by Troy Bishopp
NEWARK VALLEY, NY — This situation of farmers under-managing grazing land, plants, animals, biological systems and finances was the backdrop of what internationally renowned holistic grazing educator and South African rancher, Ian Mitchell-Innes, has seen throughout America on his three month lecture series preaching the gospel of working in “wholes”.
“The grazing opportunities in the Northeast are absolutely exciting but one has to treat it like a train stop. You’ve got to be ready to get on. Money will not save us, management will,” said Innes.
Creating this grazing workshop with a different perspective using holistic management decision-making tools was the brain-child of Brian Reaser, Tioga County Soil and Water Conservation District’s agricultural planner, Board Treasurer of the CNY RC&D Council and former intern on Ian Mitchell-Innes’s 16,000 acre ranch with its 7,000 head of beef cattle. “Having Ian’s view and practical experience on what planned, high density, tall grass, grazing systems can do to heal the land and increase profit with limited inputs is a new idea whose time has come, however controversial it may be.”
Ian took the farmers and conservation agency professionals from across New York and Pennsylvania on a journey of looking at the water cycle, mineral cycle, energy flow and community dynamics and how using holistic goals, planning (grazing chart); tools (grazing management, animal behavior, plant recovery times); testing questions and how monitoring contributed to addressing the triple bottom line of the farm. He spent considerable time on the importance of increasing carbon in the soil which feeds the whole ecosystem. “If you concentrate your management on improving soil health, you won’t be sending your money to town. We need to keep famers on the land,” he said.
The conversation then turned to grazing practices which ramped up the idea of leaving more residual (up to 80 percent of the forage) by trampling with high stock densities moved multiple times a day just grazing the tops of plants. Ian is convinced that intensive short grass grazing doesn’t feed the microbes and provides the animals with an overabundance of “funny” protein. Instead he prefers to graze taller, more energy rich tops because it keeps the pH of the rumen at 7 which leads to improved animal performance. Mark Bader from Free-Choice Minerals in Wisconsin lent his hand in explaining the pitfalls of grazing too much protein and the health benefits of a balanced mineral profile. “In the end, the rumen bacteria make all the decisions,” said Mark.
This discussion led to calculating pasture sizes and laying out paddocks to achieve the trampling effect and a pasture walk to see how Drew Lewis’s herd impacted the land. He suggested that rectangles are conducive to trampling while square paddocks are less. “Try practicing this technique by making an inclusion zone with your animals in a paddock for a few hours and observe how much trampling you want and mimic this in your other paddocks. What we’re after is the creation of organic matter and exciting the biological life in the soil. Overgrazing is a function of time in a paddock not numbers,” emphasized Ian.
Participants shored up their visual skills of what constitutes good rumen fill on the left side of the animals, looked at the perfect “pumpkin pie” manure pat, scouted for dung beetles and watched how the animals nipped off the top third of plants, confirming many of the ideas presented. A question and answer period then progressed into sell-buy marketing, clipping pastures and making hay (or not), a cow’s energy field, silvo-pastures, hunting leases, carbon sequestration, matching birthing to the onset of grass production, mineral feeding, grazing riparian areas, bringing young people into the business and addressing financial weak links.
“I have found that most of our problems stem from making rash decisions and not stepping back and truly thinking while weighing it against your farm family goals. I’ve found its best to go sit under a tree and watch your animals graze. Most of the answers are there if you can see the ‘whole’ in the management,” quipped Ian.
Host, Drew Lewis of Brother’s Ridge Farm in Newark Valley who manages over 200 acres of pasture with a herd of beef cattle and hair sheep couldn’t be more positive about what he has learned from mentor Brian Reaser. “I’ve learned that holistic planned grazing is a means to cost effectively manage the soil, the animals, profitability and my time. I’m especially appreciative of Ian bringing in the concept of making decisions with two generations in mind. This management style keeps farmers on the land and gives my children opportunity.”
Dairyman, Brian Moyer, from Towanda, Pennsylvania came to learn how to improve his bottom line. “I was introduced to a lot of ideas and strategies that have me rethinking my short and long term goals. It was great to hear experiences from practicing farmers and see the progress on the land.”
Beef farmer, Michael Lyusell from Pine Meadow Farm in Hector, NY, who is rehabilitating land that was abandoned for 50 years sees the benefits from Ian and other farmer’s knowledge. “This has helped me try to figure out how to improve land with grazing animals. I can see, more clearly, how using my grazing planning chart and leaving more residual to feed the soil microbes will improve my operation over time.”
This forward-thinking holistic grazing management training was sponsored by the Northeast Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Professional Development Program (NESARE), The Central NY RC&D Council, Inc., Tioga County Soil and Water Conservation District and Brother’s Ridge Farm.
For more information contact Brian Reaser at 607-687-3553 or visit www.cnyrcd.org/planned-grazing-participants/ or www.sare.org
by Troy Bishopp