Would you Change?
Nearly two years ago, Andrea’s routine blood test brought bad news. Over a couple weeks she lost 50 pounds and we had no idea what was wrong. She found a doctor that didn’t quit with the ordinary medical practice of treating symptoms but took her education further. Faced with more and more people in our rural communities coming to her with ailments, she became well-versed in environmental and functional medicine and worked with her patients on ways to manage for health rather than against disease.
Dr. Grandi, M.D. supported Andrea’s necessary lifestyle changes and went to digging out stressors. She urged Andrea to replace stressful relationships with those that were life-affirming and goal focused. Rather than a simple diet of leafy greens and meat, she pointed out too much exposure to glyphosate, plastic, and diesel fumes. This meant eating food absent of Roundup, herbicides, pesticides, and stop storing food in plastic bags and containers. The tests continued.
As we waited for a diagnosis of the root cause of her sickness, we ate better. For a time, we didn’t know if she was going to live or die. During that period, Andrea found inspiration in Tracy Chapman’s song “Change.”
If you knew that you would die today
If you saw the face of God and love
Would you change? Would you change?
If you knew that love can break your heart
When you're down so low you cannot fall
Would you change? Would you change?
When we are sick or face death, we gain perspective. We muddle along, half-assed, as long as things aren’t dangerous. My physicals over the past several years have indicated high blood sugar, high blood pressure and being overweight. As long as immediate death is not imminent we just kind of continue doing what we are doing. Our complacency settles for riding a mule Shetland rather than striving for a thoroughbred. We get along.
We do the same with our land management.
I came home from a seven-day Holistic Management seminar in a Grand Jct., Colorado and found a different ranch than the one I had left. Rather than looking out across the landscape, I looked down into the heart of the ecosystem. The first step toward monitoring simply means knowing how to look at the land. Now, I saw bare ground and overrested plants. I saw a lack of any young trees in the riparian area.
After riding and walking many miles and seeing the same pattern of much-unused plant forage, I jumped into my GMC ¾ ton and drove to the Lander Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office. I slipped into the back door and sat down across from Roy, my BLM range con (conservationist).
We chatted and told a couple of our latest jokes, and I ventured in, “What do you think of Holistic Management?”
“Any management is better than none,” he quipped.
“You know, that Hall Creek Allotment has a lot of grass. What do we need to do to run more cattle?” I asked.
A mentor had taught me that we never ask a question that could be answered with a ‘no’ because we don’t get more information. So, we ask ‘how,’ or ‘what needs to be done?’
“We would need to have some monitoring data to show the rangeland health is improving.” Roy seemed interested.
We developed a plan to set up several permanent 'trend and condition' monitoring transects. The few things I brought home from the Holistic Management seminar and Roy gave me a new perspective on what I thought I knew well. I hadn’t realized that we could measure rangeland health.
We began practicing Holistic Planned Grazing and consolidated our herds, cut grazing periods, and increased stock density. After 5-years the BLM read the transects and we had improved the range from one-point above poor to a solid fair condition; 26 to 35. This meant that we had reduced bare ground, increased plant diversity and tightened up plant spacing.
The BLM wanted the allotment to be at least a high fair but not better than a low good range condition, due to wildlife, winter habitat. The improvement gave us encouragement, we were making a difference.
We consolidated more herds and got our grazing periods down to less than 3 weeks. We also layered in some herding, which accessed grass that hadn’t seen grazing in many years, while, taking pressure off the riparian areas and low lands. After 10-years the range condition reached a high, fair score; 45. The low end of the goal and the BLM permitted more animals. Monitoring results grounded our new-found confidence.
After 10-years of improvement, we did what we were doing harder and faster. By year 15 we achieved the high-end goal of a low-good range condition; 55. Our use was increased to 3,000 AUMs or 250% more than the initial 1,200.
The Big Dry
The worst drought in Wyoming’s history began in 2000. We began a decline in stocking rates, which accelerated in 2002 when we achieved an all-time low precipitation year. As the drought continued, we stayed true to our management principles. The inevitable lower production began increasing bare ground. To disrupt the trend, we increased our recovery periods to accumulate enough forage so we could get some residual on the ground. The strategy paid off but at a cost. Our average recovery periods had gone from 180 days in 1999 to 570 days by 2006. In that year, we had slightly more than 3 inches of rain. Note all of the water cycle indicators in the Land EKG monitoring report below, are functional; above 70.
After seven years of the worst drought in Wyoming’s history, we only had two indicators below the 70 score of functional. Our rangeland was healthy and would respond to rain. Monitoring can provide reassurance in times of low confidence.
Don’t Shoot the Messenger
We sold the Twin Creek Ranch and bought land that was in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) on Cricket Flats in northeast Oregon. The property had been rested for 23 years and our baseline monitoring data revealed that 12 of the 21 indicators were below functional. The contrast of dysfunctional rested land vs. functional planned grazing land after 7 years of the worst drought in recorded history was compelling. We implemented Holistic Grazing Planning.
After only 3 years of planned grazing, the transects only had 3-5 indicators below 70. We were not surprised. But there was more to this story.
One transect on our new property was on land that had not been in CRP, the Rawhide, and had been grazed every year. While the CRP transects had over half of the indicators showing dysfunction, the Rawhide only had 1/3, or 7 indicators less than functional. The Rawhide also increased production more quickly and doubled in 3 years.
But 5 years later, things did not look good and we were surprised at how fast things can unravel.
This property was 40 miles from our HQ and we never got the operation to a scale that could support the necessary intensity of management needed. Life took some twists and turns, and we needed time and space for other considerations. We leased the grazing, which resulted in much longer grazing periods, without a reduction in stocking rates. After 5 years, the transects indicated less than functional ecosystems, with from 5-10 indicators on the transects falling below functional.
A year earlier we decided to sell this property because we were unable to manage the grazing in our changed context. The monitoring results punctuated the drastic effect of our declined management.
Monitoring can provide a wake-up call.
Leverage your Results
At our home place, we had a different experience. We had baseline monitoring in place before leasing water instream and going without any irrigation on a portion of the property. The land had areas with hydrophytic plants, like Baltic Rush. We suspected that less water would allow for increases in more productive plants. After 3 years, the production remained the same as with irrigation. After 10-years, species were changing to more nutritious plants as production remained constant.
A property came up for sale next to us, with the same soil type and same species diversity. Armed with our monitoring data, we purchased the property and will pay for it with instream leasing and have the livestock feed for no cost. Monitoring can leverage investment.
Monitoring at Scale
Satellite and drone technology will bring monitoring to scale. Here’s an example of the latest MONITORING AT SCALE.
As fast as technology has been improving, it won’t be long before we can use it to quantify bare ground, pounds of production per acre, and species diversity. Maybe it will develop to monitor plant recovery and residual cover. Good information can fuel better decision making at the soil surface.
I Know How this is Going to End
Those of us raised in Nebraska grow up with Big Red and Husker football. Even if we leave Husker land, our blood still runs red. The Cornhuskers are struggling and have brought a former player, Scott Frost, back to coach the floundering team. They just lost their 6th straight game and start the season 0-6 for the first time ever in their long history.
In an interview, Scott was asked if he was concerned. His response could have come from a practicing Holistic Manager, “I know where this is going.”
By that, Scott meant that he knows what it takes to make a championship team. By grilling the fundamentals, getting those who are not ‘all in’ off the bus, and practicing with game day intensity, he knows his team will develop a culture that wins.
In Holistic Management, our baseline ecological monitoring is simply a place to start. Just like a championship football team, the landscape will not improve until we change our practice to behave differently. The change will not persist until we change our culture. By practicing with intensity, we define a culture making decisions at the soil surface. Once we get there, a healthy landscape will follow.
Holistic Management practitioners know how this is going to end, based on how we execute our practice. We will not be surprised if bare ground is increasing or decreasing, if species diversity is increasing or decreasing, and if riparian areas are improving or declining based on what we are doing. If we are conscious of minimizing overgrazing, increasing stock density, covering the soil surface, and thinking about plant recovery, the leading indicators will improve.
Holistic Managers know that we cannot manage complexity because complexity is self-organizing. We know the best we can do is to influence the self-organization process towards greater resilience.
We have evidence that riparian areas degrade when grazed too long. Shorter is better and grazing periods longer than 3 weeks degrade riparian areas.
We know that stock density improves the water cycle and mineral cycle by disturbing the soil surface. Don’t get distracted by terms like mob grazing and one-million pounds per acre but keep things in context. For example, in Wyoming’s sagebrush steppe, we used a leading indicator to have a hoof-print in every square foot before moving out of a pasture. To achieve this level of disturbance, we needed a stock density of 3 stock units per acre. Our stocking rate was 10 stock days/acre, so we are looking at 3-day moves. If we had become distracted by mob grazing’s metric of one-million pounds per acre, we would have had to move the cattle 100 times per day, or every 5 minutes.
We have evidence that if animals are in one pasture longer than 15 days, during spring’s fast growth, we are killing plants.
We know that we need recovery periods long enough for perennial plants to get down some root and accumulate plant material to lay on the ground. Think in those terms and not specific days, which have ranged from 40 days during fast growth in Oregon to 570 days during Wyoming’s drought, for us.
We know that we can plan to overgraze weeds and undesirable plants. Hot season grazing of Canada thistle sets them back, big time.
We can influence the health of our ecosystem by controlling where our animals are, when they are there, how long they are there, and their behavior while they are there.
Would You Change?
Eventually, Andrea was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease that will most likely never be cured. However, it can be managed. By focusing on daily choices, like less sugar, fewer carbohydrates, and more-leafy green and grass finished beef without herbicide, pesticide, or glyphosate influence, her leading indicators have returned to near-normal. She has gained weight and feels good.
Incidentally, I have lost weight and my blood pressure has gone down by riding on the coattails of Andrea’s changed practice of living. Andrea’s auto-immune disease, or aberrant deviation that caused health issues, made her more susceptible to poisons. Even though we lived and ate side-by-side, she was more susceptible than I.
Sometimes landscapes have these aberrations, like Cricket Flats plowed vs. unplowed, grazed vs. rested. Monitoring provides a means for us to respond to our personal health and the health of our landscape. We can note positive and negative deviations to fine tune our management.
Just as monitoring asked Andrea to change, monitoring will ask land managers to change. With faith in Holistic Management fundamentals, the change will be for the better. Monitoring documents the results of our management. Monitoring provides encouragement, confidence, reassurance, a wake-up call, and the ability to leverage our investment.
Our practice creates the change we want at the soil surface. Monitoring provides information for decisions at the soil surface.
Another verse from the song, “Change,” speaks to Holistic Managers.
How bad, how good does it need to get?
How many losses how much regret?
What chain reaction What cause and effect
Makes you turn around
Makes you try to explain
Makes you forgive and forget
Makes you change Makes you change
Listen to this song in the context of your life, your biological monitoring, and creating the change you want to see… Tracy Chapman.