Utilizing holistic planned grazing as a regenerative engine for sustainable agriculture
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 outcome can be a regenerative engine, through economic, environmental and social impacts, for sustainable agriculture. With increased pressure from unsustainable on-farm dairy pricing, rising energy, feed and fertilizer costs, coupled with consumer interest in grass-based products, and environmental concerns (e.g. Chesapeake Bay water quality issues, TMDL), a record number of requests from farmers for grazing planning assistance have been experienced by cooperative extension, conservation districts/NRCS and farmer-educators. This at a time when there are few whole farm grazing planning specialists in the Northeast SARE Region. Another significant trend is the shortage of trained educational and field staff to deliver programming and on-farm strategies to help farmers meet farm goals in the areas of profitability, ecological improvement and social well-being. Additionally farmers are struggling to meet obligations for conservation programming (e.g. Environmental Quality Initiative Program, State Environmental Protection Fund.) This project will focus on facilitating participant learning in working with chosen farm families on whole farm planning concepts, which fully incorporate farm goals, effective decision making and meeting “farmers where they are.” To complement this holistic planning process, participants will learn about the practical and technical side of grazing management, economics, marketing concepts of planned grazing, ecological health, animal behavior, infrastructure design and communication skills.
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.
2012 was a tough transitional year given the drought, participant’s schedules, and inspiring change in farmers. However the buzz for acquiring knowledge from a holistic perspective has increased globally, nationally, regionally and locally as grazing professionals and farmers explore the relationship business together to build soil health, save money and aspire to create some vacation for the family. As the phrase “The New Normal” continues to manifest itself in the environment of farming, the understanding and promotion of the four ecosystem processes as a way to mitigate the effects of climate change and build a resilient system of farming has never been stronger. This project has gained traction within the farming community through its grazing professionals learning and teaching new tools to farmers as well as through outreach and media coverage of events that support the decision-based holistic grazing planning template.
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.
To date, 37 grazing professionals from NY, PA, and VT representing Conservation Districts, Extension Educators, USDA-NRCS, grazing consultants and farmer mentors are actively participating which is a loss of 5 people due to layoffs, job changes and retirement. These professionals attended a grazing retreat in August to learn communication and relationship building skills from professional trainer, Fred Ashforth of Ashforth Associates (www.fredashforth.com). This coincided with a record-breaking twilight pasture walk where participants co-mingled with 70 farmers on an organic dairy farm. This was a real exercise in learning how to put on a successful event. Participants were tasked to observe farmer’s behavior and flow of meeting; be reporters and photographers to generate press about the event; stimulate discussions and make farmers feel welcome by scooping ice-cream and helping everyone have a good time building personal relationships.
We used this event as the basis for Mr. Ashforth’s training in reviewing what was good and what things needed improvement about the night’s meeting. His day-long, inspiring, personal development workshop taught folks the 4 C’s of Grazing in the Grass: Commitment, Change, Courage and Confidence. He focused his interactive theme on these topics: Goal setting, using a Success Triangle, becoming a brilliant conversationalist, listening skills, salesmanship and WIIFM (What’s in it for me), getting your message out, the 30 second elevator speech, working with difficult people and handling rejection. The third leg of the retreat was performing an infrastructure inventory and opportunities pasture walk on a local grazing dairy farm. Participants were broken into 3 person teams and allowed to walk the grazing system with maps to assess infrastructure needs (laneways, watering points, stream crossings, buffers, fencing, shade etc.). They also looked at forage growth, fertility, plant diversity, animal behavior and paddock layout while reconvening in the middle of the farm to see what was actually going on with the planned grazing chart and the goals of the farm. Led by Madison County District Manager, Steve Lorraine, folks brainstormed ideas and discussed what each water quality enhancement cost versus the benefit to the farmer and the environment. He impressed upon the participants to look at “gorilla infrastructure”; that is using materials around the farm or locally to solve a problem now and not “wait” for cost-share programs if it is applicable. Laying 1” plastic water pipe on the ground, using portable gas-powered pumps to get water from streams and ponds to holding tanks and installing makeshift syphon systems to deliver water were some of the examples he used in helping farmers on a limited budget and limited interest in government conservation programs.
Comments from participants: “The retreat was wonderful. I so appreciate the training and the candid conversations. It was the most powerful and useful information I get.” “Thank you very much for the fruitful workshop/retreat/fun meeting. I got to meet lots of interesting practitioners and the infrastructure exercise at the end was very inspiring.” “Fred’s breaking down people into 3 categories in the context of relational interaction has definitely stuck with me. Learning to allow clients to say what they need to say without exerting great effort to inform them of what you know and stressing the importance of listening, resonated with me.”
Participants were also encouraged and reimbursed to attend outside grazing conferences, events and workshops around the Northeast to add to their learning objectives without the formal session theme because of people’s hectic schedules. These venues addressed many targeted needs from the group without having to hire one specific trainer and were more locally available. Examples of these training opportunities included Temple Grandin’s presentations on animal behavior in Vermont, Holistic ranchers Cody Holmes, Ian- Mitchell Innes and Ben Bartlett in Pennsylvania and Kathy Voth’s alternative forages (weeds) workshop in Essex, New York.
Vermont participants initiated an on-line training model away from the traditional session setting building on a grazing farm interested in starting from ground-zero which takes a holistic approach and 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.
In New York, the project leader and coordinator working with specific project participants led six 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.
Milestone: 24 Participants work intensively with 3 farms each to complete a total of 72 holistic grazing plans.
Of the 37 grazing professionals surveyed, the target of working with 72 farms has been achieved. However the financial, ecological/biological, social measures and planned grazing charts are still a work in progress as participants adopt these tools along with their day-to-day activities and farm visits. Out of the participants surveyed 80% have collected financial factors to measure (feed savings, vet costs, more milk produced, etc). 45% have done a biological monitoring baseline on farms they work with. This number may be reflective of drought conditions in 2012 for most participants. 90% are using farm family goals to drive decisions, however they are not being collected as formally as the social monitoring tool. Only 30% of project participants have grasped the grazing planning chart decision monitoring tool. Most farmers are using it primarily as a daily diary. Participants and their clients will need more coaching in 2013 to fully use it as a planning and monitoring tool. Again the drought situation debilitated both farmer and service provider but this could become an essential planning tool against this very real problem as more practical practice sessions are continued in the future.
- Graziers and Grandin
- Pasture walk article by Robert Wagner, Juan Alvez, Troy Bishopp
- Horizon Organic Producer Post story (grazing in the new normal)
- The 4 dollar grazing chart in SFQ
- Fred Ashforth communication training outline
- Throw a Dart and read a landscape
- planned grazing workshop press release
- outreach article in GRAZE magazine
- grazing professional Bob Weaver’s article
- Kathy Voth Alternative Forages Training in Essex, NY
- May 2012 GRAZE magazine article
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
In working with our outside evaluator and state teams to survey the project participants it is 100% clear they are thinking and behaving differently in holistically working with farm families than before this PDP training. Most responded by saying they have adopted alternative ideas and scenarios based on a whole farm perspective to deal with grazing opportunities and challenges. They appreciated the different training styles, venues and one-on-one in-field walkabouts in working around time management issues as learned in 2011.
The 12 month planned grazing monitoring chart has been highly successful, useful and an unexpected tool which has risen to the top in tying all the ecosystem processes and learning together in a practical way. The thought process involved in using the chart, not necessarily the data written down was invaluable for farmers who adopted it during this drought year. “The grazing chart has been helpful as it provided a basis to intentionally change what I do every year, specifically changing my rotations. I was in the habit of pretty much doing the same thing every year. This year, especially due to the drought, I changed my rotational system and frankly thought it worked better. Opening up an area of scrubland, including Knotweed and woodland, was something that I had hesitated to do in previous years. It proved to be extremely beneficial and not only controlled the Knotweed but provided enhanced biodiversity that visually improved the condition of the cattle.”~ Jonathon Barter, Steuben County farmer and grazing professional.
It also compliments grazing professional’s planning and makes their work come alive. The CNYRC&D.org (www.cnyrcd.org/planned-grazing-participants) and TheGrassWhisperer.com websites that house the grazing chart templates have seen a 3 fold increase in traffic which represent over 2000 customers either looking at the tool or downloading and printing them for farm use. We have initiated several farm meetings to teach farmers how to use this product which also helps the professional connect with the customer and their peers. (See attached PDF for comments from training sites.)
95% of project participants indicated they are seeing financial progress with farmers through holistic grazing planning decisions whether from extending the grazing season for two weeks in a dairy herd representing 882 dollars or cutting down on a grain bill for the season to the tune of 6200 dollars. Even subtle changes in grazing management are contributing to this positive aspect but may not be apparent short term such as increasing soil health, proper plant recovery times and plant diversity, increased animal carrying capacity, winter stockpiling and even less stress on the operator and the family. It is apparent results equal measuring and monitoring which focuses the grazing professional and the farmer towards a lasting relationship which brings creditability and builds a community of learning. This was a clear goal for all the participants for the onset of this project. We continue to build on this foundation for 2013.
- testimonials from grazing chart planning workshops
- Pictures from 2012 work
- poster session for Northeast Pasture Consortium
Tioga County, PA Director of Planning
Endless Mountains RC&D Council
RR 5 Box 5030D
Towanda, PA 18848
Office Phone: 5702653409
Endless Mountains RC&D Council
RR 5 Box 5030D
Towanda, PA 18848
Office Phone: 5702653409
Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District
6503 Wes Road
Hamilton, NY 13346
Office Phone: 3158249849
UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture
106 Highpoint Center, Suite 300
Colchester, VT 05446
Office Phone: 8026560858
99 North Broad St.
Norwich, NY 13815
Office Phone: 6073343231
Cornell Extension Educator
Northwest NY Dairy Livestock & Field Crops Team
417 Liberty St.
Penn Yan, NY 14527
Office Phone: 3155365123