Logjams - The Sacred or the Obvious

Logjams - The Sacred or the Obvious

Our highest marginal reaction moment happens, when we find and eliminate a logjam. Make it a point to set time aside at the beginning of your planning cycle, each year, and root out your logjam(s). Often unrecognized for a long time, logjams lurk beneath your consciousness sucking creativity, money, and our social influence. Often, one finds the logjam in the last places we would ever look - the sacred or the obvious. How can we rethink logjams and look at this most potent component of the planning process differently?

 Of Pride and Prejudice

My grandfather ruled the ranch with an iron hand. Everyone toed the line and did things his way; or else. In fact, there was a saying around our Nebraska’s Sandhills neighborhood, “There is a right way, a wrong way, and the Malmberg way.” Another neighbor said a cow’s nose would bleed if she even looked at a Malmberg fence. As a youngster, I actually took pride in that statement, thinking the Malmberg way was even better than the right way.

However, this behavior paves the way for tradition snuffing our human creativity. We stop thinking. Mindless rote-action, based on doing what we are told cordons the imagination and flexibility needed to empower decisions at the soil surface. A common thought in the agriculture community has a saying: “The 1st generation puts the place together, the 2nd generation keeps it together, and the 3rd generation loses the place.” I suspect the first generation develops an action, or a practice, that works very well in a time and place if you will. The second generation repeats what has been working and forms a habit. Reasons begin to fade. The third generation often bows to the tradition and forgets to think about “why” we do what we do.

In my case, strict adherence to the “Malmberg Way,” had me on the ropes and in bankruptcy in my ranch family’s 3rd generation, in the 1980s. I can see how this general rule of thumb could be created by an attitude of “my way or the highway.” The patriarch lays it out, based on their life experience. The patriarch’s kids hold it together, with some equity and maybe not too much having changed. The grandkids come in with a sense of entitlement, pride in whom they are, and prejudice against others’ ideas. We are running on auto-pilot down a track to disaster. Farms and ranches surviving family ownership beyond the 3rd generation are more often the exceptions than the rule.


The exceptions think differently than the run of the mill ranchers. My neighbors on our Wyoming ranch were in the 5th generation. They talked about Tennyson, Emerson, Kipling, and other philosopher sages. Their cows came first. Not everyone was created equal. By that, I mean that in this family, you didn’t stay on the ranch just because of blood. The ranch couldn’t support everyone, and they honored that, without prejudice.

Do you get the theme? It’s about ideas, the future, and something more substantial than self. The exceptions learn that there are at least two ways to get something done and consciously remain open to a different way. The exceptions don’t paint themselves in the corner of one philosopher, one method, one religion, one business plan, and fall into the insanity of doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results. The exceptional encourage curiosity, thinking, and adapting. Not doing what I say.

Evolution or Revolution?


Maybe we can come at our logjam backward, just as we see symptoms on the landscape and follow them back to the root cause of the problem. Lots of bare ground, standing dead plants, and erosion are symptoms of overrest. This calls for a grazing plan to interrupt rest. Could it be the same for a social or financial logjam?

Are we working with anyone that surrounds themselves with “yes men/women?” Do we see any racism, sexism, or abuse of power? Does anyone demand only one way of doing things? Is confirmation bias a recurring event? Do we see anyone rooted in absolutism; you are either for me or against me? Do we see someone relying on blame rather than asking how they can change their behavior?

The financials are least likely to confront an unknown logjam. We have tried and true ratios tracking debt/assets, current ratio, return on assets, and others keeping us informed of our liquidity, solvency, and leverage. However, we might have a logjam in how we are entering our numbers and whether we are getting our books done promptly. Keep a conversation open with your banker and accountant for warning signs. They won’t let a logjam sneak up on you.

"My brothers, seek the council of one another, for therein lies the way out of error and futile repentance.  The wisdom of the many is your shield against tyranny.  For when we turn to one another for the council, we reduce the number of our enemies.  He who does not seek advice is a fool."

                     Kahlil Gibran

 Asking questions can help us identify logjams in our social and ecological realms, too.


Environmentalists and ranchers have been at loggerheads for years. We have been talking past one another when we both value abundant grass, clean water, and community in a rural setting. Talk about a logjam!

The ranching and environmental community on the upper John Day River made a pivot. Rather than putting the river in prison, the Blue Mountain Land Trust proposed to include grazing. The ranchers proposed planned grazing and monitoring ecological health. The landowners and the land trust wish to reconnect the uplands, critical to recharging springs, groundwater and river flow.

This effort builds on the Grand Ronde Model Watershed’s river restoration project on the Wallowa River that included livestock grazing, too. These projects highlight a fresh look at river restoration. Regenerative Ranching has moved beyond the innovators and early adopters, tipping into the Early Majority stage of the Adoption of Innovation Theory, and rapid change. Let the waterfall begin.

Andrea and I stepped into this refreshing atmosphere, as we opened the Holistic Grazing Planning course, initiated by the Blue Mountain Land Trust.



Andrea was brought in to develop ecological outcome monitoring transects for the project. The Blue Mountain Conservancy crew, the Warm Springs Tribe staffers, the couple owning the ranch and one long-time Holistic Management practitioner neighbor brought local experience to round out the class.

As we went around our opening circle, we heard how these people effectively rooted out logjams in their lives — leaving jobs without passion, looking past fish to the uplands, managing grazing and monitoring ecosystems, and a multi-generation rancher still looking to learn better grazing management. Here was a circle of courage.

We began with the ever-present mantra: “We cannot manage complexity because complexity is self-organizing”: The best we can do is to influence the self-organization processes to move towards more diversity and complexity — the first missing key — Holism.

The people in this circle were already there, i.e., a common desire to reconnect rivers to floodplains, reconnect floodplains to uplands, reconnect grazing to management, reconnect management to monitoring, reconnect common values, and reconnect finances to resilience. For three days we weaved a tapestry of context in this place on the upper John Day. This crew wasn’t talking past one another, but leanin’-in.

Identifying Logjams

The long-time Holistic Manager was part of this and brought perspective to everyone; especially me. An upperclassman, he attended his first Holistic Management training in 1984, three years before me.

After many seminars and instructors with Holistic Management and Ranching for Profit, he had been thwarted in completing a meaningful Holistic Grazing Plan for 34 years. Yet, in the spirit of that multi-generational rancher, here he was, asking questions, again, trying to make sense of grazing planning. He was in a logjam, but unlike most of us, he knew it and was leanin’-in.

We probed, exchanged questions and posited alternatives. It came down to his frustration in needing to plan fast growth grazing periods. His complex operation included more than 100 pastures, six or more herds, an AI program, and a beef-finishing program-all of this in the Blue Mountain’s coldest ( -50 degree), shortest, growing season in Oregon.

I have never managed anything of this complexity but I know that Holistic Grazing Planning has been designed to manage complexity over space and time. The hard part is focusing on one step at a time and making it relevant to your context. We can’t get caught cutting and pasting others’ experience into our context.

Shared stories can add perspective to our experience and help unearth logjams. We can’t tell people what to do. We don’t know their context, but if we are honest about our personal experience they might catch a clue to unraveling their dilemma. So, I simply told this upper classman a story of a logjam I encountered on our sagebrush steppe ranch in Wyoming.

 Owning Your Context


In the late 1990s, I had an average recovery period of 180 days. I knew that our bare ground was increasing, I knew that residuals were declining, but I thought I was doing everything right. The Holistic Management gurus drilled into us that we could not tolerate overrested plants. We needed to keep them grazed so we didn’t block sunlight from the growth points at the base of the plant.

As a newbie Holistic Grazing Planner, we got stock densities up, grazing periods down, and we grazed a pasture and took it all. We had good June rains, and the pasture regrew a lot of forage. I went to my BLM range con and told him that we needed to go graze this regrowth, or the growth points would be blocked from growing the next year. He rolled his eyes and said, “You have used it this year, let it be.” I didn’t. We went and grazed it again to get the evil overrest out of the way.

It was that theme that carried us into the 2000 grazing season with increasing bare ground, but I heard a presentation at the Colorado Holistic Management gathering that gave me pause. Bottom line: Low-production brittle environments will benefit from longer recovery periods than high-production brittle environments. That was the clue that helped me unravel my dilemma.

Holistic Management was spawned in the high production brittle environment of Rhodesia/Zimbabwe. One hundred or more stock days per acre required frequent grazing periods to keep plants open to sunlight. On Wyoming’s sagebrush steppe, ten stock days per acre couldn’t choke off the sunlight in several years. In this environment, the struggle lies in accumulating enough plant material to feed a cow AND cover the soil surface. The context, or the definition of overrest, and what it looks like, varies on different landscapes.

I asked the class to think about this in the context of managing their whole under management.

Mimic Nature

Holistic Management’s missing keys guide us on how to mimic nature in our specific context. All of the grasslands of the world evolved with large herds of ungulates on the move. Not meaning to oversimplify, but a high stocking rate landscape will have many more animals in an equal space than a low stocking rate. By nature, both have large herds. By math, the lower stocking rate landscape’s herd will revisit the same space less often.

I concluded my story, “As we increased recovery periods, we were in the worst drought in Wyoming’s recorded history. After 6 years of drought, our recovery periods went from 180 days to 570 days. Most importantly, our stocking rates were 80% of baseline as the BLM cut most neighbor permits to 50 and 25%. Monitoring showed that our ecosystem process was still functional.”

My story caused something to click with the upperclassman. He clearly identified a logjam that had kept him stymied for years. A week later he reported that he was well on his way to creating his first Holistic Grazing Plan. The difference? He’s using the Holistic Grazing Management Aide Memoir to manage and influence the complexity of his ranch, not somebody else’s.

Bottom Line — Holistic Grazing Planning can be a powerful tool in managing OUR context.

Find Your Logjam

Logjams are often grounded in insecurity. My first step back from bankruptcy was listening to others. One of my neighbors encouraged me to go out with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and see what they are looking at, as they worked on an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS). This was different advice than I had received from the general ranching community and it broadened my perspective and confidence.

After implementing Holistic Grazing Planning, the neighbor’s son asked me what I was looking at on the ground. I talked about the soil surface. I don’t know if he got much from that, but he boosted my confidence. (That same multi-generational curiosity looking beyond the one-and-only way.) He didn’t drink the Holistic Management Koolaide, but he did build some more pastures, put in some stock water tanks and did things a little differently than his family had in previous generations. Regenerative Ranching took a step toward the early majority with his actions.

Ron Cunningham, the county extension agent in Lander, WY, got my attention when he told me that most ranchers have ten years of experience that they repeat 5 or 6 times. The implication defies the nature of adaptation and change. A third generation could be repeating something learned a hundred years before! That slapped me in the face and kept me digging after that blind logjam. I have consciously worked to step into a new faction of ranching every 7 to 10 years.

Those insecure blame and point fingers. Those insecure don’t see their relevance and therefore, cannot think someone else could contribute. Those insecure need certainty so bad that they go all in on one way, the silver bullet. This sets us up for denial, confirmation bias, and blaming, rather than practicing the core of Holistic Management: ”Ask how must I behave to create my desired future?” No room for blame.

A recent article in On Pasture by Don Ashford, “The Best New Years Resolutions for Farmers and Ranchers” provides introspection. This article asks us to think about what went well and what could be better. It’s a variation on a way to identify adverse factors in our annual planning and could expose a logjam. It’s a way to create disturbance from the inside out rather than letting disturbance come from the outside in. By looking at both the good and bad, it helps us balance our investigation. This is good in that we don’t want to throw out all of our traditional practices. They are there for a reason. Let’s just check in on occasion and make sure those reasons still apply to our evolving context.

Empowering decisions at the soil surface means looking for ways the sacred and the obvious are obstructing our path toward creating our future resource base. Find ways to interrupt logjams happening to us. It is better to initiate revolutionary change than to be dragged through the knothole of evolutionary change.

Tony Malmberg6 Comments