Drinking from a fire hose

On Monday I drove a van load of people (including Dad and Kelly) to the Bismark area to attend a grazing tour.  It was part of the three-day Grassfed Exchange Conference happening this week in Bismark.  We toured two ranches that are progressive in their grazing and cropping systems.  Several speakers, in addition to the ranchers themselves, spoke about a variety of subjects.

We're not really into the grassfed thing.  Not that we are opposed to it, rather we just aren't set up for it.  Regardless, the information presented was outstanding.

There was a lot of knowledge present at the tour.  Seed selection, forage management, carbon to nitrogren ratios, fungi/bacterial interactions, animal performance and management, soil health, insects, chickens, winter feeding options, pH of cow urine…the list just went on and on.  If the 100 degree August day didn't fry my brain, the information overload took care of whatever was left.

I don't yet know how to apply about 85% of what I learned…it was more of an introduction to new ideas than anything.  However, here are a few takeaways I had:

– Grass finishing takes more than just some grass and a critter.  It takes skill in animal selection, forage management, and animal management.  Not to take away anything from conventional feedlot managers, but it appears to me that grass finishing requires a higher level of skill regarding feed management due to the variability present in a grassland environment.  Corn is corn, no matter if it is July or January.  Forages change not just season to season, but hour to hour.

– Nature has purpose.  Gabe Brown, whose ranch we toured, spoke about his diverse cover crop mixes (16 or more different species planted in a field at the same time).  He is basically trying to mimic native rangeland by planting many different crops at once in order to feed the variety of below-ground soil bugs.  This is what creates healthy soil.  When asked about weeds, he said he doesn't mind them at all.  He figures weeds are nature's way of telling him "hey, you forgot something!" 

– It's complicated.  I heard different people say we should be measuring soil fungi levels, soil organic material, plant brix levels, cow urine or dung pH (depending on who you ask), water infiltration rate, soil biology levels, carbon:nitorgen ratio, and soil nutrient levels.  I think I forgot some too.  That's in addition to what I'm already measuring: rainfall, forage production, ground cover, and plant species diversity.  How does anyone keep track of all that, much less manage for it?  These are all probably worthwhile things to measure.  I find it interesting that we as humans like to find that "one thing" that seems drives everything else and then tinker with it…until we find the next "one thing." 

I came away with a renewed appreciaton for the importance of diversity in our range ecosystem.  What can I do to maintain and/or improve diversity?  It sounds counterintuitive, but I think by working on creating a diverse landscape, it makes my management simpler.  Nature can manage the complexities rather well when we get out of the way it seems.  That doesn't mean leaving it alone – it just means playing by the rules.