Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The Quivira Coalition - A land health movement

Well you know I really have no idea how many people are reading this nowadays. There is meant to be some way of checking how many hits you get but I haven't sorted it out. For all I know I am ranting to the void that is cyberspace! Anyway undeterred I carry on...

I've been at a conference for the past three days, whilst I normally feel more comfortable on a farm or ranch than anything else, it has been good to stay in one place and recieve some information in a different way for a change.

The conference was run by the Quivira Coalition - they are an organisation that has been set up to try and address the differences between what had been traditional age old enmities - environmentalists and ranchers (and a few others.) OK, that is actually probably putting it far too simplistically but the essence of the organisation is to get people together and try and find new ways of addressing old problems relating to agriculture and the environment. Or simply addressing the old issues through a prism.

For readers in the UK it is kind of like getting the Environment Agency, NFU, RSPB, Soil Association and others together and then saying "forget about all the single issue agenda's and all that, lets do something which gives us all a common aim and brings us together" the premise being you can't solve the individual issues without looking at the context of the bigger system. The key to its positive atmosphere is that a lot of old baggage was left at the door quite a few conferences ago.

Now it does all sound a bit too good to be true and for sure, the Quivira Coalition probably doesn't represent a typical cross section of ranchers in South Western USA but its something of a start. Sometimes old enmities can be generational and intergenerational - Quivira seems to try to act as a touchstone for those who want to look at traditional arguments afresh as well as learn some new things. I liked the vibe, ranchers were articulate and educated about the ecology they worked in and recognised a lot of the problems that needed addressing such as overgrazing. Equally a lot of the people who work in the public and political sectors recognised and valued the ranching tradition greatly. There was a good spectrum of people, it was female and young person friendly as well which gave it a vitality.

In fact some of this was my first taste of real Western ranch culture. A lot of the ranch people were loyal to their traditions. There were quite a lot of pointed cowboy boots going clickety click on the floor, western style shirts, big tie brooch's and ten gallon hats for the men. The ladies usually had colourfully embroidered or sequined blouses and figure hugging jeans (I did notice!). To most attendees there this was nothing but normal, but it was something I noticed and thought was pretty authentic and quite special. Much the same way that in its own way, my local county show is with its bowler hats, or the livestock market with the tweed flat caps is!

This years conference was themed around a mid twentieth century ecological and conservation writer called Aldo Leopold. I hadn't really known a lot about him but he is generally considered the father of the "land" movement and from this various sub streams have spilled out over the years - conservation, environmentalism, agrarianism. Although this was the strand that united the conference the talks and speakers were immensely varied. From dung beetles, to wolves, to grassland managemen,t to interpreting beauty in nature via art, to amish farming, to horse management on a navajo ranch, to prarie literature, to promoting healthy local food. Ok you get the picture!

Before I went, being a typical human being I tried to pigeonhole it and therefore because I didn't quite understand what it trying to achieve, I almost thought it as a bit dreamy. The point is that in agriculture all things matter - its is not just about food production. Its other strands should be celebrated, commercialised, articulated, whatever. In fact one of the most enduring images for me would be the Amish farmer, the Navajo Indian horsewoman, a grizzled old rancher, a biochemical scientist and a Californian earth mother type sharing a question and answer session. All completely different people, all with the same core values of restoring and retaining the health of the land. It sounds dreadfully politically correct and it would be were it not for the fact that it works immensely well.

Suffice to say it was an stimulating and fun three days, I made a lot of friends, sadly all of whom will probably be fleeting. It will be interesting to follow Quivira's progress over the years.

More on the Quivira Coalition: 

Ranching in the Desert

Roger Bowe, San Jon, New Mexico

Roger Bowe is one of the few full time ranchers in his area - most of the others tend to work in town to fund the ranch or live far away and just use it as a hobby. 10,000 acres as a hobby? - I know! This erosion of a farming community is something which Roger laments, his local town of San Jon is becoming a dusty ghost town - and this was one of the towns on America's original mother road Route 66, itself almost extinct and replaced by a bigger freeway.

The environment in which Roger has to ranch is extremely brittle, technically a desert. His story is an interesting one, this part of New Mexico was pretty much the last area of the USA to be homesteaded in 1907 after the USA bought it from the Spanish. Before that it was mostly herding cowboys but the homesteading was an attempt to get people to put roots down on the land. At the time the attraction was that you would have been offered 320 acres of land in New Mexico whereas you only got a 160 in places like Oklahoma and other parts of the Great Plains. The thing was that the land was simply not very fertile, the rains were not very dependable and after trying to grow corn and cotton the dustbowl of the 30's hit and a lot of people left. In between 1901-1930 Roger told me there were 14 smokestacks in view of his ranch - now there are none. Roger even said he was about the youngest rancher in the area - and I guessed he was about 50. It made me feel a bit sad really. All this land, needing good management, nobody young coming through and the price of land being to expensive for new entrants to buy anyway...

Anyway enough of the history! In about 1985 Roger went to one of Allan Savory's grazing schools and he says it changed his way on thinking. For him the issues of overgrazing, invasive species and erosion were evident and he felt he needed to change.

He started to divide up his 13000 acres of ranchland into paddocks of 130-250 acres. It has cost him about $5 acre to do this - he used old telephone wires for the electric strand and an assortment of metal posts. Efficient and environmentally friendly!
Picture Right: Notice how he has two strands of wire. Only the top one is live. In this dry climate he finds he cannot get a decent earth from the ground so the second strand is the earth. Also it means calves can go under the strand for a bit of extra feeding until they get too big and zapped.

On the pick up ride around the farm which I have now become accustomed to (in the pick up and round the kitchen table is the best way to get any information from a rancher or farmer) he explained his system:

"I'm the only full time guy around here now. I have to make a living from the ranch so its important that it wipes its face" he told me. "Firstly the more paddocks you have the less mistakes you make because it means you don't have to come back too soon." said Roger "in this landscape if you come back too soon then in three or four years time you can end up in a big rick - especially if you have upped your stocking rates in this brittle landscape."
Roger runs two herds. One of first calf heifers and younger which he feeds a bit extra protein as there are times of no green in the desert and then one of older cows. Also he says his first calf heifer is doing three things - still growing, calving one and trying to get into shape for the next one. He runs about 300 cow/calf pairs of older cows and 130 of younger ones. Calfs are sold at 8 months @ 700lb to the feedlot for finishing. It would be difficult - but far from impossible, Roger says - to finish out here. The cows are Angus (because thats what everyone wants!) and are put to a Charolais. This is double the stocking rate of the ranch when conventionally grazed, neither did he have to destock in a recent 3 year drought when his neighbours did."

He also says his cows last longer. They used to be culled at 8 years and now they will last 12-15 years. He doesn't know why exactly but he does know that in this extremely tight system replacements are a major cost.

Roger is as much a practical ecologist as a farmer - in fact more of a conservationist than many of those in environmental movements could understand.

"My land is rested for 95% of the year" he says " and it is this rest and then intense grazing that helps me provide good grass and better diversity for the ranch. Everything comes back better after a short intense graze, the herd effect is crucial." He pointed out one good example of diversity - "see this Yucca", (it was a sharp leaved cactus like plant with slim leaves) "that has saved me quite a few times in a dry Spring. The cattle will eat it that first. I need to make sure that I get as much cover as possible, without this the land will cap and nothing will grow here. Only broom snakeweed and mesquito grass which stock would rather starve than eat."
He also points out that some of the invasive species don't like trampling and so this allows other more palatable species to come in. Also biodiversity is key because in various years one species will do better than another, he's counted up to 20 species here in a transect.
When he moves his cows he deliberately does it in as calm and unobtrusive manner as possible. They know his routine - every morning he will open a new gate and they will all charge in for new grass. He doesn't shut the gate from the day before because as its so extensive there may be a stray newborn or cow left around which would catch up within a day.
He explains to me that in a herd the cattle act completely differently. They used to like being apart in conventional but now in the herd they cannot bear to be away from each other. This is why he never has to worry about running off or closing back fences - they simply don't want to be apart. He tells me at first it may stress the cattle but their behaviour changes in various ways.

Finally Roger reminded me that you can't really overgraze in the winter/ dormant season so he is more likely to extend the grazing cylce in the paddocks and maybe move them once every two days and keep them a little more rationed, besides it gives him more time to play Golf!

More on Roger:

Allan Savory

For those of you who are interested, Allan Savory who developed the Holistic Management Framework is going to be in London running a workshop on Nov 14th.

This would be pretty interesting I reckon. It is invitation only but if any of you have had your appetities whetted by what your reading on this then you should be able to request a place in the workshop.

Please contact for info.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Beginning Farmer

Torray Wilson, Paullina, NW Iowa

There aren't many young farmers (or beginning farmers as they call them in the US) in this part of Iowa, Torray Wilson tells me. Most of the guys around him are in their late 50's and most of them follow a corn/ soybean rotation. Which works for them says Torray, but its a very expensive, borrowing-heavy method of farming to get into. Besides which, he had always had an interest in grazing and looking at the bigger picture.

Torray and family farm about 640 acres organically, he graduated from college in 2005 and has since been introducing new grazing ideas to his farming, luckily he is supported by his open minded family.

He grows organic corn (maize), soybeans and oats and these are sold off the farm for cash. He also has a burgeoning sheep, cattle and pig enterprise. He generally runs his sheep and cattle all together as a mob. He has plans to cull 1/3 of his 300 sheep flock though because he wants to improve the breeding. He has a cross of wool and hair sheep for his flock - he finds the hair sheep don't put on the meat ( sheep have a parasite which shed the wool in the spring)

Previously he was doing New Zealand style MiG with cool season grasses, keeping it short. He has since started to let the grass grow longer almost to seed and he feels he has seen the benefits. He says his animals seem more contented with a varied diet. Previously he may have rotated every 30 days or so, now he grazes no more than three or four times a year on a paddock. He doesn't really like the term mob grazing - "the key thing is putting down the litter not the mob and so I prefer to call it planned grazing" he tells me.

"There's a fine line between being out of grass and having too much, too rich grass" says Torray of MIG. He still says he's learning his art but it looks to me that he's well on the way. When I visited he was holding the equivalent of 90 cattle on a 1/4 paddock for the day. What was more he had a lot of stockpiled pasture and then maize stalks in which to keep them for the winter. He has made no hay this year in attempt to push his system - his pasture monitoring tells him he won't need any. When I was there he was deliberately rationing the animals to get them through the winter but in the growing season when he wants to maximise trampling and compensatory growth he has had 180 animal units on 1.2 acres a day.

On the left you can see what a days work with cattle is for Torray. Lift the one strand electric fence and let them through. The area on the left is yesterdays feed. All the trampled down stuff will become soil food for next year. He expects to be back next spring in this field.

Torray likes to keep his mob as one. He notices each species has a different benefit - for example that sheep trample more because there are more hooves per lb. That said sheep predation is a lot less with cattle as they gang up against the coyotes. In the winter Torray will go back to continous grazing for the sheep or give them a bigger area and move them once a week. You cannot overgraze grass in the dormant season so he has more leeway. The cattle will still be moved daily.

The Wilsons can get up to 40" rain a year and so its getting to be the equivalent of some areas of the UK. "If your not careful you can soon turn to mud" Torray told me "so daily moves are important, as is the rest and trampling which continually build your roots and infiltration." When he short MIG pastures they turned to mud a lot quicker.

Torray emphasised to me that if you graze too early in this system you can really reduce your tonnage of grass. So for example if you turn your animals in at boot stage not at maturity recovery is a lot longer. He aims to have a 5-6ft high pasture for them in the height of summer - though this would be helped by the warm season grasses.

For calving in May and June Torray will give the cows a bigger paddock as he thinks the stocking density could be a bit stressful. So for example then they will get two acres a day and then he will increase moves to twice a day in summer on smaller areas.

Photo left: The little blob at the end of the finger is a worm cast. Excretia that is actually new soil. No onther creature can do this and the worm cannot do this or allow soil to become carbon sinks and increase organic matter levels unless theyt get some surface trampling.

At the moment Torray rotates 4 years of pasture with three years of corn, soybeans and oats which are undersown with grass. I was pretty impressed with it all, Torray had only been farming since 2005! The land could clearly handle more cattle and they were planning to scale up in time and buy into the herd that was being grazed (they were custom grazed).

He reckoned that his weakest link was marketing and he wanted to try and get further up the food chain. One thing I have noticed with a lot of these holistic management guys is that they are keen to be price makers, and its not because they can't make the system pay because its efficent, its more to do with having got the management side of things good enough to allow time to focus on developing other things.

He recent ly had an open day on farm and 60 people turned up - more than he expected. He said there was a lot of interest but one of the biggest problems and the age old one I have found in talking to people is that you need to take a paradigm shift ie you need to look at your farming in a different way. And this is one of the reasons that universities and others have found it difficult to put it in their cirriculums. Oh and the fact that you can farm more for a lot less than before which means there's no money to promote it!!

More on Torray here:

Monday, November 2, 2009

Organic farming and Holistic Management

Tom German, Holstein, NW Iowa

Tom German is an organic farmer but also just about to finish his training as a Holistic managment certified educator. I found that Tom was a particularly articulate in the way he explained things. He farms predominantly cattle and also sells in other niche markets.

He gave me his story. When he started his farming career he was pretty much the same as all his neighbours - mainly cropping, mainly corn and soybeans. All the livestock had left long before, in his grandparents days. That said he had always had an interest in grazing and one day picked up a copy of the Rodale Institute's magazine NEWFARM which was dedicated to organic farming. This also led him on to another publication called STOCKMAN AND GRASS FARMER, which was dedicated to promoting grazing animals. And from an advert in this publication he became introduced to the Holistic Management International organisation. Pretty much all of what philosophies these three introductions have given Tom have stayed with him today as he has developed his own organic grass fed enterprise serving niche and sometimes commodity markets.

"We started using some of the Holistic Management concepts in around '96" Tom told me "but it was quite difficult to implement some of the ideas as there was not so much backup. So I would say I'd been using HM since '96, but not well."

Tom said he had been drawn to this system for a number of reasons, firstly was that he had highly erodable land and he wasn't particularly willing to see it head down stream. He also didn't like the amount of chemicals he was using on the land. "Cows are my kind of no till, but better" he told me.

Tom was definitely one of the most articulate thinkers on HM that I've met so far and I couldn't help but feel that anyone asking the questions was always going to get a complete and considered reply from him.

He said when looking at HM first of all you need to define your holistic goal. Everything else you want to do is a finer point within the context of the goal. He had his written up in A4 format stuck on his fridge door. There was a pencil by it as well, to allow any members of the family to alter it. The holistic goal was basically what you want and how you plan to get there - (it deserves greater explanation than that but for the sake of the blog!)

So therefore Tom drummed into me that all the other stuff I have been getting excited about like mob grazing, or soil building, or top quality no till etc. are not just a means in themselves but tools to allow someone to achieve the holistic goal.

Tom explained his enthusiasm for organic grass fed and he said that he felt it was the most sustainable system for livestock farming. "The problem with the feedlot system is that it not only is it heavily subsidised but also it only works because we are cost shifting a lot of our environmental problems from it elsewhere" said Tom "such as the erosion from the rowcrops, the manure being confined and redistibuted from one central place and that the health of the animals and the consumers of the systems products are not particularly healthy." Tom felt that if we were in free market where those environmental costs were not shifted away, and if there was not so much subsidy surrounding the corn/soybean/ feedlot system then his grassfed system would easily compete better, if it doesn't already.

But there are potential difficulties with a mob grazing system and grazing tall. The advantages of the short grazing duration followed by a long rest means that Tom feels in the long term he has greater harvest efficiency of his grass. "But you can see some slippage" says Tom "don't expect miracles it can take a little while for cattle to adapt to being in herd and sometimes they will go little backwards first, maybe two years for it to be fully acclimitised."

Tom doesn't rotate his sheep at the moment they tend to roam around under the single strand that keeps the cattle in. In the summer he will move his cows once a day, and in the winter for 100 days he will strip graze a stockpile of grass. Last year he fed 50% hay and 50% from the stockpile. He plans to continue tipping this balance in favour of the stockpile.

These are some of the key things on grazing and HM I picked up from Tom:

  • A lot of people don't necessarily understand what HM is about. A lot of the time they have a perception of what is means before really looking at it.
  • HM is essentially a very thorough management system. So thorough that it is hard to implement fully and completely. Just think of it as an evolving process.
  • "We are what we eat" - Consumers are willing to take information to a grocery store on decisions on health for diet etc. but not always back to the farm to the animals and soil.
  • Economic cycles are short sighted. HM asks you to plan not just what you want now, but what do you want to see in three generations, therefore it drives ideas of sustainability.
  • The key when grazing is the rest. Rest benefits plant communities hugely - it lets a plant fully express itself. And consequently allows it to contribute more to the soil health and fertility.
  • When mob grazing aim to uniformly impact all plants and give sufficent recovery time for the slowest recovering plant. This is the only way to keep diversity in the system.
  • This very plant diversity creates more stability and resilience. Not every year is the same, some plants do better than others. This is why we rotate.
  • The more species you have, the more you get back. So if you slot in more animals into a grazing system they don't necessarily take away from the other ones, but

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ultra low cost small scale grazing

Greg Carlton, Knox County, Nebraska

Greg Carlton won't mind me saying this, but he has had to work from the bottom up. Having worked on or around farms for years he is now working on getting his own unit up and running.

His first philosophy is never to get attatched to anything. He is renting a small farm and he tells me if a bigger landholding came up at anytime he could be ready to pack up and go at anytime. And I thought the idea of the West being footloose frontierland died out ages ago! He says its important to keep flexible and not invest in any equipment or needless distractions from the main goal of gaining production without using capital. He says he never got on well with banks anyway and is proud that he doesn't need them now!

He has improved stocking rates on land that had previously been very denuded, by three fold. He wants to keep his sytem low tech - as you can see by his one significant cost on the left - the bale unroller.

Greg's strategy is to mob graze cows in the summer, he'll calve may and june. They then will go to standing corn and then rolled out hay on the corn field or some outlying land.

The following are bits of advice from my notes when I spent the afternoon looking a Greg's system:
  • Keep it simple and low tech. Holistic planned grazing will maintain species diversity, build organic matter and enhance the mineral cycle. Thats your capital.

  • Aim for low fossil fuel use and high animal use. Always look around for what you can use instead of buying it.

  • Never make your own hay! - If you need hay buy it. Five years out of six hay is cheaper to buy in than make. You need to count the nutrients and organic matter your adding with hay.

  • Green corn (standing maize) is a great feed. Half the price of shelled corn. He no-tills maize into pasture to extend his season and strip grazes it.

  • The herd will teach an animal everything he needs to know.

  • A heifer calving at three will last much longer than one at two. Don't push them

Greg's aim is to grow slow and steady, without debt. I couldn't help be impressed by his attitude and his efficiency. The picture where he is bale unrolling means he is adding organic matter to an area of the farm that needs more.

Sometimes a lot of the bigger graziers are wondering what Greg is doing because although a small farmer, he is known for his innovation and they want to see how much they can translate to their operations. The grazing corn thing is a case in point with a lot of farmers being risk averse to doing it even though the economics stack up very strongly in its favour.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Where the Buffalo roam.

Chad Peterson, Sandhills, North Central Nebraska

Chad Peterson farms some tough land. The sandhills where he farms are pretty much just that - sand. Coupled with the extremes of the praries climate you've gotta be a tough farmer and a tough cow to make your living out here.
Chad used to farm buffalo out here but now he has changed tack and breeds cattle, with the precaution that he needs to have a cow as tough as the buffalo as he can possibly get in order for them to survive on the poor grasses and the harsh weather.
His inspiration for this comes from when he related a story from his grandmother in the 1930's when there was a very tough winter. They had Buffalo and Cows in those days and throughout the winter his grandfather needed to attempt to feed the cows throughout the winter at much cost. In the event a large number of the cows died but the following spring the buffalo were all there - quite accustomed to the natural way of things.
He currently breeds Highland cows crossed with a Hereford bull. The result is a fairly hairy looking Hereford which he hopes the meat trade will accept well. He tells me he is particularly hard on his bulls in the winter - "I get them from a guy in Montana who makes them live quite a tough life and forage for what they can get. And then over the winter I will stick them on some of my grazing pastures and they just hasve to stick it out. If they die, they die. I've got to breed strong enough for this type of system because I don't want the costs of winter feeding etc. The Highlands are particularly well adapted to this system as well as mothering well and being calm enough to corral once or twice a year. He expects his cows to last about 20 years, calving each year.

Chad mob grazes in the summer months to maximise compensatory growth and improve his pastures, in the winter he will stockpile an area for the cattle and leave them roam on this. A mob grazer will say overgrazing in the winter is not a problem as the plant is dormant. He can do this as his landbase is very large.

On the left is Chads water tank. In the summer when mob grazing his 600 strong herd all he has to do is drag this portable tank to the graze area which takes 20 minutes a day and then lift his electric fence. In the height of summer he will graze 600 animals extremely tightly for around 4 hours a day. The resultant hoof impact and manure on the tallgrass prarie is helping build dark brown organic matter where once was pure sand. For comparison we looked at areas that were not mob grazed as intensely and the lack of fertility was clearer. Its all to do with greater intensity of grazing yielding yet greater intensity underneath.

I asked him what his neighbours thought - he said they think its crazy as they're so used to making hay. He tells them "you know whats in hay?" "what?" they reply "Grass!" he said with a big booming laugh. He doesn't want to make hay, he doesn't have to drag anything to them in winter - he can leave if out in the field in standing buffet form for the animals.

Chad doesn't finish any animals yet. He still has a niche buffalo meat enterprise though. He took me in the truck to see them and we chased them in the around in the 4 wheeler. The buffalo actually seemed to enjoy it - its their bit of sport for the day, the adrenalin seemed good for both parties I thought. Chad only has 100 buffalo now but as we shifted them across the dunes and seeing them striding out as a herd I felt I may have got just a minute glimpse of what the power of a 2 million strong herd may have been like 400 years ago - what collective energy!

Chad feels that the potential of grazing has been for too long ignored. Not only are these animals actually building organic matter and therefore carbon in the soils but he thinks they are more efficent than any other method of producing beef.

He gave me this idea to chew on. "It is often estimated there used to be 60 million Buffalo in the US before the Europeans turned up. They reckon there are about 30 million cows in the usa now. If we stocked the same density and system throughout Nebraska as I do here - and this is not the best land - we would be able to stock 20 million cattle in Nebraska alone, and improve our soils better than any feedlot system."

So he put it to me that actually counter to what we are all being told if you want to save the planet - EAT BEEF!