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Two Graziers With 65 Years of Experience Put Their Heads Together

By   /  October 7, 2019  /  7 Comments

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Victor is in the house!

A nice benefit of having the 2019 Grasstravaganza in Cobleskill, NY is that conference guest and Indiana’s seasoned grazing guy, Victor Shelton, was driving by my place to get there. Good time to corral him for a 2 hour pasture walk and get a reality check!

The Grass Whisperer with Indiana’s NRCS Grazing Specialist Victor Shelton.

So what do two graziers with a combined 65 years of grazing management talk about? Same thing everyone else does: Goals, vulnerabilities, resiliency, life balance, money, the changing weather, weeds, grass quality, animal performance, ground cover and the need for proactive planning and constant observation. And because we both work in the public sector with other farmers, the reasons why grazing management continues to be an afterthought against the guise of “free” agency-sponsored grazing infrastructure tools.

For me, Victor’s passion, knowledge, grazier’s eye and personal interpretation from walking my land and seeing management in action was invaluable and a breath of fresh air, because I could become the student again instead of being tasked as the teacher. Unique to our relationship, he can discuss anything he wants without fear of hurting my feelings. “Give it to me straight”, Doc Shelton.

Being a true grass man, Victor immediately waded into the swards before I could close the gate. I could equate his movements to that of an elephant’s trunk traversing back and forth to get a “feel” for the land. Then with gunslinger accuracy, he drew his smartphone and started taking pictures of various grazing residual examples. What the heck was he doing?

Victor checks what the Canopeo app says about the canopy cover.

Turns out he was using the Canopeo App to measure ground cover. He ended up using this tool to compare and condition my eye to what I saw. The point that stuck with me is how he favors keeping 80% cover for maximizing photosynthetic power, keeping soil cool and for providing faster recovery rates. I thought I knew what 80% looked like. Turns out I was in the 60% range. It definitely got me thinking about how I could incorporate his advice on the next rotation and measure this new information.

My battle with the “purple”, Russian Knapweed invasion was another agenda item. Its proliferation has me scratching my head, and my dad on the mower all summer. “What has changed to create this scenario?” he asked. Brainstorming ensued, which is an invaluable trait in critical thinking. The problem was identified: It’s ME and a perfect storm of “coincidences” lining up. It was a hard pill to swallow that I missed the subtle signs. However, Victor was having the same sort of issues on his farm and so have others based on what he has seen in his travels.

History Lesson and the Problem of Perpetual Novembers

I began to see what the problem might be when I looked at my grazing chart and my extensive picture collection, and then traced back to the decisions I made in the 2013/2014 grazing season when I caught the stockpiling bug. I even shared my 2014/2015 adventures in stockpiling with the On Pasture community in real time. If you look at my diary closely, the situation I got myself into didn’t exactly honor the tenets of Jim Gerrish’s, “Kick the Hay Habit” principles like: graze dormant pasture, stock the farm for winter grazing and leave an appropriate amount of residual.

The grass whisperer was concerned about his stockpiled grazing residuals back in February 2019.

But there was a reason for that. As we considered that grazing season, Victor and I talked extensively about how the ongoing lack of frozen ground, killing frosts and “perpetual Novembers” has affected our lands and will likely affect them in the future of climate change. In my case, even though I rested my pastures for 80 days, the killing frosts are coming later, October 25 instead of October 10th. Then after that frost, temperatures warm back up into the 40s and 50s. Did that one “killing frost” night really make the biologically healthy plants dormant? The great mob grazier, Neil Dennis always said no.

Then there’s that funny thing that drives decisions called money. By gum, I’m gonna take all that I can to maximize grazing days and my custom grazing fee. So, the customer is happy he doesn’t have to buy feed, the farmer is happy he has more money and less labor, but the land is unhappy because it was overgrazed, compacted and left bare to face the onslaught of the unrelenting weather changes and hungry earthworms and microbes.

Examining the last 5 years of grazing charts (a great reason to have them) I found that although I had a decent stockpiling regime, the combination of crazy weather events, an unrealistic winter stocking rate, grazing too short and leaving open swards meant I was systematically reducing the species I wanted and favoring the ones I didn’t. The animals selectively grazed all their favorites and left the hardy knapweed. I am out of balance and it took Victor’s mentorship to make me realize I was committing a cardinal sin: Recipe Grazing — Doing the same thing and expecting a different result. (Or was that just insanity?!)

Victor politely suggested I leave much more residual this fall in an effort to “out compete” the less favorable species going into next spring. It seems like the best approach for me since I am organic. It also allows me to conduct some practical farm research to see if it comes true. I have reduced cow numbers to allow the “haystack” to grow higher and just graze the tops of the plants until we actually get a dormant season. I plan to leave at least 6 inches of residual behind for winter. While I make less money from grazing days, I’m hoping the trade off of reducing mechanical harvesting measures, with their associated labor and fuel costs, will in the end bolster my bottom line ecologically and financially and bring me more in balance.

Writing and talking less than favorably about your own management is hard, but I believe necessary, as others may run into similar issues and are looking for some advice. I believe this idea of “Perpetual Novembers”, especially for the Northeast and in areas of fragile soil health, is an issue that is on the minds of many graziers and is not going away. To be resilient, it’s going to take more critical thinking, intense management and monitoring to make better decisions. I certainly appreciate Mr. Shelton’s candor in striving to help me and sharing his own challenges and successes. I’m glad he is part of our On Pasture Community.

Thank you, Victor!

Troy Bishopp and Victor Shelton have been a huge part of On Pasture’s success. Both have been there from the beginning, sharing their experience, their challenges, and the solutions that keep them becoming better graziers all the time. Thank you both, from the bottom of my heart!

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About the author

contributor

Troy Bishopp, aka “The Grass Whisperer” is a seasoned grazier and grasslands advocate who owns, manages and linger-grazes at Bishopp Family Farm in Deansboro, NY with his understanding wife, daughters, grandchildren and parents. Their certified organic custom grazing operation raise dairy heifers, grass-finished beef and backgrounds feeder cattle on 180 acres of owned and leased pastures. Troy also mentors farmers on holistic land management for the Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Upper Susquehanna Coalition as their regional grazing specialist. This award-winning free-lance writer, essayist and photographer maintains a website presence at www.thegrasswhisperer.com

7 Comments

  1. Kathy Voth says:

    Cows with a bit of education love knapweed too. It’s actually the equivalent of alfalfa in nutritional value, so I just think of it as forage.

  2. paul turner says:

    I have seen goats trot through alfalfa to eat the flowers and leaves off of Russian Knapweed. They wiped it out. Maybe an idea?

  3. Jubel Caudill says:

    way to “move the carrot” on me GW, I finally have some “stockpiled” pasture to relish and now you’re telling me I can’t use it! Oh well, in the interest getting rid of the dreaded knapweed….

  4. Bruce Howlett says:

    Residual: I’ve become convinced that for my farm the opposite is true than what you and Victor suggest for your place. I think that too much residual encourages orchardgrass over other species and doesn’t allow new plants to colonize the spaces between orchardgrass bunches. So I’ve been trying to graze pretty short in the fall, leaving ~3″ residual over the winter. The areas grazed short before winter the last few years have done very well the next year, with lots of clover, ryegrass and bluegrass. So far the only weediness I see is in ruts, and the pasture bare spots fill in pretty quickly with the low buttercup, which our sheep eat. But there are many differences between your farm and mine (in central VT): we get more consistent and earlier snow cover insulating the ground, we run sheep rather than cows, and our grazing system has allowed long rest periods (~45 days).

  5. Curt Gesch says:

    Thank you for your candor. cg

  6. jason detzel says:

    “Writing and talking less than favorably about your own management is hard”

    It gets easier the more you do It!!!

    great piece thanks Troy

  7. Bruce Howlett says:

    Knapweeds: there are at least two species of pasture knapweed in the East (in addition to spotted knapweed, in our area found only on disturbed and excessively drained sites like sand pits). The bracts on the inflorescence differ, and the basal leaves. The most common variety seems to be brown knapweed Centaurea jacea. Your picture appears to show this species, and it is common on clay soils. But we also have “meadow knapweed”, C. x moncktonii or C. pratensis, which is a hybrid between brown knapweed and other species. I found a couple of these interlopers in my pasture recently, haven’t seem them before and don’t know where they came from. This variety apparently is the problem type in Atlantic Canada and the Pacific Northwest. As for the important question of what to do: I have nothing to add.

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