In western Minnesota we live in what used to be a grassland habitat, where warm season perennials were king and the whole system depended on herds of buffalo and the occasional wildfire to break down the abundance of plant material. These days, it’s becoming clear leaving our remaining prairies untouched does not create a healthy ecosystem—organic material builds up and smothers out many native species. We are also learning that fire is not the only management tool; burning releases massive amounts of carbon into the air that should be going back into the soil.
Livestock is the key. Animals can convert cellulose to manure and trample dry matter down to put it in contact with the soil where it can begin decomposition, keeping carbon where we can draw on it later. But to maintain truly healthy pastures, as described in Brian DeVore’s recent Land Stewardship Letter article,“Grazing as a Public Good” (page 24), we need to plan the grazing and manage the livestock with the goal of healthier animals and grasslands.
Gene Goven is a North Dakota rancher who, over the past 30 years, has used planned grazing to increase the stocking capacity on his land by over 400 percent, all the while improving his soil health, water quality and diversifying the species in his pastures. LSP recently brought Goven to western Minnesota for two workshops in Pope County, which has retained a significant amount of pastures and prairie on the landscape. During the workshops, Goven talked about how his system works and answered questions about how he made it happen.
In the first evening meeting with the Minnesota Glacial Ridge Cattleman’s Association, it was clear the ranchers, some of whom practice continuous grazing, were skeptical. But by the last 20 minutes of the hour-long presentation, ranchers were asking questions left and right.
“Do all wormers kill dung beetles and bees? What do you do instead?”
”How do you get your cattle to eat thistle?”
“How do you provide shelter in the winter and still bale feed out in the field?“
“How do you get your cattle to calve in a 10-day period?”
“How often do you move your cattle?”
“How are native flowers good in the pasture?”
And Goven had a clear answer for each question. His process is not a formula, and he does not throw money at his problems. He uses a type of planned grazing that accounts for all his goals: farm profitability, grassland health, water quality and retention, family time, etc., etc. This is holistic planning that requires re-evaluation and adjustment on a constant basis. The cattlemen were intrigued and stayed around afterwards, asking more questions and talking with each other about ways some of what Goven practices could work here. I couldn’t have imagined a more successful way to promote planned grazing to a new group of ranchers.
Despite an ugly April snowstorm, 50 of the 90 who had planned to attend braved the weather and showed up to hear Goven’s second presentation. Intrigued with the possibility of how his methods could work on their farms, people once again stayed for hours afterwards asking questions and talking in small groups about managed grazing planning.
Farmers, ranchers and agencies know we need to protect our grasslands and awareness is building that a planned grazing approach has a quadruple bottom line: more profit, improved soil heath and reduced erosion, cleaner water and good grassland wildlife habitat. As a result of Goven’s message, seven farmers participated in a workshop on how to help create a holistic grazing plan for their operation and many people, new to LSP, wanted to know more about what we can do together to support this kind of farming.
Gene Goven is a good example of how farmers talking to farmers is the most effective way to ignite change. I don’t believe anyone but another farmer could have delivered this message with so much validity — he has lived every step of this process and has to make a living as well. He uses outside resources— University extension agents and researchers—to help guide some of his choices and help with monitoring. But ultimately, it is always the farmer making the plan and taking the risks.
I left both evenings inspired and hopeful, a rare treat in the face of a lot of problems facing our farming systems, agricultural environments and rural communities. Of course, Goven inspired everyone with the amazing transformation of his ranch over the years and with his willingness to experiment. But I drew my inspiration from the farmers who came to listen in spite of the difficult questions and realities this presentation brought up. That inspiration came from the way they heard the challenge and immediately began to ask questions about how they could start to change their farms.
I felt hope and pride when I saw people from all over western Minnesota drive in terrible weather to learn more about becoming better farmers and stewards. Seeing them stay afterwards for hours talking and problem-solving as a community was also a good sign that these people are serious. Gene saw it too, and said several times that this was one of the best groups he had ever presented to, that people asked good hard questions long after the microphone was turned off. He saw incredible amounts of motivation and interest in creating healthier soil and grasslands, and remarked to me that he gathered hope and inspiration as well from his visit to Pope County. I love Minnesotans.
Robin Moore is the Chippewa 10% coordinator for LSP and is based in our Montevideo, Minn., office.
PHOTO: Gene Goven photo courtesy of Jeff Printz, North Dakota State Range Conservationist, USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service