Grazier Training for Michigan Agricultural Educators from NRCS, Michigan State University Extension and Conservation Districts

Final Report for ENC06-093

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2006: $26,883.36
Projected End Date: 12/31/2007
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:
Betsy Dierberger
NRCS, Michigan
Co-Coordinators:
Lawrence Dyer
Olney Friends School
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Project Information

Abstract:

Improving the quality of information available to farmers should facilitate an increase in the practice of managed grazing. We conducted a four-day training workshop and a one-day follow-up workshop in 2007 for agricultural educators in Michigan. Training included conceptual sessions, skill-building sessions in the field, and practice creating a grazing plan. Since the training two workshops are being organized collaboratively by training participants. Counties with Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) staff training participants have maintained or increased the number of Prescribed Grazing contracts from 2007 to 2008 and account for 49% of all Prescribed Grazing acres statewide.

Project Objectives:

Our objectives were to increase the knowledge base of agricultural educators in managed rotational grazing and to increase their confidence in delivering the material to farmers. Some our longer term outcomes were not realized as fully as we had intended because we received funding for only one year of our proposed two-year project. Our original intended outcomes were as follows.

Short term outcomes:

Ten Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) Conservationists, 6 Michigan State University Extension (MSUE) Educators, 10 Conservation District staff, and eight Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative (GLCI) members:
-will have increased knowledge and enhanced awareness of grazing and pasture management concepts, and conservation and soil quality benefits of well managed grazing,
-will have increased knowledge and enhanced awareness of grazing planning procedures, fencing and watering system options and economic considerations in grazing systems,
-will develop skills of building fence, setting up watering systems, moving livestock, monitoring pasture, developing a grazing plan, and developing a financial plan for managed grazing,
-will have an introductory level understanding of the Holistic Management® decision making framework and Holistic Management Planned Grazing®,
-will be fully aware of USDA program support for grazing and pasture management.

10 NRCS conservationists will complete NRCS Modules MI0027Pasture and Hayland Planting, MI0045 Prescribed Grazing, MI0057 Fence and MI0059 Forage Plant Identification in two years.
and NRCS staff will be able to independently write and design prescribed grazing plans to meet client objectives.

Intermediate outcomes:

This training program will result in a cohort of capable trainers. Specific intermediate outcomes include:
-increased confidence and enhanced ability of program participants to provide technical support and USDA program support for grazing and pasture management,
-greater collaboration among NRCS, MSUE and CD staff for improved grazing management,
-greater participation in MGLCI,
-and agricultural educators with a more holistic approach to grazing systems management.

Long term outcomes:

-transfer of technology from trainers to farmers raising livestock on pasture,
-enhanced economic viability of farmers raising livestock on pasture,
-improved livestock health by conversion from confinement to pasture-based operations,
-and improved condition of several thousand acres of Michigan pasture as a result of better pasture management, and decreased soil erosion through conversion of hundreds of acres of erodible cropland to permanent pasture.

Introduction:

Managed rotational grazing is an ecologically based and environmentally sound way to manage livestock, and it can be economically viable across a broad range of operation sizes. Many SARE projects over the years have helped develop the practices of managed rotational grazing. Although the concept of managed rotational grazing is not new, there have been improvements in the concepts and the tools available to graziers, and there is still a great deal of opportunity to expand the practice in Michigan.

Of Michigan’s 825,527 acres of pasture land, an estimated 6000 is in some form of improved grazing management. There is economic opportunity for farmers to meet a growing demand for pasture-raised meat. The goat dairy and meat industry in Michigan continues to grow. These producers are becoming clients of Michigan State University (MSU) Extension, NRCS, and Conservation Districts. Pasture establishment and management are critical needs for producers new to goat production. Similarly, the Michigan Equine industry has critical needs for better horse pasture management. In 2005-6, the number of complaints to Michigan Department of Agriculture regarding equine facilities surpassed those received by dairy farms. Increasing the acreage and number of farmers using improved grazing management would yield environmental benefits and help create a sustainable agricultural economy in Michigan.

Galbraith et al. (2004) found that despite the broad range of benefits described from the use of controlled grazing, only small numbers of producers have adopted it. Controlled grazing has not been widely accepted because it is difficult for some producers to plan and manage and there is uncertainty in the initial investment cost required to convert a farm to a controlled grazing system. In a study of intensive grazing adoption, Hanson (1995) documented that the typical farmer in the study was practicing moderate intensive grazing, rather than intensive grazing. Typical on-farm realities of intensive grazing were pasture rotations longer, paddock size larger and stocking density lower than recommended, use of only permanent fencing, limited use of mobile water sources, less than 1/3 of pastures received fertilizer and forage sampling was not part of management. Part of the explanation for the wide disparity between recommended practices and reality had to do with information sources. In a question permitting multiple responses, the sample farmers indicated they relied on family grazing tradition (84%), personal experience (46%), agribusiness publications (36%), and neighbors (27%) far more heavily than on Cooperative Extension (16%) or SCS (now NRCS) (14%) for advice on intensive grazing issues.

Our intent in this project was to facilitate an increase in the practice of improved grazing management by improving the quality of information available to farmers and enhancing access to information and consultation for farmers. To accomplish this we targeted an audience of agricultural educators who would be available to serve the information needs of graziers. Our primary audience was employees of Michigan NRCS and Michigan Conservation Districts. We promoted the program among MSU Extension Educators, but none enrolled in the program.

In addition to the primary target audience, five interns of Tillers International, the organization that hosted the initial training workshop, participated in the training. One of the interns came from Papua New Guinea and the rest from the United States. The United States interns were interested in becoming farmers or working internationally in developing countries. The interns also assisted in some of the logistics of the training program. We expect that they will also extend the program content to a broader audience.

When educators learn new material in a training session it is often difficult to make the step to feeling comfortable providing that information to their clients. We intended to help overcome some of the initial barriers to delivering the information by providing some practical experience as part of training and by including time in this training program to plan and organize pasture walks and other programming for farmers. The planning phase of this project had been scheduled for the second year. We received funding for only the first year of the project, so some of the follow-up with program participants was left for other avenues through NRCS, Conservation Districts and MSU Extension. We developed a training program that included sessions for content delivery, practical skill building and practice creating a grazing plan. With this broad base of training we hoped to give agricultural educators the knowledge and confidence to carry the material into their work with farmers.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Ben Bartlett
  • Tom Cook
  • June Grabemeyer
  • Dulcy Perkins
  • Howard Straub
  • Phil Taylor

Education & Outreach Initiatives

Objective:
Description:

Methods

The same diverse team of specialists from NRCS and MSUE and farmers that wrote the proposal met a number of times to organize the training programs. We conducted one four-day workshop, 22 to 25 May 2007, at Tillers International, and a one-day follow-up workshop, 9 November 2007, at the Ingham County Fairgrounds, Mason, Michigan. Tillers International is a nonprofit educational farm in Kalamazoo County, Michigan that offers classes in a wide range of low-capital rural living skills. Tillers has cattle, draft horses and oxen, sheep and goats that are managed with rotational grazing. Tillers provided an educational environment where we could integrate a solid conceptual foundation with practical skill development in the field for managed rotational grazing practices.

Conceptual elements of managed grazing, plant growth, pasture composition and measuring forage production were presented by Betsy Dierberger, NRCS State Grassland and Forage Specialist, and Ben Bartlett, DVM, MSUE Dairy and Livestock Educator. Ben Bartlett also led sessions on principles, strategies and materials for fencing and watering systems. Each of these conceptual sessions was followed by sessions in the field where they identified forage grasses and legumes, measured forage availability, and built fences and watering systems.

The economics of pasture-based operations were presented by June Grabemeyer, NRCS Agricultural Economist, and Phil Taylor MSUE Dairy and Farm Management Educator. Phil Taylor also addressed transitioning from confinement to grazing operations. Participants had the opportunity to use a computer program available through Michigan NRCS and a proprietary program, Pasture Tracker, for calculating forage and livestock growth and management. Dave Forgey, the developer of Pasture Tracker, gave the introduction to that program.

Training included sessions on Holistic Management Planned Grazing® and the Holistic Management® Decision Making Framework. Holistic Management® is a planning process that integrates pasture, livestock and financial planning in to a holistic farm plan. Larry Dyer and Ben Bartlett are Holistic Management® Certified Educators. They received their training in a SARE PDP funded project that provided Holistic Management Certified Educator Training in the North Central Region, from 2002 to 2005.

During the four-day session participants were responsible for working in small groups with a group of Tiller's livestock. The livestock groups were draft horses and oxen, sheep and goats, and cattle. Each group of participants included at least one Tillers Intern who was familiar with the livestock. Each morning when they arrived they were responsible for deciding how much pasture to allocate to their animals for the day and moving them. The groups used this experience along with background information provided by Tillers Livestock manager, Dulcy Perkins, in an exercise to create a grazing plan.

We organized a follow-up session on 9 November 2007 to reinforce concepts of the first session and address special topics identified by training participants. The content of this workshop was decided based, in part, on evaluations of the first workshop by program participants. Participants requested more information on the economics of grazing, and more time to work on a grazing plan. We also recognized from evaluation results that we would like them to better understand how and why we manage the relationship between plant and animal productivity. We also wanted to take advantage of one of the driest and worst grazing seasons on record to show how having a grazing plan could help graziers successfully manage adverse conditions even when they couldn't follow their plan as it was written. Because we knew many of the participants of our program at Tillers would have tight travel travel budgets and might not be able to attend, we decided to open the registration to additional participants. So all the presentations were prepared with that diverse audience in mind.

The program began with a panel of farmers discussing how they managed their grazing this season. The farmers included Ben Bartlett with his sheep and beef operation, Terri Hawbaker seasonal grass-based dairy, and Karen Lubbers, diverse livestock and vegetables. Phil Taylor and June Grabemeyer did a session on economics focusing on managing input costs and marketing. Ben Bartlett did an overview session of forage production and how we manage plants and grazing animals on pasture to our benefit. We gave participants another opportunity to work on a grazing plan by using a case study farm. Both Phil Taylor and Betsy Dierberger had worked with Droscha Family Dairy as they planned to convert to a grass-based dairy. We were able to use maps and numbers from their farm to work on a grazing plan, and we were fortunate enough to have the farmers present at the workshop as a resource.

Outreach and Publications

Ben Bartlett and Aspen Edge. "Lite planned grazing: another approach to planned grazing." Holistic Management In Practice. 117 (January/February): 14-15. Holistic Management International. 2008.

Outcomes and impacts:

In this section we will look at how well we achieved our short-term outcomes, which are the more direct outcomes of the training program. We will discuss the intermediate and long-term outcomes in the following section on impacts of the results/outcomes.

Our target audience was NRCS, Conservation District and MSU Extension staff and farmer members of the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative (GLCI). We reached our targets in NRCS and Conservation Districts well. We had targeted 10 NRCS staff and 11 attended the May workshop and three attended the November workshop. Two of those had not attended the May workshop. We had hoped more would attend both the May workshop and the follow-up workshop in November, but they were limited by the agency's travel and training budget. We had a target of 10 Conservation district staff and we had eight at the May workshop and eight, including two new participants at the November workshop.

We had a target of 6 MSU Extension attendees, and were disappointed by having none register for the May workshop. One MSU Extension Educator attended the November workshop. May is a busy time for Extension field works, so the timing may have been difficult for MSUE staff to fit a four-day workshop into their schedules. Although we are disappointed we didn't have more MSUE participation, one of our intermediate outcomes, greater collaboration between MSUE, NRCS and Conservation Districts still appears to be happening. Two workshops on pasture management for Equines, one conducted on 7 November 2002 and the other planned for 3 May 2008, were organized by three Conservation District Planners who attended both the May and November sessions. They organized those workshops in collaboration with MSU Extension and Michigan Department of Agriculture staff. These two collaborative efforts are to some extent results of the increased confidence our training program participants felt in working with farmers as a result of attending this training program.

The timing of the May workshop made GLCI farmers unable to participate. We had two GLCI farmers on the planning committee right from the start. Three farm families attended the November workshop, both as presenters and participants in the program. The GLCI is very active in Michigan. As our training program participants develop their own programming and outreach to farmers GLCI members will be involved in those efforts along with their agency colleagues as organizers, educators and as learners.

Did we achieve what we intended at the workshops? We wanted program participants to have increased knowledge and enhanced awareness of grazing and pasture management concepts, and conservation and soil quality benefits of well managed grazing. Although we did not state it in our original expected outcome, we also wanted participants to leave with increased confidence in working with farmers in these areas. In our program evaluations we asked two questions for each session: did the session increase your knowledge in a given subject area, and did the session increase your confidence in working with farmers in that subject area? We asked participants to rate each session on a scale of 1 (not at all) to 5 (a lot). Responses to the evaluations for the May workshop show and overall average of 3.68 for increased knowledge and 3.28 for increased confidence. Scores for the November workshop were 3.72 for increased knowledge and 3.73 for increased confidence. The higher scores in the follow-up workshop could be interpreted as generally growing knowledge and confidence on the part of program participants. But it could simply be that the four-day workshop offered more variety of sessions and greater opportunity for fatigue and mood swings to give a wider range of evaluation responses.

We specifically expected an outcome of increased knowledge and enhanced awareness of grazing planning procedures, fencing and watering system options and economic considerations in grazing systems. Scores for sessions that pertained to grazing planning ranged from 3.5 for “Management options and strategies”, to 3.63 for “Grazing Planning”. At the November workshop, “tools for developing a grazing plan” scored 3.75. The “Fence building options” session scored 3.62, “Watering needs and watering systems” scored 4.18. The two economics sessions at the May workshop scored 4.04 and 3.64, while the economics session at the November workshop scored 3.08.

We also wanted participants to develop some skills to put their knowledge to use. The practical session for fence building scored 3.26 and for watering system setup scored 3.54. We had expected these hands-on sessions to be highlights of the program, but their generally lower scores and some of the specific comments indicated that participants did not think these sessions were adequately organized. Some comments for improving those sessions are in the paragraphs on recommendations, below. Observing cows grazing (score 3.73) and moving the animals every day (score 3.76) were some of the highlights of the program. People commented that they enjoyed those parts of the program. The small groups creating a grazing plan scored lower (3.28) in the May workshop, and participants commented that they didn't have sufficient time or information and the task wasn't clearly enough defined. In the November workshop the exercise of creating a grazing plan scored 3.5. People were still pressed for time but the information was more complete and the scope of the task was more clearly defined.

In the May session we gave participants an introductory level understanding of the Holistic Management® decision making framework and Holistic Management Planned Grazing®, but these session received some of the lowest scores of the workshop (range 1.8 to 3.0). Some who made comments didn't see the connection between the Holistic Management® decision making framework and Holistic Management® planned grazing. The kinds of personal, quality of life questions probed by the decision making framework have generally seemed relevant to groups of farmers in other workshops, but they did not seem relevant to these service providers. They were less interested in probing those kinds of personal questions and more interested in specific tools they could use with their clients. Others commented that Holistic Management® seemed very similar to the NRCS nine-step planning process and felt they had already covered that material elsewhere and didn't find it as useful in this session. That some participants were familiar enough with the nine-step planning process to see similarity between it and Holistic Management® was encouraging to the NRCS trainers.

Throughout the program participants were introduced to the pertinent NRCS standards including fence, watering systems, pipeline and prescribed grazing. The May training program served for NRCS Conservationist training in modules MI0045-Prescribed Grazing and MI0057-Fence. This training served to meet 43% of the grazing training needs and 36% of fence training needs as recorded in the NRCS training schedule for 2007-8. The training sessions laid the groundwork for other NRCS training modules: MI0027-Pasture and Hayland Planting is on the calendar for April 2008 and MI0059-Forage Plant Identification is being planned. The grazing planning sessions of the two workshops served as starting points for the NRCS trainers to evaluate their staff's current level of skill and understanding, which will serve as a basis for further training

Evaluation Summary, Grazing workshops, 22-25 May 2007 and 9 November 2007. The figures are average scores on a scale 1 (not at all) to 5 (a lot). For each session we asked two questions: did the sessions increase your knowledge in a given subject area (Knowledge), and did the sessions increase your confidence in working with farmers in that subject area (Confidence)? The sessions are listed in the order they were presented in the workshops.

Economic Analysis:

One way to look at an economic analysis of this project is to ask how effectively we used the grant money on our training participants. Our original grant was $26,883.36 for one year. Due to some overestimation on expenses we revised the budget late in the year, so the actual expenditures will be something less than $21,450.68. We did 34 hours of training in May 07 for 27 participants and 5 hours of training in November for 16 participants for a total of 998 participant hours. The cost of training for this project was $21.49 per participant hour of training. Another way to look at it would be to look at the total expenditure per participant for the whole training. Because some participants attended both sessions but some only attended one of them, we divided 998 participant hours by 39 total training hours to get an average of 25.59 participants for the whole training program. Dividing the total expenditures by this participant figure yields $838.25 per participant. This does not include in-kind expenditures from the NRCS, MSU Extension and farmer specialists who invested time in organizing and presenting at the training workshops. We have not calculated the amount of this in-kind contribution.

These figures, $21.49 per participant hour of training or $838.25 per participant for 5 days of training, could be used for comparison with other training programs. How cost effective these training expenditures were will depend on how effectively the trainees carry the information to their work with farmers and how well practices are adopted on the land. It could well be that smaller, more intensive training programs are more expensive per trainee than larger group settings. We would hypothesize that smaller, more intensive training programs with larger per trainee expenditures will have greater impacts of farmer adoption. The testing of that hypothesis was beyond the scope of this project.

Recommendations for future training sessions:

For NRCS participants, more lead time on recruiting would enable trainers to give participants more clarity on expectations and give training organizers better awareness of the audience and their experience level.

For the practical aspects of having training participants move livestock every day, it would be better if they could be given more flexibility and autonomy to make their decisions about when to move and how much pasture to allocate. Then we should spend more time each day observing and assessing the previous day's decisions and deciding how much pasture to allocate that day.

The fence building sessions and watering systems building sessions were not adequately organized. When we put the proposal together we were thinking that we could simultaneously do a good hands-on training program and get some fence built for Tillers' practical and demonstration needs. One of our collaborators commented that it is very difficult to do both training and get work done at the same time. One function usually suffers, sometimes both. In this case probably both suffered, but especially the training. The following are some Specific guidelines for making the fencing demonstration better organized:
Have a specific fencing task for each group
Make sure each group constructs an H-brace
Have a crew leader assigned for each group.
Have the groups signed up ahead of time.
Have a complete set of necessary tools and materials for each group and task
Have one or two roaming resource people in addition to the crew leaders.
As a way to wrap up at the end of the day, come back together, look at each other's work, evaluate how we did and answer questions.

In addition to the fence building exercise, a useful exercise would be to evaluate some existing fence based on design considerations we discussed in the training sessions and comparing it to NRCS standards.

Specific recommendations for the watering system exercise are to start indoors looking at maps, specifying the areas to be supplied with water and the intended use and potential water demand. Then, as with fencing, have groups assigned ahead of time, have specific tasks assigned to each group so everyone gets some hands on experience, and make sure the materials are laid out ahead of time.

Facility considerations: be sure there is a classroom large enough for everyone to be seated at a table where they can take notes. There needs to be adequate table space for small groups to spread out the materials they need and work together. The facility should be handicapped accessible.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

As discussed in the previous section, greater collaboration between MSUE, NRCS and Conservation Districts appears to be beginning to happen. Two workshops on pasture management for Equines, one conducted on 7 November 2002 and the other planned for 3 May 2008, were organized by three Conservation District Planners who attended both the May and November sessions. They organized those workshops in collaboration with MSU Extension and Michigan Department of Agriculture staff. These two collaborative efforts are to some extent results of the increased confidence our training program participants felt in working with farmers as a result of attending this training program.

NRCS conservation contracts for Prescribed Grazing indicate that the counties with NRCS staff participants in this training, maintained or increased in number of contracts from 2007 to 2008. In particular, two counties more than doubled the number of contracts for grazing. These contracts represent approximately 250 pasture acres with 1367 acres contracted in the state as a whole. Counties who had NRCS staff participate in this training account for 49% of all Prescribed Grazing acres statewide.

Recommendations:

Potential Contributions

Our survey of participants at the November session indicated that those who had attended the May session worked with 10% more farmers to create grazing plans in the 2007 grazing season than they had in the previous two years. NRCS records show that 49 out of 63 total new grazing contracts were developed in counties from which NRCS staff attended this training.

In preparation for the session on Holistic Management® Planned Grazing, Ben Bartlett developed a planning process that he called “Lite Planned Grazing”. It is a simplified version of Holistic Management® Planned Grazing that may be more readily adopted by farmers in more humid parts of the midwest where recovery times are short after grazing, and where hay plantings must be planned for. Ben and a colleague, Aspen Edge, published an article about lite planned grazing in Holistic Management In Practice, the newsletter of Holistic Management International (see publications/outreach section for the citation). After publication of that article a grazing group in Saskatchewan and a group in Wisconsin have approached Ben asking for help with the process. In addition Ben will be doing a workshop with a group in Rhinelander, Wisconsin. In the following issue of Holistic Management In Practice, a letter to the editor from Manitoba said “Your 'Lite Planned Grazing' article was well received by our club Tuesday night – in fact one member had already done his 2008 plan using the template...”.

Future Recommendations

Areas Needing Additional Study

Holistic Management grazing practitioners have for years recognized the potential for grazing animals to manage and even improved landscapes. This landscaping function is now gaining increased attention from other quarters as well, especially considering the potential of pasture soils to sequester carbon and mitigate climate change. But it is not always simple to manage both the ecology and the business of using animals to improve the landscape. For example, grazing animals can be used to renovate abandoned fields that are growing up into woody vegetation. The animals can be kept healthy with those forage conditions, but their average daily gain might suffer, so it matters what animals you choose to do the job. Milking dairy cows or steers destined for a high-end grass-fed beef market may not be the appropriate tools for that job. More study on both the ecological potential for grazing animals to manage the landscape and the economics and business management of landscaping with animals would be warranted.

The intensity and care with which farmers manage their animals on pasture has changed considerably in recent years. A new market of high quality grass-finished beef has emerged that is demanding more of grazing management than did earlier reasons for grazing. We need on-going research into the agronomy, animal husbandry, and ecology of managed grazing systems.

Pasture Tracker, a proprietary grazing planning software tool, was introduced to educators in this training program. If used well it has the potential to improve pasture and animal productivity, profitability and soil quality on farms. It would be interesting to do a case study of some farms to document changes that occur with use of Pasture Tracker. The MSU Kellogg Biological Station Dairy would be a good research facility to conduct such a case study as they begin their conversion to a pasture-based dairy.

We also need to investigate how best to train practitioners and agricultural educators with the knowledge and skills needed for managed grazing. For effective management of grazing knowledge and skills must be intricately intertwined. Training in our universities tends to produce graduates who are knowledgeable but deficient in skills. Practitioners who have relied on experience and popular media for their education are often skillful but deficient in the underlying knowledge of how systems work. We need to learn how to educate university students, farmers and agricultural educators who are both knowledgeable and skillful. This project was helpful to the NRCS collaborators in thinking about how to develop ongoing training for their field staff which has continuous turnover.

In addition to adoption by farmers, some research would be helpful on adoption of managed grazing by our institution of higher education. When the proposal for this project was written one of the reviewers commented that SARE had been funding rotational grazing projects for years now, so this wasn't really very innovative. We agree that the broad concept of managed grazing is not a novel concept, yet it seems young professionals are graduating from our land grant universities with very little training in grazing practices. Anecdotally, Michigan State University offers no courses dedicated to managed grazing; one 400-level dairy management class devoted one lecture and one field trip to managed grazing. It would be insightful to study the extent to which managed grazing is being taught in our land grant universities and the reasons for resistance to adoption of the subject by land grant universities.

We feel there is a need for training and research on the benefits of taking a whole-farm approach to planned grazing. In the history of the grazing movement we've done quite well at promoting managed rotational grazing focusing on pasture productivity, animal foraging and animal productivity. But it may be that we've missed the big picture. Often grazing programs break down because they weren't planned from the whole-farm perspective. When we focus on the day-to- day management of forage production and use we may miss some of the production bottlenecks that could have been planned for, and we may miss some of the logistical, business management and quality of life issues that could have been planned for. Some of the reluctance for farmers to adopt managed rotational grazing may have to do with these kinds of shortcomings that may be manageable from a whole-farm planning perspective.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.