I remember it well: sitting on the veranda with my wife and two bottles of wine from our favorite winery, contemplating our future life and goals as we prepared for my brother’s funeral in 2017. This was a decision day for the rest of our lives. As the final glass was poured, we made a decision to pay homage to my brother. We MUST plan for more quality time together. The incentive? Memories, lots of memories.
Is creating memories really a grazing decision?
I’ll go out on a limb and say yes, an emphatic yes!
I’m concerned that folks who are striving for production and profit are missing the mark when it comes to the importance and value of personal, quality time-accumulation. While they focus on implementing exciting carbon capture grazing practices to save the planet from itself, they pay too little attention to caring for themselves. I’m not naïve in knowing that farmers and ranchers hold the”doing” badge of honor. At a funeral however, the emphasis is on good memories with nary a mention of how hard you worked or days off you didn’t take.
My experience, unpredictable tears and soulful reflection over the past four years with my wife, family and closest friends, has led me, down or up, on a different path of intentional decisions with an emphasis on carving out more quality time during the grazing season. At the ripe old age of 58 with 38 years of grazing management experience, I believe we must plan for fun or we won’t have any. And any plan MUST work, otherwise most folks quit due to poor results and then remain in the squirrel-cage of life.
Apparently, this looks like laziness to some and the idea has hit a nerve. Many farmers tell me that I’m just lucky and they wish they could get time off. To that I say, “Luck has nothing to do with it!” It’s a goal and human endeavor, that takes thought, planning and practical decision-making to make happen. The incentive for emotional wellness must be strong enough for all of us to make the management changes to be successful.
Are we still talking about grazing?
When I spoke at the Oregon Forage and Grassland Council’s, Lunch with Forages last year, John Marble and I debated if a better way to get folks to adopt good grazing would be by counting grandchildren days or camping days instead of grazing days. The beauty in my premise is planning for more grazing days equals more grandchildren days. Hooray!!
To be transparent, our custom grazing operation is just one leg in our work-life financial portfolio and my context is specific to my own farm. This 2017 getting-time-back idea required us to do a financial accounting as well as personal reflection in figuring out the changing dynamic. There are compromises for sure, as part of any plan. For us, memories were more important than money. Heresy I know. . .
To get our “time” back, we wanted more control of outcomes. We were essentially downsizing in favor of time, so we gave up rented land, slow-paying grazing customers, and discontinued unprofitable winter feeding. And we bought a camper!
The readjustment focused all our energies on our property and our best, proactive grazing customer who shared our common goals of gaining more grazing days, grass-fed beef finishing, variable stocking rates and time off strategy. We both knew that every Northeast grazing day is a $1.45 savings per animal over full feeding. That’s an attractive incentive to work towards together.
For us, achieving more grazing days on our 90 acres with a variable stocking rate (55 head in the spring and 40 by fall), is just as profitable, in both time and money, as we’d have if we took on more land. The keys to my decision-making matrix is:
• Formulating the yearly grazing plan fundamentals,
• Not being over-stocked
• Getting the grazing chart started – with vacation days included
You see, vacation days just don’t happen on our farm. They must be planned for in advance of the grazing season. That’s my wife’s job as the fun scheduler – finding camping spots and coordinating family getaways that are marked out on the pre-season grazing chart.
On a trip, to get the most out of nature and your grandchildren you have to make sure you’re not worrying about things back home. I have found planning and implementing recovery times that yield the most forage per acre possible (no matter the weather) is a stress-free recipe to relaxation away from the farm. Rest periods for our place typically are 30 days in spring, 40-50 days in the summer and as much as we can get during the stockpile phase starting August 10th. Plenty of pasture equals plenty of time!
By knowing grass growth rates, abiding by realistic recovery times, intensive monitoring and a plethora of pasture we achieve soil health and improved water infiltration, high animal performance, and protect and improve wildlife habitat. When I plan for memory creation, it always favors growing more grass. This grazing mindset extends the grazing season, getting started earlier in the spring and grazing later into the fall.
In a practical sense, my paddock moves are a bit unusual. When I’m home, I move daily. When I’m on granddaughter time, the beef animals get a static, big paddock and most likely waste their fair share of forage. But who cares? Generally, for weekend getaways, they get a 5-day paddock. For week-long family adventures, I’ll have my partner or dad move them only once or twice and just monitor fence voltage and water tub levels. Given the amount of pasture, cows could really care less if I’m around or not. On several occasions, we “stole” an added camping day because the animals were in abundant forage and the weather was beautiful.
The healthy rest periods and plentiful pastures also blend well with ancillary events such as weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, visiting friends, pasture walks and speaking opportunities. If your cows and grass are in good shape, you can also find a few flex-day trips too. I consulted my grazing charts and found a metric worth measuring. There in black and white was time off planned and carried out. In 2019 there were 42 days of vacation, during COVID 2020 it was 39 and in 2021 we managed to create memories for 46 days with 2 trips that lasted a week or more.
“Creating time off is a fine idea but that won’t work for us” seems a common refrain. To which I respond: “What is the point of production, profit and environmental stewardship if you don’t take time for yourself to enjoy God’s bounty?”
I’m not gonna lie, it takes some work and compromise to make it happen but it’s achievable when you put your mind to it.
Start small and work toward meaningful goals. Life is too short not to try and give yourself an emotional break.
So back to the original question: what’s a grazing decision really worth? Is it a hundred bucks a day? A thousand? Is it all about the money or regenerative practices? Or can securing some personal time be just as important a goal to make grazing management worthwhile?
It’s all up to you.