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Graze Or DIE

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Over a year ago, a friend of mine who is interested in health and nutrition gave me an article entitled “Change or die”. Originally published in the May 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine, it was authored by Alan Deutschman, who has since written a book with the same title. The article was focused on how difficult it is for people to change their behavior, especially in terms of diet and exercise. For many reasons, I saw a direct parallel to animal agriculture. Let me explain.

Research in health care has shown that when people are suffering from chronic and serious diseases, such as diabetes and heart disease, they are quite often told that they can improve their health or save their lives by changing their lifestyle choices. Eat better, exercise more, stop smoking or drinking alcohol – and the reasons given for making those changes are quite often presented based on the facts that doing those things can make a difference.

Yet most people do not change their lifestyle choices and behaviors when presented with the facts – facts are fairly uninspiring. The article states that 90% of coronary-artery bypass patients do not change their lifestyle behaviors after surgery, even though doing so would prevent them from dying. Even though they will end up dead, they don’t change. They only change their behavior when they are presented with the emotional reasons to change – live to see your grandchildren grow, be able to do things you really enjoy like more “romantic interludes” or sports with less or no pain, or be able to dance at your daughter’s wedding. It is the things that reach people at the emotional level that motivates them to change their lifestyle choices, not the facts.

baxter-supply-chain-case-study-3-728Behavior change is also an issue for businesses, large or small. For any business to stay competitive, make a profit, or keep good employees, change needs to happen. The way businesses usually try to change is through encouraging behavior change, from the people in management all the way down through to entry-level positions. They spend money on training, team-building activities such as retreats, transition strategies, and so forth, all in an attempt to “force” people to change the way they behave. However, as the article points out, behavior change is extremely difficult, even for the best of us. We need emotional reasons to do so, yet we are constantly presented with the factual reasons instead.

So, how does this relate to animal agriculture? It’s fairly easy when you look across the landscape and see how many farms have died over the last few decades because they were unwilling to change how they farmed.

Those of us in the roles of “agency advisors” to farmers have been guilty of presenting our clientele with “the facts” for far too long. When we talk to a dairy farmer about switching from confinement feeding year-round to grazing their cows for 6 months of the year, we tell them about how their feed costs will drop, cow health will improve, and equipment will require less maintenance and repair. We show them the results of studies – tables of economic data, charts of pasture protein levels compared to stored forage, and diagrams of grass growth rates – but rarely do we talk about things that have emotional appeal.

Sales people have always been quite good at making emotional appeals to both farm and non-farm consumers when they are trying to make a sale. That is why we buy new cars and trucks with all the safety options (for the kids), the big screen television (for the kids and to make your friends jealous), and the tractors with comfort cabs, GPS-computer units, and lots of horsepower (for the kids…no wait, to make your tractor-time more enjoyable, as well as to make friends and farming neighbors jealous). Regardless of who you are, or what you do for a living, the emotional sales pitch almost always works.

DarrellsQuote2Is there any emotional appeal of grazing? Of course there is! However, as pointed out above, we agency staff do our best to present our “unbiased”, and fairly unemotional, opinions. Those who have been grazing on their farms are the best advocates for grazing, because they experience the emotional benefits on a daily basis. They point out things like more time to spend with kids, and doing things with kids on the farm that are safer and more enjoyable, as well as the prospect that the kids may want to come back to the farm when they are older. Quality time with a spouse is another emotionally appealing aspect of grazing, because you’re not going to be stuck on a tractor from dawn till dusk during the spring and summer as much – the animals do much of the harvest. Being able to sleep at night because the bank and the feed company aren’t watching you like a hawk to make sure you make your payments – you become a customer they can count on to be on time. Grazing provides more money to take a family vacation, and the ability to hire a relief milker who doesn’t have to do much other than milk and open a gate. There are many other examples of how grazing can improve the quality of a farm family’s life – just ask any grazier!

If you’re reading this, you probably have an interest in grazing, so this may be preaching to the choir. If you don’t have an interest in grazing, and you’ve read this far, I applaud you and hope you can now consider grazing as an option for your family and your farm that has many other qualitative benefits. We need more grass-based, thriving farms and farm families, not more dead farms that are the result of not being willing to change. Regardless of where you are at with grazing, I hope you will pass this article on to people you know who need to GRAZE or DIE.

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Karen Hoffman
Karen Hoffman
Karen has a B.S. in Animal Science from Cornell with an emphasis on dairy cattle management and nutrition and an MS from Penn State where her thesis project investigated various grain feeding strategies to high producing dairy cows on a rotational grazing system. She spent 6 years with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Chenango County, NY as a dairy management educator for 6 years. She now serves as Resource Conservationist - Animal Science for the USDA – Natural Resources Conservation Service, where she has been for 15+ years. Karen's expertise is feeding management that keeps costs of production low. She also troubleshoots nutrition and management problems when needed, and provides educational presentations on grazing and feeding. She is co-author of the publications “Prescribed Grazing and Feeding Management for Lactating Dairy Cows” and NOFA-NY’s “Transitioning to Organic Dairy Self-Assessment Workbook” and “The Organic Dairy Handbook: A Comprehensive Guide for the Transition and Beyond”. She also writes for Graze magazine addressing feeding questions, and participates in grazing research projects with Universities and USDA-Agricultural Research Service. Karen and her family run a grass-based farm Chenango County, NY raising polled Dorset sheep, heritage breed turkeys, laying hens, and a registered Holstein calf. She has a small number of milking Holsteins on a friend’s grass-based dairy farm as well.

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