based on the “variable schedule” principle used by animal trainers will be an important element of modifying livestock behaviour.
For instance, rats given a reward every time they press a lever become bored: rats that are only given one or two rewards with every hundred presses of a lever – a variable schedule of reward – become addicted to lever-pressing.
Mr Maynard said the underlying principles of RSS were solid.
“RSS aims to modify animal behaviour year-round, and to affect all animals in the landscape, producing benefits that can’t be achieved by occasional interactions with humans,” he said.
“It is cheap to implement, and graziers can scale it up, starting with small numbers of herds and expanding it as they start to understand the effects.”
A meeting between researchers and pastoralists to develop and implement RSS is planned for Western Australia later this year.
Rangelands Self Shepherding (RSS) is a concept that uses animal behaviour to address some of the issues affected Australia's rangelands.
Most solutions to rangelands challenges rely on increased technology, infrastructure, time, money or all of those.
RSS proposes a new way to tackle old problems, by pulling together different facets of understanding about animal behaviour to create new, low-cost solutions.
The concept has some underlying assumptions:
- Local people have the skills and expertise to manage the landscapes they live in;
- Time is limited and skilled labour is expensive;
- Movement of animals around the landscape introduces rest and recovery periods, with known benefits;
- The benefits of active herding of animals and concentrating groups so that their impact is more even across the landscape are well known.
- RSS in itself is not a cure-all, and will require new ways of thinking about rangelands management.
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