Three weeks ago, I got a lesson in context when I helped my dad into an ambulance because a sudden stomach bug left him so weak, he could barely function. I reluctantly left my mom at the hospital, like so many others throughout the pandemic who were not allowed to enter, and drove away not knowing my father’s future.
About the fourth city block, clarity rushed over me, and I suddenly realized – I’ve been through a lot in 12 years. And this history is on all of my grazing charts paired with thousands of date- and time-stamped pictures. My grazing chart has become more than a production and decision-making tool; it is my diary of life. Thankfully, I didn’t have to etch a painful entry, because my dad recovered quickly and goings-on went back to normal.
This experience has given me pause to ask, “What have I learned from keeping 12 years of grazing charts anyway?
In the Beginning
The chart journey really started in 2006 when I was asked to speak at the National GLCI Grazing Conference in St. Louis and I preloaded a trip up to visit Greg and Jan Judy’s farm north of Columbia, Missouri. Of course, the “Gregster” with his signature headlamp, amused me with his holistic tenor and excitement, while completely wearing me out with his work ethic to, I guess, save humanity using the magic of grass and microbes. Awakening from my slumber, I found out soon enough, the “Microbe Messiah” literally had a boardroom that was wallpapered with grazing charts, notations, maps, and stock flow-charts. As we chatted our way back to Saint Louie for the conference, I decided I needed to up my grazing game and follow my mentor.
It’s funny how opportunities arise when your mind becomes open to accept them. Around the same time, Jim Gerrish introduced me to his grazing wedge, a band of Northeast holistic brothers introduced me to Holistic planned grazing, monitoring and decision-making matrixes, and Carbon Cowboy Neil Dennis and I were talking about mob grazing and soil health. Allan Savory, Ian Mitchell-Innes and Ben Bartlett’s teachings were having a profound effect on my context. Things were lining up for me in 2010 as a now practitioner of ecosystem processes and as a Conservation District Grazing Specialist. Turns out, successful grazing and land managers use a plethora of grazing tools, including a grazing planning/record-keeping system.
For me, it all developed into a grazing chart system. Honestly, I followed a template from the Holistic Management Handbook and made it my own and kept practicing and refining it to my liking. To get the most out of the decision-making process, I also had to commit to the principles laid out by my mentors:
• Balancing forage and animal needs
• Grazing management techniques with a field-by-field perspective and constantly monitoring the weather and ensuring recovery periods were appropriate.
I remember my first try clearly, as a newbie, putting pencil X’s in the boxes where the cattle were grazing. And then taking the leap of faith to write in what the next ten days might look like. And then another 10, and another 10. Suddenly, I was planning, recording, making grazing decisions and managing everything better. I was making plans in consideration of grassland bird habitat, stockpiling, and time off. I was watching the rain gauge much more closely, looking at plant growth rates and gaining more quality grazing days, earlier and later into the growing season. And low and behold, making more money!
Spreading the Ideas
My early days of using a grazing chart I was asked the same questions I’m asked today:
“What should be on it? How do I get started?”
“What’s the right way to do it?” How do I plan for the future?”
“What if I’m too busy and can’t keep it current?”
“Is there a recipe I can follow?”
“What do I get when I’m done with it?”
I have attempted to answer many of these questions with my On Pasture contributions and resource materials. In addition to a series of articles on how to use a grazing chart, I’ve shared how the plan has helped me through drought (Sorry I Missed Your Drought Party). I brought On Pasture readers along with me to see how I used planning to extend my grazing season (Grazing Stockpiled Forage – When Planning Meets Reality), and then to give you a real time demonstration of using the plan to work through problems (How My Grazing Plan Helped When Everything Went Wrong). I even shared a video of my 2013 grazing season, one that was especially hard as we lost my father-in-law and shortly after I suffered a heart attack. Even then, my plan helped me adapt and make it through.
All this has been an effort to give you the tools and information you need to be a great grazier. I hope it is helpful.
But What Have I Learned?
As I looked back on this journey of grazing journaling, I see a historical record of decision-making and a place where basic trends start to emerge on how my management is working towards my specific goals.
For our operation and under my management, here are trends I’ve seen and things I’ve been able to accomplish:
Average organic matter levels have increased to 4.6% c
- Fertility levels have been maintained or improved using fewer inputs (our inputs are limited to hay and grazing management)
- Reduced fuel cost to perform activities
- Animal performance has improved and is more consistent (>1.8lbs/hd/day)
- Averaging 55 more grazing days per year
- Fewer yearly grazing cycles (5) but more average recovery days (>35-40)
- Increased biodiversity
- Planted over 1000 trees for shelterbelts and habitat improvement
- Hunting lease initiated
- Verifying grazing practices lower organic inspection time
- Water infiltration and retention has significantly improved
- Average 2 more weeks growing season in fall (Av. frost date moved to October 22nd)
- More frequent rainfall events over 2 inches
- Less snow days and frozen ground
- More camping days per season (>29)
- Had our first-ever farm wedding
- Steady cash flow
- Less stress
- More overall resiliency for operation and humans
Probably the most poignant moments of reflection in chronicling on my grazing chart (or life chart) have been really personal in nature. There in the headings are births of my grandchildren, marriages, birthdays, anniversaries, awesome vacations, conferences, special times with friends, my heart attack and my most tragic entry—my brother’s untimely death.
Should you keep a grazing chart or record keeping software? It’s not for me to say.
However, I would counter with this question: Why wouldn’t you?
Thinking About It
Troy Bishopp is one of the most Thinking graziers I know. And since this column is all about trying to help you develop your thinking and problem solving skills, I thought it would be helpful to share what I’ve learned from Troy about things he does that could help us all be better graziers.
He pays attention – CLOSE attention!
Troy is a great observer and lover of nature. When he goes out to move the cows, he’s not just adjusting a fence line. He’s looking at the grass, taking pictures, figuring out what has changed over time, and really enjoying the experience. He calls it “Linger Grazing,” a practice we might all employ to be better at our grazing jobs.
He keeps a record and then uses it to learn from past experiences and make better decisions.
It’s right there in all his articles. He shows you what he thought, and what he did, and the records he kept, and how he changed as a result. He’s always thinking, “Was that good enough? Is there something I can do better?”
He does the math.
Whether it’s knowing his cost per cow or how much forage he needs to feed the cows he has, Troy can make decisions because he has the information that helps him.
His management reflects his goals and he uses his grazing plan/record to keep him on track.
It all comes together here. Troy has taken the time to clearly state why he’s doing all of this:
We strive for a stress-free life. We want our topsoil covered by diverse pastures harvested by animals, thus recycling solar energy and activating biological life to provide a sustainable profit. We want to regenerate our community with local food. We want to create a savannah for wildlife. We want to create a place for the next generation to thrive.
Then in What’s a Grazing Decision Really Worth and Right-sizing Your Operation – What Works Best, he lays out what that means for managing his grazing, and doing it in a way where his life isn’t just about cows and grass, but about being with the people he cares about most. It’s a different way for a lot of farmers, ranchers and graziers to think. But I can see how it could make lots of folks so much happier.
So, thanks, Troy. I appreciate all your hard work and your friendship.