For decades The Stockman Grass Farmer has faithfully come to our doorsteps offering ideas and suggestions of things we could do differently. Those of us looking for new ideas know that within these pages we will not be disappointed.
But sometimes all these ideas rattle around in our heads and paralyze us with choice. At the SGF Business Schools I share with Steve Kenyon, I lead with a series of assumptions, one of which is this: "The hardest thing to do in life is make a decision."
None of us wants to live in a rigid world, and yet being presented with options becomes its own struggle. Do I bale graze or deep bedding compost? Do I buy hay or make hay? Do I use red, speckled, or black cattle?
Avid readers of SGF know that our foremost grass expert, columnist Jim Gerrish, routinely answers questions with "It depends." I know this is the right answer, but it sure creates angst in the hearts and minds of folks looking for a recipe.
Experienced graziers know that we don't have definitives in this business; we have seasons, cycles, and unpredictable nuances.
In spite of all this, and the thousands of pages SGF devotes to helping us make decisions I still get asked routinely: "What is the one thing I need to do?" It stems from a hundred different problems: soil fertility, cow fertility, profitability, weeds, water limitations, herd health. Name the perceived problem and we can go off on a half-day discussion.
Since I'm a simple person, I'd love a single, simple answer to all these questions. Of course, that would reduce conversations, seminars, and maybe even the need for SGF. But the idea of a single, simple, comprehensive answer especially for newcomers to this genre, is tantalizingly intriguing, don't you think? Wouldn't it be cool to be able to give one profound answer? Kind of like Jesus, when asked if we should pay taxes, and He responded: "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's."
The answer was so profound nobody dared ask Him any more questions. That's the kind of wisdom I want. So when I saw the book titled The ONE Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results, by Gary Keller, I picked it up. His basic thesis is that until you boil down your conundrum to one thing, you will never really get to solutions. He says "extraordinary results are directly determined by how narrow you can make your focus."
In other words, forget all the ancillary stuff and get laser focused. He adds: "extraordinary success is sequential, not simultaneous." Looking at a line of dominoes and trying to figure out which one to hit first is paralyzing. Find the one in front and hitting that one make the whole chain reaction work.
Keller drills down on what he calls the "six lies [as in untruths] between you and success:
1. Everything matters equally.
3. A disciplined life.
4. Willpower is always on will-call.
5. A balanced life.
6. Big is bad.
I wish I had time to go into all these like he does, but you can read the book and get the whole enchilada. One more wonderful tidbit and then I'm going to applications: "magic happens at the extremes." In other words, trying to stay in balance is a recipe for turmoil. This is one of those provocative business books that has you smiling and saying "ouch" at the same time.
As a result of decades of being asked "what would you do about X?" and experiencing my own annual epiphanies - that still occur, by the way - what could I tell SGF readers ONE THING to do that would change everything? That would speak to the broad range of issues with which all of us struggle? Have I piqued your interest? Are you waiting with baited breath? Have I strung you on long enough? Okay, okay, drum roll, please.
"MOVE 'EM EVERY DAY."
That's my answer. I've played with it some over the last couple of years, probably even with some of you reading this column, to see how it fits. "I've got this weed, see, and most people spray it .... "Answer: "Move 'em every day."
"I wish I had more clover in my pastures; what seeds and planting techniques do you recommend?" "Move 'em every day."
"What genetics should I be using?" Answer: "Move 'em every day." Have I lost you here? What does moving them every day have to do with genetics? Oh, lots. If you move them every day, those big heavy hard keepers won't hold up. They won't like the walking: they won't rebreed.
I can feel the push back from some of you who might think the one thing is genetic selection Others might think the one thing is summer annuals. You can make your case and I'm certainly glad to entertain your answers to this in our letters section - and I love your feedback, by the way. Anyone who wants to weigh in on this, please do.
But I find that the every day move accomplishes more things, by default, than any other one thing I can suggest. Again, I'm glad to entertain your answer. Here is my defense of the "move 'em every day" answer.
1. Control. We farmers love to buy seeds, equipment, and genetics, but getting control of the stock is the pivotal point of leverage. If you can't put the herd or flock (including poultry) in exactly the spot you want them to be in for only a 24-hour period, none of the management-intensive grazing advantages can be accomplished.
Control means fences, alleyways, access, and even good working pens. By moving thm every day, you'll see the animals and be able to notice the limp, the scruggy, the wormy. Timing is everything. A problem not dealt with early becomes a nightmare if left to proliferate. The best way to keep up with animal health is to look at all of them every day and that happens when they're going into their next paddock. Even if you're not going to intervene, it's still good to know what's going on out there.
Few things are as enjoyable as disciplined animals. When they have a routine they become more docile, more relaxed. Every day moves build faith between animal and caretaker; this two-way relationship creates trust. Yes, I want my cows to trust me. My steaks taste better when they do.
The point is that if you're having to spend a lot of time fencing and wrangling to move the animals every day, you simply won't put up with that inefficiency. You'll build whatever infrastructure is necessary, or do whatever it takes - perhaps a herd dog - to make moving them enjoyable and efficient. Moving can be poetry or a problem; good control systems make the difference.
2. Water. Plenty of good water delivered to each paddock is inherently necessary if they enter a new paddock every day. You won't be lollygagging around with heavy, cumbersome water trailers or long alleys to a creek. With every day moves, you'll see quickly the need to develop piping systems to deliver water to portable tanks.
For some reason, water development seems to be the least romantic partner in this grass farming thing, and yet it is right up here at the top. Water brings life to a functional grass farm. Whether it's developing a well or spring, putting in a ram pump, building a pond, installing a windmill or solar pump, real time clean water is never far behind when an outfit goes to daily moves.
3. Vegetation. Whether the problem is weeds or the goal is more pasture diversity, few things respond faster to fast moves than the type, quality, and quantity of vegetation. I'm not opposed to planting seeds or non-routine mowing, but I've watched more vegetative transformation with aggressive high density moving than anything else.
As Greg Judy and Gabe Brown have so aptly pointed out, mob moving managemet changes soil, soil life, soil temperature, organic matter, water retentive capacity, pathogenic breakdown; goodness, we're just discovering all the benefits of landscape exercise through tightly managed livestock. I'm a farmer too, and I know how easy it is to get fixated on a certain issue. Some weed, or some lack of legumes, or soil that dries out fast. We have a hundred issues to solve.
Yes, we can subsoil. We can plant seeds. We can spray manure teas. We can mix up milk and honey and spray that with Bahamian jazz blasting from electromagnetic foliar applicators. But what good is all that razz-ma-tazz without moving the cows every day? All of this other stuff comes AFTER we've done the one thing. The one thing finances all these refinements.
4. Health. The bacteria in the digestive system must adjust to the vegetation coming in. Daily moves keep the type of vegetation entering the gut as close to similar as possible. If the animals stay in one paddock for four days, the type of forage entering the gut on day four is quite different than that entering it on day one. That gut microbial adjustment represents efficiency slippage.
If every day the animals eat similar leaves and stems, it creates a more constant inflow of material. If animals like one thing, it's routine. If we put all the stress-reduction factors on a white board and picked the top one, it would be routine. That trumps diet, weather and handling. Moving them at the same time every day is important too. We aim for 4 p.m.
5. Shelter. When paddock size shrinks to accommodate a one day move, we sometimes don't have a good shade alternative on a hot day. That means we either have to plan shade-available safety valves in our grazing plan, or we have to develop more shade. That leads directly to silvopasture, portable shade structures, and more heat tolerant genetics. Some or all of these may be appropriate, but I guarantee you that a herd of black angus cows on a 95 percent humidity day at 100 degrees Fahrenheit at 2 p.m. on a south western slope in July in Virginia will not be happy. Some will die. I've been there and done that.
As paddocks shrink, all the amenities necessary for stress-free production move up the to-do list. It won't be okay to just watch all the manure pile up under that clump of trees on the back 40. Suddenly you'll need to be pro-active about comfort and democratized fertility, and that's a good thing.
6. Testing. Finally, I suggest that daily moves force us to test ourselves every day. Cow-day allocation discussions routinely make people's eyes glaze over. It shouldn't. It should be as common as inches to a carpenter and bushels to a wheat grower. If you're moving once a week, you'll get four tests a month: did they get enough? Are they happy? How fast is the sward recovery?
But if you move every day, you're getting tests 30 times in a month. That means our skill level, your progress, will advance seven times faster than the farmer moving weekly. For that reason alone, every day moves are worthwhile. Want to become a skilled grazier? Want to advance quickly to the head of the class: Move 'em every day.
With all that said, sometimes I don't move them every single day. I might need to be gone overnight. But it's rare, really rare, for our animals not to move every day. Virtually every innovation on our farm, every step of progress, germinated directly from a nearly cultish commitment to one thing: move 'em every day. If you have a better one, I'm all ears. Let's call 'em in. "Cooowwweeeees!"
Joel Salatin is a full-time grass farmer in Swoope, Virginia, whose family owns Polyface Farm. Author and conference speaker, he promotes food and farming systems that heal the land while developing profitable farms. Follow his blog musings at http://www.thelunaticfarmer.com. To contact him email [email protected] or call Polyface Farm at 540-885-3590