The Mindset of Grass Farming Today

“The reluctance to break tradition” – I think that those five words pretty well sum up the mindset of many people when they first begin to open their minds to the concepts of true grass farming. To begin talking about these five words the first thing we must do is define the word “tradition.”

Dictionary.com describes tradition as:

1. The handing down of statements, beliefs, legends, customs, information, etc., from generation to generation, esp. by word of mouth or by practice.
2. Something that is handed down.
3. A long-established or inherited way of thinking or acting.
4. A continuing pattern of culture beliefs or practices.
5. A customary or characteristic method or manner.

For the purpose of this discussion let’s look back at the last 50 years of agricultural tradition. We need to evaluate what all has happened during that time, and consider if during that time the changes, or lack of changes, have been good or bad or indifferent. Bear in mind that this period of tradition may not always be correct or to our advantage – but it has been this era that has handed down these beliefs and information that we base decisions upon.

In analyzing, this period of tradition, we should force ourselves to be open minded. If we have made mistakes or taken advice that has not been to our benefit we should be willing to recognize that fact as well. The above definition does not state that tradition is factual, but merely an established way of thinking, a pattern or a method – something that has been handed down to us.

During this past 50 years of tradition many farmers and ranchers have increased output regardless of the cost inputs. Unfortunately, I personally feel that much of the information that has been handed down to us over the last 50 years has been sales driven in nature.

Institutions and research programs, for the most part, have been funded by big business. Big business has a product to sell. Who is going to make money on teaching you how to better utilize your grass or how to get better distribution of manure on your pasture. You will benefit – but big business will not. So, for the most part, in order to get this information on low input improvements you have to experiment, network and evaluate tradition.

Actually, it is becoming easier to network today than it was ten years ago. Information is much more available now than it has been in the past. We now have the internet, grazing conferences and more public interest in environmental land use practices. My observation is that a lot more people are “dabbling” with grass farming but they are still hanging onto a lot of that old tradition. They haven’t realized the big picture yet.

To be really successful with grass farming a producer must get into a mindset to look at this big picture. He or she needs to think differently as changes are made within their operations. Be steadfast but be patient. For example: look at the tradition of annual applications of fertilizer. It is definitely a cost input and it’s expensive. We have been taught from tradition that we need to apply fertilizer to grow forage.

I am personally convinced that we do not need to spend this money. We can get some fantastic results in building our soils up just by being better managers of our resources and use our animals to do this rather than writing a check to big business.

I have been on many grass farms where by observation you would bet that they had put down at least 100 pounds of nitrogen, whereas in fact, they had put none on. They had achieved great results merely by moving animals, distributing manure, and building soil without significant input costs.

Another major input cost consideration is winter feeding. It seems to me that a lot of livestock producers have the mindset that they just have to feed hay in the winter. They spend from spring to fall burning fuel, buying and maintaining equipment to put up hay, lots of hay. It’s something that they have always done. Dad did it and grandpa did it. So they therefore must do it.

What is hay, anyway? Isn’t it primarily grass and forages? Why not let your livestock harvest it rather than put it up in bales. Not all cattle can graze through the winter, but with the right genetics and the right grass and forage, they can. If you weren’t setting aside all that hay acreage, how many more cattle could you run? If you need winter hay – could you buy it cheaper than you could put it up yourself – then have all that extra pasture to graze. It seems to me that you would have more products to sell and less cost inputs. Doesn’t that relate to profit? Bringing winter hay in off the farm has many benefits to your soil that aren’t always vividly apparent to the traditional mindset.

Is it only a very simple thing involved here of being open minded and willing to change? Does it only involve challenging tradition? Having said that – I should inject that one should also proceed with caution. Before just jumping in, you need to really think this out and spend serious time planning. You will need commitment and a different mindset. And most importantly – you will need to be able to resist the temptations of tradition.

If you are being more intensive with your grazing patterns what will you need to learn and implement? Well, for one thing you are going to need more interior fencing to control the grazing and get better utilization. How do you do this?

Another no brainer here for me…..high tensile electric fencing is a fraction of the cost input, is very effective, and will last a long time with less maintenance. The other thing you will need to do is take water to the livestock rather than make the livestock travel to the water. You will need to plan your system and make an evaluation of your resources.

This column is only a blog, a place to express my opinions gathered from observations over many years of networking and interacting with others in many different fields of expertise. The intent here is to be thought provoking. In summary, the biggest obstacle that I see in becoming a great and profitable grass farmer is the “reluctance to break tradition”. The mindset…

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About Gary Duncan

Gary has been active in the fence business for over 15 years. He also raises Highland cattle in a management intensive grazing system and was the first person to market the PasturePro post back in 2005. He enjoys discussing all things grazing and is the main contributor to the blog.
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