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.
Rancher and Author, Walt Davis said, “Planned grazing management is the most powerful and cost-effective tool available for increasing both the profitability and stability of farming operations. The unique value of grazing management is that, when properly applied and monitored, it can simultaneously increase financial profitability and ecological health.”
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 in 2013. 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. Financially for 2013, participants have reported a positive gain from farmers implementing a whole-farm approach to grazing management with a range of 8000 dollars to a 775 dollar feed savings per year. Consistently, we have seen an average of 800 dollars per year more profit per farm who implemented a higher level of grazing management. 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) as did a 3 state holistic grazing training with South African Rancher and Holistic Educator, Ian Mitchell-Innes. 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 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 offered to participants and their partner farms in 2013 included a communication training day with Fred Ashforth and biological monitoring workshop at the Vermont Grazing and Livestock Conference, a grazing chart pre-season planning day at the Bradford Co. SWCD, grazing training at the PASA Conference and New York’s CDEA annual water quality symposium, On-farm Ian Mitchell-Innes training venues in NY, PA and VT. 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.
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”.
- Franklin County Soil and Water Conservation District Implements “Reading the Land” Grazing Grant
- 2013 Improve Your Grazing Management Skills by Ashley Pierce
- Ian Mitchell-Innes grazing training comments from participants
- Bob Weaver, Otsego SWCD grazing tales
- Kristen Brown’s article on visiting Germany
- 2013 NESARE PDP Beneficiary form
- Bob Weaver grazing equine article in Country Folks
- Albany Co SWCD story on planned grazing workshop
- Communication training guru, Fred Ashforth makes the front cover
- grazing planner, Rich Redman’s article
- (35) 2013 grazing training Project Media Outreach and Story Links
- PCO Educational flyer
- 2013 Forage and Equine Grazing Management meeting at Morrisville
- Helen Terry’s Allegany Co. pasture walk press release
- Soil health article from train the trainer workshop
- simple biological monitoring chart by Elizabeth Marks
- Grazing participant, Helen Terry’s first published news article on her pasture walks
- Reflections from 2013 Summer PCO Field Days
- The Bradt family of Helder-Herdwick Farm hits the cover after Albany Co. SWCD pasture walk
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
The Utilizing Holistic Planned Grazing as a Regenerative Engine for Sustainable Agriculture PDP project goals were to focus on facilitating participant learning and relationship-building in 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 would learn about the practical and technical nuances of using different tools and creating workable farm scale solutions to enhance their skill-set and become a leader in their local communities.
This changes the approach of current local, state and federal grazing educators and technicians, which is to provide prescriptive grazing plans prepared “for” the farmer. The project team felt a paradigm shift would result, in that participants would help farmers craft their own plans, using holistic grazing planning methods, rather than preparing plans for farms whereby moving their customers to move towards what they wanted and being proactive in the process. This approach would also leave local organizations/agencies with new intellectual capacity in sound grazing management principles and decision-making scenarios to meet increasing demand for educational and technical assistance by farms of all shapes and sizes. So the question remains, how is this professional training mindset changing behavior for the 35 plus members and affiliate partners?
Here are some impactful, poignant quotes from participants:
“The things I’ve learned through this project have fundamentally changed my world view in the past four years. Working with a farmer to achieve their goals has always been important to me personally, but the importance of making sure that the farmer is happy in their work has become so very clear to me now. The difference between watching farmers go through the motions and families working together to achieve their shared goals is like night and day. The practical training in high-density grazing has affected not only my technical assistance provision ability as a new tool in the tool box, but has been incorporated into our grazing research ideas for the future. As a regional coordinator, 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.” ~ Jennifer Colby, Pasture Program Coordinator, UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture.
“I found the training/education difficult to digest/accept as it pushed me into places I was not thinking that I needed to go to. But over the past three years I have used some of the training on my own operation. Keeping in the forefront of my thoughts that there is more than one way to achieve an improvement and we all see the improvements in our own unique way. Look at these farming operations as if they were yours by putting yourself in those particular people’s shoes and try to understand them before jumping into helping them with solutions to their problems. Seek out answers and find them in unexpected places. Enjoy their achievements/improvements and revel in their new discoveries.
I felt that I was always good at field/farm visits but I often only focused on one part of the farm, the puzzle, the situation and then helped the land owner solve that problem. I am a good problem solver but did not necessarily explain what was behind the solution and what else I could help on the farming operation. This holistic educational effort has allowed me to give myself the time, the luxury of being patient and helping landowners look at their operations not as they are but to listen to them as to what they want it to be. I feel that I will be able to help them ask themselves what it is that they want to achieve, do they have some goals, some dreams for the farm, the family. And help them to work together to achieve those views of the future. Also help them to recognize that it is okay to change the vision, the plan as situation or as improvements are made.” ~ Robert Wagner, USDA-NRCS Montrose, PA.
“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
“It has given me the technical skills to feel comfortable with introductory grazing technical assistance. My experience is horticulture and farm finances, so this is a big deal for me to be able to have a “grazing eye” while on my usual visits. It has also opened my eyes to the importance of high level grazing TA.” ~ Mark Cannella, Agricultural Financial Management Specialist, UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture
“I have learned to dig deeper and get everyone a bit more involved. I ask them about their lifestyle and schedule to try and figure out their “happiness quotient” (for the sake of determining the occupation time on paddocks). When it comes to long-term rotations I ask them about special dates that animals need to be in certain places (for shipping or due to soil conditions). I do ask them what their goals are, most people don’t seem to have something resembling a holistic goal. But, I could coax something from them.” ~ Ciro LoPinto, USDA-NRCS, Wellsboro, PA
“It has helped me to be able to converse with grazers about economics it really makes up the bottom line for so many people.” ~ Diane Blais, USDA-NRCS Hamden, CT
“For the 2013 grazing season, twelve of the farmers I work with actively used the planned grazing chart. After seeing the chart in use at the 2012 NODPA Field Days, I thought this ‘year-at-a-glance’ chart was much more useful than just writing where the cows were grazing on a calendar. Farmers often seemed frustrated with flipping back and forth between calendar pages to find when the last grazing on a given paddock had occurred. So for 2013, we started using the chart in a very basic way – just filling in the boxes to track animal movement and then easily measuring recovery periods in between those grazings. For some farmers this method replaced their calendars, while for others, this was the first time they had done any recording. In 2014, the plan is to encourage farmers to take it to the next level and incorporate more planning into the process, as well as including other important events such as hay harvests and rainfall. The more information we have the better picture we have of the overall system. In November, I invited Troy Bishopp to help with a hands-on workshop in Bridgeport, VT where he led the group through two sessions on the logistics and benefits of planning out the grazing season. We had 30 commercial dairy and beef farmers in attendance and had some great discussion revolving around real-life examples of grazing charts that local farmers brought to the event. Also as a result of that workshop, I feel better equipped to help farmers with tracking and planning and hope to reach more farmers with this tool in 2014.” ~ Cheryl Cesario, UVM Extension/ Champlain Valley Crop, Soil & Pasture Team
“More than anything, the knowledge that was imparted gave me the factual support I needed to continue using grazing as my soil and forage management tool. I have read much, but until the real hands-on dynamics of the Allegany SWCD pasture walk, I felt alone and doing this by guessing. Now, I am more committed and able to speak to others with assurance and “authority”….I am spreading your words. Also I am looking forward in my planning instead of the knee-jerk reaction of the day to day.” ~ Diane Cox, NY Farmer
- 2013 NESARE PDP Report of planned grazing activities in pictures
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