John Fant, Colonel, US Army (Ret), returned to southwest Virginia in 2013 to resume daily operations and management of the family farm. In this 6:52 video, John describes how he assessed the farm’s resources and then developed and implemented a plan that would improve water quality, and soil and animal health.
What he found was a continuous grazing system that had reduced soil and forage health and impacted water quality in the stream flowing through his paddocks. E. coli counts were high and dissolved oxygen counts were low, so one of his first decisions was to fence stock out of the stream corridor. Though is neighbors expressed concern about this, noting that he might lose access to valuable pasture, John says it has actually helped him gain access to other parts of the farm and to make better use of the pastures he had available. He’s also been pleased at the recovery within the riparian border, including an increase in the wildlife that lives there.
How Do You Set Up Fencing for Rotational Grazing?
With no experience on how to set up a paddock system, he turned to his Soil and Water Conservation District staff for help. The aerial map of his property helped him understand the lay of the land and the role of topography in setting up a fencing system. They also suggested he set up a lane down the middle. Though this might not work for everyone, John says he likes it because it allows him to easily move animals to different paddocks or sort out sick animals for treatment.
Observation and Monitoring Help John Measure Improvement
One of the things John likes best about his system is his opportunity to observe how different paddocks respond. His observations of grass growth rates in different paddocks help him adjust his grazing chart and make the most use of the forage he has.
After attending numerous conferences and workshops, John realized that the most important resource is his soil. Healthy soil means better grass and better grass means a better herd. With that in mind, he has adjusted his grazing system to help with soil improvement and set up a soil testing system, that helps him monitor his progress. He’s noticing an increase in forage variety and grass health as his soil improves.
Progress Toward the Farm Goal
John says that when he and his family talked about what they wanted to have as a result of a change in management, they all agreed they wanted to take care of what they’d been blessed with so the next generation will have a farm to work. Today, with improved water quality, forage and soil health, they have healthy livestock as well. He says they’re setting the conditions now for a bright and productive future.
What Can You Do To Head This Direction?
Make a Plan
Here’s a collection of articles by Troy Bishopp to help you get started. They cover everything from goal setting to creating your own map, to figuring forage requirements for your stock and how much forage you have available. We post the new grazing charts every year so you can download free charts as well.
Monitor What’s Important to You
John decided to gather information on water quality and soil health because those were the two things he hoped would tell him he was making progress. If you’d like to test your soil, testing protocol from the Noble Foundation is a good place to get started.
If soil testing isn’t for you, what about simply doing a little repeat photo monitoring to show changes in your pastures over time. Here’s how to do that.
John mentions that participating in workshops on Whole Farm Planning and membership in the Virginia Forage and Grass Land Council was key to developing an understanding of what would work best for him and his farm. Some of the best conferences I’ve ever attended are put on by the Natural Resources Conservation Service, by Conservation Districts and by local grazing councils. And the best part – most of them are free or almost free and the feed you too!
On Pasture helps folks find workshops and conferences with our free Events Calendar. Check it out here. If you have an event, you can add it here.
Join Grazing Organizations
Most states have either a Forage and Grass Land Council or a Grazing Lands Coalition. The first is part of the American Forage and Grassland Council. Here’s a list of their state organizations. Grass Land Councils are part of the National Grazing Lands Coalition and can be found here.
Work With Professionals
There’s a series of commercial running right now from AT&T with the tagline “Just OK is not OK.” Like my current favorite, they point out the importance of working with people who are really good at what they do.
While it may be quick and easy to get on Facebook and post your question, the answer you might get from that person you never met might be just OK. So, even though it can take more time, and you can’t do it in your pajamas in bed at midnight, I highly recommend finding the people near you who have the experience, training and understanding of your local landscape to help you work on and polish your whole farm/ranch management plan.