Matt Park walks in the paddock with his cattle. The pasture is a mix of forages and was established from former alfalfa hayfields. Alfalfa was targeted as an undesirable plant for their pasture management goals and has been reduced significantly with the implementation of a holistic grazing plan. The goldenrod was not a targeted species, as it allows biodiversity, provides nesting habitat for birds, and is compacted back into the soil by the cows.
Holistic grazing planning practices are rooted in the belief that wild herds of animals functioned to keep grasslands healthy and productive. By managing domestic livestock on the farm to mimic this behavior and positively impact soil health, our ecosystems can be restored to a healthy state where lush forages thrive.
Farmers using holistic management techniques, a practice that is growing across the nation, focus on integrating cropping and grazing practices that begin with healthy soil and end with a fully sustainable farm operation. Managing your farm operation holistically means assessing the entire operation: the social, environmental and economic impacts.
Holistic Management International (HMI, www.holisticmanagement.org), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit based in New Mexico, has developed holistic farm management decision-making tools, offers certification classes to those wishing to become educators, and provides educational services to both beginning and experienced farmers. Those services include distance learning courses, workshops, on-farm field days, and written materials and resources. HMI's value statement says: "We believe people count, healthy land is essential, and money matters."
While holistic management may sound esoteric, there are tangible management tools essential to the process. Graphs, charts and goal-setting exercises are used to help minimize risk, increase profitability and sustain land resources. The basic principle of holistic management is that nature functions as a whole. All environments are unique and need to be understood in order to work within them, not against them. Managing holistically requires putting some basic practices in place: an inventory of your farm, a vision statement, the development of healthy soil, an understanding of all resources available for use, a way to test decisions before they are made and results monitoring.
Phil Metzger, retired from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, has been a certified holistic management educator for over a decade. Based in Norwich, N.Y., Metzger's experience in rural economic development and natural resource planning are instruments he now uses to mentor farmers who are interested in implementing holistic grazing planning on their farms.
"Holistic grazing planning is putting animals in the right place at the right time for the right reason," Metzger said. "Holistic grazing planning and implementation is not a practice, but a mode of operation."
To get started in holistic grazing planning, you must first formulate a holistic goal for the farm. Once you know what you want to achieve as a whole, then grazing planning can occur. The grazing plan works to create the landscape desired; pays attention to animal, forage and land health and production; considers the impact on profitability; takes into account your schedule with regard to animal movements; considers short and long-term results; and plans for paddock recovery periods.
"Rotational and mob grazing are practices. Holistic grazing planning is a process, which includes more than just how short to graze or how often to move animals. It is all in the plan, which is attentive to a more comprehensive impact," Metzger said. "There is a lot to learn, usually, so after [farmers] have a holistic goal and can articulate what they are trying to create, it is OK to move on to figuring out the available forage and needs on the chart. How many acres do you have? What is your forage production? How long can you graze? What is your planned stocking rate? Look at the seasonal big picture first. What is it that you are trying to create through your grazing plan and implementation?"
Holistic grazing planning isn't just a way to graze. It is a means to an end, and that end is the overall holistic goal of the farm. Making a holistic grazing plan involves a comprehensive grazing chart that includes the movements of the animals; other needs of the land, such as cropping and harvesting; the needs of wild animals, like grassland nesting birds; needed rest periods; available forage; and breeding or calving times. By anticipating their combined effect on the overall plan, adjustments can be made to maximize positive animal impacts.
Metzger said, "Use a chart to graph out happenings that impact your ability to manage on your farm, and start to figure out where the animals will be and when."
Keys to planning
Holistic management utilizes several tools to assist with the assessment and monitoring of these complex interactions on the farm. Biological monitoring of the soil, along with forage assessments and inventories, are two of the tools used to help plan the grazing strategy. Holistic grazing planning is based more on plant recovery period than on grazing time. Maximizing the positive impact of grazing animals on the pasture is often more important than minimizing overgrazing.
Building healthy soil is one of the necessary practices of holistic grazing planning. Holistically building the soil requires soil cover, plant diversity, a continual live root, appropriate disturbance and adequate recovery time. Controlling just how the solar energy contained in plants is harvested is the key to being sustainable.
A biological monitoring assessment of soil health involves randomly selecting a small quadrant of land to examine. Ideally, each paddock or field will have several areas examined. Observe for bare soil. Note the plant species and overall plant health. Look for insect, earthworm or animal evidence. Take note of the height of the canopy. Seek out any evidence of erosion, log the soil characteristic, and notice any plant litter, including its stage of decomposition. This assessment provides a snapshot of where the land is now. This data is reviewed over time, and the impact of management decisions and natural factors can be assessed.
By taking a forage inventory, the stocking density for the land can be calculated. Measuring the amount of dry matter per acre can be accomplished with a pasture stick. Optimal forage has about 250 or more pounds of dry feed per acre per inch of height. Once the actual forage available is known, assume that every animal needs to consume 3 percent of its body weight per day. This calculation provides the animal days per acre, which can determine the required paddock size and stocking density. Forage health and nutritional quality will factor in making these decisions.
A key component of holistic grazing planning is regularly examining the results of your grazing strategy and adjusting it accordingly. Since a herd is always impacting the land, planning for this impact and controlling it by altering animal density, time or stocking rate of the land is necessary. A grazing chart that considers the complexity of factors associated with livestock grazing is instrumental in this process.
"Plan, monitor, adjust, monitor, adjust. It is a dynamic process that requires you to pay attention to what is going on with your animals and on the ground," Metzger said. "Monitoring should be done at peak growth, and this will be your baseline, so each successive year you can determine if you are making progress."
All of this planning is focused on managing the soil through animal impact and animal grazing. Minimize overgrazing, reduce labor, speed up the mineral cycle and increase the health of the land. Increasing the stocking density without sacrificing animal performance or land health while increasing profitability is the goal.
Tricia Park, her husband, Matt, and son, Cameron, work their 150-acre Creekside Meadows Farm in New Woodstock, N.Y., and have found success with holistic management. In fact, Park is training to become a certified educator through HMI.
Holistic grazing planning has helped the Parks revive fields that were depleted from overuse, having been planted to alfalfa for over a decade. Within a year of implementing a holistic grazing plan, the farm experienced more biological soil activity, better forage availability and nutrition, less input usage and no forage deficits. Metzger serves as their farm mentor.
"We had excellent weight gains on our cattle, highest ever that we've had. Our hanging weights were 200 pounds higher than our past weights," Park said. "We are proud of it. All this training, reading, thinking [and] experimenting has worked to our benefit. Our pastures are thick and lovely, our cattle gain weight on grass only - no grains!"
This gain came in 2012, while the region was suffering through a period of drought and forage was in short supply. Many farmers in the area, she said, ran out of grazing forage in July or August, causing hardship.
The Cornerstones of Holistic Management
Holistic Management International lists four cornerstones of practicing holistic management on its website. Following are the bullet points for one of those cornerstones. To see the others, visit www.holisticman agement.org/holistic-management/121-2.
Increase Land and Animal Health and Productivity with Holistic Grazing Planning
- Simultaneously maximize stocking rate and improve land health and productivity
- Use livestock to improve the health of land and increase profit
- Coordinate three primary land management tools (rest, grazing, animal impact) to grow more pasture
- Maximize the harvest of sunlight by managing stocking rate, time, stock density and herd effect
- Make the best plan for the season ahead to reduce your stress
"We want more farmers to think how they can manage things for better forage. It takes some serious thinking outside the box. It is also different on every farm," noted Park.
"Hay is expensive to buy and expensive to make, so we do what we can to keep the cattle on pasture," she said. "The longer we can keep them out on pasture, the less work we have to do to care for them. We are still learning and experimenting [to find] what works for our farm, our climate, our cattle and our pastures."
Stockpiling, a technique used in holistic grazing planning, allows animals to graze on pasture after the growing season. If a stockpiled forage pasture receives heavy snow before it is grazed, it can be utilized in the spring. Another management practice is winter bale grazing - putting the animals on pasture and feeding hay bales, which has been shown to increase forage production the following spring in areas where the bale grazing occurred.
"Any way we can get fertilizer - manure and urine - on the pastures with no tractor is a good thing for the bottom line of the farm. Any time we can not feed hay is a good thing for the bottom line," Park said. "If we can do all that with just some management adjustments during the summer and still have healthy, happy cattle, it is a great thing."
All of these practices create a land impact, Metzger said. The positive impact on drainage and fertility, caused by the animals' hooves and the manure deposited, can positively impact soil biology, leading to higher forage production and quality as the ecosystem's health increases. The purpose of holistic grazing planning is to manage the impact and always consider and adjust for a wide range of variables in order to reach the holistic goal.
"Everything is connected on a farm," Metzger said. With holistic grazing planning, "You manage toward what you want, not what you don't want."
Holistic grazing planning increases resiliency by building a healthy soil, one that can survive an adverse event such as a flood or drought, as the basis of a healthy farm. Health in a holistic system includes more than the environment; it includes the health of the farmer and the farmer's family, and their relationship to the community. By devising a farm grazing plan that incorporates land, people and profit, holistic grazing planning is helping to keep farmers farming, soils healthy, animals thriving and rural ecosystems intact.
The author is a freelance contributor based in New Jersey. Comment or question? Visit http://www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.