March 27, 2019

GRAZING NETWORKS FOR LIVESTOCK PRODUCERS

 

Introduction

Grazing networks are groups of farmers and ranchers who work together to increase their knowledge

of forage management, pasture.based production, and farm economics. Grazing networks

promote a mutual self.help approach to learning, in which each member is both student and teacher.

The members share their experiences and offer advice to one another, organize educational events

around their common interests, and spend some time socializing. Members of grazing networks

usually find that what they learn from other farmers and ranchers is timely, practical, and profitable.

They also find within the network a spirit of community and support that, while intangible,

many see as crucial to sustaining the life of family farms.

Background

Farmers in New Zealand, especially dairy farmers, started forming grazing networks more than 40

years ago. Grazing techniques developed there, such as management.intensive grazing (MIG, or

management.intensive rotational grazing, MiRG), have become cornerstones for the grazing networks

that have taken root in the US since the 1980s. Grazing networks now exist throughout this

country and are especially active in the Midwest, where Wisconsin, for example, claims 23 networks

serving farmers in 51 of the state.s 72 counties (1).

Becoming Part of a Grazing Network

The easiest way to get involved with a grazing network is

to join one. Many county Extension agents coordinate

grazing networks, or at least know of any networks active

in their areas. But if there are none, you can start one.

Most grazing networks get started simply enough, when

three or four graziers start talking about their common

problems or concerns and decide to pool their knowledge

to help one another out. Reaching others who may be interested

in becoming part of the network is usually done

by word of mouth or through targeted mailings (2). In

either case, someone must take on the job of doing the

initial leg work and coordinating the organizational meeting.

 

If you do not know other graziers in your area, your Extension agent, local veterinarians, or someone

at the feed store can probably help you put together a list. When you call people on your list to

invite them to your first meeting, be prepared to answer their questions about what you.re doing

and why. Keep it simple and direct. .Farmers usually say they attended their first group meeting

because they were asked personally. (2).

If personal or telephone contact isn.t practical for you, the next.best recruitment tool is a targeted

mailing to a list of potential members. .Targeted. is the key word here. Try to identify farmers and

ranchers whom you believe may have an interest in managing their pastures for greater profit. In

your mailing (as well as in direct contacts), be sure to make clear the purpose and philosophy

behind the group and to include the names of others who will be at the meeting. .Many farmers ...

  1. ttended the first meeting because they knew they would have an opportunity to meet and talk

with other farmers they respect. (2).

A lot of what it takes to host an organizational meeting is common sense. Schedule it at a convenient

time. Have an agenda that allows for plenty of feedback from the participants. Have someone

taking notes. Provide refreshments.

One important decision that you need to make early in the formation of your group is whether it

will be open to anyone interested or whether its membership will be limited. Both open memberships

and closed memberships have their individual strengths and weaknesses.

Networks with an open membership are usually larger than closed.membership groups and sometimes

require a more formal structure to keep them running. Larger groups do offer a greater diversity

of ideas and experiences than those with closed memberships, and there are more people to

assist new members in understanding how the network operates. But the diversity of open.membership

groups is their greatest strength, in the view of many who advocate them (3, 4).

On the other hand, the larger size of most open groups, with their ever.shifting dynamics and

greater demand for coordination, tends to make them less cohesive than smaller networks. Also,

large meetings, with their more formal structure, limit the depth in which a topic can be discussed

(2).

The smaller size of most networks with closed membership has its own appeal. Aside from usually

having a more informal structure and requiring less energy to coordinate and maintain, closed

networks allow their members to get to know one another better, to form strong relationships, and

to focus their activities more easily on topics of mutual interest. As Jason Rankin, a networker from

County Down in Northern Ireland, says, .If you get ten committed members then that is plenty.

(5). One disadvantage of a smaller group is that the number and variety of ideas within it will be

more limited (2). Another shortcoming is that smaller networks demand a stronger commitment

from their members. If only three members of a nine.farm network are actively involved, the group

is in trouble.

The size of your group, whether open or closed membership, will largely determine how it functions

and how much effort is necessary to keep it vital. But regardless of size, no grazing network

runs by itself. There has to be leadership and some method of governance.

While Extension agents do act as coordinators for some grazing networks, the .leadership should

really come from within the group . . . [and] members themselves must lead the network. (6). .This

is in fact the heart of a grazing network: the experts are the ones doing it, and the ones doing it

are the farmers. (3). Someone has to take responsibility for calling and running meetings, contacting

members, arranging for guest speakers, organizing pasture walks and pot.luck dinners. In a

small group, this may be an individual or, in a larger group, a body of officers. In either case,

leadership and coordination are crucial to a network.s success.

Just as there are open (usually large) and closed (usually smaller) membership groups, there are

also formal and informal ways of running them. Formal structures . with elected officers and

meetings run by some established rules of order . are usually better suited to larger groups. Indeed,

a very large group may require a formal structure to avoid chaos. But not always. The Grassroots

Grazing Group (see Case Study below) still maintains a very informal structure, even though it has

grown from its original 13 members by more than six fold. Smaller groups, on the other hand, those

with no more than 10 to 15 members, can usually function well with just a few ground rules and

someone willing to see that everyone knows when and where they.re to meet. Smaller groups may

be able to act swiftly and make decisions by consensus, although the danger for groups making

decisions by consensus is .the tendency to make compromises just to move the consensus along.

(2).

Regardless of the method of governance your network chooses, the person in charge has several

very important obligations to the group. Let.s call the person in charge .the coordinator..

The coordinator.s first (and ongoing) task is to find out what the group is interested in, what topics

or problems or activities it most wants to explore. Obviously, there will be some areas of common

concern that brought the group together in the first place, but the coordinator must ensure that

fresh ideas and new concerns are given fair consideration. Of course, members should be free to

introduce topics or suggest activities at any time, but it is the coordinator.s role to poll the membership

and find out where its greatest interests lie. In a small group, it might take no more than

asking, .What are you folks interested in?. In a larger group, it may be necessary to use a more

formal poll, followed by a vote.

Once a coordinator has determined what the network members want to discuss, he or she can start

setting the agendas for meetings. This may seem no more than note taking, just a list of things to

talk about, but it serves a function critical to making meetings go well: bringing them to a good end.

Members can read a published agenda and come to meetings prepared to ask questions or make

comments focused on the issues at hand. The agenda also helps the coordinator keep meetings on.

track and gets the members to the coffee and cake or the pot.luck dinner they.ve been waiting for

a little faster.

Once the coordinator has an agenda, the next step is scheduling. Meetings, pasture walks, guest

lectures, field demonstrations . all these must be held at times when the greatest number of members

can attend. Again, common sense goes a long way when drawing up a schedule. Don.t schedule

in the middle of a weekday during haying season or when some popular community event (the

Big Game, the Mouse Milking Derby, etc.) is taking place.

The coordinator has not only to decide when things happen but also what. Based on the interests of

the members, the coordinator will have to arrange for speakers (often from Extension, another

grazing group, or a university), set up demonstrations, and see to it that there are activities for

children at the events.

Finally, perhaps the single most important job for the coordinator is to make sure that members get

the information they need about meetings and activities, and that they get it far enough in advance

to work it into their schedules. Telephone calls, e.mails, newsletters, public service announcements

on local TV and radio stations, can all make the coordinator.s job easier and the coordinator more

effective.

Sustaining the Network

The members of a grazing network need to share a belief in a set of clearly stated goals that not only

address immediate, pragmatic concerns . improving pastures, boosting production, and increasing

profits for the members . but also reflect the members. social, environmental, and personal

aspirations. The success of a network depends upon the success of each individual in it, and vice

versa. This means the network has to be more than just a forum for practical matters; it must also be

an integral part of the lives of the members. Wayne Burleson, a grazier and Holistic Management

Certified Educator from Absarokee, Montana, says of his grazing group, .[it is] part friendship,

part support, part family, and part business. (7). And, as a study of the Missouri Green Hills Farm

Project discovered, . . . . the group.s goals represent a mix of social, economic, and environmental

objectives. (4).

Shared goals and aspirations give focus and direction to the group. They are the philosophical glue

that binds network members together. And they provide a framework of support within which

members can work to realize their individual ambitions.

The essence of grazing networks is farmer.to.farmer learning and support. But monthly meetings

or pasture walks or pot.luck suppers aren.t always enough to keep the members in touch, especially

when one of them needs help with a problem right now. A directory of members, with phone

numbers, addresses, and e.mail addresses, makes it much easier for members to contact one another.

An e.mail listserve provides a venue for ongoing discussions as well as fast access to information.

The Grassroots Grazing Group . which has more than 80 member.families in Arkansas,

Missouri, and Oklahoma . operates a listserve (moderated through ATTRA) that its members use

regularly. As one GGG farmer puts it: .The listserve is invaluable in allowing me to get timely

answers to questions necessary for management of forages, nutrients, livestock, and pests. (8).

Shared goals and ready communication are fundamental to getting a network going, but there.s

even more to keeping one going. Andy Hager, Extension agent in Taylor County, Wisconsin, who

coordinates more than 250 farms in the Northcentral Graziers Network, believes there are three

things that make a network work: mentoring, flexibility, and creativity (3).

Mentoring is the practice of pairing an experienced grazier with a beginner . farmer.to.farmer

learning at its purest . and it addresses one of the common challenges that grazing groups face:

how to accommodate the different needs of both beginning and advanced graziers. It allows new

members to integrate more easily into the group, while they at the same time reap practical benefits

from the knowledge and experience of the veteran. But perhaps more importantly, it helps established

members to .learn twice, by teaching. (9), and keeps them involved in the crucial agricultural

endeavor of raising new crops of farmers.

.Flexibility. and .creativity. are more difficult to quantify. They may grow naturally out of the

group.s diversity or be reflective of the group.s leadership. Whatever their source, an openness to

new ideas and the urge to improve upon old ones are important qualities for sustaining the vitality

of a network. But they show their worth best in the activities that the network sponsors.

No activity is more representative of how grazing groups work than the pasture walk. As we.ll

discuss later, pasture walks can have a lot of variety, but one general description sums them up

 

reasonably well: .Pasture Walks involve other graziers. They serve as constructive critics, extra sets

of observing eyes, fellow commiserators, question.raisers, and most importantly these people are

genuinely interested . dedicated to making grazing work better on everyone.s farms. (8).

A pasture walk can involve more than just walking a member.s pasture and assessing its health,

needs, and use, but that is the core of the activity. In many grazing networks, pasture walks (and

the pot.luck dinner following them) are a major part of the monthly meetings of the group from

spring until winter.

The Grassroots Grazing Group provides its members with an outline for hosting a pasture walk (8).

According to the GGG literature, the following are important considerations for a successful walk.

*Plan the pot.luck meal well in advance and let the other members

know what kinds of dishes they should bring.

*Be sure everyone knows exactly when and where the walk

will take place. If the location is difficult to find, provide maps

and instructions on how to get there.

*Plan the tour to focus on successes or challenges. Have questions

ready for the group concerning any specific problems

you may be facing.

*Introduce your farm or pasture with a brief history of the place.

How long have you had this farm? When did you get involved

with controlled grazing? What are the other farm enterprises?

In other words, provide as much useful background information

as possible about how the pasture has been used in the

past and how you would like to use it in the future.

*Have a map of the property that shows its basic features:

. soil types

. land contours

. water sources

. forage species

. special.use pastures

*Prepare information about your fertility and grazing.management systems.

*If you have a lot of ground to cover, provide a hayrack or truck to transport the group.

*Discuss what each of you saw and thought.

*Enjoy your meal.

In grazing networks that have been operating for a few years, pasture walks tend to take on a

certain sameness (11), and the groups look to diversify their activities. They often invite guest speakers

(12) from Extension, the university, or another grazing group. They may form discussion groups

(13) or create problem.solving exercises (14) that address broader farm issues such as costs, management,

or budgets. Other activities many groups use to keep things interesting include field research

trials and on.farm demonstrations of new practices or technologies (2).

The social component of grazing groups is vital to their sustainability (6, 8). Farmers have long

days, and sometimes it feels like there are eight of them a week. Farmsteads may be far apart, and

farm life often leaves little time for a social life, let alone meeting new people. Being a member of a

grazing group not only provides farmers with practical information, it also creates a social circle of

like.minded folks who gather regularly both to discuss their common interests and to have fun.

.There must be a balance between formal discussion and socialization,. says Tom Wrchota, a

grazier from Wisconsin, who adds, .I received much more out of the group than what I put into it.

Case Study: Grassroots Grazing Group

The Grassroots Grazing Group (GGG) began in 1997, with a gathering of farmers, ranchers, and

educators at the farm of John and Becky Spain in Hindsville, Arkansas. After some discussion of

their common interests, the group made the decision to form a grazing network and to look for

funding to help support their start.up efforts. Working through NCAT/ATTRA, GGG applied for

and received an EPA Sustainable Development Challenge Grant. In January, 1998, the 13 founding

member families signed their mission statement and paid their dues. Since then, GGG has grown to

more than 80 member families.

Regular . usually monthly . pasture walks are a central feature of GGG activities. The group will

meet at a member family.s farm and, after a brief orientation by the owner, tour the operation,

looking at the pasture, livestock, and equipment. Following the tour, the members discuss what

they.ve observed over a pot.luck dinner, and after dinner hold a short business meeting. Some

members have also organized field trips to The Stockman Grassfarmer Conference and to nearby

research farms. A favorite activity of GGG is to meet at a beginning grazier.s farm and discuss how

best to set up its grazing system. Three teams, each composed of both experienced and beginning

graziers, walk the new member.s pasture, discuss what they see, and draw up three different

proposals for consideration. This has proved beneficial not only to the newcomer but to the old

hands as well. They all realize how much they know and how much they have to contribute to the

group. After using this three.team approach to help design his own pasture operation, one beginning

grazier said, .Had it not been for the things I have just begun to implement, I have serious

doubts I would have made it through this drought..

When Networks Break Down

Nothing lasts forever . although an argument could be made for Spam . and grazing networks

are no different. Energy wanes, enthusiasm slackens, discord arises among the members, who complain

of lack of leadership, lack of new ideas, or lack of communication (6). Organizations all have

their natural life cycles and go through similar phases (2). At some point, any grazing network will

have to face the fact that it.s just not working as well as it could, that members are suffering burnout

and are not bringing the same level of energy and vitality to the group that they once did (11).

A grazing network at this point in its life may be ill, but it is far from dead.

Revitalizing a network may mean going back to basics, looking at its stated goals or mission statement,

and seeing whether these goals still meet the needs of the members (2). Some networks choose

to subdivide into smaller groups with specialized interests (16), while others opt to focus the entire network on advanced issues (11). As mentioned above, guest speakers, discussion groups, mentoring,

and social events can all help to pump life into a network. It.s here that the principles of flexibility

and creativity will need to be called upon.

If, despite all your efforts, the group doesn.t have the collective will to continue, accept the inevitableand disband, taking with you all the knowledge and friendships that the network has brought to you.

Conclusion

Establishing and maintaining a grazing network is challenging. It demands leadership, commitment,

time, energy, and creativity. And balancing the different needs and expectations of the members

will be an ongoing task. Being an active member of a grazing group . the only kind to be, if

you expect to get the most from it . is not a casual activity.

That hard work and dedication will, however, be rewarded. The example of New Zealand and the

growth in popularity of grazing networks in the US is proof that they work. The educational,

social, and economic benefits that farmers discover in grazing groups far outweigh the effort necessary to make them work.

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