It finally happened; a scream so loud, it echoed throughout the over-grazed hills and valleys of Central New York. Poised on a grassy knoll in “Braveheart” fashion, the Grass Whisperer yells out
M-A-N-A-G-E. . .
Call it a grazier’s meltdown, or a public service life purge; the agency-sponsored grazing professional and farmer who vehemently tries to advocate, mentor or build grazing systems for the health and well-being of farmers, taken-for-granted pastures, and a watershed, is cut down by the sickle bar of mismanagement.
I remember the former Director of Chesapeake Bay Programs, Jeff Lape say, “We’re not in the conservation business, we’re in the behavioral sciences business.” Problem is, I’m not trained in that and didn’t think I needed to be, as a 4th generation farmer. It’s pretty disheartening to have fellow farmers profit from knowledge and conservation practices while scoffing at actually doing the management to make the systems work successfully for “their” benefit and in turn, the benefit of the nation. It’s not like this is a mystery. Take all the accredited mentors out there and you hear: Management intensive grazing, adaptive grazing management and holistic management. Like “Soil” Ray Archuleta said, “It’s not about the tool, it’s about the understanding”.
Don’t feel sorry for me, as I fall on the soil probe, because I chose this civil servant path and passion 14 years ago.
What led to this season-ending revelation? Oddly enough, it was an orchardgrass plant that yanked me back from congratulating myself, to having grazier’s remorse. At an out-of-area fall grazing training for conservation professionals, we were learning about the effects of daily grazing moves by beef cattle. Looking at a previously grazed paddock, there was this “plant teacher” with a bright, neon-green, blaze of growth. Overnight, it had grown back 1 inch.
As I extrapolated this out in days – 3 days = 3 inches, 10 days = 10 inches and 20 days = 20 inches – the group of men and women on the front lines of conservation implementation could imagine the results of recovery time. And what would make this possible? Someone moving a fence, allocating a paddock size and grazing it at the right time for the right reason. That’s right kids, actually doing something with purposeful management.
Unfortunately, on the other side of the fence, the farm had taken down the portable fence infrastructure because it was easier to let the animals roam free and “clean-up” the pastures (overgraze) before winter. A recipe that doesn’t bode well for next year’s sward.
So when the folks left me, I just felt compelled to scream. But the trail of conservation tears didn’t end there. As I traveled back home, I looked around my own neighborhood, (where my influence is supposed to be better than average), and much to my chagrin, there was an extensive clean-up happening too, leaving the ground completely naked. That wasn’t in any plan I advocated for unless it was a strategy to frost seed.
Problem is, the farms I know, whether conventional, organic, English or plain community farms with the “tools” (grazing infrastructure), hadn’t managed much or grown much all year (because I monitor what’s happening in my community) and now those plants, desperate to send out life-giving shoots, were being slaughtered once again by the indiscriminate biting of unmanaged animals. Not good for the land, microbes, animals, wallets, or society.
In the words of my late brother, Scott Bishopp: “Let me pay you the compliment of being blunt.” I,(we) in the conservation technical service provider world can’t force management. I can try positive reinforcement, cajoling, education, a kick in the pants and self-deprecation to support a management change. As a Conservation District employee, I don’t regulate change — and I don’t want to. I want it to be voluntary, of one’s own volition.
For the customer who chooses a USDA or agency-assisted program, they can have all the advice, education, plans, grants, infrastructure, incentive payments and monitoring tools but I (we) can’t get or expect proper management. This is a maddening trend I hear from every sector in the agriculture service provider sector, like it or not.
It’s a bit ominous that at the US Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, WV, there’s a plaque which talks about the struggle we face in taking care of our children’s future:
“The conservation battle cannot be a short, sharp engagement, but must be grim, tenacious warfare–the sort that makes single gains and then consolidates these gains until renewed strength and a good opportunity make another advance possible.”
Ira Gabrielson (1899-1977)
First Director of the US Fish &
Wildlife Service, 1941-1946.
Holy cow!! Battles and “Grim, tenacious warfare” isn’t something I would ever want in working with a farmer or any customer to achieve healthy environmental, financial or family goals. Is this the preamble to failure? Is it time to reevaluate the synergy between the customer and the management-minded conservation professional? With the “no skin in the game” ideal, is the 100% or 75% cost share program actually a deterrent to positive behavioral changes? What about job satisfaction for those passionate about helping folks on the land, not off? Do we just become grant writers and conduits for getting customers money for stuff?
So how do you “get” management of anything, let alone pasture management? It’s quite personal I think for everyone. I’ll take myself as an example. What motivates my management to care for this particular resource?
1. Duty and respect for my ancestors and my future generations.
2. Stop erosion and improve water holding capacity for my community.
3. Personal pride in being a craftsman and sharing practical knowledge for the betterment of others.
4. Striving to be a better role model and walking the walk.
5. Profit in terms of money and future soil health.
What might be your top 5 reasons to accentuate management?
My little outburst about the sadness of “moonscaping” a pasture to death is but a microcosm of the times I have witnessed. Maybe you have seen this in your area or you’re crying foul right now in my portrayal. The regenerative farming folks, I think, are moving towards management and critical decision-making first then looking at the tools to help achieve specific goals. This shouldn’t be new but it seems we are in a reawakening phase which I believe is good.
It’s been said, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” My sentiment is it takes a mind, heart and soul before one uses action to create what you want out of life. Going into next year, I can only hope we refocus on managing for the right reasons and that this has been a thoughtful reminder.