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Right Sizing Your Operation

Just like Goldilocks, you want to find just the right size to make you the most comfortable.
Just like Goldilocks, you want to find just the right size to make you the most comfortable.

Two years ago while attending a conference on grazing, I listened to a farmer describing the journey he had made after rejecting the conventional practices expected for a farming operation. He rejected that path because he was losing so much money, yet working harder than ever, and had no time with his family. His farm was not healthy and neither was he. Yet farming was his choice of profession. He decided to trust his own observations and judgement and after several years of trials, testing what worked best for his soils, water, vegetation, livestock and the quality of life he wanted, he found the right size for his farm.

My familiarity with this term was instant. This is a concept that my colleagues and I who provide technical support to farmers think of. Yet, we haven’t had a commonly agreed upon term for it. I like this word. It’s succinct, and descriptive. And it really is the core of what we all do. We look at the unique set of variables each farm has: its ingredients from its bedrock, soils, topography, water (both underground and on the surface), type of livestock, vegetation to the people doing the work. Based on that we try to find that sweet spot of what the farm’s ingredients mean for potential productivity and how to manage them for the best possible outcome for the near term, while preserving continued productivity and sustainability for the future. What we’re doing is figuring out how to make sure the farm business fits its resources.

So Where to Start?

Uh-oh!  If the water coming off your pastures looks like this you're losing a lot of money!
Uh-oh! If the water coming off your pastures looks like this you’re losing a lot of money!

Start with your soils and forage, and consider how they respond to the two stressors they face: water and grazing.  If your grazing system allows animals to take the forage down to a green veneer – especially over a heavy clay or hydric soil, the soil is likely compacted. That means that any kind of precipitation landing on this surface isn’t absorbed, sending most of it, along with any collected nutrients it picks up en route, to the nearest water course and off your farm. A sign you might have this problem is that the wet areas or streams on your farm look like chocolate milk every time there is precipitation. Not only do you lose, but we all do as the water-born nutrients head downstream to impact the local community’s collectively owned environment, lessening its productivity as well.

Evaluate your land/livestock ratio and your management of them every year. There you will find the signals about what might be out of balance and what needs to change. A change in management is often the simplest, and least expensive approach for improvement. If you know that your farm can only produce enough feed for 65 lactating cows in a low production year, you have some decisions to make. You could carry more animals, and buy in the extra feed. Or you could change your management to just once a day milking giving you much lower production, but much lower expense as well in both time and cash outlay. You could also send out all young stock, not raise replacements and just maintain a milking herd, or you could raise beef, or some other livestock better suited to the land and soil type.

Looking at these two farms as an examples might help you think about your own place:

Farm A and Farm B are just across the road from each other. Each has a nice farmhouse and barn with 100 cows of the same breed, and 250 acres of land surrounding them. Farm A is on very heavy clay type soil, with several acres that are low and wet, with a high ratio of sedges and other wet loving plants growing. Farm B is on sandy, gravelly type soil, with some rock outcroppings.

Is it time to graze? Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons.
Is it time to graze? Photo courtesy of wikimedia commons.

Grazing season finally arrives and everyone is anxious to get animals out on pasture. However, it’s been a wet spring with several days of rain, and over at Farm A, the ground is well saturated, and soft with areas of standing water. At Farm B, where there is good drainage, the forage is growing well, fully utilizing the moisture falling on it.

Putting cows out to pasture on saturated soils at Farm A would result in pugged up pastures that would likely require some re-seeding. Grazing too early could mean that the pasture doesn’t even recover enough to provide good forage for the remainder of the grazing season. It could be one, two or even three weeks after Farm B started grazing, that Farm A gets started. That means that Farm A has to right-size its herd and modify its management practices to work with the resources it has at hand.

Most forage plants are coming into a state of “full court press” in the spring, so it’s fast work to stay on top of it all. Within 12 to 18 days, that first paddock may have regrown to 8” or even 10” and can be grazed again, as long as you leave at least 4” of residual forage material. But let’s just suppose there is a dramatic change in the weather and 3 weeks go by with very little precipitation, and lots of sun and wind. So now Farm A enjoys a period of luxuriant pasture forage, and grazing is in full swing. Meanwhile at Farm B, the sandy soil means that there is little moisture being held, so the farmer has to adjust to conserve forage and protect plants from overgrazing. If Farmer B has done this for a few years, he may have right sized his herd to prepare for this so that he always has adequate forage to shade the sandy soil to protect the little moisture it holds.

Where to Go With This?

These people aren't just sitting around. They're right sizing their farm.
These people aren’t just sitting around. They’re right sizing their farm.

Take a walk through your pastures with a grazing stick and take some measurements, part the vegetation and note the size of bare soil areas. Look for earthworm castings and insect activity. Dig a finger into the soil and see if it’s cool and moist or maybe sandy.  Think about what you see, and then figure out if you need to know a little more.  You could learn more about your soils by checking out the NRCS Soils website we wrote about in the past.  The website can even tell you how the soil reacts to water and what it might produce for grazing. Or maybe you want to sit under a tree or lean up against a fence post and remember grazing seasons that went especially well, and others that left you scratching your head.  Think about what the differences were and what you did that made you successful or worried.  Then write your thoughts down so you can begin to track what makes your farm the right size.

Making sure you are right sizing your management, considering your resources and balancing your plans for your farm realistically to the resources available is something to do now, and every year. Farming doesn’t a “one size fits all” management strategy!

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Kimberly Hagen
Kimberly Hagen
Kimberly Hagen is a Grazing Specialist at the University of Vermont Pasture Network. She also owns and operates Osprey Hill Farms where she grazes sheep, producing lamb, sheepskins, yarn and raspberries for local sale.

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