Thursday, December 1, 2022
HomeGrazing ManagementLooking Back, Looking Forward - Lessons from a Lifetime as a Grazier

Looking Back, Looking Forward – Lessons from a Lifetime as a Grazier

Lately I’ve found myself looking back, back to the early days of my ranching career. Clearly, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I’d had no business training of any kind and I was saddled with a weighty bunch of paradigms and bad habits, mostly inherited from people who thought a few years of 4-H was all you needed to run a ranch.

Luckily, I fell under the spell of great American singer-song writer Bob Dylan. Bob advised us all that “You’d better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone”. And so, swim I did. Somehow, I avoided drowning. And along the way, I began to formulate some ideas about what I wanted to accomplish in the ranching business, how I was going to do things, and most importantly, why.

John and Cris circa 1983.

Looking Back

I was never all that enthralled with Mission Statements or Vision Statements, but eventually I did come up with a general goal: I wanted to build a ranch that was economically viable and ecologically sustainable. In less formal terms, we needed to be able to pay the bills while helping these lands become more environmentally stable and healthy, with an ever-increasing assortment of wild plants and animals. We wanted this to be a working ranch, but also a playful one, and a place that was easy to love.

I think we have been largely successful. And as we began to see real progress on the business side, we were able to begin taking a harder look at the ecological side of things. And truth be told, working on the natural world began taking up more and more energy as the years went by. And that, well, that was fun.

The ranch I bought in the 1980s that had recently been severely logged. Any tree that had value had been removed and there had been no cleanup or re-planting done. This saddled us with a difficult financial burden early on: a mortgage, an operating loan, and now an additional re-forestation loan. Things were a bit scary.

This is what that 1989 reforestation project looks like today.

Once we had completed the replanting of the commercial forestry land, we continued planting more lumber trees, mostly Douglas Fir. We looked for pieces of ground that were simply more well-suited for trees than grass. Often, these were sites that were trying to revert to forest anyway, so we just helped them along.

Then, around the turn of the century we embarked on a different kind of forestry project, one that had no economic goals at all. We began identifying parts of the ranch that were ecologically sensitive, places we could protect by keeping the cattle away from natural water courses. We began planting the riparian areas – the  stream sides – to native trees and shrubs. We installed fencing and water lines and worked hard to re-design our grazing cells so they would function.

Our stream with one of the early plantings from 2000.

 

Here’s one of our 2017 plantings.

 

All of this work was done under a USDA program called Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP). One USDA worker told me the goal was to establish a buffer zone along every mile of every stream in America. At first, I was taken aback, but eventually, that became my own personal goal: to protect every bit of every stream on our property.

As of this year, I think we have achieved that goal. Here’s what things look like now with our commercial forestry, plantations and forests, CREP and wildlife set asides:

 

Looking Forward

This is a bit difficult to see on the map, but many of our riparian projects include fence lines that zig and zag a bit. This is because we wanted to take advantage of existing mature trees; we wanted to make sure that every new paddock had at least a little bit of shade.

When I started in the ranching game, shade was not even a passing thought. We simply didn’t worry about it. But year by year, our country has gotten hotter and hotter, and shade is now a critical element of our grazing plans. The problem is, when you fence cattle away from riparian area, you end up with a shortage of shade trees. We have now embarked on a new project that (I hope) will result in more and more shade each year. I call it the Hedgerow Project.

The Plum Thicket Pasture Hedgerow Project

During the dust bowl days of the 1930s, the government began encouraging farmers to plant trees, great rows of trees, especially in fragile places where the trees might buffer the wind and hold the soil. On the tillable ground in my part of the world, this entire idea seems to have been abandoned. In my county, farms keep consolidating, fence rows (Hedgerows) keep disappearing and 500-acre fields are now common.

Always the contrarian, I have made it my mission to plant shade trees everywhere I can on our land.

It’s silvopasture with a Twist

I suspect everyone out there has read articles about folks who are attempting to grow trees inside of grazing pastures. This is a fabulous idea, but one that appears terribly difficult and expensive. The problem is, when we place trees inside of a grazing paddock the trees must be protected from the grazing animals, because as it turns out, cows and sheep actually like to eat trees. In fact, they LOVE to eat trees. Physically protecting trees by building wire cages around each individual tree does work, but it is terribly time and energy intensive and seriously expensive. There has to be a better way.

Our early experience with re-forestation following logging gave me some insight into protecting baby trees from deer. One common strategy includes the use of plastic mesh tubes that are slipped over the baby trees. Each tube is then supported by a bamboo stake. This works pretty well with deer. Generally speaking, the difficulty of pestering a baby tree inside a protective tube causes the deer to simply go bite some other piece of vegetation and leave the domestic seedling alone.

Oh that it were that simple with cows. I have seen what happens when cattle get into an orchard or plantation where the baby trees are protected by tubes: it is a disaster. The cattle will simply maul the project, destroy the tubes and crush or eat the trees.

On the other hand, my experience with high-power electric fences has demonstrated the tremendous impact that a single hot high-tensile wire can have on cattle behavior. In my experience, familiarizing cattle to an electric fencing program results in a vastly reduced amount of contact with all fences, not just the electric ones.

All of these things: the desire for shade trees, my background with commercial re-forestation, observation of the difficulty with silvopasture, combined to encourage me to come up with a new way forward. This, then, is the Plum Thicket Pasture Hedgerow Project.

Project Logistics

Most of the old barb wire fences on our ranch have been replaced by single 12.5 gauge electric fences. We typically have around 5,000 volts running through those fences; enough to knock me to my knees and also enough to quickly convince cattle to keep back. By integrating those single-wire hot fences into our Hedgerow Project we are able to use the protective  plastic tubes and bamboo stakes to keep the cattle from molesting the baby trees. We attach the bamboo stake and the plastic tube directly to the single hot wire. (I like to use blue hay twine because it’s pretty). This keeps the trees safe and secure, and the cattle hardly come near the fence. The photo below shows a hedgerow planting that has now been exposed to two rotations of cattle grazing this year. So far, there has been insignificant interaction with or grazing of the baby trees. In fact, the only significant issue has been grazing by deer. They seem to understand that the tree is not electrified. The cows have yet to figure that out, I guess.

And does this kind of planting hold up under pressure? Well, I write about what I learned in another piece this week: Sloppy Work Leads to Great Silvopasture Discovery.

So, going forward, I am plotting out a budget of at least 1,000 baby trees per year for the hedgerow project. I will focus on all of our north/south fencerows first as these will produce the largest amount of shade. After that, I’ll work on other fences. On some perimeter fences, I plan to simply add a protective single-wire hot fence two feet inside of the pasture and plant baby trees with tubes and stakes in the strip. As with all electric fence projects, keeping the fence hot is a critical part of the strategy.

When is the Best Time to Plant a Tree?

It’s likely that someone out there is pausing to consider the logic behind someone of my rather extensive age going to the trouble of planting trees. After all, my remaining years are dwindling rapidly.

Hmmm… I guess my response would be to state the rather obvious: I’m not planting them for myself. A cow needs a bit of shade. A bird needs a place to land. A tree needs a place to grow.

It’s always a good time to plant a tree.

More Thoughts on Going Forward: the Times They Are A-Changin’

Early in this article I talked a bit about gradually thinking more about ecological issues and less about economic issues as time goes along. Now, I find myself spending more and more time observing and enjoying nature, walking along the creeks, watching the birds. Oh, and writing. Over the years of writing for On Pasture, readers may have noticed that my writing has drifted away from the technical and more toward the philosophical. That is not by accident. And now, that will be changing even more. Going forward, I will be spending the vast amount of my writing energy working on fiction: short stories, novellas, novels.

I want to reach out to my faithful readers and express my deep thanks to each of you. Every comment and question has been a tiny joy for me, and the many relationships that have sprung up through my work at On Pasture have been a true blessing. I intend to keep writing for On Pasture occasionally, whenever Kathy and I see something interesting to write about. So, keep reading and thinking and working, and of course, happy grazing.

Most sincerely yours,

John Marble

PS: Keep an eye out for opportunities to read some bits of my fiction. Many of my stories are about people like you: folks who are struggling to survive and thrive in rural America. Kathy is my editor and we’re working away on one set we hope to have ready for you this fall, with others following after.

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John Marble
John Marble
John Marble grew up on a terribly conventional ranch with a large family where each kid had their own tractor. Surviving that, he now owns a small grazing and marketing operation that focuses on producing value through managed grazing. He oversees a diverse ranching operation, renting and owning cattle and grasslands while managing timber, wildlife habitat and human relationships. His multi-species approach includes meat goats, pointing dogs and barn cats. He has a life-long interest in ecology, trying to understand how plants, animals, soils and humans fit together. John spends his late-night hours working on fiction, writing about worlds much less strange than this one.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Dear John,
    Probably one of the greatest positives of being part of the OnPasture Community is to have met you, learned from you, solve the country’s problems over a whiskey and call you my life-long friend. It certainly has been very meaningful to have a cheerleader in my corner as “the guy who at least tries”. Waxing poetic, philosophical or technical are attributes that I have really enjoyed reading and thinking about on our journey to provide inspiration to our peers. You are gifted young man and I look forward to your many adventures. Now that you have let the retirement cat out of the bag, you better start planning a trip to the East coast where we have plenty of grass, water, whiskey and wine. Our farm is open to your footsteps. Thanks GW

  2. Thank you for sharing your personal reflections and and information about changing practices. I find the piece very hopeful; I hope it gets wide circulation.

    • Thank you Curt! And more generally, thank you for your constant support. Your comments are always thoughtful, and I’ve enjoyed getting to know a little bit about your own little experiment with nature. Keep up the good work.

      Best wishes,

      John

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