2014 Here We Come!

As the trailer doors shut, and the truck heads off the property with the last of the cattle, a certain amount of relief sets in for us. Another grazing year closes without incident, much is learned and positive changes have happened along our landscapes. We let go of the focus we have had on obtaining proper densities of cattle and stimulating animal impact. We let go of trying to achieve the optimal graze and recovery periods while maintaining the health of the cattle. We sink in and appreciate the opportunity we have had to steward the land and begin to turn our focus for the months ahead….with no cattle.

 

We have chosen to bring other ranchers cattle onto our properties for limited periods for several reasons. One of the most important is that it much more closely resembles the way nature did it for hundreds of thousands if not millions of years. In the not too distant past herbivores grazed a location for short periods of time at high densities with intense impact and then did not return for months or years at a time. Herbivores followed the vibrant and healthy grass, moving on to greener pastures and left the areas they just grazed to rest and recover. The wolves, and American cheetahs and sabertooths kept the herbivores moving and the landscapes healthy.

 

Most ranches are built on a continuous system that has cattle on a piece of ground all year round. While that wouldn’t have typically been the case in evolutionary history, a competent grassland manager can manage cattle on the same piece of ground year all round in a sustainable or even regenerative fashion. However, for us,  we find it easier and more effective for our landscape if we bring a higher number of cattle in seasonally and then send the animals off when we have achieved our desired level of impact. We are also fortunate to not have production pressures that many ranchers have so we are able to be much more flexible with our management.

 

So the question that naturally follows after hearing that we only manage cattle seasonally is,  “what do these guys do when the last trailer leaves property and the last piece of fence is rolled up.” A few years ago I learned a pretty valuable lesson at the Ranching for Profit School (http://ranchmanagement.com/) about the difference between working in your business (WITB) and working on your business (WOTB). When Nate and I are moving cattle on the landscape, setting up and taking down fencing, troubleshooting water issues, and separating animals to be worked…typically we are working in our business/organization. When the trailer pulls away and the cattle leave we have the ability to start asking questions about how we are running the business/organization. At least when we aren’t thinning brush, fixing fence, planting plugs and harvesting grass seeds. We have the ability to ask should we even be using this type of fence? Who should we get cattle from next season? How should we monitor and why? How could we standardize the infrastructure process so we are not wasting time? What is the fastest way to set up fence through dense brush? What goals and objectives do we have for 2014?  All these questions are WOTB questions and it is how we spend a good deal of our time when the cattle leave for the season.

 

Ranch Management Consultants (RMC) who teach the Ranching for Profit course have a set of ten meetings that they recommend ranching businesses conduct when they leave the school (http://ranchmanagement.com/nl68.pdf).  These meetings range from conducting a grazing plan to having a mission statement and purpose to organizing your workspace to be effective. We have been trying to do at least one of these meetings per month and they have been very helpful. In addition to the meetings there is a bunch of pre and post meeting work to do surrounding the meetings that requires a fair amount of time. Our grazing chart is one of those products which you can see below, but it will need to be revised due to the drought.

 

One of the things that was clear to Nate and I this grazing season was that if we ever want to expand we need to standardize and document a good deal of what we do. One of the areas we wanted to standardize and document were how we go about collecting, storing and presenting our monitoring data. SMI has historically conducted a fair amount of monitoring activities. We did some work around getting clearer on what the goals of our monitoring program were and the types of data we wanted to collect. This required a fair amount of work and we eventually came to a rough beta operations protocol for the monitoring data that will help to simplify all the work that needs to be done regarding our monitoring program.

 

Another large area that we needed to standardize and document surrounded our infrastructure materials and how we used and interacted with them. In order to do this Nate and I conducted time trials under a variety of conditions in order to clarify what methods and tools we were using that worked best. We were also interested in developing better tools and methods which we thought would be easier when we could work with infrastructure without having to worry about caring for cattle. You can see a more detailed summary of those time trials linked here: Infrastructure Time Trial Summary

 

There are quite a few more items that we have done since the cattle left the property (such as Nate continuing to crack away at his writing project), but those were some of the bigger items we have gotten through. Now we are turning our heads to look into the coming grazing season and what we see are the dominant impacts of drought. 2013 was the driest year on record for California (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/12/31/2013-dry-california_n_4525573.html). Which means that nobody alive really understands what the grass growth for this upcoming year is going to look like.

 

One of the frustrating things for us as grass managers in California is that it takes a full year too really see the impacts from your management. It is a pretty delayed feedback cycle due to the Mediterranean climate patterns we have here of six months of a rainy season, followed by a six-month dry season. This rain pattern creates a short growing season followed by a long dormant season, which slows down biological activity and how fast organic matter can be cycled through and improve the system. It is not something you can speed up in any way, which slows down how fast you can learn and obtain meaningful data. In climates with a more evenly distributed rainfall pattern you can see results and impacts quicker then in California.

 

The drought we are currently experiencing could push that feedback timeline out a whole other year making us wait to see the impacts from the grass management in 2013 out two years to 2015. In truth though, not being able to see the total results of our management pale in comparison to what is happening to many ranchers out there on the landscape. A lot of people who make their living off grass are going to loose animals, money and possibly their land if they are not able to pay bills through the grass that rain brings, or doesn’t bring. There are some tough times ahead for the brave folks who participate in rangeland agriculture if we don’t get a decent amount of rain from January – May.

 

A general way to think about grass growth is that grass needs both moisture and temperature to grow. In California we typically get our moisture during the coldest part of the year, which isn’t the greatest. Therefore there are two times per year when we really get growth on the grass, October through early November, and then again in February through April. Typically the grass begins growing in October and then slows until February when it then takes off for it’s biggest flush of the season. This year we have almost no growth to start with from October, as the rains have been so sparse. If it does rain soon, we are not sure what the grass will look like, as we have no real head start from October rains. This means while we have a grazing plan here at SMI the drought is causing us to have to delay our plans as we see what really happens on the landscape and adjust accordingly.

 

Dealing with drought is a serious and constant part of management. You can be sure that if you make your living from grass that drought will impact your business at some point or another. The RMC folks have some very helpful drought planning tools that they use at their school. A synopsis of them can be found here: (http://ranchmanagement.com/nl65.pdf). For us at SMI we are continuing to work on different projects; fixing fences, building relationships, building tools for grazing, writing, building out monitoring info hosting websites, while we wait and look to the sky. If we don’t get enough rain then we will have to forgo grazing this year and look to support others who have land to manage and ranchers that could use our support. The Chinese character for crisis is a combination the characters for danger and opportunity. As adversity will always present itself I think it is important to view those circumstances as chances for growth and cultivating new and dynamic opportunities. So 2014 here we come!

Leave a Comment