As Jim Munsch describes in this video from Wisconsin Grazing Resources, a pasture walk is an opportunity for graziers to get together to learn from each other. Farmers and ranchers can share things they’re trying to do to improve their forages, livestock and grazing management, and they can talk about problems, and even come up with solutions for each other.
Pasture walks are a great way to see how others manage their pastures and to share experiences of things that have worked, or haven’t worked. They also let you see new developments in pasture production and management, and give you a chance to see ideas implemented on farms or ranches like yours before you spend money and time doing something.
To organize a pasture walk you need four things: people interested in participating, a topic to discuss, a pasture that fits with the topic, and a time that works for everyone involved. Here’s how to get started:
Where are the People?
You’re probably already familiar with the local organizations available to help farmers and ranchers. Those agencies are also great places to start to organize a group of folks interested in pasture walks. Check with your local Natural Resources Conservation Service, Conservation District, or Cooperative Extension staffs to let them know you’re interested in a pasture walk and are looking for like-minded individuals. Or see if there is a Grange in your area. Founded in 1867 for the purpose of improving farming and the lives of farmers, Granges may be the first “pasture walkers” in the United States. Any of these agencies can help you make connections, and could also assist you in organizing your pasture walks.
What Should You Talk About?
Once you have a group of interested folks, your next step is to pick topics for your pasture walks. You can have a meeting, or you can spend some time talking on the phone, or you can even send emails back and forth. If it were me, I might start by getting together over lunch or dinner to chat about what’s going on and what challenges we’re facing as individuals. Those become your potential topics for your pasture walk. Don’t forget to include your contacts from the agencies above in these discussions. Based on their work in the community, they’ve got a good idea of what might be helpful issues to cover.
Pasture walk topics could include things like:
- Watering systems for different grazing practices or animal types
- Fencing techniques
- Managing diversified livestock
- Results of grazing management strategies
- Using different forages or cover crops
- Stockpiling forages for winter grazing
- Post-summer grazing crop residues
- Techniques for measuring forages
You don’t have to do a different topic at each pasture walk either. Sometimes you can do the same topic from a different perspective at different farm or ranch.
Pick a Pasture and Some Speakers
By talking about who is doing what on their farms and ranches, you can choose a place that fellow graziers can tour to see one person’s solution for a particular issue. The host farmer can take on as many of the planning tasks as he or she feels comfortable with, but their key duty is to describe what they’re doing or the solution that they’ve come up with. It doesn’t have to be an expert solution, and the farmer/rancher might even have questions about the adequacy of the solution. What you really want is a place to start a conversation. This is a chance to use that “Two (or more) heads are better than one” theory.
This is another great time to check in with your agency folks. Since they are often involved in grant writing and assistance to producers, they have a good handle on innovations in your area. They might also have suggestions of speakers you might invite to add a more information to the discussion. For example:
- If you’re going to talk about weed problems or forages, make sure you have someone who can identify plants in pastures;
- Talking about fencing? Invite someone from your local fencing supply stores to talk about solving problems in the field with you;
- Looking at different grazing strategies or trying to figure out how to make sure you have enough forage for your herd? Ask one of your agencies if they can send someone with expertise in those areas; They’re there to help, and glad to do it.
Set an Agenda
Before people decide to come to a pasture walk, or any other workshop or meeting for that matter, what they want to know (pretty much in this order) is when it starts, when it ends, will there be food, who else is coming, and then what they might learn while they are there. So be sure to include all that information in any notice you send out about your pasture walk.
Most of us figure that if folks are coming, we should jam in as much as possible so it’s worth their while. Don’t do that. The most important part of this whole event is having time without presentations so folks can just chat. Some people take some time to warm up in crowds, and if there are too few breaks, they may never feel comfortable enough to share that golden nugget of information they have. Plan plenty of time for just walking in the pasture, kicking the clods, slipping a blade of grass in your mouth, and leaning on fence posts just looking at what’s there.
Send Out Invitations
This is another great time to coordinate with your local agencies. They can help get the word out by mail, email, and through the media. If your community is web savvy, you can post on Facebook or tweet about it. Someone reading this might understand what that is all about. You might also want to post flyers in places your fellow pasture walkers might frequent, like the local feed dealer or other stores. A notice in a local paper can be worthwhile. On the invitations, set the start and end times to give folks an idea of how much of their day to allot for this. Good times of day are usually right in the middle (10-1 or 11-2), or in the summer a twilight pasture walk is fun, running from maybe 6-8.
Here are a few things that are helpful at a pasture walk:
- A probe or small shovel to check out the soil
- Plant field guides of plants
- Measuring tools to measure paddock size.
- Any tools you might need for doing specific, planned demonstrations like those for forage production measurements shown in the picture.
- Clipboards, paper and pens/pencils so that folks can take notes if they like while they walk around. Or not….sometimes it’s just nice to walk around in a pasture and take it all in.
Be sure to have something to take pictures with, whether it’s your phone or a camera. You can use it o help identify a particularly interesting plant that no one can quite name. Or you can document something interesting, like a watering system or innovative gate arrangement. You might want to also get a couple of pictures of the event for future use. To do that, you might need to get photo releases for folks in the pictures. You can do that as part of your sign in sheet, if you have folks read a little notification at the top of the sheet and then sign their names (as well as writing them) to indicate they are okay with the use of their beautiful faces.
Food Makes People Happy
Whether it’s snacks or lunch or even dinner, there’s nothing like sharing food with others to get the conversation flowing. You know what folks in your community like to eat, and you know what they consider a special treat. So give it to them. When Troy Bishopp, the Grass Whisperer, organizes a pasture walk you can be sure there’s going to be grass fed beef and some gourmet ice cream. Because I’m usually so busy, I bring fried chicken and all the fixings and a fun dessert from the grocery store. For one pasture walk I even set out chairs and a shade tarp.
How do you cover the cost of food for a pasture walk? You can coordinate with your agencies on sponsoring the food. Sometimes they have small budgets for these kinds of events. If your group is willing, you could have a potluck meal. You can also ask participants to pay a nominal fee. Research has shown that when someone pays even a small amount to attend a workshop, he or she is more likely to use the information learned there.
If you know this is something you’re going to do more than once, you might want to get creative and make or buy sandwich board type of signs to direct folks to the site. Once folks arrive, it’s good for them to know where to park, so have a sign or someone available to point our parking. If you’re not the host farmer or rancher, it’s a good idea to check with him or her to make sure you’re not blocking any pick ups or deliveries or just generally not in the way.
Take care of “housekeeping” as soon as everyone has arrived. Let them know where the bathrooms are and where they can put their trash. These little things reduce stress for your visitors who might be in a new place. Then let everyone introduce themselves so they can begin developing those relationships that will make for good idea sharing. Some folks like to have everyone get into a big circle and (no, not sing!) say who they are and what they farm before getting started. It works out pretty nicely if the last person doing the intro is the host farmer or speaker. Pass around a sign up sheet so that you can get the names, phone numbers, and emails of everyone. Then when somebody calls later to say, “Hey, I need to get ahold of so and so,” you can keep the idea-sharing going more easily. Last, but not least, describe the agenda.
There is nothing I love more than a pasture walk. Usually when we’re outside, we’re running from one chore to the next. But a pasture walk is a time to slow down and really look at and enjoy nature and each other. Scientists have found that anytime you’re doing something pleasant, your dopamine levels go up, and as a result you come up with some of your most creative ideas. So dig in the dirt, play with the forage, watch the cows (goats, sheep, chickens), tell some jokes, laugh and be creative. You deserve it!