This article comes to us from Matt Poore and Johnny Rogers. Amazing Grazing, in addition to being something we all aspire to, is a state-wide, pasture-based livestock educational initiative of the Center for Environmental Farming Systems, coordinated by Matt and Johnny coordinate.
These steps aren’t just 1-2-3 and you’re done. We’ve all started down this road, and these are some ideas to help us keep going.
One day last winter as we drove to Roanoke for the American Forage and Grasslands Council Annual Conference we talked at length about why more people don’t adopt better grazing management techniques. We realized it might be because we have been practicing Adaptive Grazing Management for so long we forget how we got started. Advanced graziers sometimes turn off novices because what seems obvious to the experienced is a brand new concept to folks just getting started. It is clear, however, that more and more farmers are interested in starting the pursuit of “Amazing Grazing”. We get a lot of questions about how to get from a traditionally managed farm to a place where you can see “Amazing Grazing” in action. It doesn’t happen quickly, but changing your management approach can turn a system around and begin the soil health building process. Here is a twelve step plan that can help you along the journey.
Step 1. Decide you are ready to become a critical thinker and to manage your farm using ecological principles.
Most of us have grown up with a production system that uses a lot of hay and other purchased feeds, is based on continuous or very lax rotational grazing, and that has a focus on a single part of the system, the animal. We have been taught a lot about nutrition, reproduction and genetics, as well as showing animals, but relatively little about managing the complex and dynamic pasture ecosystem. When we get in a drought we hold onto the animals, buy more hay, and allow the pastures to get overgrazed.
The truth is that if you spend a lot of time feeding hay in winter, making hay in summer, and worrying about running out of grass during droughts, there is a better way. Your farm is an ecosystem that includes you, the animals, the forages, the soil, and the water cycle and a million other connections. Once you see it as one system, you have a chance to observe and then guide the system in a direction that benefits your production and personal goals.
Do you want to shorten the hay feeding season, grow more forage with less inputs, and improve your lifestyle? All that is possible, but Adaptive Grazing Management can only work if you admit you don’t understand your system but are willing to spend the time and energy trying to figure it out. The truth is no one really understands these systems, but there are many of us that have decided to devote a lifetime to observing all parts of the system, making management decisions, critically evaluating results, and adapting our management to improve those outcomes.
One key thing to be aware of is that Adaptive Grazing Management means you will spend more time on your feet and less time on equipment. While new remote sensing technologies are being developed, there is no substitute for walking pasture, feeling it under your feet, and spending time putting up polywire and closely observing your cows. The exercise you get from this activity is well balanced and low impact, and can really improve your health and well-being.
Step 2. Surround yourself with like-minded graziers.
After you decide to embark on this endless journey to Amazing Grazing, you need to have a support network. We need to keep our current friends, but understand there will be peer pressure to go back to the old ways of doing things. Obviously it is mentally easier to turn on a tractor, spear a bale of hay and deliver it to a hay ring, than to have cows strip grazing behind a single strand of polywire. You may become known among your peers as “that loco guy that spends all winter moving that silly little string”.
The best way to succeed is to make a new peer group that has similar goals to your own. Finding them is easy; just attend an Amazing Grazing Workshop or other educational event and engage the more experienced participants with questions. Experienced Adaptive Graziers are very likely to attend these educational events and you will find them amazingly open with sharing their ideas and practices.
Another issue with the way many of us were raised is that we were always in a competitive environment. Competition can be a good thing as long as we have the correct target in mind. Learning from each other about practices that improve our land and profit margins should be our focus instead of bragging about weaning weights at the coffee shop.
Adaptive graziers tend to be open and sharing, and approach life more as a collaborative journey than as a competitive one. As you develop and grow your skills you will see opportunities to host educational demonstrations and workshops, so take advantage of those opportunities to lead and expand your network.
Step 3. Do a preliminary analysis of your system resources.
Start with aerial maps of your place. You can get these off the web or from your FSA or NRCS office. Evaluate the acreage in each pasture and evaluate pasture condition. The best way to evaluate your forage stand and pasture condition is to do a “point step” analysis which involves randomly walking the pasture, periodically writing down the species of plant you are stepping on (or bare ground), and writing down a preliminary condition score from 1 to 5 (1 = bare with almost no productive forage and 5 = as good as it gets with a diversity of strong and desirable forages and no bare ground). Do this on at least 100 points and get the average for the pasture.
Were you able to identify all the major desirable and undesirable species? If not then reviewing the common weeds and pasture plants would be advised. (Here are some resources to help you with plant ID.) Was it easy for you to call out a condition score? If not then take time to learn more about this topic. Condition scoring can be a complex subject, but also it is a simple concept you can learn to monitor continuously once you really know your pastures.
Take soil samples from each pasture to determine the pH and soil nutrient levels. Once you are practicing more intensive forms of Adaptive Grazing Management many of the manure and urine nutrients will cycle and reduce your need for fertilizer, but, if you start with low pH or low nutrient levels, you will need to correct them to get the system working. From this systematic approach you can start to better understand your pastures, what the balance of desirable and undesirable species is, identify weak and strong spots, and which pastures will give a bigger response to improved management or complete renovation.
Step 4. Upgrade your electric fences and electric fencing skills.
This is a critical step because Adaptive Grazing Management requires animals that are well trained to temporary fencing. You’ll need high power levels and good fence trouble shooting skills to make that happen. With traditional management and multi-wire perimeter fences, having some power on the fence some of the time may have worked, but it will not work with Adaptive Grazing Management. You need to understand the theory of how electric fence works, and how to use a fault finder to find shorts and keep power on the fence high. Bluntly, if you don’t maintain power on electric fence, animals will not respect temporary fence and you will likely abandon the journey to Amazing Grazing. (Here are all the OP articles on electric fencing. We’ll be adding more in coming issues!)
Step 5. Train your animals to respect a single strand of wire.
It is critical that your animals have a high level of respect for temporary electric fence. Electric fence is only a mental barrier, and that is played out to the extreme with a single strand of polywire. However, once animals are well trained to it, it opens up a whole new world based on “The Power of One Wire“. Those benefits include improved forage management, easier movement and gathering of animals, ability to flexibly exclude sensitive areas within pasture, and to respond to perimeter fence damage resulting from natural disasters.
To train the animals, set up a single strand of polywire on tread-in posts about 18 inches inside of a pen or a small pasture. It is probably better to use a small pasture because it is more the setting where the animals will first encounter polywire cross fences. The key to the training period is that there is plenty of power on the wire. We would recommend a minimum of 5 kilovolts. You might do some feeding under the wire so animals are close to it, and you also might use the trick of attaching a strip of aluminum foil with peanut butter on it to the wire to attract deer and teach them what polywire is too. It will take a few weeks for this preliminary training period, and then the training goes to the next level with a single strand cross fence.