Holistic management: land, people and profit

CEW-MR-2-Holistic manag#175by Tamara Scully
Holistic Management International is a 501c-3 nonprofit organization, based in New Mexico. HMI is focused on improving farm sustainability via a management training program which addresses environmental, economic, and social issues on the farm.
Recently, staff from the New Mexico office, along with several New York-based certified HMI educators and local grazing experts, gathered to lead three dozen participants on a workshop tour of Creekside Meadows Farm, in DeRuyter, NY.
Holistic Management planning
Erica Frenay, a certified HMI educator, farmer, and coordinator of the Cornell Small Farms Northeast Beginning Farmer Program, explained how Holistic Management can “create a foundation to set our farm up for success in the long-term.”
Frenay emphasized the Holisitic Management approach is a decision-making tool, with guides designed to help farmers ask the right set of questions when making decisions on the farm.
“We as farmers have a really unique profession. We take sunlight, and turn it into money,” Frenay said. “Everything that we do has a financial, ecological and economic component to it.”
It is this multi-faceted approach to farm health which characterizes Holistic Management, and allows the opportunity for on-farm decision-making to be based on the needs and the ultimate goals of the farm. After deciding what your goals are for your land, you then use your grazing and cropping practices to shape your land from what it is now, to what you want it to be, Frenay explained.
The purpose of Holistic Management, said Frenay, is to get “the right number of animals to the right place at the right time,” to achieve your long-term goals for the land. The decision-making process can be overwhelming, but applying your Holistic Management goals when addressing concerns simplifies things.
Practicing holistically
On the 150-acre Creekside Meadows Farm, owners Tricia and Matt Park, along with son Cameron, have built a diverse multi-species grazing operation. The farm pasture-raises beef, pigs, meat chickens and turkeys. After purchasing the farm in 2011, the family began working to improve the pastures. Long-abused and neglected, the land was moss-covered and depleted after 10 years of being conventionally cropped for alfalfa hay.
Moss was preventing water from soaking into the land, causing runoff problems. They knew that removing the moss would allow grasses to germinate. Chickens were the solution. After putting meat birds on the poor pasture, they experienced a 50 percent decrease in moss. Grazing the cows through then eliminated almost all of the rest of it.
The cows also trampled and grazed through overgrown areas, where, along with a large contingent of goldenrod, the pasture was six feet tall in places, with “not good stuff” growing, Tricia Park said. By managing the grazing, the actions of the animals helped to promote a healthier environment, where long-dormant seeds could be activated and emerge. The pasture is now dotted with timothy, orchard grass and clover, plus some dandelion, goldenrod and other diverse plants. The cows’ saliva, the manure, and the trampling worked together to renovate the pasture stand, without seeding.
The farm’s pastures are not clipped as a rule, rather they “clip strategically.” While having a green, even pasture may look pretty, it isn’t always the best decision for the soil. With encouragement from Phil Metzger, certified Holistic Management mentor for the farm, they opted not to focus on removing the stands of goldenrod. But even so, the goldenrod population has decreased by two-thirds in one year, after focusing their grazing strategy on improving the soil health. On the positive side, leaving the goldenrod, rather than clipping it, has allowed birds to nest, which is a choice for biodiversity, and allows the goldenrod to be composted back into the soil.
“Focus on what you’re trying to create,” not on fighting what you don’t want, Metzger said. “You manage towards what you want.”
Monitoring pasture
One of the holistic assessment tools used to determine the health of the soil is a biological monitoring analysis. This involves randomly — and literally — throwing a dart into a pasture, and then assessing the area around it for bare soil, grass species, legumes and forbs, animal signs, plant litter, and any other distinguishing characteristics.
This information is then placed in context with the ultimate plan for the pasture. Comparing the biological assessments from year to year will help to make informed choices on whether the land is being managed appropriately to reach goals.
“It’s a snapshot of where you are today,” Troy Bishopp, of the Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District said. “You look at it over time to monitor practices. It’s like a soil test. If you spend a little time, you can really see the changes.”
In order to know when to move the livestock to fresh pasture and to plan rotations, a tool called a pasture stick can be used to make a forage assessment. The pasture stick measures the pounds of dry matter per acre. On really good forage, a reading of 250-300 pounds of dry matter per acre is expected.
A basic calculation is that any animal will eat three percent of its body weight per day, Bishopp said. Knowing how many animals, and how much they weigh allows you to calculate the needed amount of dry matter to support the animals. The size of the paddock can then be calculated.
This can help to manage a grazing rotation schedule. If your plan is to graze high, then perhaps you rotate them sooner, or provide a larger grazing area. Recovery times for pasture can also vary depending on needs.
“We’re trying to improve land, so you’ll make more money,” Bishopp said. Pasture diversity and obtaining the right mix for your operation is important. Managing the forage to meet your farm’s goals is key. “We’re farming grass.”
Clear goals, and a plan to take the land from where it is to where you need it to be, is what Holistic Management is all about. Adverse conditions — and how they are managed — are also a factor. If something negatively impacts the land, then the plan needs to be altered, to keep on course to the ultimate goal. Overgrazing, heavy rains or drought can mean that the plan has to be refined, and the management strategy changed.
One consideration on Creekside Meadows Farm is balancing the need for hay with the needs of grazing. They are using their Holistic Management decision-making tools to help make the right choice for their farm.
“On all of our fields, we need to take hay off at least every three years,” Tricia said.
At the same time, they want to stockpile pasture forage. The balance of what to hay, versus what to allow to grow and stockpile, is a dilemma.
If you cut the plant just before frost, the plant will try to grow again, losing energy. If you leave the plant, animals will still selectively graze green grass in March, Bishopp said. Storing feed for the winter, as well as winter-grazing the pasture, both have pros and cons.
More information on Holistic Management can be found at www.holisticmanagement.org

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