This may be boring for some of you, so feel free to skip it. I won’t know and if I did, I wouldn’t care…it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
Virginia Forage and Grassland Council (VFGC), Virginia Cooperative Extension (VCE), and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) hosted a grazing school at the McCormick Farm in Raphine and I thought that I ought to go, given the directions I’m considering pursuing with farm stuff. I was especially interested in the promised grazing plan workshop, where they offered to look at each attendee’s setup and help think through the plans.
Monday started with an introduction to soils: the Web Soil Survey (someone needs to make that a little more user friendly…I always have to go look up directions for how to use it) and nutrients and how the condition of the soil impacts availability of nutrients.
After that, there was a talk with a title about managing stocking rates, but the most interesting point made (in my opinion) was that your grazing simple isn’t going to be perfect on your first try. As a result, you should make it semi-permanent at best until you figure out what works in practice, rather than in theory. That’s something I’ve noticed with the chickens. I make plans and it’s all going to be great, ’cause it’ll work like this. But I’m on my second chicken house, at least my third fencing (or not fencing) plan. And I’m still thinking about ways I can make things better (and Tony’s always helpfully making suggestions).
The third talk was a guy who, honestly, was my favorite presenter of the whole school. He was less “university research” and more “I wonder what will happen if I do this.” I don’t know how to explain the difference between the approaches, but my best is this: while my favorite presenter seemed to have a sense of playfulness in his experimenting, the other guys seemed more university/strict science in their experimenting. Which, when I write it, doesn’t feel like a huge difference, but somehow the presentation was very different.
My favorite part of Monday, though, was when we got to go outside. There was a plant ID “station,” which, honestly, was disappointing. The guy who did the presentation mentioned that he was always surprised how few grazers knew the species in their own fields. Fair point. But having little to no experience with pastures, I guess I was hoping for a little more hand-holding. I mean, there was “here’s how you tell a fescue, here’s how you tell orchard grass,” but I honestly can’t say I can now identify a single species I didn’t already know. There was a pasture condition scoring station, which was mostly, “Look at this field. Now look at this one. Which one is better?” And it was obvious what the right answer was. The helpful thing from that was learning what kinds of things are important to look at. The last station was learning about using a grazing stick. Basically, measuring height (pressing down on the top of the forage until there is “modest resistance”) and density (the stick has dots on it that you count after laying the stick under the canopy). Then we did some calculations to determine how long to leave a certain number of animals on the pasture, which was a fun way to learn the grazing stick’s application. Later, one of the speakers mentioned that, while it’s a nice tool to have, you eventually learn to estimate by eyeballing it.
Monday’s last presentation was from the guy who runs the McCormick Farm. He was talking about some of the things that grazers should think about when developing their system (water, fencing, lanes, etc). He even took us out to show us a couple different systems they are using (since they are a research facility, there was a lot to look at).
Today’s first presentation was about the economics of grazing. That’s actually something that a lot of farming things I’ve been to are missing, I think. While the speaker was talking about how to evaluate whether changes you’ve made (or plan to make) make sense financially, I think I’d like to see a little more of people talking about the ways that money impacts their operations and choices in general. Specifically, VABF’s conference, which always feels a little handwave-y (overall, not every presentation specifically).
Then there was a presentation about how different plants grow and how that impacts the choices the manager makes about when to bring/leave/take animals on a particular patch of ground (in a rotation system).
After that, there was a presentation about determining what your animals need in terms of feed and how to determine what you have in your pastures/paddocks/whatever term you use.
After that presentation, we went outside again. There was a demonstration of various posts (semi-permanent and temporary…nothing permanent), reels for spooling wire, and a demonstration of moving fence. Oh! And the coolest moveable fence post I’ve ever seen. You run the wire through the center spine and the legs let you roll the fence along the ground (you have to have multiple of these things for it to work, obviously). Trying to describe it isn’t going to mean anything. This appears to be in French, but it’s the best video I can find to show moving the fence. From there, I went to a discussion on hay quality and the simple version of that was, you can’t tell the feed quality just by looking or even knowing what’s in the hay or when it was cut. The best way to find out is to send in a sample and get a report. And obviously, the things you can do with the data you get back. After that was a body condition evaluation demonstration, which was cool (but who’s listening when they can stare at cows and ogle a very nice corral?).
Finally, the most attractive part of the program: the grazing plan workshop. I was pretty excited to learn that my favorite presenter was going to be helping me look over my stuff. There was another student in our group and mostly, the three of us bounced ideas off each other. I’m not sure if that was because neither of the students had plans that were super cattle-based (that seemed to be the field of expertise of the “professionals” in the group) or because we weren’t super far along in planning or because that just wasn’t our leader’s interest (like I kind of said earlier, he seemed more of a go-with-the-flow than evaluate-the-flow kind of person).
And that was my “weekend” of grazing class. It was awesome and I’m going to take the binder of presentations to work to see if the herd management guy wants to look at it (I think his wife mentioned something about his wanting to go). After the classes, I’m not sure how much grazing I’ll do (we don’t have space for many animals unless we take a bunch of trees out and I’m reluctant to do that), so I’m not sure I’d go again. But if I were to get into a place where I wanted to graze a bunch of animals, I would definitely go back.