This project is working at statewide and local levels to bring together local learning teams of agency staff, grazing network coordinators, and livestock farmers for mutual education on managing cropland and pastures for improved soil health. GrassWorks is a statewide farmer organization that established a soil health education program in 2014. This project is extending that program and delivering educational content to agency staff through Wisconsin’s four Resource Conservation and Development Councils (RC&D) that sponsor grazing networks. This NRC SARE funding provides support for those networks to engage local USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS), County Land Conservation (LCD), and University of Wisconsin-Extension (UWEX) staff over two years in a co-learning project on pasture soil health. This project is using NRCS and LCD soil science expertise, building on NRCS’s current soil health initiative. UWEX adult education expertise and network coordinator grazing expertise is also contributing to this locally-based, mutual professional development effort.
Project objectives include: 1) engaging local agency staff in delivering pasture soil health education through grazing network activities, 2) recruiting local agency staff to support ongoing grazing network activities, and 3) providing statewide coordination of the project to establish a stronger, durable relationship between GrassWorks and local grazing networks. Activities include training of network coordinators and agency staff on pasture soil health, collaboration among local staff on at least two pasture walks or workshops on soil health in each of the four RC&D areas, and creation of a grazing network coordinator toolkit. This project is successfully fostering collaboration among local participants through mutual learning on the soil health benefits of well-managed pasture.
This project titled “Sharing soil health knowledge and practice through grazing networks” worked at statewide and local levels to bring together local learning teams of agency staff, grazing network coordinators, and livestock farmers for mutual education on managing cropland and pastures for improved soil health.
GrassWorks provided support for Wisconsin’s four Resource Conservation and Development Councils (RC&Ds) that sponsor grazing networks to engage local NRCS, Land Conservation (LCD), and Extension staff over two years in a co-learning project on pasture soil health. GrassWorks and the RC&Ds: 1) engaged local agency staff in delivering pasture soil health education through their grazing network activities; 2) recruited local agency staff to support ongoing grazing network activities; 3) established a stronger relationship between GrassWorks and the RC&D grazing networks. Project activities included: 1) training of network coordinators and agency staff on pasture soil health at statewide and local workshops and pasture walks; 2) collaboration among local staff on pasture walks and workshops on soil health in each of the RC&D areas; 3) creation of soil health curriculum and 4) creation of a grazing network coordinator toolkit.
Education & Outreach Initiatives
To increase the acreage of well managed pasture delivering positive soil health outcomes though out the state. This was accomplished through GrassWorks coordination of the RC&D Grazing Network Coordinators educating their local agency staff on pasture soil health and teaching the respective staff effective was to continue educating farmers on such.
The project team prepared educational themes and identified appropriate state expert speakers, developed pasture soil health curriculum, and prepared a grazing network coordinator toolkit for the RC&D Grazing Network Coordinators to share with their local agency staff though out the project. The state wide team collaborated to host an initial state wide Pasture Soil Health Workshop to educate the RC&D Network Coordinators and state wide agency staff on pasture soil health and to foster collaboration within the local regions. RC&D Network Coordinators worked with local agency staff to host and co-host pasture soil health workshops and pasture walks for livestock producers and other agency staff in each of the four RC&D regions.
Through the collaboration, agency staff in some of the regions committed to long term support of farmer led grazing network educational activities through the improvement of existing and development of new local grazing networks.
Educational & Outreach Activities
This project raised awareness of the soil health benefits of well-managed pastures among local agency staff and grazing network coordinators, resulting in increased awareness among the livestock farmers they serve. Outcomes include increased knowledge among local agency staff of the role of pasture and perennial grassland cover in improving soil health and how to manage grazing to maximize these benefits through an understanding of advanced pasture management practices.
Bringing together state-level soils and grazing specialists from several agencies with others knowledgeable in grazing management and soil health to develop the curriculum has resulted in an integration and shared understanding of these topics providing a clear, consistent message across agencies when pasture soil health information is shared with producers.
Delivery of the soil health information through a grazing network structure has created experiential learning opportunities among grant-funded grazing network coordinators and local agency staff. One of the most effective learning techniques was teaching the material to others. Having network coordinators and agency staff conduct workshops and pasture walks on the topic provides hands-on-training opportunity, as well as creates learning opportunities for local farmers. The behavior changes we observed as a result includes increased confidence among local agency staff in assisting farmers with conversion to pasture based systems and improvement of pasture management skills.
A second goal of this project was to strengthen local capacity to maintain high quality grazing education by engaging local agency staff in grazing networks. An outcome realized is increased awareness among local agency staff of the value of grazing networks as a means of engaging with clientele and delivering technical assistance, cost-sharing, and other services.
Our three target agencies (UWEX, NRCS, and County LCD staff) have different objectives and areas of expertise, but all three need positive engagement with their local farming community to deliver their products. While group education is the primarily purview of UWEX, such gatherings of farmers are key to soliciting clients for the individualized technical assistance that NRCS and County LCD provide. In many counties, partnerships among these agencies already exist and our efforts through this project is encouraging collaboration among agencies in support of grazing networks. These farmer-led networks thrive with relatively modest agency investments to support coordination and communication and we are demonstrating through local multi-agency partnerships, the value of grazing networks as a vehicle for delivering soil health information and achieving agency conservation goals.
Thirdly, we strengthened the relationship between GrassWorks and local grazing networks to build an effective statewide network to provide grazing education. This is resulting in a strong, resilient, statewide grazing education network involving trained local agency staff that assist livestock producers through both group education and individual technical assistance, and in the long-term, a robust, effective network of local and state grazing educators and technical assistance providers coordinated cooperatively by GrassWorks and state and local agencies.
Through the project “Sharing soil health knowledge and practice through grazing networks” RC&D Network Coordinators and agency staff were initially educated on soil health; managed grazing techniques to increase soil health; and practical on farms tests to demonstrate and measure this. RC&D Network Coordinators worked with project partners to develop pasture soil health curriculum and a pasture walk tool kit which were used throughout the project.
As the project progressed, RC&D Network Coordinators teamed with agency staff to co-host pasture walks which strengthened the local capacity to maintain high quality grazing education. Some of the local staff enhanced their network capabilities by their increased knowledge of pasture managed grazing and its relationship to soil health. Dane County UW Extension teamed with the county Land Conservation Department and started their own Dane County Grazing Network. Other agency staff are working toward doing the same.
Awareness of pasture soil health was raised among livestock farmers and local agency staff as they attended Pasture Soil Health Workshops and Pasture Walks. Attendees were able to see healthful soils first hand by viewing soil profiles in soil test pits and to visualize water infiltration on healthy soil from the rain fall simulations and water infiltration tests. This knowledge will continue to increase acres of well-managed pasture delivering positive soil health outcomes throughout the state.
Partnerships developed throughout the project have strengthened the relationship between GrassWorks and local grazing networks, building an effective statewide network to provide grazing education. This partnership combined with long term commitments by local agency offices to support farmer led grazing network educational activities will increase acreage of well-managed pasture delivering positive soil health outcomes throughout the state.
Thank you for the opportunity to complete this essential work!