By Andrea Malmberg

I had the immense pleasure of walking several miles with my head down toward the soil surface last fall and spring on an exceptionally well-managed ranch in eastern Oregon. My charge was to establish an Ecological Health Index (EHI) baseline to inform a grazing management plan required for a conservation easement. I love doing Ecological Outcome Verification (EOV), particularly the short-term monitoring that assesses leading indicators. It allows me to see how past management practices create patterns of ecosystem process function or disfunction. It is as if the ecosystem processes are sending out signals that spark my creativity in designing ways for future ecological and financial uplift.

Not nearly as pleasurable, over the last few months, I poured over almost ten years of stubble height and utilization records from this ranch. For the most part, this was an administrative requirement to fulfill a contract though I tried to reframe it as an exercise in testing my opinion that there isn’t much use to this type of data.

The records documented an operation with multiple herds in a rest rotation grazing system. Most years were droughty, and some years, wildfire. When times got tough, these ranchers adapted all the while, making plenty of room to help neighbors and ensuring that sage grouse populations continued to thrive. The records of this one ranch tell the story of so many ranches in the west. I am full of admiration for their grit, smarts, and values. I’m also left feeling overwhelmed and anxious thinking about their day-to-day operations.

While I tried to be open to this widely used way to assess rangeland condition and set stocking rates, my opinion hasn’t changed. I simply don’t find much practicality, let alone inspiration, in measuring stubble height and estimating utilization. It’s like trying to drive by looking at the review mirror. I prefer to see where I’m going at the very least and, better yet, forge a new path toward designing my future resource base. Still, the data did tell a story, revealing why I have chosen to break ways from how I and so many others were taught to ranch, picking up Holistic Planned Grazing instead.

Solace in a Holistic Planned Grazing Chart

Today I’m writing you on our ranch experiencing a deep drought with air quality “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” With little snowpack, a lack of our typical spring rains, and daily temperatures in the high 80s to 106 Fahrenheit going on six weeks now, Holistic Planned Grazing gives us a little peace of mind in what can be an anxiety-ridden business. I believe that people who make decisions at the soil surface must flourish if we are to have a future where all beings can thrive. While I can’t say that we are flourishing given the current state of affairs, I’d like to share how specific concepts within holistic planned grazing are helping us to be resilient.

In many operations, areas of land are left un-grazed as a reserve or insurance against dry years. However, this can be risky because it can reduce livestock production in good years, resulting in less forage available to graze. Moreover, it can leave the un-grazed area prone to fire. To keep animal production high every year and spread the “drought reserve” over most of the land to reduce the risk of wildfires, we reserve days of grazing spread across most or all of the ground if possible. Another way to put it, we plan drought reserves as time reserves and not areas of land.

In any operation, stocking rate is a useful concept in that it tells us the number of animals the land can carry based on the forage available. Most ranchers also take into consideration wildlife needs on the same land. When practicing holistic planned grazing, we figure the stocking rate for the growing season based on estimated animal days per acre (ADA) that will be grown, seasonal weather predictions, and historical production. Most importantly, we monitor the growth rates as the animals are in the pastures and adapt as needed. If it looks like we are not getting the production we thought we would, we replan.

While it is never easy to destock productive animals with the genetics you have worked so hard to develop, the holistic grazing plan tied to the livestock production worksheet empowers your decisions. By basing stocking rates on the volume of forage available and how long it must last, we can take a forward-looking perspective. Armed with the insight of early warning indicators, we can adjust as needed. Ideally, this prospective thinking can help you destock before the market breaks or arrange for supplemental pasture or feed before prices skyrocket.

Because managers need to plan months ahead, cover drought reserves, livestock and wildlife needs, and other land uses, and to do this all based on plant recovery periods, it is best done on a grazing chart. The grazing chart provides a clear picture of where and when livestock needs to be, determining how managers plan their moves backward or forward. The chart is also essential for monitoring and adjusting or controlling the plan. If grazing periods need to be modified in the growing season, the effect on the recovery periods for plants in all grazing divisions must be easy to see. A grazing chart aids in this visibility.

The non-growing season plan aims to prepare the soil and plants for the coming growing season and ration out the remaining forage over the months ahead – right through to a month or more after main growth is expected to start. This additional “month or more” becomes the drought reserve to be used if the next growing season starts late.

All of this is much easier when we run as few herds as possible and allows us to provide the best graze-to-plant recovery ratio. In other words, we get shorter grazing periods and longer recovery periods. Each additional herd results in less growing time provided to plants and thus reduces the productivity of both plants and livestock. 

When we run as few herds as possible, animals can remain bunched and more effectively chip the soil surface with their hooves and trample down plant material to cover the soil so that air and water enter and new plants can grow. Scattered animals have less impact on the soil surface with their hooves and will create less litter to cover the soil surface. If animals bunched or scattered are left in any one place too long or returned to an area too soon, they will overgraze plants and compact and pulverize soils. Often people think that this high-intensity, short-duration management strategy is labor-intensive. However, in our experience, the more herds you have, the more labor it takes. When we concentrate herds, we concentrate labor.

By planning plant recovery times before grazing times, we can plan for recovery periods rather than grazing periods. This has enabled us to reserve certain areas for the animals at crucial times, like the grass-fed steers that need and thankfully will be finished for market next week because of Tony’s masterful execution of the grazing plan. 

Charting Toward Creativity

It’s a little crazy to think that planning opens up creativity, but by freeing your mind, anxiety dissipates so you can see more clearly the possibilities in front of you. As we charted and adjusted growth and recovery rates on our grazing chart, it was clear that we had to destock. I got sick to my stomach thinking about taking our lovely cows with fantastic grass-fed genetics to the sale barn where they wouldn’t be valued. At the same time, Tony was incredibly stressed because of the lack of feed and the prospects of a harsh winter. Creativity, guided by our holistic context and holistic grazing plan, led me to create a free ad on Craigslist. I thought it was a long shot, but I’m pleased to say that a few of our older cows and their calves are now grazing on Conservation Reserve Program land (CRP) that opened up to grazing because of the drought. I can’t express how much joy I have thinking about those hooves bringing back some life to that overrested land. I’m also pretty pleased that we made a nice profit.

Creativity is instrumental in the development of our species and cultures. It adds to the enjoyment of our lives, and no matter how we may wish for formulas when things seem so out of our control, they don’t exist. We cannot manage complexity. We can only influence complexity through human creativity. When we recognize this and become conscious of our ongoing creative expression, our relationship with life changes in wonderful ways. 

The recognition that we shape life as it flows through us, the land, livestock, and other beings is the most important realization. If you don’t consider yourself an artist or feel you haven’t got a good imagination, it may be difficult to claim this creative power. But if you can see that your day is full of choices, perhaps you can accept that these many choices are a continuous stream of creative possibilities. In a way, the grazing plan is the palette, the canvas, and the frame from which you can choose.

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