The best for animal husbandry and land stewardship is often a balanced decision. These past two years in north-central/northwest Missouri and a bit of southwest Iowa makes grazing management decisions tough to call. Two years of unusually dry and hot summers each followed by severe cold and long winters has left our pastures and pasture management in tatters. The following article printed in Midwest Marketer magazine is from Iowa State UniversityExtension beef specialists Erika Lundy and Denise Schwab offers some ideas for consideration. We live in toxic endophyte fescue country, so it is not a best practice to encourage its growth with the addition of any type of applied nitrogen. Legumes planted can mitigate the effects by replacing the poisonous grass, but must be managed with proper grazing.
One of the best educational conferences, Missouri Livestock Symposium, in the state of Missouri, with an outstanding lineup of speakers every year is free to attend and a free lunch sweetens the pot. But all that aside, it is an excellent opportunity for farmers/ranchers/beekeepers/horse owners/stock dog enthusiasts to learn, not only from ‘experts’ but mostly from each other. Like most industry, farmers learning and networking with other farmers often results in more improvement.
Of the many takeaways from the symposium was a brochure that hubby, Allen, picked up from the ATTRA-NCAT booth on “Building Healthy Pasture Soils.” While the bullet points they make have been known for millennia, it doesn’t hurt to revisit them to see if a return to the old ways will be profitable and regenerative for today’s farming. The answer is already a resounding ‘yes’ for the hand’s on land owner, but is debatable (short term anyway) for the renter or absentee land owner. As my son’s fiance pointed out, it takes at least 4 years of regenerative farming practices to turn that soil health around. Renters will not want to invest in a long term fertility strategy; absentee landowners are typically only interested in immediate returns in the form of annual cash rent.
Excerpt from article:
Strategies for Building Healthy Soils
Let’s consider the agricultural practices that help build healthy soil. In essence, we want to increase aggregation, contribute soil organic matter, increase biodiversity, buffer soil temperature, and minimize soil compaction and disturbance. Sounds like a lot, right?
Well, not really, if we break them down into six basic principles. Let’s take a quick look at the principles that will define our soil management practices:
Minimizing tillage preserves soil structure, encourages aggregation, and keeps soil carbon in the soil profile where it belongs. Tillage brings a flush of oxygen into the soil that spurs microbes into a feeding frenzy on carbon molecules, resulting in CO2 release. We reduce tillage through the use of perennial pasture and minimum or no-till of cover crops.
Maintaining living roots in the soil for as much of the year as possible feeds soil microorganisms all year.
Also, by maintaining living roots and leaving grazing residual, we are covering the soil all year, forming an “armor” to protect it from loss of moisture and nutrients.
Maintaining species diversity is achieved with cover crop mixes and the use of diverse perennial-pasture mixes. Try to incorporate warm- season and cool-season plants, both grasses and broadleaf plants, in the same fields.
Managing grazing is accomplished by planning for an appropriate grazing-recovery period on your paddocks, keeping in mind that plants need various recovery periods depending on the species, the time of year, and the soil moisture content. Overgrazing (not allowing adequate recovery) reduces root mass, photosynthesis, and the amount of carbon sequestered into the soil, decreasing soil life. Proper grazing builds soil.
Finally, utilizing animal impact and grazing impact provides nutrient cycling in pastures, and contributes to soil organic matter. Additionally, the grazing action on forage plants encourages root growth and root exudation of plant sugars that feed soil microorganisms.
For livestock producers, this boils down to a combination of perennial pasture, cover crops in rotation on annual fields, and good grazing management. These simple concepts are described by ranchers Allen Williams, Gabe Brown, and Neil Dennis in a short video on how grazing management and cover crops can regenerate soils. View the video Soil Carbon Cowboys to get their take on soil health practices.
Managing means planning AND implementing. All the planning in the world will not enact change or improvement; action and motivation drives profitability and regeneration. If you are not motivated, not able to get things done in a timely manner, then get someone to come alongside you and map out a plan – yet YOU are the one to ‘git ‘er done. Too many times, i see people with excellent plans stymied by their inability to get out of the chair and off the paper – i call that analysis paralysis. Don’t be a victim!
Dave Pratt, owner of Ranch Management Consultants (formerly known as Ranching for Profit) hits it on the head again with another great blog entry. Although his niche is specifically ranching, the ideas he shares are often for any business.
I occasionally lead workshops I call Hard Work and Harmony: Effective Relationships In Family Businesses. In it I like to ask participants to explain to the person next to them why they ranch. Some say they love being their own boss, or love working outdoors and with livestock. Almost all of them say something about loving the lifestyle. Near the top of most people’s lists is, “It’s a great place to raise a family.”
I agree. I grew up on a small place. The biology lessons I learned from tending livestock were more influential than any I ever had in a classroom. I learned other lessons too. I learned how to work hard and how to be resourceful. But it wasn’t just about work. Our place was a great setting for any adventure my imagination could conjure up. My mom sold it when I was in college and it just about broke my heart.
A ranch can be a great place to raise a family, but it isn’t always. I worked with a rancher shortly after my son, Jack, was born. When we broke for lunch he asked about my new baby. I told him that when they placed Jack in Kathy’s arms for the first time, I could hardly see him for the tears of joy streaming down my face. Tears welled up in his eyes too, but they weren’t tears of joy. Trying to hold back a flood of emotion, he told me how he had worked sun up to sun down to build a place “for the generations to come.” He said that he hadn’t been as involved in his children’s lives as he should have been. As we sat on the hill, he told me that now he rarely hears from his adult children, who want no part of the ranch. A ranch can be a great place to raise a family, but it is not a substitute for our active involvement in family life.
Many ranchers are addicted to work. I’ll bet you’ve even heard some of your colleagues brag about how long and hard they work, proudly proclaiming things like, “I haven’t taken a vacation in 20 years.” They say it as though it is something to be proud of. When I hear things like that I shake my head wondering, “Are things that bad?” You can’t run a sustainable business on unsustainable effort.
Intentional or not, work can become an excuse to avoid working through the issues every healthy family faces at one point or another. When work consistently takes precedence over family needs, we set ourselves and our families up for trouble. Engaging in what may be uncomfortable conversations when issues first come up can keep them from growing into big problems.
In the last few months I’ve met a number of people who are learning that lesson the hard way. After decades of avoiding uncomfortable family issues they are facing extremely difficult challenges regarding succession. Now, without any experience working with one another to resolve small issues, they are hoping to work through the most difficult challenges many of us will ever face. The conversations are made even more difficult because of the hurts that have gone untended and the resentments that have grown from not taking care of the family in the family business. It’s a tough way to learn that success has more to do with healthy relationships than with conception rates and balance sheets.
I don’t mean to suggest that the physically demanding work that ranches require can be ignored, but it doesn’t have to be all consuming. Many Ranching For Profit School alumni have discovered that the ranch was all consuming only because they allowed it to be that way. After the school they restructured the business to increase profit and liberate their time to put more life in their work/life balance. They still work as hard as anyone, just not as long. Their ranches are great places to raise their families, andthey actually take the time and make the effort to be directly involved in raising them.
To hear how one RFP alumnus decreased the work required to run their ranch while increasing profit and improving their quality of life, click here.
There seems to be a resurgence of retirees wanting to get back to a ‘simple’ life of growing their own garden and/or raising their own animals for food, milk, and/or fiber. Interestingly, it also seems to attract the young set as well with high hopes of being self-sufficient on the land. Nothing wrong with those ideals, but our American culture and requirements are different than what they were 100 or even 50-60 years ago. Many of our expenses are out of our control (health insurance, liability insurance, our reliance on electricity, phones, internet, medical expenses are out of sight, vehicles, petrol, etc, etc), so the ‘farm’ whether it is a hobby size or much larger needs to not only cover these expenses, but operating expenses as well. In other words, one must turn a profit to be sustainable. Don’t forget that ‘simple’ certainly does not mean easy.
I’ve blogged on this before, but one thing that is a killer to many striking out in an agrarian lifestyle is to get FAR TOO MANY irons in the fire. Focus on what you like to do and that which will also turn a profit quickly. After you become financially successful as to being out of debt and putting away a bit of savings, find other ‘holons‘ which will complement or add value to the core activity. Don’t be distracted by get-rich schemes – they do not exist in agriculture. If you have a town job – hang on to it until the farm is a going concern. Doing both is hard – no doubt – but staying out of debt is tantamount to being successful.
This type of operation is typically termed ‘holistically managed’ and there are resources to help you determine a course of action. Our first introduction to this type of thinking was through Holistic Management Resources now known as HMI, Holistic Management International. This link will take you directly to some free downloadable planning tools and and teaching materials. Allan Savory and his wife, Jody Butterfield, started HMI, but have now moved on to start a new organisation called Savory Institute. The Savory Institute website has numerous videos and papers for your perusal.
Marketing – where will you sell your product?
Equipment – how much will the initial investment be? How often will it be used? Does it have multiple uses? How can you make money with what you already own? If there is equipment you don’t use, consider selling it.
Time – when will the cash start flowing back to you?
Weather – Ag enterprises look so easy on paper, but consider that you have no control over the weather and inclement extremes can bring diseases in both plants and animals as well as drought and flooding, damaging hail can destroy thousands of acres of crops in just minutes. Be prepared, both financially and mentally, for complete failures and steep market price declines.
Government – you also have no control over government policies as it picks winners and losers.
Don’t spread yourself out to a lot of enterprises – especially those that are not related – you’ll be exhausted all the time and seldom see a financial reward. Also try to purchase multi-purpose equipment.
Learn from others’ failures, mistakes, and accomplishments. Your situation may be different, but there is no use setting up the same hurdles others have taken down. Some practices simply DO NOT WORK in some or all locales and situations.
Hindsight, of course, is much clearer as to making business decisions, but there are basic principles to be followed.
What is your dream job/career/life? And how are you moving towards it? Have you already experienced your dream job and found it wanting? Why?
Founded and organised by David Schafer and Dennis McDonald way back in 1988 and bolstered by a generous grant from the Kellogg’s Foundation, Green Hills Farm Project emerged as a grassroots driven and attended by farmers, ranchers, and anyone interested in sustainable agriculture each month. Farmers volunteer to host a farm walk at their place for nearly each month of the year and these dates are posted now on a facebook page by the same name. We share our stories, improvements, failures, successes, and plans for the future with attendees who then volunteer experiences and ideas amongst themselves and the host. This is an amazing group of forward-thinking producers trying to help each other be financially as well as environmentally sustainable.
With dues still at only $20 per individual or family, this is the best investment going. Green Hills Farm Project members also put together an annual winter seminar with nationally known popular speakers making presentations in our little town of Linneus, Missouri with attendance fees varying from $20-$40! This is for speakers who typically command upwards of $500 per person!
Farm walks have traditionally been scheduled for the evenings of the third Thursdays of each month, but have increasingly been held on moveable Saturdays at noon, include a potluck meal with meat or main dish, service, and drinks provided by the host family. The actual walk itself typically lasts 1-2 hours followed by a very short meeting. Green Hills Farm Project encourages families, even the youngest children to attend since one of the goals is to promote and assist future farmers.
Since 1862, the number of producers in the United States dropped from 97% of the population to today’s less than 2%! Due in part to increased mechanisation (thank goodness!), but also that farming is hard work, long hours, low pay, and low return on investment. Little wonder young people continue to leave the home place in droves! The USDA agriculture census indicates that a 30 year trend of less young people entering farming as the average age of a farmer continues to rise. Additionally, not quite half of the 2.1 million American farmers site farming as their main source of income!
With less than 1% of the population engaged in full-time farming, is the United States setting itself up for a food security meltdown? How much do we want to depend on others to provide our food? Time will tell as most Americans continue to buy the cheapest food possible, regardless of the cost to their own health, the health of their communities, and environments, or the welfare of the country at large.
If you’d like to join and/or participate in Green Hills Farm Project farm walks, contact me or for up-to-date information, ‘like’ Green Hills Farm Project facebook page. Next farm walk is Saturday, November 29th (2014) at Greg and Jan Judy’s Green Pastures Farm. Meet at 11:30am with tour starting at 1pm. Bring a potluck dish to share.