How can we get more ranchers to try Holistic Management? How can we help people who do try Holistic Management be more successful? How can we get more people to incorporate Holistic Management into their day-today management? These are questions that have faced HMI and the Holistic Management community for years. There is obviously no single answer, but a group of central California ranchers and educators have some ideas that are currently being tested in the new Rancher–to–Rancher program.
The program was born early this year during a meeting at the Morris Ranch in San Juan Bautista. The group discussed best and worst possible outcomes of trying to get a broad group of ranchers involved in trials on their ranches, and what the characteristics of such a program might look like. Key points behind the thinking were:
- Create an opportunity for peer to peer learning and support on an ongoing basis.
- Minimize the cost and risk of trying something new.
- Make it simple yet meaningful.
- Make it fun.
The day ended with clear ideas on how to start the program and commitment from the group to support the effort. The consensus was that it was important to get started, monitor, and re-plan as necessary.
The idea is to help ranchers set up a small, no-risk learning site on their ranches of a few acres or less. The rancher concentrates livestock there for a few hours to a day once or twice a year, thereby ensuring a substantial recovery period. There is support for the planning to work within the rancher’s goals and requirements, simple monitoring of the soil surface, and optional carbon baseline plots. Most ranches have small areas that are already fenced or small areas can be set up using electric fence. There is no need to worry about water as the animals are only there for a few hours. With a small area, it is easy to stick with the plan and allow the recovery period. In the best case, the trial is set up to involve neighbors, burgers, and beer.
The program kick-off happened in April at Hollister Hills State Park where Joe Morris grazes. About 40 ranchers gathered for a day to learn about the program, eat burgers, drink beer, and see a demonstration of high stock density. There was an introduction to holistic goal setting and the ecosystem processes. Joe and the other presenters made a number of important points.
- The first animals we are trying to increase on our ranches are the soil microbes, especially the fungi.
- If we plan our grazing and feed the microbes, we will increase the vegetation on the ranch for cattle, sheep, or microbes.
- Increased vegetation is increased wealth.
- There is no set recipe – there are ingredients, principles, and management.
- Everything happens within the context of your holistic goal. What do you want, and what does it take to get that?
After everyone had a beginning holistic goal, it was time for the highlight of the day (at least for all the ranchers in attendance). Joe explained how different stock densities create different amounts of trampling versus grazing, where trampling is one good way of getting litter on the ground to feed the soil microbes. With the crowd watching, Joe and a ranch hand moved the 421 head of cattle into a .29 acre area created with single wire electric fence. We watched from another hill as the cattle calmly spread over the small area.
After an hour the fence was taken down and the herd spread out. We walked the temporary paddock, noticing that 80% of the vegetation had been trampled rather than grazed. Pictures of the soil surface were taken. There was plenty of marvel and conversation generated by the results on the ground and the stockmanship we had seen.
Since that day there have been several other demonstrations, and there seems to be good interest. By lowering the barrier to entry, acknowledging that support is crucial, and always taking the ranchers’ point of view, we seem to be piquing the interest of people who are curious but have not known how to begin. Starting with one very small trial and seeing what the results are may be just the key. During the next growing season, which will start in late fall, the program will help ranchers who have done trials to monitor their progress, evaluate the results, and make a plan for next season.
Hopefully, the trials and the results after just one year will be interesting enough to keep people involved for several years.