Utilizing holistic planned grazing as a regenerative engine for sustainable agriculture

Final Report for ENE10-115

Project Type: Professional Development Program
Funds awarded in 2010: $158,675.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Grant Recipient: Central NY RC&D Project, Inc.
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Troy Bishopp
Central NY RC&D Project, Inc.
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Project Information

Summary:

Northeast farmers have seen spectacular growth potential in managing diverse pasture systems and producing grass-based products for the marketplace. However, the human capital at local agencies to provide assistance and education in holistic, on-farm grazing planning and management strategies to family farms is at an all-time low. Extensive documentation has demonstrated constituent need through conference surveys and unmet obligations at the local agency offices. This project trained a pool of local grazing champions from NY, PA, VT and MA to become qualified and confident to help farmers discover the benefits of planned grazing for the bottom line, ecological health and family life. The power of this training program’s approach to help farmers “plan for what they want” and “meet people where they are”, drew a record number of applicants (65 people for 30 planned training slots). The project expanded efforts to enroll 45 participants initially, and 35 remained engaged with the project over 3 years.

Our 3 state coordinators, project team and 35 participants partnered with farmers throughout New York, Pennsylvania and Vermont to learn about helping graziers with farm family goal setting, grazing planning, biological monitoring and financial decision-making. Learning occurred over 3 years through 94 unique, diverse training venues including workshops, field days, twilight pasture walks, conferences, in-field consultations and videos. Professional development topics included the art of communication, planning infrastructure, animal behavior and nutrition, weed management, mob grazing, estimating pasture production and implementing a grazing chart. A total of 2,030 additional people – 479 service providers including agency professionals, extension educators, industry reps., and 1551 farmers also participated in the project training venues, which has led to an increased volume of website traffic and interest in the tools and training guides for holistic planned grazing.

Frequent surveys have indicated all project participants project have changed their approach in working with farmers on grazing planning and are sensitive to the holistic context of decision-making. Participants conducted grazing planning with 70 farms, some of whom reported economic, environmental and social benefits resulting from adoption of planned grazing strategies. Examples of economic benefits reported included: $8,000 increased revenue from grass-fed beef production, $6,000 saved by grazing dairy herd, and $1,000 savings from stockpiled grazing field. Social and environmental benefits were more difficult to quantify, but 90% of the farmers said they planned in more family time (vacations) and 70% indicated they are using the planned grazing chart and plan to continue biological monitoring.

A rewarding outcome is that farmers are becoming more aware of how the planned grazing management decision making process provides a powerful alternative to attempting to fix a problem with money or brute force. They are stepping back and considering a holistic approach to creating what they want. Adoption of the barn-door grazing planning chart has increased, with more than 600 charts distributed across the country and in Canada. Participants also reporting receiving 3 new grants to further education about holistic planned grazing: USDA-NRCS CIG grants in NY and VT and a collaborative Pennsylvania Certified Organic and Northeast Center for Risk Management Education grant.

Performance Target:

30 extension educators, conservation professionals, grassland advocates and/or farmer mentors from the Northeast SARE region are trained and deliver holistic and practical grazing strategies to 120 farms, representing 24,000 acres, of which 72 farms on 14,400 acres develop and implement a holistic planned grazing system. We estimate that the impacts on these 72 farms will be (1) financial – $2,000 increase in profitability due to reduced production costs, value added products and/or a production increases; (2) ecological – 25% increase in ground cover, biological activity and improved soil & forage health; and (3) social – measurable subjective improvement in family quality of life.

FINAL Participant Questionnaire and Reflection summaries on NESARE PDP Project Utilizing Holistic Planned Grazing as a Regenerative Engine for Sustainable Agriculture

Introduction:

A record number of requests from farmers for grazing planning assistance have been experienced by cooperative extension, conservation districts/NRCS and farmer-educators because of rising energy, feed and fertilizer costs, coupled with consumer interest in grass-based products, and environmental concerns. This at a time when there are few whole farm grazing planning specialists in the Northeast SARE Region to help farmers implement “triple bottom line” decision-making dedicated to the long term sustainability issue. The Utilizing Holistic Planned Grazing as a Regenerative Engine for Sustainable Agriculture PDP project recognized that a paradigm shift was needed in how grazing is planned, marketed and implemented on northeast farms. The resulting outcomes can be a regenerative engine, through economic, environmental and social impacts, for sustainable agriculture. As rancher and author, Walt Davis said, “Holistic planned grazing management is the most powerful and cost-effective tool available for increasing both the profitability and stability of farming operations.

This project focused on facilitating participant learning in the field while working with chosen farm families on whole farm planning concepts and practical tools which fully incorporate farm goals, effective decision making and meeting “farmers where they are.” To complement this holistic planning process, participants learned about the practical and technical side of grazing management, economics, marketing concepts of planned grazing, ecological health, animal behavior, infrastructure design and communication skills.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand
  • Jennifer Colby
  • Nancy Glazier
  • Stacy Koch
  • Steve Lorraine
  • Phillip Metzger
  • Jim Weaver

Milestones

Milestone #1 (click to expand/collapse)
Accomplishments:

Publications

Milestone: A total of 30 Participants (an average of 10 per training site) sign up for training and contact 150 farms in total (an average of 5 farms each) that they will begin working with on holistic grazing planning.

Project leaders and four passionate site coordinators from NY, VT and PA recruited a record number of participants (65 people for 30 training slots) interested in grazing training via media flyers, e-mail list-serves and personal contacts throughout the Northeast, even before the project was funded. It was decided to over-achieve, working frugally within the budget, to add 15 more people because of such strong applications and the lack of dedicated grazing assistance in many locales. In short, we needed more trained grazing practitioners to facilitate opportunities on farms. The project team developed a curriculum and teaching materials consistent with participant’s local needs. Participant strengths included being multi-species focused, practical, passionate in implementing a comprehensive grazing program from farm to consumer, to become a local leader and “work” with and not “for” farmers in helping meet their whole farm goals. Interest in developing the “grazier’s eye” and implementing a workable grazing plan based on sound family goals, financial indicators and good stewardship was very important. Most identified being better connected and having a strong working relationship with farmers as a crucial element for success. A litany of specific production oriented grazing practice questions such as; animal nutrition, herd health, infrastructure design, estimating forage yield, leading successful pasture walks, communicating and working on outreach materials also showed the diversity and varied experience level of the professionals. Areas if expressed learning need were addressed throughout the project. Perfect attendance (NY-15, PA-13, VT-17) was achieved for the initial training in creating farm family goals, developing financial indicators and biological benchmarks at all three training sites. Ninety percent of participants chose three farms to work with. It was decided to scale back to three farms per person (135 farms instead of 150) because of on-going workload issues and concentrating the effort closer to an individual’s locale without sacrificing the performance target goal of 72 farms implementing a holistic planned grazing system.

Practical tools were developed and shared at the first training to assist professionals working with farmers on creating farm family goals and collecting social and financial data. The participants learned the processes by using decision cases, group exercises, working on their own personal goals during the training and hearing from guest farmers who told their personal stories of how thinking through decisions helped them. Training tools can be accessed at http://cnyrcd.squarespace.com/ and copies of some tools are uploaded below.

All training sites were coordinated by team project members and featured local entrees, desserts and beverages with ample time to network followed by pasture walks on neighboring farms. This style of teaching allows the opportunity to learn from each other and builds relationships.

Milestone: 24 to 30 Participants each attend 6 training sessions while working with 120 farms that are creating and/or implementing a new type of grazing plan.

Training sessions for service providers over the three years included:

  • Creating farm family goals
  • Holistic planned grazing approaches
  • Developing financial indicators and biological monitoring regimes
  • Utilizing a 12 month Northeast planned grazing chart
  • Learned communication, outreach and relationship building skills from professional trainer, Fred Ashforth of Ashforth Associates, Waterville, N.Y.
  • Conducting a successful pasture walk
  • Infrastructure training
  • Weed management
  • Animal behavior and handling

Several grazing professionals took advantage of attending outside grazing conferences, events and workshops around the Northeast to add to their learning objectives. These venues addressed many targeted learning needs from the group without having to hire one specific trainer and were more locally available. Examples of these were the Winter Green-up Beef Conference, The Vermont Grass Farmers Grazing Conference, the holistic planned multi-species grazing training short course at the PASA conference, the Troy PA Grazing Conference, the Silvopasture Conference in New York, HMI field days, Temple Grandin’s presentations on animal behavior, Kathy Voth’s alternative forages (weeds) workshops and Holistic educators/ranchers Cody Holmes, Ian- Mitchell Innes and Ben Bartlett teaching whole farm systems and strategies.

Vermont participants initiated an on-line training model away from the traditional workshop setting that takes participants through a holistic approach with a grazing farm interested in starting planned grazing. The online training uses all the techniques and lessons learned in this project to make a collaborative learning experience where all the participants add their input and the farmer decides from the suite of ideas which direction to go.

The project leader and coordinators working with specific project participants led multiple farmer/agency planned grazing chart sessions around the region using the 12 month chart to demonstrate implementing a holistic but practical approach to grazing. There was also an emphasis to meet service providers in the field and help them with their farmers, putting the project’s objectives to work in a team approach.

Grazing management training opportunities were also offered in collaboration with Pennsylvania Certified Organic, The Northeast Risk Management Agency, NOFA-NY, NOFA-VT, The Lancaster County Graziers Group, The Hudson-Mohawk RC&D Council, The Endless Mountains RC&D Council, The Northeast Risk Management Agency, USDA-NRCS, Holistic Management International, Cornell Small Farms & Cornell CCE, The Groundswell Center, The Upper Susquehanna Coalition, OnPasture, The University of Connecticut Extension, Williams Fence, NYS Ag & Mkts., UVM Extension Service and numerous farm families practicing planned grazing. Of the 43 potential participants, 80% of them attended one or more of these diverse sessions in keeping with their training portfolio and personal goals to help their customers.

The number of beneficiaries who participated with the professionals in all the above activities to learn the process of holistic planned grazing totaled 1046 people with the largest sector being farmers at 794.

Milestone: 24 Participants work intensively with 3 farms each to complete a total of 72 holistic grazing plans.

 The 35 participants have worked and completed planning on 70 farms to varying degrees which is to say, planning is always in flux. Some professionals overachieved with 5 farms while some had to go back to the start as they were reassigned to another area or had farms sell or drop out of the planning process. The adoption of the planned grazing chart has gained traction every year amongst farmers and service providers and has become a tangible tool to monitor and measure management progress. It has become an integral addition to standard conservation plans. It allows the professional to follow-up and build relationships at the farm level while providing mentorship from training regimes.

Milestone: 24 Participants document financial, ecological, and social impacts from 72 farms which are implementing a holistic planned grazing system.

Of the 35 participants who reported on these impacts, the financial measures were the easiest to obtain with the environmental and farm family effects harder to quantify. 

Economic progress examples are noted in these quotes: 

  • “Despite early spring rains and flooding, this farm was able to put cows back onto their pastures after only one week (typically, this would have taken several weeks). They were able to graze into late October. Together, this represents three extra weeks of grazing, at a value of $1,071. Additionally, the increased pasture production over the season has allowed to farm to graze 42 cows rather than their typical number of 34 cows. Over the course of the season, grazing the extra 8 cows half of the day has saved the farm approximately $12/day for 150 days, or $1,800.”

  • “For the first time, I have sold sheep for meat, with the financial gain of $3,000+!! This has enabled me to develop my infrastructure in small ways.”

  • “Our/my involvement with the operation over the last three years has seen the expansion of the pastured beef portion of the operation. The farmer believes this has added almost $8000 to their bottom line per year by increasing grass production through fertility and grazing management”.

  • “He got really excited when he saved $6K this past spring by grazing the milking herd instead of buying grain.”

  • “The owner decided the required expansion of 300 ewes to reach their holistic financial goals was not a wise idea as it would have placed too much risk and stress on the family and the owners own marketing capacity. In the end, they definitely avoided a $45,000 loan that would have committed the family to a farm model that they were not completely sure they were ready for.”

  • “We saved about a $1000 by having stockpiled fields to graze into December.”

  • “I have not gotten firm numbers from them…but a conversation means a lot. I do think that some are looking at their pasture as an economic asset more than they used to as a result of this holistic project.”

Ecological improvement examples:

  • The farmers were willing to try leaving a taller grazing residual and reduce some post-grazing clips. As a result, their forage is bouncing back faster from the root growth and was better able to handle the extreme rains early in the summer.

  • They want to continue to improve their soil structure by better grazing management and also add in some winter stockpiling.

  • They will maintain the CREP Forested Riparian Buffer and enjoy the diversity that they have helped to create.

  • An environmental benefit (Water Cycle) the neighbor’s spring continues to flow during summer droughts since changing the fields from continuous corn to sod! In the past, under a cropping rotation, the spring dried up in July & August, sometimes into September. “Not no more!”

  • Farmer has realized that animal inputs (manure/impact/product) is as important to their future as farming organically and holistically. They realize they need to bring animals back to the farm.

  • Rotations on at least one farm were managed in a much more productive manner, resulting in lush pastures all the way through to the end of fall. In prior years, large patches of pasture were denuded by mid-summer and remained so for the rest of the grazing season.

  • Our farm consists of old hay fields that haven’t had cows on them for 30 years. We’re seeing major changes in the diversity. Fields that were winter grazed/sacrificed bounced back (with rest) and look better than ever. The remaining acreage is now fenced so next year we should really see some big changes.

  • We have nearly eliminated an invasive species – Russian Knapweed – from our main pasture area. Additionally, the biodiversity of forage plants has increased and improved as a result of properly timed pruning by grazing, and the rest periods for recovery and growth provided by planned rotational grazing using our grazing chart. Microbes can be seen across the soil surface, earthworms have populated areas where they were once rarely found. Insects from leaf-hoppers to crickets to grass-hoppers and butterflies are abundant. The grasses have thickened and darkened in lush rich green and the ground acquired a cushioning feel when trod upon.   There are no open areas of dried, cracked earth as we found originally.

Farm family impacts noted:

  • The farm hosts students from VTC as workers and mentees. The farmer owners have worked with the students to establish a book of standard procedures to help transitioning between groups of students. The farmers were able to take a week-long vacation this summer.
  • This family operation now definitely spends more time planning and doing family vacations than they did 20 years ago. I also see a change in the past three years where the main partners take turns at being the one who will stay home to take care of the operation

  • The farmer now realizes that he has time to spend on the grandchildren and it is important to do so not just for his wife but for both of them. They are once again looking to do some more land and crop (forest) improvements for their children and grandchildren and the future generations.

  • These producers have been able to leave the farm for the past 2 years to attend the National Katahdin Expo & Sheep Sale. They said that they were quite comfortable with the fact that they could leave their high-school aged son in charge of the farm and he could easily move the fence according to the plan while they were gone.

  • The farmer has made a lot of decisions based on his need to be part of his family’s lives on a deeper more enjoyable level.

  • A father and son operation has gone from dairying to grain production. They know they need to update their holistic goal to reflect this change.

  • We were able to enjoy additional time together, and amongst our livestock, while moving portable pasture fencing on a scheduled basis. Additionally, we were able to take a weekend trip out of state as a family and enjoy time together.

  • With the freedom of knowing the where and the when the cows were to be grazing, when my family came home to visit for a few days around Labor Day we just opened up all of the interior gates and it was “ok”.

Assessment of Project Approach and Implementation:

  • The broader question for this project is how does this comprehensive grazing training regime and its many attributes, find its way into the accredited world of NRCS and extension education syllabuses? One of the key factors in this arena of training field people is allowing them the “time” to learn with their customers instead of many times trying to push programs. When we step back and look at the triple bottom line, a significant remedy to root farm problems can be solved with the management decision-making assistance not money. This project also brought to bear how many personnel changes over 3 years can affect the need for constant adult learning modifications, the cohesiveness of the project team and to be flexible in reaching out and traveling to participants to keep them motivated and engaged in the goals.             

     “As a regional coordinator, I also wanted to mention some of the feedback I’ve received from trainees within our group. In the past three-four years, many changes have taken place within our group. Some participants have changed organizations, some have had job promotions, some have actually been hired to provide technical assistance during the period of participation. What I have had heard back from them is that the concepts they’ve learned through this project have moved with them. Even if they are not in a position to provide direct on-farm TA (some are not, now), they are still very supportive of expanding soil health, biological landscape monitoring, and farmer-oriented holistic goals. As some of them climb from field staff to management staff, the fact that they are aware and supportive of these concepts lays the groundwork for change at all levels in the future. At some points, I’ve been disappointed when we’ve lost active participants in our project, but they themselves are reminding me that truly they are not lost—just bringing these ideas with them into a new place”.~ Jennifer Colby

  • FINAL Participant Questionnaire and Reflection summaries on NESARE PDP Project Utilizing Holistic Planned Grazing as a Regenerative Engine for Sustainable Agriculture

Performance Target Outcomes

Performance target outcome for service providers narrative:

Outcomes

a. Performance target outcome data and discussion

35 NESARE PDP project grazing professionals, 6 project coordinators and over 1000 farmers, extension educators and unique collaborators grew together to appreciate the holistic planned grazing decision-making dynamic. The project saw a record number (+ 600) of grazing charts delivered to farmers or downloaded from CNY RC&D.org/OnPasture.com webpages under the guidance of project participants and collaborators. Participants conducted grazing planning with 70 farms, some of whom reported economic, environmental and social benefits resulting from adoption of planned grazing strategies. Financially, participants have reported a positive gain from farmers implementing a whole-farm approach to grazing management. Examples of economic benefits reported included: $8,000 increased revenue from grass-fed beef production, $6,000 saved by grazing dairy herd, and $1,000 savings from stockpiled grazing field. Consistently, we have seen an average of 800 dollars per year more profit per farm who implemented a higher level of grazing management. Social and environmental benefits have been more difficult to quantify, but 90% of the farmers said they planned in more family time (vacations) and 70% indicated they are using the planned grazing chart and plan to continue biological monitoring. Additional information about benefits from planned grazing reported by farmers is detailed below.

The project took the training and practiced at sustainable agriculture conferences and out in the field working one on one with grazing professionals in their own locale, in groups and at twilight pasture walks hosted by project participants who honed their skills from earlier training venues. The show and tell concepts garnered a record number of media features (see attachment). The number of beneficiaries who participated with the professionals in all the above activities to learn the process of holistic planned grazing totaled 1046 people with the largest sector being farmers at 794.

Beneficiary outcome story:

•“I have to say that this experience has by far made me a better grazing professional, and as a result, a better person. It is too easy to get into the routine of writing a plan for a producer, and then walking away without taking into account each individual situation. This project has forced me to take a step back and realize that the quality of the work is far more important than the quantity. I was able to spend some time with these producers and really get to know them. They helped me as much as I helped them. As a result, they have found a way to manage their grazing system that works for them personally, environmentally and financially. It is so fulfilling to look back on the time that I spent with these producers throwing darts, shooting the breeze, and experimenting, and know that it has made a difference on the farm.” ~ Tricia LaValley, Frankin County Soil and Water Conservation District

Additional outcomes discussion:

Other related developments that surfaced as a result of this project and the work of the project team and its participants and partner affiliates include:

•Had to construct a “life-size” dry erase grazing chart to teach grazing planning on the road specifically for larger (over 20) audiences especially in plain communities.

•The planning process using the grazing chart has garnered additional grant funding to expand the reach to farmers through a partnership between Pennsylvania Certified Organic and the Northeast Center for Risk Management Education with programming called, Managing Risk using a Planned Grazing Chart and Biological Monitoring for Practical Management Decision Making.

•The Round 19 Environmental Protection Fund’s highest ranking project through NY Ag. & Mkts. was The Upper Susquehanna River Watershed Ecosystem Based Management Grazing Initiative through Otsego, Chenango and Madison County’s Soil and Water Conservation Districts in which “All management decisions, practices and operation and maintenance implemented will be monitored and measured by each farm establishing a planned grazing chart tracking their environmental, financial and family goals with mentoring from district staff.”

•The Upper Susquehanna Coalition received a 3 year NY USDA-NRCS CIG grant entitled: Developing Benchmarks to Evaluate Cover Crop and Conservation Tillage Performance Through Producer Case Studies. The crop monitoring portion is patterned after the holistic planned grazing chart and will demonstrate effective outreach programs for whole farm strategies to reduce nutrient and sediment loss. The project will work with 3 farms to develop whole-farm planning calendars. Participants will learn how to develop a 12-month whole-farm financial and ecological risk management plan based on a chart and biological monitoring. Participants will create production and financial goals around management benchmarks through the use of a chart and monitoring system. Participants will monitor and track dry matter production for planning decisions to reduce off-farm feed inputs and reduce feed costs. The project team and host farmers will use small group workshops to develop whole-farm calendars for 12-month implementation of a plan that includes soil health practices. The goal is to train farmers to plan towards “what they want” by confidently making management decisions sooner and creating scenarios to address challenges within the season.

•Vermont’s coordinator and team of grazing professionals at the University of Vermont also received a 3 year USDA-NRCS CIG Grant entitled: Using Grass-Based Livestock Farms to Demonstrate Regenerative Agriculture using the triple bottom line concepts to measure success and teach farmers about the attributes of grazing. The biological landscape monitoring tool is an active part of the Vermont CIG grant demonstrating the regenerative qualities of grass-based agriculture. We’ve been taking those readings in 2013 on three farms in Vermont.

•The tools used in this project are being tested and integrated into organic certification and NRCS/SWCD conservation plans to verify grazing practices were carried out.

•Yearly biological monitoring and recording results are still a weak point as soil testing is still the driver of land management decisions. However, with new soil health initiatives and testing procedures, biological monitoring at the soil surface will most likely be incorporated into the testing regime.

•Beginning farmers are becoming a significant audience force in holistic planned grazing as many are transitioning and adding livestock production into current vegetable operations or are finding new land leases and new markets for pasture-based animal products.

•This project continues to add (part-time) auxiliary members, farmers and partners interested in a specific portion of the training, ie; communication, grazing chart adoption and processes, grazing behavior, infrastructure design, biological monitoring, financial planning and “long view” visioning for families.

•Media attention for planned grazing tools, techniques and success stories is increasing.

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Milestone: A total of 30 Participants (an average of 10 per training site) sign up for training and contact 150 farms in total (an average of 5 farms each) that they will begin working with on holistic grazing planning.

Project leaders and four passionate site coordinators from NY, VT and PA recruited a record number of participants (65 people for 30 training slots) interested in grazing training via media flyers, e-mail list-serves and personal contacts throughout the Northeast, even before the project was funded. It was decided to over-achieve, working frugally within the budget, to add 15 more people because of such strong applications and the lack of dedicated grazing assistance in many locales. In short, we needed more trained grazing practitioners to facilitate opportunities on farms. The project team developed a curriculum and teaching materials consistent with participant’s local needs. Participant strengths included being multi-species focused, practical, passionate in implementing a comprehensive grazing program from farm to consumer, to become a local leader and “work” with and not “for” farmers in helping meet their whole farm goals. Interest in developing the “grazier’s eye” and implementing a workable grazing plan based on sound family goals, financial indicators and good stewardship was very important. Most identified being better connected and having a strong working relationship with farmers as a crucial element for success. A litany of specific production oriented grazing practice questions such as; animal nutrition, herd health, infrastructure design, estimating forage yield, leading successful pasture walks, communicating and working on outreach materials also showed the diversity and varied experience level of the professionals. Areas if expressed learning need were addressed throughout the project. Perfect attendance (NY-15, PA-13, VT-17) was achieved for the initial training in creating farm family goals, developing financial indicators and biological benchmarks at all three training sites. Ninety percent of participants chose three farms to work with. It was decided to scale back to three farms per person (135 farms instead of 150) because of on-going workload issues and concentrating the effort closer to an individual’s locale without sacrificing the performance target goal of 72 farms implementing a holistic planned grazing system.

Practical tools were developed and shared at the first training to assist professionals working with farmers on creating farm family goals and collecting social and financial data. The participants learned the processes by using decision cases, group exercises, working on their own personal goals during the training and hearing from guest farmers who told their personal stories of how thinking through decisions helped them. Training tools can be accessed at http://cnyrcd.squarespace.com/ and copies of some tools are uploaded below.

All training sites were coordinated by team project members and featured local entrees, desserts and beverages with ample time to network followed by pasture walks on neighboring farms. This style of teaching allows the opportunity to learn from each other and builds relationships.

Milestone: 24 to 30 Participants each attend 6 training sessions while working with 120 farms that are creating and/or implementing a new type of grazing plan.

Training sessions for service providers over the three years included:

  • Creating farm family goals
  • Holistic planned grazing approaches
  • Developing financial indicators and biological monitoring regimes
  • Utilizing a 12 month Northeast planned grazing chart
  • Learned communication, outreach and relationship building skills from professional trainer, Fred Ashforth of Ashforth Associates, Waterville, N.Y.
  • Conducting a successful pasture walk
  • Infrastructure training
  • Weed management
  • Animal behavior and handling

Several grazing professionals took advantage of attending outside grazing conferences, events and workshops around the Northeast to add to their learning objectives. These venues addressed many targeted learning needs from the group without having to hire one specific trainer and were more locally available. Examples of these were the Winter Green-up Beef Conference, The Vermont Grass Farmers Grazing Conference, the holistic planned multi-species grazing training short course at the PASA conference, the Troy PA Grazing Conference, the Silvopasture Conference in New York, HMI field days, Temple Grandin’s presentations on animal behavior, Kathy Voth’s alternative forages (weeds) workshops and Holistic educators/ranchers Cody Holmes, Ian- Mitchell Innes and Ben Bartlett teaching whole farm systems and strategies.

Vermont participants initiated an on-line training model away from the traditional workshop setting that takes participants through a holistic approach with a grazing farm interested in starting planned grazing. The online training uses all the techniques and lessons learned in this project to make a collaborative learning experience where all the participants add their input and the farmer decides from the suite of ideas which direction to go.

The project leader and coordinators working with specific project participants led multiple farmer/agency planned grazing chart sessions around the region using the 12 month chart to demonstrate implementing a holistic but practical approach to grazing. There was also an emphasis to meet service providers in the field and help them with their farmers, putting the project’s objectives to work in a team approach.

Grazing management training opportunities were also offered in collaboration with Pennsylvania Certified Organic, The Northeast Risk Management Agency, NOFA-NY, NOFA-VT, The Lancaster County Graziers Group, The Hudson-Mohawk RC&D Council, The Endless Mountains RC&D Council, The Northeast Risk Management Agency, USDA-NRCS, Holistic Management International, Cornell Small Farms & Cornell CCE, The Groundswell Center, The Upper Susquehanna Coalition, OnPasture, The University of Connecticut Extension, Williams Fence, NYS Ag & Mkts., UVM Extension Service and numerous farm families practicing planned grazing. Of the 43 potential participants, 80% of them attended one or more of these diverse sessions in keeping with their training portfolio and personal goals to help their customers.

The number of beneficiaries who participated with the professionals in all the above activities to learn the process of holistic planned grazing totaled 1046 people with the largest sector being farmers at 794.

Milestone: 24 Participants work intensively with 3 farms each to complete a total of 72 holistic grazing plans.

 The 35 participants have worked and completed planning on 70 farms to varying degrees which is to say, planning is always in flux. Some professionals overachieved with 5 farms while some had to go back to the start as they were reassigned to another area or had farms sell or drop out of the planning process. The adoption of the planned grazing chart has gained traction every year amongst farmers and service providers and has become a tangible tool to monitor and measure management progress. It has become an integral addition to standard conservation plans. It allows the professional to follow-up and build relationships at the farm level while providing mentorship from training regimes.

Milestone: 24 Participants document financial, ecological, and social impacts from 72 farms which are implementing a holistic planned grazing system.

Of the 35 participants who reported on these impacts, the financial measures were the easiest to obtain with the environmental and farm family effects harder to quantify. 

Economic progress examples are noted in these quotes: 

  • “Despite early spring rains and flooding, this farm was able to put cows back onto their pastures after only one week (typically, this would have taken several weeks). They were able to graze into late October. Together, this represents three extra weeks of grazing, at a value of $1,071. Additionally, the increased pasture production over the season has allowed to farm to graze 42 cows rather than their typical number of 34 cows. Over the course of the season, grazing the extra 8 cows half of the day has saved the farm approximately $12/day for 150 days, or $1,800.”

  • “For the first time, I have sold sheep for meat, with the financial gain of $3,000+!! This has enabled me to develop my infrastructure in small ways.”

  • “Our/my involvement with the operation over the last three years has seen the expansion of the pastured beef portion of the operation. The farmer believes this has added almost $8000 to their bottom line per year by increasing grass production through fertility and grazing management”.

  • “He got really excited when he saved $6K this past spring by grazing the milking herd instead of buying grain.”

  • “The owner decided the required expansion of 300 ewes to reach their holistic financial goals was not a wise idea as it would have placed too much risk and stress on the family and the owners own marketing capacity. In the end, they definitely avoided a $45,000 loan that would have committed the family to a farm model that they were not completely sure they were ready for.”

  • “We saved about a $1000 by having stockpiled fields to graze into December.”

  • “I have not gotten firm numbers from them…but a conversation means a lot. I do think that some are looking at their pasture as an economic asset more than they used to as a result of this holistic project.”

Ecological improvement examples:

  • The farmers were willing to try leaving a taller grazing residual and reduce some post-grazing clips. As a result, their forage is bouncing back faster from the root growth and was better able to handle the extreme rains early in the summer.

  • They want to continue to improve their soil structure by better grazing management and also add in some winter stockpiling.

  • They will maintain the CREP Forested Riparian Buffer and enjoy the diversity that they have helped to create.

  • An environmental benefit (Water Cycle) the neighbor’s spring continues to flow during summer droughts since changing the fields from continuous corn to sod! In the past, under a cropping rotation, the spring dried up in July & August, sometimes into September. “Not no more!”

  • Farmer has realized that animal inputs (manure/impact/product) is as important to their future as farming organically and holistically. They realize they need to bring animals back to the farm.

  • Rotations on at least one farm were managed in a much more productive manner, resulting in lush pastures all the way through to the end of fall. In prior years, large patches of pasture were denuded by mid-summer and remained so for the rest of the grazing season.

  • Our farm consists of old hay fields that haven’t had cows on them for 30 years. We’re seeing major changes in the diversity. Fields that were winter grazed/sacrificed bounced back (with rest) and look better than ever. The remaining acreage is now fenced so next year we should really see some big changes.

  • We have nearly eliminated an invasive species – Russian Knapweed – from our main pasture area. Additionally, the biodiversity of forage plants has increased and improved as a result of properly timed pruning by grazing, and the rest periods for recovery and growth provided by planned rotational grazing using our grazing chart. Microbes can be seen across the soil surface, earthworms have populated areas where they were once rarely found. Insects from leaf-hoppers to crickets to grass-hoppers and butterflies are abundant. The grasses have thickened and darkened in lush rich green and the ground acquired a cushioning feel when trod upon.   There are no open areas of dried, cracked earth as we found originally.

Farm family impacts noted:

  • The farm hosts students from VTC as workers and mentees. The farmer owners have worked with the students to establish a book of standard procedures to help transitioning between groups of students. The farmers were able to take a week-long vacation this summer.
  • This family operation now definitely spends more time planning and doing family vacations than they did 20 years ago. I also see a change in the past three years where the main partners take turns at being the one who will stay home to take care of the operation

  • The farmer now realizes that he has time to spend on the grandchildren and it is important to do so not just for his wife but for both of them. They are once again looking to do some more land and crop (forest) improvements for their children and grandchildren and the future generations.

  • These producers have been able to leave the farm for the past 2 years to attend the National Katahdin Expo & Sheep Sale. They said that they were quite comfortable with the fact that they could leave their high-school aged son in charge of the farm and he could easily move the fence according to the plan while they were gone.

  • The farmer has made a lot of decisions based on his need to be part of his family’s lives on a deeper more enjoyable level.

  • A father and son operation has gone from dairying to grain production. They know they need to update their holistic goal to reflect this change.

  • We were able to enjoy additional time together, and amongst our livestock, while moving portable pasture fencing on a scheduled basis. Additionally, we were able to take a weekend trip out of state as a family and enjoy time together.

  • With the freedom of knowing the where and the when the cows were to be grazing, when my family came home to visit for a few days around Labor Day we just opened up all of the interior gates and it was “ok”.

Assessment of Project Approach and Implementation:

  • The broader question for this project is how does this comprehensive grazing training regime and its many attributes, find its way into the accredited world of NRCS and extension education syllabuses? One of the key factors in this arena of training field people is allowing them the “time” to learn with their customers instead of many times trying to push programs. When we step back and look at the triple bottom line, a significant remedy to root farm problems can be solved with the management decision-making assistance not money. This project also brought to bear how many personnel changes over 3 years can affect the need for constant adult learning modifications, the cohesiveness of the project team and to be flexible in reaching out and traveling to participants to keep them motivated and engaged in the goals.             

     “As a regional coordinator, I also wanted to mention some of the feedback I’ve received from trainees within our group. In the past three-four years, many changes have taken place within our group. Some participants have changed organizations, some have had job promotions, some have actually been hired to provide technical assistance during the period of participation. What I have had heard back from them is that the concepts they’ve learned through this project have moved with them. Even if they are not in a position to provide direct on-farm TA (some are not, now), they are still very supportive of expanding soil health, biological landscape monitoring, and farmer-oriented holistic goals. As some of them climb from field staff to management staff, the fact that they are aware and supportive of these concepts lays the groundwork for change at all levels in the future. At some points, I’ve been disappointed when we’ve lost active participants in our project, but they themselves are reminding me that truly they are not lost—just bringing these ideas with them into a new place”.~ Jennifer Colby

  • FINAL Participant Questionnaire and Reflection summaries on NESARE PDP Project Utilizing Holistic Planned Grazing as a Regenerative Engine for Sustainable Agriculture
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.