One of the first things any serious livestock farmer will tell you is that they are not farming livestock, they’re farming grass.
The grass is the primary crop, converted into cash via the medium of a cow or a sheep or a springbok. But farming wild grass – veld in southern Africa - is not like farming other crops. The farmer has very little control over productivity. He cannot plough the fields and plant precisely the variety of crop that he wants, while carefully weeding out the undesirable ones. He has to deal with the normal vagaries of nature. And finally, he has the grazing itself, which affects the composition of different grasses and weeds in ways which, after more than a century of research, we barely have a handle on.
Simple, prescriptive formulae for how to manage nature don’t work in the long run. Farmers need to read the subtle signs of the veld and adapt, constantly tweaking their management, week to week, month to month and year after year. They need to decide when to put cows and calves into the veld based not on the calendar but on the grass itself. They need to move their animals following the signals of the veld, not the traditions of their fathers. And they need to decide when and where to burn following the same cues.
So how does a farmer, given the constraints within which he must operate, make decisions?
Well, obviously the farmer needs to be constantly aware of the changing circumstances of his grass crop, as well as the condition of the animals. And the only way to be aware is to observe – monitor – the veld.
And this is where four decades of agricultural colleges and training courses have got it completely wrong.
You see, in the first half of the twentieth century, we hadn’t yet developed “proper” veld monitoring techniques. So we took the methods of the farmers themselves and formalised them. They looked the grass, the bare soil, the weeds, and a bunch of other cues to understand the state of their veld at any given time, and we, the scientists, simply wrote those cues down on scoresheets with scales from 1-10 and gave definitions for each score. The methods were simple, quick and intuitive.
Then, in the 1970s, new methods were developed. Scientists were, understandably, dissatisfied with the unscientific and imprecise measurement techniques of yore. For research and scientific monitoring, they needed something more precise and repeatable. So they built on the scientific methods developed previously, simplified them, and came up with Veld Condition Assessment (note the capital letters). Veld Condition Assessment is a generic name for a family of formal, quantitative, field-based (boots on the ground) methods of surveying the vegetation of a sample patch of land.
I won’t go into details of the techniques here (I'll leave that for another blog), except to say that they do all that they’re supposed to do. They’re quick, precise, and very powerful for measuring change in the composition of grasses in the veld and for calculating grazing capacity (the number of animals that can be carried on a given piece of land). And they’re completely wrong for farmers.
Let me explain.
Firstly, a Veld Condition Assessment, depending on the type of vegetation and the method, generally takes from twenty minutes to an hour to do, for a small patch of land on the veld. By small patch, I mean a line about a hundred metres long (known as a transect), or perhaps a little square of around twenty by twenty metres (a plot). So, to get a really good picture of the veld, you should ideally place dozens of sites on your farm. Which no-one ever does. More to the point, in the time that it takes you to survey a tiny sliver of veld, you could have walked an entire paddock and gained a much broader understanding of the state of the veld. In fact, one glance at the sliver that you’re about to survey often gives you more useful information than you would gain from conducting the formal survey. Dominant plants – check. Bare soil and amount of erosion – check. Weeds – check. Amount of grass – check.
Secondly, you need some experience and knowledge to do both the formal and informal survey, so there’s not much difference there. In fact, I would say that the Veld Condition Assessment requires training, while the informal assessment requires knowledge and experience. And knowledge and experience often provide richer information than training.
Thirdly, the Veld Condition Assessment is intended to be performed occasionally – usually once a year or once every two years. It’s the audited annual report of the veld – precise and quantitative. Many pretty graphs can be made.
But farmers’ main priority is making good decisions from week to week. Leaving animals in a paddock a few weeks too long in a bad year can harm both the performance of the animals and the long-term condition of the veld. Conversely, putting animals into a paddock too late can result in animals grazing a large amount of low-quality grass. Which will have little effect on the veld but will reduce animal performance.
And for those reasons, no farmer that I have ever met has consistently applied classic Veld Condition Assessments on their property. Some have done it once or twice and then abandoned it. Others have had consultants and advisers do it for them, sometimes for a few years. But when budgets are cut or the adviser moves on, the Veld Condition Assessment ceases. It is simply too much trouble for too little return.
But good farmers do monitor their veld, all the time. They monitor their veld the way traditional herdsmen have for millenia – the greenness of the grass in one paddock versus another, the amount of poisonous plants in a wetland in spring, the amount of grass from month to month and year to year. They just don’t record it. Until now.
Frits van Oudsthoorn, the author of the ubiquitous Guide to the Grasses of Southern Africa, has revised an old and simple monitoring method, for the bushveld. Also in the bushveld, a set of tools has been adapted for measuring and recording – quickly and easily – the most important variables for a livestock farmer: grass, animal condition and numbers, rainfall, erosion and bush. The Australians and Americans have made great strides in creating simple and effective monitoring tools for farmers and advisors. I call these methods Scoresheet methods, because they work like a customer satisfaction survey – asking a few questions and asking you to rate the answers on a scale.
In one paper (see here for PowerPoint), the rancher, Grady Grissom, and his co-author, Tim Steffens, described the changing management styles on a 14,000 acre ranch in Colorado over two decades. After initially starting with classic livestock farming goals, which resulted in financial difficulties, they shifted gradually to ecological and economic goals which were measured with simple monitoring – the Eyeball method. And Grady Grissom and his ranching partners recorded their observations in notebooks.
In the second paper, they described in more detail exactly what sort of cues they looked for on a week to week basis when making decisions about moving animals, and the ecological basis of those cues.
The full story of their shift from one management style to another is fascinating in its own right. But to me the interesting part of Grady Grissom’s story can be summed up in this passage:
All of our assessments were qualitative and intended only for our internal decision-making. We found that touring a pasture and mentally integrating observations into a pasture average gave internally consistent and repeatable results that better fit our needs than time-consuming but more rigorous transect methods
So what did Grady Grissom and his partners measure?
Of course, they kept detailed records of their livestock performance, numbers, condition, calving and supplementary feeding, and detailed financial records. But more importantly for this discussion is their monitoring of the veld.
They estimated the amount of grass cover left in a pasture after grazing on a scale of “low, medium or high”. They estimated the amount of litter cover on the ground (the dead plant material that eventually decomposes to form humus) on the same scale. And they estimated the amount of two common, and important, grasses on a rough percentage scale. They also mapped, using photos and GPS, the locations of important shrubs and weed patches every now and again, to see whether they were spreading or shrinking. They eyeballed important grasses on a regular basis to decide whether they had had enough grazing and needed a rest, or whether they had had enough rest and were ready to be grazed again.
The financial payoff for this (minimal) effort is described in their paper. The ranch became more profitable despite difficult economic circumstances, because they shifted their focus from purely livestock farming to grass farming via livestock, and adopted a few simple goals and means of measuring their achievement.
The experience of Grady Grissom and many other successful farmers underlines that we need to stop teaching agriculture students Veld Condition Assessment (capital letters) with its formal rules and analysis, and teach them how to assess the condition of the veld using knowledge and experience, based on a specific set of goals. Those students who go on to institutions where formal Veld Condition Assessments are part of the job will be taught the techniques on the job. For the remainder, teaching them how to set goals for the veld, a simple set of cues to help decision-making, and some in-depth knowledge of the way the veld works, will encourage far more livestock farmers to become grass farmers.