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 the current dairy crisis, rising energy, feed and fertilizer costs, coupled with consumer interest in grass-based products, and environmental concerns (e.g. Chesapeake Bay water quality issues), 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 ancillary topics (e.g. wildlife habitat and idle land regeneration.)
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.
The 2011 grazing season was a year of transitional learning, using diverse broad-based approaches to decision-making and relationship-building for 43 grazing professionals; patiently “Meeting people where they are” against a backdrop of factors including emotion, weather extremes, conservation funding cuts, losing team members, time management constraints; and ultimately seeing the real side of holistic grazing planning triumphs and tribulations on 12,300 acres. In the midst of these challenges and to the credit of the project participants, our milestone of working with 72 farm families has been eclipsed to a level of 76 farms.
Classroom, in-field, individualized training opportunities and unique targeted instruction in the areas of farm family goal setting, holistic planned grazing approaches and biological monitoring were held using project-created practical tools and charts specifically developed for collecting baseline data related to the performance targets and monitoring results over the life of the project and beyond. The tools can be accessed at www.cnyrcd.org/planned-grazing-participants/.
Milestone 1: 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.
The project co-leaders and three 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. Through a vigorous evaluation process, 45 professionals (NY-15, PA-13, VT-17) were selected even though the goal was 30 training slots because there were just too many good candidates to exclude. It was decided to over-achieve while working frugally within the budget, because of 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.
The project team 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.
Milestone 2: 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, 43 grazing professionals from NY, PA, VT and NH representing Conservation Districts, Extension Educators, USDA-NRCS, grazing consultants and farmer mentors have completed 3 grazing training sessions per state in 3 topics.
1.) Learning how to create farm family goals with their participating farms and establishing social and financial baseline data to measure impacts of the grazing plan implementation.
2.) Learn more about holistic planned grazing methods, tools and approaches.
3.) Gaining practical knowledge of biological monitoring, data collection and learning the value of improving the 4 ecosystem processes. This by using a diverse set of tools from grazing, rest, and technology to animal impact all applied with the most powerful tool, human creativity.
These sessions also included discussing the need to gather baseline information towards measuring impacts for the performance target over the life of the project and help farmers in working with their grazing professional to plan for the growing season.
Each session was evaluated by the state coordinator and project leader through an evaluation tool created to measure specific learning objectives based on the participant’s needs and preferences. However, it was noticed technical service providers naturally gravitate to their own comfort level and it took patience to stimulate forward-thinking scenarios while incorporating known agency grazing planning information. This process takes time, perhaps a lifetime, to learn.
In an unexpected positive development, the planned grazing and reading the land sessions brought together over 60 outside auxiliary conservation service providers, extension educators and local farmers to join the learning experience in addition to the project participants. The excitement, media outreach and word of mouth about biological pasture monitoring over getting on your hands and knees and looking at the soil surface spawned several separate pasture walks led by Project Leader, Troy Bishopp. Working with NOFA-NY, the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance, Tioga County SWCD, Lewis Co. CCE, NOFA-VT and the Lancaster County, PA Graziers, resulted in over 270 farmers in reading their own land and keeping track of improvements on the northeast biological pasture monitoring chart.
Of all the tools created for this project, the most exciting is how farmers and participants have adopted the 12 month northeast planned grazing paper chart that fits nicely on the back of a milk-house or office door. To date, over 300 grazing charts have been printed and given out to farmers with one group of Amish dairy farmers forming a grazing management profit team and helping the project team enhance the chart’s strengths and weaknesses. Project participants indicated they used the grazing chart, biological monitoring sheet and goal setting worksheets the most while the financial data gathering tool was the least used. Several outreach articles on the success of these sessions and lessons learned were published in local, regional, national and international media outlets.
Other events significantly shaped training needs of the participants. Several grazing professionals took advantage of a mini-pilot project in reimbursing conference fees to attend specialized training throughout the Northeast. 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 and the Silvopasture Conference in New York.
Quotes about the grazing planning session were as follows: “I think you provided a lot of good, more comprehensive tools like the chart to help me better assist farmers and brainstorm more scenarios for the producer to consider.” It was an eye-opening experience; I didn’t know as much as I thought.” “It was really great to have both farmer’s participation and perspective at the session.” “I want to thank you for your effort in introducing this idea to our farm and making these charts available for their use this season. There is no question in my mind—- these charts are a real winner. This thanks has been a long time in coming, not because I did not see the value in it at the start, for I did, but I did want to give it a season of use to make a full assessment of its usefulness. I now know the chart and the planning procedure are more useful than I expected and I also know we have not reached the limits on what it can do for us. I can see already that it will become a huge management tool that we will implement more and more on our grass farm.”
Quotes from the in-field biological monitoring sessions held on farms were: “The observations get you right where things are important and give you a reason to come back next year.” “I learned a lot more from this training than would have if the farmer had not been there. Learned a lot from discussions between farmer and other agency personnel.” “In my opinion, field training is best. It’s very useful for me to get different perspectives, philosophies, and experiences of a practical nature.” “I love the concept of not just walking the land and looking, but recording this data to document and follow progress. This practice helps us truly know what is going on in the fields.” “This is an excellent teaching tool for us as well as the farmer since we tend to learn on a more visual style than book style.” “I would love to do something like this again!”
MILESTONE 3: 24 Participants work intensively with 3 farms each to complete a total of 72 holistic grazing plans.
To date, 30 project participants are working with over 76 farms to complete holistic grazing plans. The number will likely rise as more information is collected and the project enters its 2nd year. This process of learning to develop holistic grazing plans and to implement this important work and receive training is happening despite a lack of time, in particular in-field time. This is due to increased job duties, loss of conservation funding, demand for EQIP sign-ups on projects other than grazing, coordinating with farmer’s busy schedules, extreme flooding and coordinating FEMA applications with farmers. Additionally, there is trepidation on the part of participants in asking farms about personal goals and financial data and being conservative in implementing new ideas without first establishing a solid relationship with farmers. To quote one participant, “Everyone is overstretched on time management, theirs and mine. Most people want quick results. Learning grazing techniques takes commitment and many seasons to understand the benefits of this decision-making process, especially the intangibles. There is also a stereo-type in agriculture that we need to fix everything and not stop problems at the root causes.”
- NESARE Grazing planning session 2 notes
- Sample SARE_Grazing_Training_Evaluation session tools
- Country Folks article on biological monitoring pasture walk
- Article for NODPA
- newsletter article by grazing professional enrolled in the project
- article published in GRAZE magazine by project leader, Troy Bishopp
- DartsRus by Jenn Colby
- 2011 beneficiary form
- host farm wins conservation award in PA
- Holistic Management Land Planning principles
- training ppt. for grazing planning
- outreach article by Vermont coordinator, Jenn Colby
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
Leadership from the project’s outside evaluator, project leader and state project coordinators in developing survey tools and polling participants after every learning opportunity has been an integral and on-going measured validation in understanding the training needs, successes and challenges of local grazing professionals. Answers to questions on different teaching tools and techniques, holistic approaches and asking for personal comments have tended to be very real and surprising at times. This project monitoring shows we are in the “people relationship business” first and that change in working towards whole system thinking in sustainable agriculture takes time in understanding and implementing it within the current paradigms of traditional grazing planning.
This whole farm grazing approach to regenerating land, income and farm families has showed steady progress from the beginning as relationships and knowledge continue to mature. Each State and its local grazing professionals have unique experience levels with Vermont having the most. However, according to our survey 100% of participants indicated they have used the tools and trainings to enhance their knowledge base with the most growth in developing grazing plans, biological monitoring and developing farm family goals. Most indicated real stress in asking farmers for financial data to measure effectiveness of grazing planning on the bottom line and delving into personal goal setting, described by many as “too touchy-feely” and not part of their job description. Some in the project are prohibited from asking these questions which may add an un-expected level of diminished measurement.
To date and a work in progress moving into the 2012 grazing season, 60% of farmers have completed a whole farm goal, 40% have completed a monitoring plan and 75% have completed a written grazing plan. As an example to the power of teaching holistic planned grazing management, one large New York grazing farm documented by the owner, saved over $8,000 by adopting and implementing planned grazing with learning to stockpile pastures for extending grazing into winter and significantly reducing feed costs on 190 head of beef cattle.
The most telling contributions come from the survey’s questions on how this project has impacted the participant’s approach or affirmation to working with farmers and how farmers are changing their mindset to implementing these holistic strategies.
Grazing professional’s comments are: “I have learned there is more than one way to skin a cat, not just the agency way.” “I now spend a lot more time with the farmer trying to learn the long term goals of the farm.” “I have gained more broad-based experience, more education about various tools and more confidence in my knowledge.” “It has excited me and given me motivation to work on new areas of resource based items.” “If anything, it reinforces the approach I have always taken in that farming is a business yet it is a lifestyle or a calling that not everyone is cut out for.” “It reinforced the need to talk about “life” with the farmers instead of just conversation.” “I have learned how important farmer participation is to grazing success. Being out on the farm is the key. You can’t just deliver or manufacture plans.” “I have been guilty of compartmentalizing in the past but have realized through this project you cannot address only one facet of the operation and expect it to run smoothly.” “I appreciate the opportunity to learn from my peers and invited farmer guests. There is a lot of shared knowledge in a group away from an office setting.” “To this point it really has not changed much in my approach to farmers. I believe it is the farmer who needs to believe in the concept before you can take it to another level, no matter how much I may believe in it.” “This project has opened my eyes to what a comprehensive grazing plan really is. I am trying to get the farmers to see that it is more than just a practice they need to implement to acquire EQIP funding, but a practice that will positively affect not only their agricultural production, but also their family life.”
Participating farmers have indicated these trends: “They are thinking about both short and long term (within the grazing season) objectives in managing pastures. They are beginning to recognize how important soil health is to the system.” “I am working on educating them on the importance of resting pastures, or in some cases, grazing just may not be the best option for their operation.” “More open to seeing what kinds of systems might work, more open to creating a system that works for them that utilizes some aspects of HPG/MIG/IRG and prescribed grazing.” “What little I have done – I believe that the farmers are aware that this is going to be a joint effort and that they will need to put forth effort and thinking about what it is they are really working towards.” “Figuring out grazing takes time… the plan really can’t be finished in a year. It has to go through a few seasons. The big point to make is to promote root health so the plant thrives the following year. They seem to understand this and implement “rest” because it makes sense.” “Thinking more practically about issues such as soil tests, reseeding, stocking rates, grass id, weed management as impacts profitability. They seem to be broadening their views of what the farm needs to give back to them and how they can implement small changes to get big advantages.” “These farms have been grazing for a while, but this project has shown them the benefits of monitoring and taking a more active role in their grazing practices. One farm has seen significant changes in their forage quality after just 2 grazing seasons. They have become more active in seeking out local training opportunities to learn more about grazing practices and have also allowed other farmers to come and have a look at what they are doing. It has also been a benefit to have local grazing success stories.”
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