Editors Note: This previously appeared as a Guest Blog for the North American Devon Association
At 45, I’ve seen many changes in my lifetime. Today’s reality check has me spending 75 bucks to fill my small pickup. I’m also stressing about the prospect of going from 600 dollars to 2500 to heat my family’s home. I fill up at our local fuel station that has been in business for over 50 years. It’s funny to see the ole pump’s numbers highlighted with a Sharpie to indicate the now-obsolete technology because years ago no one figured gas would go over $ 3.99 per gallon.
The relevance of this gaseous moment begins my day at the conservation district, trying to help farmers utilize their pasture resources better and offsetting the high costs of the above inputs. Unfortunately, I am fighting a tradition of putting the animals in one field until it runs out of grass and then feed them expensive “winter” feed for the rest of the summer. The daily landscape I travel is dotted with way too many overgrazed pastures, or as I like to think of it, underutilized potential.
Without my twisted passion for pastures, the grass demons would surely swallow you up if you witnessed this on a daily basis. How do you fight the short sod syndrome?
Well, for me, it means one farm at a time, one day at a time. I have taken the approach of “no grazier left behind”. You see a man named Darrell came to my farm a long time ago with knowledge and perseverance to convince me to change. I was ready for change because the status quo was not profitable. He introduced me to a managed grazing concept: polywire and a low impedence fence charger, and away I went. Then the grazing family took over as the support mechanism in the form of pasture walks, conferences and one on one. I learned from farmer Dave, Chuck, Jim, Dick, Mike and Kathy to name just a few. This approach is tried and true even in today’s environment. When you go through scary times, you need many friends.
So after 20 years, my style is the same. “Lets take this 50 acre field and break it into 10, 5 acre paddocks” and see if you notice any changes in your pasture, herd health and wallet. This is usually followed by “Oh by the way, I’ll be here twice a week to help you get acclimated to this and here is my cell phone number if you have any questions”.
After the farmer shakes off his laughter at this “agency” person and sees I’m not laughing, we move forward. He or she doesn’t realize the good things I see as a result of just saying yes, I’ll give this a try. My curse is I see a great future for their farm resources and I have a hard time throttling back to the reality of now. Baby steps please.
It’s hard to stem the enthusiasm of managed grazing when last year one of my “students” saved over 4000 dollars in feed costs by implementing a rotation on 18 acres for 40 cows for just 6 hours per day. Imagine what the profitability picture is this year! Success sells and he will ultimately be called upon to share his practices and experiences at a pasture walk or one-on-one to further create opportunity for others. Does all this sound too familiar?
As a Conservation District Employee in farm country at the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, I am acutely aware of how important well-managed pastures are for the bottom line of a farm or stable. This is only part of the story however. The extension of my job and being, is to also see that society understands the benefits of supporting my little green friends as soil savers, water cleaners, solar collectors and carbon sequesters.
The balancing act of being on the farm every day and also contributing to the education side for the public is a struggle most days. One man, one mission, 700 farms, it’s a big job! An EPA official, on one of our infamous pasture tours, asked “How do we make more of you grass whisperers”?
I shot back, “Put your money in passionate, local “on the ground” people”. “Investment in grass-based conservation is cheap, but it takes time to change 50 years of progress,” I said.. You can build a 20 year mentor, but you have to start. As the fuel and food prices continue to rise while the dead zones around the country widen, I would say there is no time to waste.