The purpose of the project was to protect the natural resources and improve the sustainability and economic viability of farms and ranches by fostering the development of an ongoing forage management group, or grazing network, in Lane County, Ore. The network would tackle these goals:
1. Continue to educate each other as well as other livestock owners about grazing management practices and structural improvements that protect natural resources
2. Explore methods for improving pasture and extending the grazing season in ways that are economical and efficient for farmers and ranchers
3. Explore different grazing models, fencing systems and off-stream watering methods
4. Learn about efficient and economical methods for grazing multiple species
The project team sought to accomplish its aims by sponsoring a series of educational forums and farm tours that would inform farmers and ranchers about general guidelines for forage management and about management-intensive grazing and how it can be applied in the project’s maritime climate.
Rainfall in the Lane County area of Western Oregon averages 40-50 inches a year, most falling in the eight months from October through May. Unlike other parts of the country, where summer is the prime grazing season, producer ability to graze pastures without irrigation ends in June as the summer drought period begins. This presents problems and opportunities. Excess rain in the winter requires farmers and ranchers to better manage their manure. The summer drought forces them to begin thinking about ways to extend spring grazing and enhance the fall and early spring seasons. All of this requires a keen knowledge of fertility, forage species, forage management and the ability and willingness to try something new.
Using SARE funds, combined with larger pools of human and financial resources, the project formed a grazing network of 16 farms and ranches; sponsored seven tours that visited 11 different operations, including nine ranches; visited a fertilizer plant; and toured the North American headquarters of a major seed company. The funding also supported two intensive 10-week forage management courses.
Through the tours and classes, the project estimates that 80 people were educated in depth on forage management. Half of them have made, or will make, management changes based on the knowledge they acquired. Three of the seven tours lasted all day, one included a tour and workshop and the others were held late afternoon just before the evening class. Each of the forage management courses comprised 10 weekly classes, three hours long, covering a wide range of topics including forage growth and the effects of grazing on growth; soil fertility and management; management-intensive and other models of grazing; forage species; animal nutrition; and the nutritional value of forages.
Paul Atkinson, project coordinator, says the information was presented in a form that could be applied immediately. For example, 29 participants from two classes mailed in soil tests during the classes. The tests were later compiled and discussed by the whole class. From that, participants learned how to take and read soil tests, helping them apply this and other management principles learned to decide how many resources to allocate to a particular pasture.
Atkinson says the information was also practical, offering many methods that could be applied by anyone in the class. For example, students dried forage in a microwave oven so they could learn to convert forage on the ground into dry matter weight. That way, they could begin to understand forage quantity in a given pasture to determine how many animals to graze and for how long, an essential management tool.
The information presented was also critical for improving Lane County pastures. Atkinson notes that a central theme was forage growth, including the phases of grass and legume growth, the amount of forage in each growth phase in western Oregon and how producers can calculate those amounts on their own land. The knowledge will help them understand the best timing and length of grazing to promote growth and health. The producers also learned how to extend their grazing season and how to deal with noxious weeds.
The classes also touched on financial issues, like calculating the costs of producing hay by accounting for the value of fertilizer removed with the hay. The question was discussed whether farmers currently haying their own land were making or losing money on the hay. For those cutting and selling hay from their land, it was a real eye opener, says Atkinson.
After a series of tours and the first class, several producers met and formed the Willamette Valley Grazing and Nutrition Group, or WVGANG. It has 16 members with as many as 10 more expected to join. The group meets monthly at a different farm or ranch for open, frank discussions that share experience, ideas and support. Some members share equipment and make bulk purchases. Dues support educational materials.
“The diversity (of the group) is tremendous,” says Atkinson, “and it means that each member has his or her own distinct network of ‘peers’ with whom to share information and knowledge. The secondary educational effect of this effort is potentially tremendous.”
The impacts from this project include better allocation of farm and ranch resources, improved pastures, better animal management, awareness that feeding animals on grass is cheaper and a continuous improvement in forage management skills and knowledge.
FARMER ADOPTION AND DIRECT IMPACT
Many participants in the tours and classes have changed their operations as a result of this project.
· Half have submitted soil samples, 104 altogether, for analysis and evaluation, which is a step forward considering that few had ever taken a soil sample; results are being used to guide farm and ranch fertility programs.
· Several have begun to implement management-intensive grazing, adjusting stocking density and animal movements using tools like electric fencing, mobile water supplies and mineral supplements.
· Some have begun renovating pastures with improved forages, trying alternative species like plantain, chicory and brassicas.
· Some are managing weeds with grazing rather than herbicides.
· Several have reduced the amount of hay harvested from their pastures and extended grazing periods.
The final report quotes participant endorsements, including these:
“The forage group is a wonderful learning opportunity, a chance to see data underfoot,” says Leslie Hildreth of Eugene. “Walking the pastures, poking into clumps of grass, thinking drainage and fence lines, taking notes of feeds and feeding. I am often reminded of how much I am learning and how little I actually know.”
“Has it been useful? Definitely!” says Lisa Kay, Harrisburg. “We’ve changed just about everything we do around here since attending the first pasture walk and forage course. We have reduced our feed costs, improved our pasture production, reduced mud and erosion problems and decreased the weed load.”
“The formation of WVGANG has been extremely beneficial,” says Maryrae Thompson, Junction City. “We get to pick everyone’s brain about what we’re doing, and we get to see what other people are trying – things I hadn’t thought of before.”
“The WVGANG keeps me on my toes,” says Ray Morse, Eugene. “Sometimes it’s easy to fall back on old habits and WVGANG keeps me moving forward. It is also important to know that what I am doing is improving the land.”
FUTURE RECOMMENDATIONS OR NEW HYPOTHESES
The project members had originally planned to allocate its grant dollars to bring in high-profile experts. Instead, they opted for intensive courses in forage management using local resources. From its experiences with the project, they concluded that the intensive, practical educational courses that the SARE funds helped to support in Lane County are invaluable for farmers and ranchers. The SARE funds were used to subsidize farmers and ranchers participating in the courses and WVGANG. So enticed, the participants quickly learned the value of the education. The grant was also used to help subsidize the membership fee during WVGANG’s startup, a critical incentive to getting the group off the ground.
Woody Lane, course instructor, was acclaimed by participants for the quality of his presentations. The project team recommends that Western SARE support people like Lane, who holds a Ph.D. in animal nutrition from Cornell and served on the faculty at the University of Wisconsin.
“We hope to impart how much this small amount of funding has accomplished,” says Atkinson. “It has reached so many farmers and ranchers in Lane and adjacent counties with information that will make lasting and positive changes in the way livestock and forages are managed. Please continue to support these kinds of efforts!”