A Call for an Ecological Approach to Pest Management

By Joe Lewis

Editor’s note: This article is an excerpt from A New Farm Language: How a Sharecropper’s Son Discovered a World of Talking Plants, Smart Insects, and Natural Solutions.

“You can’t have any good guys without a few bad guys. That’s fact.”

So says Alton Walker. Alton and I have been friends since our days at Mississippi State where we went through our master’s degree program at the same time. Also a native of Mississippi, Alton continued his education at Clemson University, obtaining a Ph.D. in entomology prior to his career in agricultural consulting and farming in Georgia. He and I came to have a shared interest in ecologically sound farming, and in the mid ’90s we collaborated with a team of scientists on sustainable cotton production following the boll weevil eradication. Alton is a scientist with some skin in the game. He’s pursued the application of his conservation/ecologically based ideas with cotton production on a 600-acre portion of his own farm.

As Alton will tell you, the common practice of cleaning a field down to bare soil after harvest and leaving it barren over the winter is a harmful practice for multiple reasons.

“Farming’s been the victim of the advances of highly mechanized ‘big farming’ approaches,” he says. “Through the use of large equipment like harrows, plows, and mowers, enormous portions of biomass are removed from countless stretches of land. The land is then tilled and planted into monocultures from ditch bank to ditch bank. Then, mechanical cultivation and chemical pesticides are used to restrict diversity, while fertilizers and irrigation foster a lush growth of crops. Every year, the process starts over, meaning there’s never an opportunity for a true, natural ecosystem to develop and remain in place for the length of time it takes for it to become balanced and efficient. It’s no wonder pest outbreaks occur. On the other hand, perennializing the field—growing something year-round—helps promote a much more stable and balanced environment. We have to find our way back to approaching farming, including pest management, with an understanding of how to manage the ecosystem in which we live.”

The team Alton and I collaborated with in the ’90s was an interdisciplinary group of researchers that included Sharad Phatak, Rick Reed, John Ruberson, and Jim Hook, and Glenn Harris with the University of Georgia, and Philip Haney with my laboratory in Tifton. Eradication of the boll weevil, which had been completed in Georgia in 1990, and, later, essentially all of the United States, presented the cotton industry with a unique opportunity to advance sustainable agriculture. The eradication had been one of the greatest technical successes in agricultural history, with immense potentials in economic and environmental benefits. In Georgia, insecticide use was already dropping sharply, with average crop revenues increasing markedly. By 1995, the use of fifteen to twenty treatments per year had been reduced to three to five treatments. Grower interest in biological control and sustainable agriculture had never been higher, but a shift in thinking on when and how to give nature more time was going to be needed. The boll weevil had been an invasive pest without any effective natural enemies. Quick to reach damaging levels in early season, it was an especially devastating primary pest because the necessary insecticidal treatment for its control regularly spurred a sequence of secondary pest outbreaks. But now, for the first time, we could put in place an ecologically based management system without the disruptive influence of the early season boll weevil treatments.

In this new era, we could promote the adoption of cotton production as part of a healthy year-round landscape system, with approaches to pest management that deal with the natural enemy/pest complex being a vital part of that overall system. But to take advantage of this new era, we knew there needed to be a lot of educational outreach to the grower community, including on-farm demonstrations with associated data. Otherwise, we could miss the opportunity and drift back to pesticides as the dominant pest-management practice. 

The conventional, high-intervention approach has predominated cotton production and pest management for years, particularly since the advent in the 1950s of big farming. After harvest, the field is mowed and harrowed, rendered barren until spring when the process starts over. Because of this winter and early spring “wipeout” of everything prior to planting, the ecosystem—as represented by the typical “ecological growth curve”—is never able to achieve equilibrium status. So, there are no relays of natural enemy/pest balances into the following season. As one consequence, the pests show up first with a lag time before the natural enemies can be expected.

During the growing season, the crop is kept clean of pests such as weeds, insects, and other undesired variables by thorough cleaning, pre-planting tillage, and other soil preparation and operations, and by diligent mechanical and chemical interventions during the growth and fruiting phase. Use of fertilizers, irrigation, and other inputs are used to ensure a lush, mono-cultural growth of cotton plants from one end of the field to the other. Other plants are considered undesirable and out of place. So, this lush abundance of cotton plants, without alternate vegetation as food sources and shelter for the natural enemies of pests, along with high frequency of mechanical and chemical intervention, creates an environment prone to disruption and resistance, ultimately leading to the pesticide treadmill. This is why, prior to the boll weevil eradication, the number of pesticide treatments for cotton production would sometimes approach twenty per season.

Moreover, the lack of winter cover and the high-intervention approach with substantial removal of the biomass, along with frequent harrowing and tilling, contribute to heavy depletion of organic matter and soil microbial quality, plus extensive water and wind erosion. All of this leads to a host of other issues including lower air and water quality; higher use of fuel, labor, and machinery wear; soil compaction; and the loss of associated wildlife.

Yes, after the boll weevil eradication, we had the opportunity to shift to a less disruptive, environmentally sound, sustainable approach, but it was going to take some time and outreach to bring about such a change in practice. We were up against methods of farming that had dominated pest management in every cropping system for over sixty years. Rachel Carson’s call for concern had brought about change, but the change was to move to softer, less toxic pesticides. Still treating the symptoms, in other words. But we had come to understand that the real issue stemmed largely from a lack of understanding of how and why external interventions are disruptive and unsustainable, in contrast with sustainable “built-in” mechanisms, which we had concluded should always be the first line of defense.

 I began having discussions about this lack of understanding with Sharad Phatak, a respected pioneer on the subject, and from whom I had gained much insight. We decided to present our case as a profession-wide argument in a highly respected publication. In 1997, he and I, along with Joop van Lenteren and Jim Tumlinson, published a paper in the esteemed journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA). Our paper, “A Total Systems Approach to Sustainable Pest Management,” stressed the urgent necessity for a fundamental shift in how we think about and approach agricultural pest management to resolve escalating economic and environmental problems. We drew on our discoveries to show that an ecosystem is just that—a system, with interactive parts that behaves not like a collection of unrelated pieces, but more like a living organism. We emphasized what we’d learned about the remarkable built-in mechanisms that agricultural ecosystems have, mechanisms that act through a set of feedback loops to maintain balance and to protect against herbivore feeding, diseases, climatic stress, chemical imbalances, and other similar attacks or interventions. To our great satisfaction, the paper turned out to be a major factor in reshaping foundations around sustainable agriculture at grower, research/education, and policy levels. The USDA Sustainable Agriculture and Education Agency adopted the paper for nationwide use as a standard in guiding constituents toward grant proposals, and used it as a standard in developing a sustainable pest management brochure.

The gist of our argument then (as now) centers on the obvious contrast between our sustainable approach making use of the built-in defenses, and the interventionist “treadmill” approach. The built-in defenses respond only when, where, and at the level needed. They are need-induced and target specific. The chemical SOS signals sent by plants under attack are a perfect example of this. Parasitic wasps searching for these plant feeders, thereby rescuing the plants in distress, create pest control only in fields and around plants with actively feeding populations of caterpillar pests, thus avoiding non-target collateral damage and disruptions.

Furthermore, these parasite-host/predator-prey interactions are free of resistance and maintain balance, within fluctuating bounds, through a density-dependent phenomenon, meaning that levels of attack are determined by the availability of hosts or prey. On the other hand is external therapeutic interventions, such as applications of pesticides, act continuously at full level throughout the field without regard to need or target. The consequence is high collateral damage and disruption, and maximum selection for resistance. Next stop: the pesticide treadmill.   

The interventionist approach is engrained deeply into not just the agricultural mentality, but in the way we, as a society, think about corrective actions in any system. You can observe the same treadmill effect in how we approach the health of the human body. On the surface, it seems that the proper corrective action for an undesired entity is to apply a direct external counter force, hence a “healthy” dose of antibiotics for infections or painkillers for pain. But there’s now a long history in medicine where it can be demonstrated that such interventionist actions never produce sustainable desired effects. They always become less effective, requiring more and more to get results. The attempted solution eventually becomes the problem. You can find vivid examples with the growing resistance to antibiotics, and problems of addiction stemming from drugs for treatment of pain or mental distress. Black-market crime is on the rise as people seek illegal sources of drugs, just as it rose during the days of prohibition as an intended solution for alcoholism.

As a matter of fundamental principle, the application of external corrective actions into a system can be effective only for short-term relief. Long-term, sustainable solutions can only be achieved through a shoring up or restructuring of the natural system—in the case of the body, through nutrition, sleep, exercise, etc.—so that natural built-in forces, such as the immune system and other regulators that function on an as-needed basis, act effectively.

The same thing is clear with pest control strategies centered on toxic chemicals and other therapeutic interventions, such as prophylactic treatments. New and “better” pesticides are continually required, just as new and “better” antibiotics are continually required in the field of medicine. It’s a constant footrace with nature. The use of pesticides and other treat-the-symptoms approaches are unsustainable and should be the last, rather than the first, line of defense. A pest management strategy should always start with the question, “Why is the pest a pest?” and seek to address underlying weaknesses in ecosystems or agronomic practices that have allowed organisms to reach pest status.

Back in 1990s, with all this in mind, we set out to demonstrate and promote the adoption of pest management in cotton as a part of a year-round landscape management system. This included the use of cover crops. Cover crops had often been used for soil conservation benefits, but their value for enhancing natural enemy/pest balances and relaying them into the cropping system as part of whole-systems pest management and, further, into a year-round agroecology program, had received scant attention. By choosing the appropriate combinations of cover crops with the correct mix of attributes, interplanted with cotton through the use of minimum-till, strip-till, or no-till methods, such an ecosystem pest management approach with cotton production could be piloted.

With the guidance of the University of Georgia Extension Service, and local extension agents, a combination of progressive growers in four Georgia counties were enlisted. By mutually agreed upon guidelines, these growers produced cotton in both conventional and year-round ecosystems on ten- to thirty-acre fields for comparative study and demonstration. The Georgia Cotton Commission and USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service participated in the collaboration as well. Each grower chose the cover crops—wheat, cahava vetch, crimson clover, or crimson clover and rye—depending on their preference.

Philip Haney of my laboratory coordinated the monitoring of the fields and assimilated the data. We knew that by the nature of a single-season arrangement, only some of the potential benefits of the year-round ecosystem could be expected to be realized. The benefits would be much stronger if the perennialized system was established over multiple seasons. Yet, the biological and economic benefits in our single-year demonstration were dramatic and encouraging. The densities of nearly every predator group were significantly higher in cotton crops interplanted in the fields with cover crops as compared to the cotton planted in barren clean-tilled fields. In other words, the cover crops were, indeed, relaying natural enemy populations through to the subsequently planted cotton.

Further, the average yield obtained from these year-round management fields was 100 pounds of lint per acre higher than the conventionally managed fields, and the net return after costs was $60 per acre higher. Another benefit for these year-round fields, not calculated in these figures, was that 1.6 fewer per-acre tractor trips, and the accompanying time and fuel costs, were required because of less cultivation and harrowing.

These findings helped expand the acreage of cotton under sustainable practice in Georgia and other areas of the region. Data from the demonstrations were widely distributed by cooperating agencies and stakeholders, including four presentations at the 1997 Beltwide Cotton Conferences. We continued for several years to cooperate directly with local agents in grower group exchanges to advance such practices. And advance we did. Sustainable practices in Coffee County, Georgia, for example, under the seasoned leadership of agent Rick Reed, shot up from 200 acres in 1990 to over 30,000 acres by 2000. One beneficial step utilized was that rotating farmers, including Max Carter, Donnie Smith, and Wayne Fussell would host on-farm “Shade Tree” meetings to discuss their practices and results.

Alton Walker put his money where his mouth was. During all these years, he’s pursued the application of these ideas on his own farm. Over the last six years, he’s made major progress toward his objectives. His central goals have been to develop a perennial, vegetation/landscape system that:

• Is largely self-sustaining with minimal input and upkeep requirements;

• Provides for all-around soil and water quality including in the areas of nutrients, moisture, residue, structure, microbial make-up, leaching, wind, and water erosion;

• Provides for good year-round natural enemy/pest balances in all the pest areas of arthropods, diseases, and weeds; 

• Provides plants with the right structure, height, and thickness level to accommodate inter-planting of cotton with very limited requirements of mechanical and herbicide interventions.

Alton has advanced all of these objectives. He’s established a mix of plants that are largely self-renewing including several clovers, rye grass, rape seed, wild mustard, and others. His soil and water health are rapidly improving.  He’s able to interplant cotton each spring with a need for minimal strips of herbicide intervention, and with minimal need for mechanical intervention with his own customized equipment. He’s had no need to intervene with insecticides in the last three years. He’s able to produce his cotton crop with one half the number of tractor trips and less than half the fuel costs as compared to the conventional system. And his yield is averaging one-hundred pounds per acre, beyond the average of the surrounding area.

Alton is now in the process of adding rotations of corn and soybean crops into this system. He has just completed his first year with corn and with excellent results. Historically, reasonable corn production in his location would require irrigation. However, due to the improved water holding capacity and other high quality attributes of the soil, Alton’s corn yield averaged ninety-three bushels per acre with only six and one-half inches of rain, and minimal need for other inputs, a very solid yield for the area and conditions. His net profit was approximately $300 per acre.

These real-world practices by Alton show the advantages of the year-round ecosystem management approach. So why, after years of data and demonstration, starting with those early successes in the ’90s and continuing to this day on farms like Alton’s—why isn’t every grower on board with these practices?

Lewis spent his career in entomology with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service at the Tifton Campus of the University of Georgia. It was there that he worked to unlock the secrets of how plants and insects communicate with one another, particularly how plants use SOS signals to recruit beneficial insects to their defense. Based on those groundbreaking insights, Lewis and his colleagues developed holistic and sustainable approaches to pest management within agricultural systems. In 2008, along with his colleagues John A, Pickett and James H. Tumlinson, Lewis received the prestigious Wolf Prize in Agriculture.

Permaculture Design Starts With Water

By Mary Ann Lieser

Permaculture and water conservation are inseparable. Permaculture design starts with water —with looking at what happens to the precipitation that falls on a piece of land and at how to shape the land so that each drop of rain can bring as much benefit as possible.

Water stewardship is increasing in importance, a trend certain to accelerate in the future. Droughts are more common, current water supplies are less dependable due to depletion or contamination, rainfall patterns are more variable and weather events more extreme. Unless a landscape has been designed to capture and retain as much water as possible, intense storms usually result in more runoff and the erosion of valuable topsoil, without the full benefit of the precipitation infiltrating the soil.

We face a collective future in which widespread water shortages are likely. And agriculture, which accounts for the single biggest use of water on the globe, is already being affected in many places. The underground supply has been depleted and groundwater recharge is not keeping pace. Too often, stormwater flows to rivers and oceans.

But permaculturists have always regarded water as the precious resource that it is, and they have been developing ways to reduce water loss and maximize retention for decades. Permaculture design is always site specific, so they begin by looking at what you have. How much rainfall does your land receive in an average year? What is the highest point on your property, and what are the existing patterns of water flow? Then it’s possible to look at shaping your land to encourage beneficial water flow patterns.

Typically, only a fraction of the rain that falls on a piece of land reaches the roots of the plants growing there. Permaculture aims to slow it down, spread it out, and sink it more deeply.

The soil itself is the easiest place to store water, and the more organic matter in the soil the better it will soak up moisture. Jason Gerhardt has been a permaculture teacher and designer for over fifteen years, with experience in a variety of settings — from desert to temperate forest and urban to rural. He advises farmers to “think about the landscape in terms of a sponge. What can we do to help the soil absorb and hold onto more moisture?” Higher quality topsoil and the judicious use of mulches and groundcovers (which can act as living sponges) reduce runoff and allow more water to reach deeper layers. And increasing organic matter in the soil sets the stage for a virtuous circle: more moisture in the soil results in healthier plants and more soil microbes and will therefore build additional topsoil more quickly.

Beyond soaking in more moisture wherever it falls, permaculture uses design features to shape the land and direct water flow. Keyline design focuses on the existing flow pattern as a guide to placement of trees, irrigation systems and ponds. Swales are broad, shallow trenches dug along the contours of shallow slopes, and can prevent runoff and gulley formation. A keyline system and swales can channel water away from valleys to achieve better distribution, so that rainfall can soak the soil more evenly.

Rainfall can also be directed into ponds for storage or harvested from rooftops to provide water when needed for irrigation, livestock or other agricultural purposes.

Gerhardt, who serves as director of the Permaculture Institute as well as founder of Real Earth Design in St. Louis, often finds inspiration from traditional land-based cultures. “Indigenous people all over the world have developed methods to absorb and retain rainfall, whether it involves diverting streams, flooding paddies or terracing hillsides.”

Todd McCree’s Great Escape Farm in West Virginia includes a nursery focused on the sale of propagated cuttings of edible plants, from familiar fruits like blackberry and raspberry to more unusual ones like aronia (chokeberry) and pawpaw. McCree uses permaculture principles at every level of his operation, including a collection system that harvests rainwater from a 24 by 51 foot metal roof. Two 1,550 gallon containers provide enough water storage for the farm to space out the area’s 37 inches of annual rainfall to supply mist irrigation when needed.

Edible Acres, a plant nursery in the Finger Lakes region, is also based on permaculture principles and also harvests rainwater for agricultural needs. Sean Dembrosky oversees the nursery and the water harvest, which takes place on a combination of many small roofs, ranging in size from two hundred to eight hundred square feet. The water is stored in a collection of 275 gallon IBC totes and some 55-gallon drums placed strategically under downspouts. What began partly as an experiment to see what could be done in an area that receives 34 inches of rain annually, has convinced Dembrosky that “it is 100 percent possible to run a viable nursery business based on collected rainwater and simple hand dug ponds and holding tanks. No well is necessary for full-on farming.”

Gerhardt advises that those who may not be ready for comprehensive farmscale watershed management might start small, taking just a few steps in the direction of water stewardship. “Once they see the impacts, they often want to do more.” And for those ready to dive into learning how to apply permaculture principles to water management on the land they tend, the single best source is Brad Lancaster, who writes and teaches about permaculture design. Lancaster lives in semi-arid Tucson, which receives a mere twelve inches of precipitation a year, yet he manages to harvest 100,000 gallons of rainwater annually for household and garden use. His website (harvstingrainwater.com) and his books Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond, volumes 1 and 2, share what he’s learned in decades of studying and consulting on water harvest in every climate.

Planning Your Regenerative Agriculture Business

Photo: Getty Images

By Meg Greski

Congratulations on your decision to join the regenerative agriculture movement! There will be plenty of challenges, but if you take care of your soil, it will take care of you.

Whether you’re starting a new operation or transitioning a conventional one, step one must always be to create a viable business plan. Do not “wing it” and assume you’ll just figure it out as you go along. Even more importantly than that, do not proceed when the numbers don’t work. If something doesn’t even make money on paper, there’s no way it will magically be different in real life. The purpose of planning is to save you money, time and stress and to ensure that you meet your goals.

Your business plan is bound to change as time goes by, and it should. At least once a year, you should adapt it according to what’s going on in the world and what you’ve learned. The conditions in which your farm or ranch exists are always changing. What works at the beginning of your career may not continue to work in the subsequent years. Regenerative management is all about being adaptive.

You can choose the best enterprise mix for your farm or ranch by evaluating the following factors.

GROSS MARGINS: Figure out your gross margin (revenue minus direct costs, excluding overheads) for each class of livestock, each crop and each product. Do the calculations for current enterprises, and ones you might like to add. Compare how much money you make on each enterprise with how much work, land and equipment each one requires. Divide gross margin by the number of acres the enterprise uses to determine gross margin per acre. This is a good way to compare your options and make wise decisions about what to do with your resources. Taking acreage away from a low gross margin use and allocating it to a competing high gross margin use can turn a struggling farm or ranch around.

SPECIALIZATION: Having lots of diverse enterprises decreases risk, but too often results in huge amounts of work. Choose complimentary enterprises that share the same overheads (barns, equipment, etc), use one another’s byproducts, and have a high ratio of profit to work hours. For example, if your goal is to finish and sell 100% grass beef, you might think cow-calf and stocker cattle are a necessary part of it. But what if you could buy big calves, spend a couple months finishing them out, and avoid the cowherd’s winter feed bill? You could also use the cowherd’s grass for more finishers! Put that grass into cattle that are a direct short-term source of income, not an expense incurred in the hope of future income.

CUT OVERHEADS: Your choice of enterprises and the seasons in which you operate can greatly affect overhead costs. When I switched from year-round cow-calf to developing heifers in the growing season only, my overhead costs fell dramatically. I only had to commute to my rented pasture for seven months out of the year instead of twelve. I no longer needed to buy, transport, store and feed hay. This resulted in less wear and tear on my equipment. I no longer needed some of the equipment I owned and/or hired. High utility bills from water heaters also disappeared.

FEMALE DEPRECIATION: In a May 2020 webinar, Wally Olsen shared some eye-opening numbers concerning the changes in a cow’s value over her lifetime. Every year, you must count the value an aging female loses as a cost against the income from selling her calf. Every year older that she gets, the faster she loses value. The older you let a cow get on your operation (after she exceeds her peak value at 5-6 years old), the higher the percentage of calf sale revenue must go just to cover her depreciation. Wally proved that keeping females from birth until culling as an old open cow means you have built wealth, failed to capture it, and let it disappear. The same is true for breeding stock of other species.

How can you fight this depreciation phenomenon? On an example ranch of Wally’s, a switch was made from the traditional “keep ‘em until they fail to breed” strategy to selling all females at 5-6 years old, and developing more heifers. This change caused the example ranch’s net worth to increase 6 percent, and income from cattle sales went up 44 percent. The ranch was also able to run more head on their grass because having more younger cattle means they’re smaller and eat less.

Another option is to lease cows, or raise them under a shares agreement with someone else. This insulates you from cow depreciation cost because that burden is carried by the owner of the cows.

If breeding seedstock with longevity is your primary focus, you’ll have to bite the depreciation bullet. But if your goal is to maximize profit through whichever enterprise(s) necessary, you may not want to keep too many old cattle around.

RAISE OR TRADE? In 2017, I spent close to 40 hours “desk farming” to figure out how much money I could squeeze out of my grass with cattle. Thirty-one pages of spreadsheets and 23 pages on Microsoft Word later, I was confident that I had thought of and evaluated almost every possible business model for bovine breeding stock. My numbers led me to conclude that frequent buying and selling of animals instead of keeping home-raised livestock long-term may result in more profit. Using the right enterprise, I could make as much money on a flip animal as I could on a raised animal.

TURNOVER: Turnover is defined as the number of units produced in a given time period. If you have room for 20 cattle on your place and you keep them all year, that’s 20 units. Going with a trading enterprise over a home-raised one can really boost turnover. Say you have grass to support 20 cattle, but you flip 3 groups per year. You just sold 60 units in a year instead of 20! You have tripled the “size” of your operation without having to acquire and maintain triple the land, machinery and infrastructure.

TIME IS RISK: The longer you own an animal before selling it, the more risk you take that it could get sick or injured and die, leaving you with nothing. Take the above cow-calf-to-finish scenario. If you insist on raising each one of your finished cattle from conception, you are looking at almost three years from conception to harvest. A lot could go wrong in three years.

LIQUIDITY: Three years you have money tied up in a conception-to-harvest beef enterprise. But if you bought a calf at 800 lbs and took it to 1100 lbs in 150 days (2 lbs/day gain), you will have your investment back in under 6 months. You will only incur costs and risk on that animal for 150 days, not upwards of two years. If you think you can raise a calf cheaper than you can buy one, make sure you’re really counting ALL the hidden costs of raising that calf. This includes the carrying capacity loss to your finishing enterprise due to keeping mother, calf and yearling. There is a cost of the maintenance energy used by the cow just to stay alive. There are other investment opportunities for your money that you forgo when you tie it up in a calf for 2-3 years. Even if your gross margin is higher on raising a calf than on buying and flipping, you could flip multiple groups during the time you’d be hanging onto that single raised-calf group.

THE CHANGING MARKET: The longer you hang onto cattle, the more market prices can change on you. (Even if you don’t sell on the commodity market, the value of all livestock is affected by it.) Sudden events like the COVID-19 pandemic can cause drastic unforeseen changes in the value of all assets. Learn to analyze and use the changing price relationships between different ages, classes and sizes of livestock. Use market signals to decide when to buy and sell. Don’t be dead set on doing the same thing and selling at the same time every year regardless of what the market picture looks like. Just like we need to be adaptive in grazing, we need to be adaptive in operating our businesses.

Bud Williams first popularized the concept of sell-buy marketing. It’s a method of livestock business planning in which your profit comes from selling one group of animals, and replacing them for less than you got for selling them. This is opposite from the traditional buy-sell approach, in which you buy animals and hope you can sell them for more than you spent on them. You can use a weekly market report and Bud’s calculations to see which classes of livestock are overvalued and undervalued. Sell any overvalued classes you own before their price comes down, and buy undervalued ones while you can for less than they’re worth.

DOWNSIDES TO TRADING: Trading cattle isn’t for everyone. You have less control over your genetics. Cattle that have traveled through sale barns, trucks and multiple ranches will probably require more preventative healthcare than those in a closed herd. Bringing outside cattle onto your operation may also bring disease. There is likely to be more death loss. You will need safe, sturdy handling facilities and workers with good stockmanship skills. Frequent buying and selling of cattle, and tailoring your enterprise mix to market signals, requires intensive business management.

CONTEXT: The right enterprise mix for your farm or ranch can only be determined through economic analysis and planning that is specific to your situation. If you don’t know how to create or interpret a business plan, find a consultant or farm and ranch business workshop to help you. The Ranching For Profit Schools put on by Ranch Management Consultants (ranchmanagement.com, (307) 213-6010) has been extremely valuable to me. Understanding Ag LLC (understandingag.com, (256) 996-3142) is a worldwide regenerative ag consulting firm started by Dr. Allen Williams, Gabe Brown, Ray Archuleta, and many other visionaries. Their collective knowledge, experience and resources are unmatched. You can also contact me with questions: rhinestonecattle@yahoo.com.

Rodale Institute Bringing Organic Farming Research to the Southeast

A scene from the greenhouse at Rodale Institute’s center in Georgia.

By Kristie Wendelberger

Rodale Institute has been researching regenerative organic farming from its headquarters in Pennsylvania for over 70 years. But all farmers know that one size does not fit all in agriculture. That’s why Rodale Institute is committed to providing regionalized resources for farmers looking to learn more about organic practices in our country’s agricultural heartlands.

Rodale Institute opened the Rodale Institute Southeast Organic Center (RI-SOC) in 2019 to support Southeastern farmers — answering their questions about research, helping them transition to organic, and providing training through workshops, field days, lectures and apprenticeships. The RI-SOC is located in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia, about 30 minutes southwest of Atlanta, on Many Fold Farm. With more than 300 acres of pasture and forested land to work with, the RI-SOC is poised to perform independent research at our facility, take part in replicated studies across several farms, or come to your farm to help you answer your research questions on your land.

As this is the RI-SOC’s first year, like many of you in the first year of farming, we have been busy building the farm. Our farm manager, Garver Akers, has spent hours in the office researching equipment, setting schedules and planning the first acre of fall garden space. He walked through the fields taking soil samples to test for pH, nutrient levels, and percent carbon; building deer fences; and installing our first greenhouse. In the lab, he retrofitted a walk-in cooler into a research growth chamber. As a trained farm educator, he took the lead working with our first Beginning Farmer Intern, Jewels Giuliano, who has flourished into a farmer in front of our eyes.

Meanwhile, I built our lab space, wrote grants and began research. I installed workstations and bought equipment, freezers and drying ovens. The lab is ready to process soil and plant samples to be sent out for nutrient analysis, experimentally grow plants in the growth chamber, and welcome workshops and classes to learn and experience hands-on research. To better understand the needs in the Southeast, we met with farmers to hear firsthand what their most pressing research needs are. We are now poised to start the new year answering questions revolving around varieties best suited for our hot, humid weather, ways to tackle mid-summer pests, and techniques to improve soil nutrient and microbial biodiversity.

We began our first research project studying the effect of cover crop and nutrient combinations under conservation and conventional tillage on soil nutrient and microbial biodiversity, yield, and fruit nutrient content. This project was funded by the USDA Organic Transitions program and in collaboration with Clemson University. The SOC and Clemson have sister experiments running to see the different impacts in Piedmont and Coastal Plain soils. We have an eight-block, split-plot design with conservation tillage versus conventional tillage as the main blocks, embedded with eight plots each of the following cover crop and nutrient combinations: hairy vetch only; winter rye only; chicken manure only; hairy vetch and winter rye; hairy vetch, winter rye, and manure; hairy vetch and manure; winter rye and manure; and a control plot with no treatment. Roma tomato and cucumber will be our rotating cash crops. Over the next three years we will look at how the soil nutrient levels, microbial communities and carbon levels change at 0-15, 15-30, 30-45 and 45-60 cm deep. We will assess cover crop density, crop yield and nutrient levels in the vegetables. Once complete, we will have a better idea of how to grow our southeastern soil microbial communities while obtaining the best yield and healthiest vegetables.

We had a great socially distanced year, taking the time to build a foundation on the farm that has made us ready to connect with our southeastern community now and into the future. We are looking forward to growing, with employment and volunteer opportunities available and a southeastern consulting program to be launched in 2021.
If you are a farmer or researcher that wants help answering your farming questions through research and collaboration, contact us at Southeast@RodaleInstitute.org. For more information on employment opportunities, volunteering and more, visit RodaleInstitute.org.

Dr. Kristie Wendelberger is the research director for the Rodale Institute Southeast Organic Center in Chattahoochee Hills, Georgia. She is responsible for expanding organic farming practices throughout the Southeast through research, outreach and education. Learn more about her work in Georgia at RodaleInstitute.org/SoutheastOrganicCenter.

How Holistic Financial Planning Can Create More Wealth

In Holistic Financial Planning, each enterprise is evaluated for its contribution to the whole and how well it “stands on its own feet.”

By Abbey Smith

As I listened to the budgeting conversation at a large ranching operation here on the west coast of the United States, where the Jefferson Center for Holistic Management was consulting, it suddenly hit me: scale doesn’t matter. The underlying patterns, habits and perceptions about managing finances on a farm or ranch are the same regardless of the size of the operation.

Thinking back to a conversation I had recently with a close friend and market gardener on a two-acre farm, I realized that we were having the same conversation. There were just a few more commas and zeros added to the budget here on this large ranching operation.

As the budget conversation continued, I tested my theory. Yep. It was proving true. If we either added or subtracted dollars from the cash flow in the budget, the number of acres managed, people employed and equipment owned, then at the core, we would be having the same conversation about a two-acre market garden and a three-million-acre ranching operation.

It doesn’t matter if we are managing a $10 million annual expense budget or $10,000 — the profit margin can be the same. It’s so liberating to realize, I thought, that we don’t have to spend tons of money, or have tons of land (but it’s OK if we do too) to be a profitable farmer or rancher. We can have the life we desire, at the scale of farming or ranching we desire, with some pretty basic planning procedures (something we call Holistic Financial Planning), a positive relationship with money and a few good habits when it comes to monitoring expenses.

Holistic Financial Planning

Holistic Financial Planning is a simple, cash-based planning procedure that allows farmers and ranchers to be profitable while maintaining the quality of life they desire and improving the health of their land base. This planning procedure creates an annual projection budget and then a plan for monitoring planned versus actual expenses monthly, controlling expenses and re-planning when needed. In Holistic Financial Planning, we think of expenses differently. Like other principles in Holistic Management, it takes commonly held truths and turns them on their head.

In most households, farms, ranches and businesses, we think of the relationship between income, expenses and profit in one of two ways. Let’s consider this from a perspective of a salaried employee managing her household budget. Let’s say her name is Sarah. She chose a high-paying job at a marketing firm because it supported the lifestyle she wanted. As her salary increased through the years, she allowed her expenses to rise along with it, so the money she was able to save, or set aside as profit, never actually changed. For Sarah, this is just “how it was” with money. Profit wasn’t something she believed she could control; it was just what was left over after all the bills were paid. She is a diligent financial planner and monitors her expenses. Sometimes she has to cut back on expenses to make sure she doesn’t exceed her income, but profit is never something she thought to plan; only income and expenses were ever planned.

In Holistic Financial Planning, profit is planned first. Then expenses are controlled to allow for the desired profit margin, given the income of the operation. Considering the farmers and ranchers I’ve worked with, there is usually a similar response to this concept. It ranges from discomfort to disbelief that this is even possible.

The beauty of planning for profit is that it allows the farmer or rancher to make intentional annual investments in their long-term land plan for the farm or ranch, or other investments that meet their Holistic Context and desired quality of life.

Key principles

There are elements of the Holistic Financial Planning procedure that make it distinctly different from other budgeting processes. Here are the gamechangers:

Holistic Context: All Holistic Management planning procedures depend on a Holistic Context. Otherwise, how do you know which action is the right one, at the right time, for the right reasons, given the quality of life desired by those making decisions on the farm or ranch? Caroline Putnam, owner of Revivolution, took a virtual Jefferson Center Holistic Financial Planning course in late 2020. She said: “I live in Peru full time and have a smallholder farm in an indigenous village. I am focused on food systems transformation through regenerative farming. The holistic finance framework showed me how to make decisions with health and quality of life at the center. I think in traditional business models it becomes normal to think, ‘when I finally make this certain amount of income or reach this promotion in work, I will be able to live the lifestyle I want.’ In holistic finance, we flip this concept and say, ‘here is the quality of life I choose to live, and how do I ensure my enterprises rise to meet that standard.’ So, essentially, we are putting health and wellbeing at the center, as a pillar from which we make decisions.”

Calculating net worth: This is a process of defining all the wealth you have access to, and have created in your life. In a 2020 virtual Holistic Financial Planning course with Andrea Malmberg at the Jefferson Center, she asked course participants to think back to the first job they had — when they first started making money. The assignment was to tally all the income each person generated from that first job through the present day. “The idea,” Andrea said, “is to show that we do have the ability and means to generate wealth in our lives, but oftentimes we don’t realize it.”

Identifying log jams and adverse factors: As we organize our expenses in Holistic Financial Planning, after planning for profit, we categorize them into log jams, adverse factors and inescapable and maintenance expenses. Most people are aware of inescapable expenses (debt, taxes, etc.) and maintenance (monthly bills, repairs, etc.). However, log jams and adverse factors, when left unattended, often manifest “unforseen” disasters or “fires” we have to put out. Log jams are problems that keep the entire operation from moving ahead. They bring all enterprises to a halt.

“Most often, log jams are social,” Andrea said,”they are caused by our relationships with other people.” They usually are not financial or ecological. Adverse factors are smaller forces pushing against the operation or enterprise. A log jam may be an employee or employees quitting, and an adverse factor may be a summer road construction project that requires taking a longer, alternative route to get produce to a farmers’ market, which increases transport expenses. Planning to address these expenses in the annual Holistic Financial Plan essentially prevents the “fire” from starting. It allows for addressing the problem to be incorporated into the cash flow, instead of an unexpected expense that hurts the operation’s cash flow and decreases the profit margin.

Chain of production weak links: Each enterprise on a farm creates a chain of production. This is the idea that solar energy is captured by plants, converted into a product of some kind, taken to market and sold for paper dollars. At each point of transformation of that energy, there could be a weak link. The entire chain of production is only strongest at its weakest link. Enterprises are analyzed to identify a resource conversion, product or marketing weak link. Investments are then budgeted to address the weak link in the chain of production for that enterprise.

Gross profit analysis: A quick analysis of direct expenses and income for each enterprise on the farm or ranch (or household) provides insight into which ones are contributing the most to the overall operation and which ones may be a drain on it. This can be an emotional process if the most cherished enterprises don’t really stand on their own feet from an income and expenses standpoint. Oftentimes the idea of simply separating out each enterprise from the whole operation and analyzing it is a new process, shedding light on the health of the enterprise and one the operation as a whole.

Monitor, control, replan: Creating the Holistic Financial Plan is a great, and very important, first step. But it is just the beginning. The work comes in the monthly monitoring of actual expenses, income and profit compared to what was planned. This gives managers the opportunity to adjust their expenses and activities as needed to keep the budget on track. The “seeing” part is key. We cannot manage what we don’t measure. Many people managing farms and ranches don’t know how much they are spending or if they are spending the money on top priorities. And I say this with no judgement. I find a good practice of monthly monitoring to be very hard to develop. This is why we formed a support network at the Jefferson Center of course participants to help and encourage each other to create and manage financial (and grazing) plans.

Our relationship with money

It was such a relief to know that I was not alone in some of my emotional responses to finances: anxiety, guilt, fear. These emotions deterred me from doing the work of Holistic Financial Planning. When I did the work, it took tremendous energy to work through the emotions, which made it feel like such hard work. I realized I wasn’t alone when we talked about this during the Holistic Financial Planning course taught by Andrea Malmberg at the Jefferson Center in the fall of 2020.

“Normally I am someone that turns the other way when we talk about accounting and financial planning,” Caroline Putnam, a fellow course attendee, said. After taking a Values in Action Character Strengths survey as part of the course, I realized that my core strengths are love, gratitude and perseverance. Drawing on these core strengths, I brought them to my work with finances and began to actually enjoy it. It wasn’t that hard when the emotional baggage dropped. I love to write poetry and journal. It slows my mind down, allows me to become fully present, to reflect and examine, and to find meaning in life. Projection budgets do the opposite to me. I feel pressured to predict the future, to promise to create gold out of straw, and then to be held to it for a year. Each month I have to look at how I measure up to this version of the future. Of course, this brings emotions with it too. Guilt or elation. Fear or joy. Clearly too much of my self worth was wrapped up in a budget. Now, before and during budget planning season, I write a lot of poetry, especially right before I work on a budget. It gets me in a flow state. Additionally, I realized that when doing bookkeeping and reconciling, I love to listen to 90s hip-hop music. It helps me focus and sustain energy. No idea why, or where that came from, but I’m going with it.

Now, when I do the work of budgeting or monitoring, it becomes just “addition and subtraction,” as Tony Malmberg, a Savory Field Professional and long-time holistic manager, said. I couldn’t believe how much easier it was to create annual budgets and do monthly monitoring, reconciling and other bookkeeping when the baggage of negative emotional response to the work was dropped.

Other bad habits we have, that I have noticed in myself and others I’ve worked with, are the following. The good news is that they are simply habits and can be changed.

We are not in the habit of paying ourselves as farmers and ranchers. For some reason this makes us really uncomfortable. Our time, energy and knowledge is valuable and needs to be acknowledged in the budget.

We don’t talk about finances enough. Why was the Holistic Financial Planning course with Andrea the first time I’d had an open and supported conversation with others about my relationship with money? We should talk about real things more often with people who have the desire and capacity to listen and share too.

We are used to doing things the way they’ve always been done. I love the look of joy and surprise in someone’s eyes when they realize that “absolute truths” about how their farm or ranch operates are actually just actions taken that were never questioned or examined, and then repeated (sometimes through generations).

We lack a long-term investment plan for the farm or ranch. Too many of us live in a state of constantly putting out fires. This becomes a habit — and perhaps an addiction to the adrenaline needed to live like this. Having a long-term land plan allows planned profit from each year to be invested in a way that takes the whole operation toward the long-term vision for the property and decreases the time spent in reaction mode.

Working on healing my relationship with budgets, spreadsheets and finances was liberating. Here are some ways to do this important work:

  • Take a Holistic Financial Planning course. The Jefferson Center offers at least two per year.
  • Take a Ranching for Profit course.
  • Form a management club, which is an outcome of a Holistic Financial Planning course with the Jefferson Center. Anyone can do this. Find other farmers and ranchers you trust and meet annually to deeply review plans and budgets, providing honest feedback and ideas.
  • Start talking about finances with people you trust. Let’s have real conversations. It feels good. It is energizing. It is healthy. It forms deep connections. All good reasons to take the chance of being vulnerable, which is required to have a real conversation.
  • Take the Values in Action Character Strengths survey, and begin applying your strengths to your financial planning process.
  • Make time for self-reflection. What emotional responses do you have to budgeting and tracking expenses that deter you from doing this work? How can you decrease your emotional response, or change it to a positive response, when you see a spreadsheet or are asked to create a budget?

Abbey Smith is a Savory Professional Educator and a leader of the Jefferson Center for Holistic Management, a Savory Global Network hub serving the West Coast. Learn more at jeffersonhub.com and savory.global. She lives in Fort Bidwell, California with her children Maezy and Sam, who are learning to love spreadsheets at a young age.

Roller/Crimper to the Rescue of No-Till of Grain Systems

A Roller/Crimper in action in an organic no-till grain system.

By Jeff Moyer

The following is an excerpt from Jeff Moyer’s new book, Roller/Crimper No-Till: Advancing No-Till Agriculture — Crops, Soil & Equipment.

For decades, Rick Clark’s ancestors were, admittedly, some of the worst soil destructors in Warren County, Indiana.
But Clark knows the power of change. A fifth-generation farmer growing corn and soybeans, he made the decision to choose a new path and pursue organic no-till management. Now he is one of the most vocal advocates for organic no-till grain farming in the country.

Today, Clark Land and Cattle is approaching 750 certified organic acres, is 100 percent GMO-free, and terminates its cover crops with a roller/crimper. Much of Clark’s grain crops go to feed dairy cattle whose milk is used for Dannon yogurt.

Clark speaks to farmer groups across the country about his organic no-till journey. He makes sure to end all his speeches with the same sentiment:

“If you’re not uncomfortable with what you’re doing, then you are not trying hard enough to change.”

Making the Change

Farmers throughout the United States are facing that need for change as consumers increasingly seek organic products and weather becomes more unpredictable. Moving to an organic no-till system, specifically one that implements the roller crimper, is becoming a popular decision for many farmers.

“I was wrestling with farming and how I wanted to farm, because we’re small farmers and I wanted to go organic,” said Levi Lyle, one such farmer in Keota, Iowa, who felt that need for change in his family’s operation.

He needed to convince his father that going organic would be in their farm’s best interest and decided to become an organic inspector himself to gather knowledge firsthand.

“I learned what farmers were doing and where their struggles were, and I saw them really struggling on the soybean side of things,” said Lyle. “I thought, you know, this roller/crimper thing is worth looking into further.”

Having read about the roller/crimper a decade earlier, Lyle decided now was the time to pursue no-till on 60 acres of certified organic crop land.

Influenced by the research of both Rodale Institute and Dr. Erin Silva of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, both Rick Clark and Levi Lyle have improved the soil health on their farms through use of the roller/crimper.

Implementation Strategies

While their equipment is the same, Clark’s and Lyle’s methods vary slightly, each with specific benefits. Clark plants green into his cover crop, usually a cereal rye or a diverse mix of his own creation.

This system allows Clark to plant his soybeans into cereal rye around the last week of April. By the time the rye has reached maturity and can be roller/crimped in June, the soybeans have already reached growth stage V2 and will continue to grow once the cover is terminated.

By allowing the cover crop to remain in the soil alive as long as possible, Clark believes his cash crops reap multiple benefits.

“We’ve created a mulch that’s suppressing weeds. We are feeding the microbes and we’ve put an armor on the soil,” Clark explained. “We are protecting the soil from sunlight, from evaporation … and conserving every ounce of water that gets into our profile.”

Lyle, on the other hand, uses a one-pass system where the roller/crimper and the planter are both attached to his tractor. This cuts down on labor and soil compaction as he plants his soybeans into a rye cover crop.

While some farmers may shy away from the roller/crimper due to timing restrictions on cover crop termination, Lyle has found that with changing weather patterns, timing can actually be a benefit.

“This year [2019], there were no soybeans planted during the month of May because May was so wet,” he described. By the time conventional farmers were able to plant their soybeans, Lyle was ahead of the game.

“We could get in sooner because the rye was already there,” he said. “So, on the first of June we went in and were planting our roller/crimped soybeans before any other farmers in our county. That felt kind of cool.”

Finding Profitability

The ability to compete with conventional systems is tied up with the question of yields and profitability, a consideration that weighed heavily on Lyle. In the end, he’s been pleasantly surprised with the results of roller crimping his soybeans.

“We’re seeing improved profits. Farmers are making three, sometimes four herbicide passes, and they still have weeds in that field,” he said. “I’ve been very happy with the amount of cost I’m saving by roller/crimping instead of using herbicide passes.”

“We’re not losing any yields on our soybeans,” Lyle explained. “We’re still getting between 50 and 60 bushels of soybeans an acre.”

Comparable yields, mixed with a reduction in input costs, leads to an overall increase in profitability on Lyle’s farm.
The same can be said for Clark’s operation — though yields are not his main concern.

“I know you’ve got to have yields to make a return on investment calculation,” Clark conceded. “But we have driven our input costs down so low that our break-even numbers are ridiculously low on corn and soybeans. So we can withstand a lot.”

“It’s not about who can raise the most corn,” he stated. “It’s about building soil health and maximizing the return on investment.”

Challenges & Opportunities

That commitment to continuously improving the soil keeps Clark moving forward every day. Clark wants to keep pushing the boundary of organic no-till to make soil health the number one consideration in his operation.

Clark is working hard to diversify his cover crop mix, explaining that even cover crops can fall into monoculture. While every soybean crop comes after cereal rye, Clark doesn’t think that cereal rye should be the only thing in the field.

He experiments with mixing in other cover crops with the rye like radish, sorghum-sudangrass, and oats for winter kill, as well as something like clover, hairy vetch, and peas that will be suppressed by the cereal rye in the spring.

Despite the nitrogen-fixing benefits he knows this mix will provide, Clark knows that he’s operating on logistical trial and error.

“My biggest challenge with the crimper,” he said, “is being able to terminate all this diverse complex cocktail next spring.”

While Clark is pushing the envelope, Lyle has become the unofficial spokesman for the classic one-pass roller/crimper system. After being featured for his experience with the roller/crimper in an article by the Natural Resource Conservation Service, Lyle said he’s received calls from all over the country from farmers asking how to use the tool in their operations.

“Guys have called from Nebraska wanting to roller/crimp their wheat and plant sorghum. I’ve had calls from Texas from people wanting to roller/crimp to plant hemp, and a lot of farmers are interested in roller/crimping just to reduce the first pass of herbicides,” he said.

Lyle also loans out his roller/crimpers to neighboring farmers in Iowa, with operators coming from as far as five hours away to borrow the equipment.

“I’ve been impressed to see the amount of different systems that the roller/crimper is working in,” Lyle said.

One such new system is wildlife food plots. Lyle explained that many managers of food plots are not farmers and don’t have the same resources.

“They’re not comfortable having a bunch of herbicides in storage,” said Lyle. The roller/crimper helps these operators maintain weed control and healthy yields without requiring chemical intervention.

Looking Forward

Lyle is excited about continuing to help other farmers find cost savings with the roller/crimper, as well as growing his own operation.

He’s interested in studying soil health and its potential to sequester carbon, which he considers a new farm commodity that should be bought and traded between farmers to improve the condition of the planet.

While he may end all his speeches with his call for farmers to push themselves, what he really wants them to take away from his talks is how passionately he loves this work.

“My very last thing I say is, I’m proud to be a farmer, but I’m more proud of the way I farm,” he said. “Regenerative stewardship. That’s what I call it. It’s all about soil health.”

Jeff Moyer is the CEO of Rodale Institute.

A Realist’s Guide to Pricing Your Product for the Market

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Paul Dorrance’s online course, Proven Lessons for Success in the Business of Farming. To sign up for the course, visit learn.acresusa.com.


Putting a price on your farm product is a highly emotional experience for farmers. The price you ask for encapsulates so much more than profit. It includes all the sleepless nights you spent listening to the coyotes howl and wondering if your lambs were safe, that late frost that caught you and your tomatoes off guard, the equipment breakdowns in the field, and the love, care and stewardship you poured into your operation to bring that specific tomato or that pound of ground lamb to your customer.

The problem is that your customer doesn’t understand that, and despite how much we tell them, they never truly will. So most conversations you hear about product pricing revolve, as this one will, around mechanical, mathematical, logical approaches. However, it is worth recognizing from the very beginning that price represents so much more than the result of a formula. In this article, we’ll discuss what not to do first, and then move through some concepts of how to capture your sleepless nights and stewardship efforts in order to arrive at a price that you can be proud of and your customer can pay.

My first piece of advice: don’t attempt to be a low-cost producer. There are generally two categories of any business: low cost or high value. Whether you are purchasing clothing, tools or wine, all of us have a decision to make. Do I spend money on a quality product that will last or do I cheap out and buy something that will disintegrate in the washer, break in the field or taste like turpentine? I would argue that small-scale farmers fit squarely in the “craftsman” category of goods and services, and our pricing needs to reflect that.

Trying to produce food cheaply is a downward spiral that looks remarkably like a toilet flushing, and that approach is what has gotten America into the sewer of our current food system. Many people point to innovation, technology, efficiency and scale as ways to reduce or spread cost across more products, therefore reducing the cost of production, and I am not against any of those things. You can produce high-quality food on a large scale — just look at Will Harris and White Oak Pastures as one example. You can and should utilize technology to be more efficient. But there is only one way to produce cheap food: you cheat. Sub-therapeutic antibiotics, growth hormones, genetically engineered seeds, CAFO animal factories — these are all methods that indicate a business has chosen profit over values in an effort to produce food as cheaply as possible. Don’t be one of those farmers; your customers, neighbors and family deserve a high-quality product worthy of paying good money for.

So how do we price items? How much is it worth? How much is too much? We have to sell it to make money, right? It is so tempting in the face of those questions to glance across the aisle at our competitor’s price board, look up someone else’s online shopping platform, or find similar products in the grocery store aisle and just copy their prices. Surely they’ve done their homework, analyzed their markets, and have logically arrived at that price. Perhaps. Or maybe they did the same thing you are now contemplating, and so did the farmer that they copied from, and the chain of uninformed pricing goes back several iterations!

That’s a cycle you don’t need to perpetuate. But while I don’t want you to copy your competitor’s prices outright, it is worth knowing what they are for two reasons: it serves as a reality check on what you come up with independently and provides you with the knowledge that you are either cheaper or more expensive than they are in order to inform your conversations with your customers.

The good news is that we don’t have to copy, or even worse guess, to price our products. Instead, you need to start with what it cost you to produce said product. Ensuring that you are priced at least at/above cost of production seems so obvious, but you’d be surprised how many farmers don’t do it. It goes back to one of the initial questions I asked you: are you running a business or is this a hobby? Nothing wrong with either, but a business needs to be profitable to survive; a hobby does not.

Let’s cover the basic costs of production with a simple pork enterprise example, where I am purchasing ten weaned piglets, raising them to finish, processing, and selling the meat. To bring that pork to the point of sale cost me:

$500 purchase | 10 piglets, $50 each

$2,070 | Feed, 9,000 lbs

$2,000 | Processor, about $200 each

$4,570 | Total cost

$457 | Total cost per pig

So all I need to do is make sure that my cumulative pricing for one pig’s worth of products covers the $457 cost of production. Easy, right? No wonder they call hogs the “mortgage lifter” — hogs are so profitable! Not so fast. Let’s take a step back and look for what is missing from this example. For starters, we’re definitely missing some of the more hidden costs:

• Infrastructure (fencing, feeders, waterers, barn, trailer, freezers)
• Utilities (water, electric)
• Transportation (fuel, mechanical, for both initial pickup & processor trips)
• Marketing (online presence, farmers’ market fees, mileage)
• Death loss (minimal for hogs, but not for a poultry example!)

As you can see, there is much more that goes into producing a pound of bacon than a simplified chart. However, even after we are able to track down each individual input that needs to be accounted for, I’m guessing that there is one more thing that we’ve forgotten. Farmers are some of the worst about this; we always forget to account for … ourselves. We almost never pay ourselves, but our time is valuable, and must be accounted for. Daily chores, time spent in the truck moving animals or picking up feed or getting to the farmers’ market, time spent in front of a computer building a pork products flyer. However you tally everything up, your time had better be part of your calculations. Personally, I value my time at $30/hour. Another way to handle this would be to add in a profit margin above production. If you take this route I would recommend 25-35 percent for your high-end, craftsman-level product. Without sharing the entire cost chart and how I came up with it, my true cost of production for a single hog was $840 — almost double our simplified initial estimate!

The next question becomes how much meat comes off an individual animal. As I mentioned earlier, once I started tracking and adding up the cuts coming back from the processor, I was shocked at how few premium steaks there actually are on a finished steer. You have to track and count up the weights you get back in order to come up with an average number of each item. For my hog example, I figured on 32 pounds of sausage, 46 pounds of loin chops (bone-in or boneless? It matters), 12 pounds of bacon, 6 pounds of spare ribs, 24 pounds of ham and 10 pounds of shoulder; this totaled 130 pounds of meat. That means that my average price per pound for pork should be at least $6.47 to cover my true cost of producing that hog. There is definitely flexibility to move that price around depending on the cut, and this is where you can start to compare yourself against your competitor. She sells her bacon at $8 per pound? Maybe you can match that, but only if you sell your sausage at a pricey $6.50 per pound. Which will you have more of? Which is more likely to be seen as a premium cut? Probably move the sausage at $5 per pound, sell the bacon at $12, and be ready to tell your customers why the price difference is so completely worth it!

That brings me to my final word of advice on this topic: don’t back down. You worked hard on your product. You put in the time, you put in the money, your animal or plant paid the ultimate sacrifice, all so that your customer could eat healthy, clean and humanely. That is worth the price, no matter how many times someone visibly blanches or outright scoffs at your prices and walks away with their nose in the air before getting in their car to wait in the fast-food drive-through line. Be ready to tell folks why your product costs what it does, but do not waiver. If you can’t sell your product for what you need to, then the only conversation that needs to happen is whether or not to continue that enterprise. Have a sale every now and then, offer excess inventory for a reduced price, adjust your prices based on demand and supply, but always keep your bottom line in mind and do not sell below it — that is the realm of a low-cost producer who cheats to sell cheap food, and that cannot be you.

Paul Dorrance lives in Ohio. He’s run a successful pastured meat business and is now helping others do the same. For more information, go to pasturedprovidence.com.

How to Avoid High THC Levels in Hemp

A field of Connecticut hemp beside a tobacco shed.

By Noel Garcia, CCA,  Joe Pedroza & Larry Zibilske, PhD

Hemp growers have one goal in mind: Produce crops with high yields and quality.  However, of all crops, hemp alone has the unique statutory constraint that THC, one of the naturally produced cannabinoid oils, must not exceed 0.3%.  Most growers are now painfully aware that a potency test showing a THC level higher than the federal limit will mean the total loss of their crops and in the worst case, they will be classified as negligent growers. For oil crops, it can be a real balancing act to achieve the highest content of CBD while limiting THC to acceptable levels. However, as fatal as a high THC result is, growers are learning that other factors can lead to a failed crop. 

Plant stress is a condition that can be challenging to understand for many growers. Marijuana growers discovered that if they stress their plants in the last few weeks before harvest, they can induce higher production of THC. But stress in industrial hemp can lead to disaster.  

What happens if the plant is stressed early in the vegetative state and how does that affect overall yield?  Potential growers have asked, “Isn’t hemp basically a weed and shouldn’t it grow well unattended?” The answer is yes, but not as a commercial crop. Between heat, drought and low humidity, Texas and other arid states can provide plant stress challenges to producing a harvestable crop.  So let’s review the experiences two Texas growers had this year.

(Background: Texas growers started under a handicap: Licenses didn’t start being issued until the middle of April — then already more than a month late for planting and they weren’t issued immediately upon application. Accordingly, growers were in a panic to get their crops going.)

It’s late June and the weather is hot and humid — typical conditions for the Lower Rio Grande Valley region of Texas for the time of year. A new greenhouse grower, excited to invest in a new and promising crop, sets out to start his grow. He starts with topsoil purchased from a local supplier; it’s a sandy loam which he blends with coconut coir and perlite.

The seeds germinate and for the next several weeks, the plants are growing well. One morning as he walks through the rows of potted plants, he notices many of the young plants are beginning to flower. The plants are only five weeks old and six to eight inches tall. They are not an autoflowering variety.  What’s going on?  

Another grower in Texas is preparing to plant his first crop.  He has seven acres but decides that it would be wise to start with one. It’s a new operation and he hasn’t fully established the drip irrigation system, which he decided to self-install. It’s getting late in the season, so he direct-seeds before it gets any later. The seeds germinate and everything looks great.

He has close to 2,000 plants in neat rows, stretching out in the hot Texas sun. Things are going smoothly, but it’s August now, and the temperatures are starting to tick higher and higher. For two weeks, temperatures went over 100º and the plants begin to show signs of stress.  Insects soon moved in and made the situation worse.  As the grower walks his field, he notices his plants, now five weeks old, are starting to flower but they are not an autoflowering variety.  What’s going on?  

First, let us understand the mechanisms that trigger a plant to switch to its reproductive (flowering) stage. Flowering is initiated either autonomously or by environmental factors. Photoperiodic flowering is controlled by the amount of light and dark hours. With photoperiod strains of cannabis, plants switch from the vegetative to the flowering phase when they get longer than 12 hours of dark.  By contrast, auto-flowering strains are not dependant on light or dark hours and are genetically programmed to begin flowering when they’re 4-5 weeks old.  

Other crops show similar characteristics. Olives, for example, are controlled by vernalization: they must have a minimum number of cold hours to initiate flowering. So is that what happened to our Texas hemp growers?  Was it so late in the year that the plants got enough hours of darkness to initiate flowering?  In these cases, the answer was no.  Let’s look at each situation separately and analyze what went wrong:

In the first grower’s case, the lab analyzed the media and the well water he used to irrigate.  A comprehensive analysis showed that the media-mix the grower purchased was mostly inert and devoid of nutrients (and life).  The pH was high at 8.3 and highly calcareous with 1,200 ppm of calcium as carbonate.

Additionally, even though coconut coir was added, it did not contribute to the active organic matter as it had not been composed. So, active organic matter measured only 0.52%. The well water tested high in dissolved solids at 1,155 mg/L — mostly sodium and chloride. Notable too, was an elevated boron level of 1.8 mg/L, which can occur naturally in wells deeper than 100 ft.  After talking with the grower and discovering how he was fertilizing and irrigating his plants, we understood how stresses had built-up.

He explained that he did not feed for the first 3-4 weeks of growth and had only been watering the plants using a backpack sprayer. He wanted to avoid root rot from overwatering, so he only watered every two or three days.  The media in the pots, composed mostly of sandy soil, would become hard and compacted when it dried. The minerals from the water began to build-up in the media, to the point where it had become white and crusty.  

The outcome was the plants had experienced chronic stress from underwatering, lack of nutrients and accumulated sodium and boron that was reaching toxic levels as evidenced by a plant sap test that indicated 230 ppm of boron . The response from the plant was one of survival and to reproduce. As Dr. Ian Malcom said in his famous Jurassic Park line, “life finds a way.”  The instinct for survival and reproduction is what drives all life on earth.  In the case of our young cannabis plants, the response was to flower.

When we reviewed the conditions of the second grower, we found a different pattern of problems. Our soil analysis showed that nutrient levels were mostly adequate except nitrogen, which was excessively high at 290 lbs/ac. As the plants grew, the excessive nitrogen stimulated rapid growth, leading to a weakened cell structure, making the plants susceptible to insect attacks.

The grower was not experienced in designing irrigation systems, resulting in built-in watering issues — so many of the plants were exposed to drought conditions during a heat wave that affected the region. The slope of the field led to overwatering at the bottom and underwatering at the top. He did not consider that static water pressure increases with every foot of elevation by 0.433 psi — so he started off with a considerable static pressure differential along the vertical length of the lines: highest at the bottom — lowest at the top.

Under the stresses of heat, unbalanced nutrition, insect pressures and uneven water distribution, the young plants’ instinct for survival triggered a flowering/reproductive response in the less than 100 surviving plants. 

So what should these growers have done differently to avoid such losses?

No matter the crop, planning and preparation are essential to success.  Industrial hemp, in particular, requires very much advance research and planning. There is no better protection against the variables that Mother Nature inflicts to test growers than to have a detailed plan and prepare for your crop’s success — and avoid potential problems.

It can seem like a daunting task with so many factors at play, especially since many think it is beyond their control. And rightfully so, as we frequently hear about storms that hit with little warning and destroy large areas of farmland, and heat waves and droughts that cripple parts of the farming community.  

How can we prepare for these challenges?  

The answer is hidden beneath our feet. Understanding soil health is the cornerstone of every successful grower. The foundation of your plan should be the rebuilding of your soil and its life, and management of its nutrients and structure.  

Soil health is an idea that involves optimizing the relationships between soil physical, chemical and biological factors.  Achieving and maintaining good soil health is essential for producing good crop yields and quality. Fertilizers are only part of soil fertility. Soil microbes live on and around plant roots and interact with roots in several important ways. Among the most important interactions are ensuring plant roots are protected from pathogenic microbes and assisting the uptake of nutrients into the plants. But healthy soil also includes beneficial nematodes, insects, earthworms and fungi — all interacting with each other and the microbes in concert.  

Maintaining balanced nutrition and vigorous soil life at every stage of your plants’ life cycles will ensure that no matter what challenge Mother Nature sends, your crops will have the best chance of making you money. 

Soil or growing media testing is one of the best investments a grower can make, especially when planning a new season. As we saw with our Texas growers, soil lacking in nutrients or having excess nutrients, devoid of life, or being extremely acid or alkaline, all lead to plant nutrient uptake problems — which invariably results in stress.  

Irrigation water analysis is also paramount when installing your farm’s infrastructure. Poor quality water can neutralize the efficacy of nutrients and treatments, affect distribution by plugging emitters when using drip irrigation and change the soil’s native chemistry. 

These tools will help you understand where you need to focus your energy and resources. The goal is to provide the best possible environment for your plants to grow. When we correct our soil’s nutritional imbalances, we facilitate maintaining adequate levels of nutrients in our plants as they develop.  

As the plant grows, its nutritional needs change and meeting those needs will greatly reduce the harmful stresses that prevent the plant from reaching its maximum genetic potential — and limit the production of THC. Simultaneously, we reduce the need for insecticides and other harsh treatments that reduce overall profit. In the case of conventional growers, we also reduce the exposure to strong chemicals and toxic treatments. 

Additionally, it is essential to learn from those who have experience in growing crops — and industrial hemp, in particular. We are still learning about the stresses that affect hemp and the differences between geographical/climatic regions. Add to that the regulatory standards and market requirements that must be met to harvest a profitable crop and one quickly realizes that industrial hemp is one of the most challenging crops to produce.  

We encourage you to reach out to experienced industrial hemp (not marijuana) growers and consultants willing to council you about your plans and goals. Plan and prepare for a successful crop by learning what your soil needs to be healthy and what you need to restore that health. 

Include soil microbes and organic matter in your plan and you will ensure vital relationships are maintained in the plant root environment for the entire season … and beyond.

All crops, aside from hemp, benefit from healthy, living soil. It is the greatest asset we have.  It is our obligation to be the stewards who restore the rich farmlands that once were the pride of our forefathers.

Noel Garcia is a certified crop advisor and is chief operating officer and senior technical consultant at TPS Lab. Joe Pedroza is a Texas-licensed hemp sampler and is business development manager at TPS Lab. Dr. Larry Zibilske is vice president of research at TPS Lab.

Connect Soil Health and Hemp

Acres USA hosted the 2nd annual Advancing Hemp event on May 20, 2021. Now, you can purchase the event replay and not miss a single piece of information! This virtual event was designed to prepare farmers for successful hemp production through practical, applicable advice from industry-leading experts and growers. Learn more about the replay and its content here.

Transitioning to Organic? You Don’t Have to Do It Alone

A tour of the Rodale Institute Midwest Organic Center showcases a trial of corn planted in 30” vs. 60” rows. Rodale research director Carl Rosier (pictured at right) leads the tour.


Over the past several months, I have had the honor of visiting a wide variety of farms across Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Nebraska and Missouri. I have observed a common thread among the farmers that I meet that is characterized by a passion for their land, creativity and a willingness to try something different. What I have also observed is that these same farms each look very different from one another. The combination of a farmer’s local knowledge and a farm that is unique in time and space is what makes each day exciting for me as an Extension Scientist. With this diversity of farms and unique needs in mind, Rodale Institute has built an organic crop consulting model that is flexible to fit the unique needs of every farm.

Typically, my first interaction with farmers is through an email or a phone call after they have found us through the website, a webinar, or after reading the latest Acres U.S.A. column. Recently, I met a potential client while walking along my local nature trail. In true Midwest fashion, I found myself visiting with a random bicyclist along the trail. As we talked, I learned that this person had recently purchased a nearby farm, and the light bulb went off for both of us — we scheduled a time for me to visit their soon-to-be organic vegetable farm. If chance meetings in the countryside were my primary means of meeting potential clients, I realize that I would have to log many more walking miles, but my point is this: I never know where the next farmer conversation will come from, but I’m always grateful when it happens.

After the initial contact, I always schedule a phone or video call with each person as soon as possible. My goal during this first visit is to do minimal talking and maximum listening — I want to understand what motivates a farmer to transition to organic or improve their current organic farm. I’ve heard responses ranging from deep-seeded passion for soil health, the desire to create a more economically viable farm for children to stay on the land, or the insightful response, “I realized that my potential customer is my wife and her friends — and they all care about the health of their families.” The discussion always dives deep into the details of the farm operation, including crop rotation, equipment, market opportunities … the list goes on, but I find it’s important for me to understand the drivers for transition to organic so I can provide assistance that is in line with their values and helps them to meet their farm goals.

The listening session I just described kicks off an ongoing conversation about their farm — that continues, based on the farmer’s needs and preferences, through phone calls, texts, emails and on-farm visits. Every farmer I work with is the expert on their farm, and my goal is to provide an alternative perspective based on my own experiences and the findings of the scientific community, including Rodale Institute’s excellent research team. For example, if a farmer is looking to implement no-till soybean production, I usually ask if they have considered how to change their crop rotation so that cereal rye can be established earlier in the fall to optimize tillering. I often find that when folks are frustrated with cereal rye establishment it can be tied back to when it was planted.

In my work, I also emphasize the importance of formulating a Plan A, Plan B and Plan C; especially when it comes to planting cover crops or addressing weed management. We may make a flawless Plan A, but Mother Nature could decide to give us non-stop rain or withhold moisture altogether — now what? Thank goodness we discussed having those alternative tools and plans at the ready! As an applied scientist, I also encourage on-farm experimentation that can help improve the farm’s operation. For example, I realize that organic seed sources may be new to people, and I always encourage farmers to try multiple organic seed sources and track performance during the transition years so that they can start to identify their “go-to sources” as they ramp up organic production. And, if we come up with novel research questions, I am always eager to ask our research team to help answer them while assuming the risk on one of Rodale Institute’s farms.

Making the choice to transition to organic production can feel overwhelming, and in the Midwest, it may also feel very lonely. It can be many miles between organic farms, and I personally understand the social pressure that coffee-shop talk can hold. The goal of my consulting approach goes beyond answering phone calls or walking through fields with a farmer. I want to ensure that they are truly welcomed into the vibrant, supportive network that is the organic community by making sure they have multiple mentors, organizations and an organic champion they can turn to to for ideas and support. There are many Midwest organic farmers and countless organizations to provide support to a farmer during their organic farming career, and I am grateful that our Rodale Institute team can work alongside these community members to support farmers on their organic journey.

If you are curious about how certified organic production would fit into your farm system, please contact us at consulting@RodaleInstitute.org or (610) 683-1416. Currently our services are FREE to Pennsylvania and Midwest farmers. Pricing for all other out-of-state clients is available upon request. More information about the Rodale Institute OCC Program is available at rodaleinstitute.org/consulting.

Kristine Lang has served as an Extension Scientist at Rodale Institute’s Midwest Organic Center. Rodale Institute is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit headquartered in Kutztown, Pennsylvania dedicated to pioneering organic farming through research and outreach. Rodale Institute’s mission states that, through organic leadership, we improve the health and well-being of people and the planet. Rodale Institute is growing the organic movement through rigorous, solutions-based research, farmer training, and consumer education. Learn more at RodaleInstitute.org.

Assessing Proper Recovery Time in a Holistic Planned Grazing System

Knowing when to let a paddock rest is a crucial part of a Holistic Planned Grazing program.


Holistic Planned Grazing is defined as a pillar of regenerative agriculture. It is one of the most beneficial actions to improve ecosystem function, and soil health, on a farm or ranch.  However, it is not quite as simple as just adding graziers to the system and expecting beneficial results to be the natural outcome. 

In other articles that I have written for Acres U.S.A., we discussed Holistic Planned Grazing and how proper planning of animal impact at the optimum phase of a plant’s life cycle will create cascading and compounding beneficial effects. Just as important as selecting the correct time to move your graziers to a pasture, we also need to plan for the recovery of those plants. 

Allan Savory’s work in developing Holistic Planned Grazing (HPG) focuses on grazing from the plant’s perspective, and planning for adequate recovery of the forage species in the pastures under management. This is fundamental to good grazing management, and is often misunderstood.  

When you ask graziers what is most important in good grazing management, most will first explain that high stock densities are needed to get adequate dung distribution and even trampling of biomass. This is true. Then, they will explain that you need to allow the pasture to recover until animal impact is used again. The question that I find that many graziers have is, how long is the proper recovery period? What happens if I come back too soon or wait too long? How might this differ if I am grazing cattle stockers compared to pairs or grass finishers? What about other livestock species? So let’s learn how to assess proper recovery times, and how a Holistic Planned Grazing sheet (when properly filled out) can take the mystery out of all this.

But first, let’s discuss how grass grows.

How Grass Grows

When the soil reaches the correct temperatures, and adequate moisture is present, grasses awaken from dormancy. They are doing so with the energy they constructed last fall, and stored over winter. This emergence is the beginning of Stage 1 growth on the growth curve. At this stage, it is important that we allow time for these plants to grow and develop. Planned recovery begins now. This is because we must continue to allow for proper recovery from the grazing last fall, and allow grasses to photosynthesize enough to build up their carbohydrate reserves in the plant.

Once we are in Stage 2 growth, the plants in our pastures will be strong enough to benefit from grazing pressure. Grazing any sooner than Stage 2 will cause a plant to slough roots and you will be overgrazing the perennial grasses in your pastures. Stage 2 of the grass’s growth curve also coincides with the best mix of proteins and carbohydrates in the forages itself. If we allow too much time to go by before grazing the plant, it will continue to develop into Stage 3, this is characterized in grasses by the emergence of the seed head, or the grass flower. If the grasses in your pastures have reached Stage 3, then photosynthesis is shutting down, as the plant’s priority is shifting from creating and storing carbohydrates to reproduction. At this point, the leaves will begin to lose vigor and nutrition as the plant prepares itself for the weight of a seed head full of heavy seeds. For the grass plant to keep the flower upright in the wind, evolution has adapted it to lignify its stem and leaves. When the plant reaches Stage 3, many farmers call the plants in the pasture “rank” or “woody.” Total digestible nutrients (TDN) drop very quickly during this transition, and forage quality can drop in what seems like overnight as plants transition from soluble carbohydrates to structural carbohydrates.  

So, it is important to manage for keeping plants in Stage 2 growth as long as possible. Many grazing zealots are either so afraid of allowing the grasses in their pastures to reach Stage 3 that they move too quickly through their rotations, and graze/overgraze plants in Stage 1. Or conversely, many graziers are so afraid of impacting grasses too soon that they let their fields go rank, resulting in lost photosynthetic potential, and forage quality, because they allow for a recovery period that is too long. If you find yourself in one of these camps, relax. With a bit of grazing period planning beforehand, you can take a lot of the guesswork out of effectively managing your pastures.  

Plant R&R

As any proper consultant will tell you, “it depends.”   It depends on the time of year, the types of forages in the given pasture, what your management objectives are, etc.    

Time of year matters. At the beginning of the growing season, you can almost watch the grass grow. It is happening so fast. Later in the summer when the daytime temperatures get warmer, growth might slow down considerably. Then in the fall of the year, plants grow at a more moderate rate before going dormant for the winter (non-growing season) months. When planning your grazing periods, you estimate what your average recovery times will be for each month of your growing season. For my ranch in Fort Bidwell, California, I can safely estimate that, in the months of May and June, a plant that is grazed will take about 30 days for it to completely recover from that grazing, in normal growing conditions. Once the dog days of summer hit in July though, I expand my recovery times by a couple of additional weeks, or about 45 to 60 days. In fall, management objectives shift again as I focus less on maximizing growing conditions and more on stockpiling my fall feed, or dormant reserves, as plants begin “fall tillering.” Fall tillering is the final push of photosynthesis for grasses. They work to construct and store their winter supply of carbohydrates so that they can emerge strong the next growing season. 

Let’s consider management objectives. Are you attempting to, for example, frame up yearling, finish cattle on grass or run a maternal herd in your herd?

This is an important consideration when deciding how to graze your pastures. If your objective is to run stocker cattle, and you want to maximize gains and frame development before you sell those calves, you may want to shorten those recovery periods by a couple of days. By choosing to graze your pastures at the shorter side of your optimum recovery periods you will keep the forages at a higher rate of protein, than if you graze with maximum forage production as your goal. The grasses at this stage have shiny leaves that are still pointing their leaf tips toward the sun. This higher rate of protein coincides with higher total digestible nutrients, and your calves will develop muscle and skeletal structure. Now this comes at a bit of a cost as you will be sacrificing tonnage of forage produced. There is the risk of overgrazing, which results in lost roots, and lost potential. 

If you finish cattle on grass, and your objective is to consistently produce finished, tender and buttery delicious beef, you will want to add a few days to the optimal recovery periods. Cattle should graze grasses that show the development of seed heads beginning to emerge. This more mature forage coincides with lower levels of protein, and higher levels of carbohydrates in the rumen fill. This ration of higher carbs will allow your cattle to maximize fat development, simultaneously increasing tenderness and decreasing that “gamey” flavor that so many people associate with grassfed beef. The gamey flavor results from beef not properly finished on grass. 

Most cow-calf producers are managing for maximum photosynthesis to hold the herd as long as possible. If this is you, you want to graze grasses that are fully developed in Stage 2. Most often, you will notice the plants have a healthy shine, and the leaves droop over. This is the prime time to graze the plants, as they are high in protein and carbs. They are photosynthesizing like crazy! When you graze these plants, your cows will be fat and milk heavy, and your pastures will begin to recover and grow additional forage quicker.  

Why Plan Grazing?

So, why is planning grazing so important? Why can’t a good grazier wing it, and manage their pastures by looking at the stage the plants in the field are currently in?

Ah, here comes the rub in all of this. Yes, you need to be able to see what is happening each day in your pastures to be an effective grazier. However, if you constantly graze for current conditions, future growing conditions will come back and bite you in the backside! This point may best be explained through an example.

Let’s assume you have 11 pastures and grasses are growing fast. You plan to be in each pasture for three days, allowing 30 days of recovery for every other pasture on the ranch. Let’s assume that you are grazing at the end of fast growth and things are starting to slow down. If you don’t have a planned recovery period that accounts for the slowdown, you risk not noticing the slow down in grass development in time to adjust, resulting in your maintaining a 30-day recovery, when a 45-day recovery is more appropriate. It might take you a week or so to catch the mistake, but it is too late to easily adjust. 

Now you are faced with a lose-lose decision: Do you park the herd in a sacrifice area to allow for time to catch up with your oversight, or do you make adjustments and go on? If you choose to sacrifice a pasture to hold the herd, you will certainly negatively affect the “sacrifice pasture,” and potentially the weight gain on the cattle will also suffer. On the other hand, if you adjust and keep trying to live with the consequences, you will certainly not have enough recovery time and you will negatively impact all the pastures. You can get away with that once, but what will likely happen to you, is you will overgraze the plants in each subsequent pasture. This will ensure that your plants will not recover as quickly as they could have and forage production will suffer. Since production and forage growth is degraded, you will have to move even quicker the next time through your pastures, as there will not be adequate forage available for the livestock. This is a common problem that people find themselves in. 

The best way to ensure that you graze cattle or livestock to create maximum benefits to your herd, your pastures and your profit margin, is to use the time-tested and proven planning procedures of Holistic Planned Grazing, outlined in Jody Butterfield and Allan Savory’s book Holistic Management, 3rd Edition. Serious graziers should have a copy of this book, as well as the Holistic Management Handbook, in their library. 

Spencer Smith is a Savory Field Professional. Savory Global Network hubs provide accredited Holistic Management training and support across the world. Abbey and Spencer Smith manage the Savory Global Network hub serving Northern California and Nevada, called the Jefferson Center for Holistic Management. They live in Fort Bidwell, California on Springs Ranch where they produce grass-fed beef, provide Holistic Management training, consulting, Ecological Outcome Verification enrollment, and manage contract grazing on the ranch pastures. Visit www.jeffersonhub.com to learn more.

Spencer Smith to speak at 2020 Healthy Soil Summit

The 2nd annual Healthy Soil Summit will take place this August 25-26. The event is online-only, meaning you can join from anywhere! Among the presenters will be expert rancher Spencer Smith, who will take you through “The Value and Practice of Integrating Animals in Your Operation.” View the presenter agenda and speaker info here.