Managed grazing has taken hold in Wisconsin with the help of a number of programs, but as government budgets shrink the grants that helped fund grazing initiatives are disappearing. Grazing advocates have collaborated on a needs assessment to focus remaining resources on what grass-based farmers will need most as many programs lose funding.
(Photo by Jan Shepel)
For more than 15 years, state and federal programs to support managed grazing have helped build a nucleus of farmers, educators and conservation staff around Wisconsin who understand grass-based farming and who can help other farmers get started or improve their pastures.
But now, both federal and state grant funding for managed grazing education is disappearing.
This year could prove to be pivotal for grazing resources in Wisconsin as both federal and state budget constraints put a pinch on grant programs that had supported grazing development.
Laura Paine, the grazing and organic specialist at the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection worked with GrassWorks, Inc. and members of the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative (GLCI) along with agency staff from DATCP, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), University Extension and Wisconsin Technical Colleges to analyze existing grazing education and technical assistance capacity among the various agencies and non-profit organizations in the state.
The group looked at technical assistance that may be needed by farmers – one-on-one farm assistance including the development of grazing plans, planning of fences, watering and lanes. They also looked at educational needs like informal pasture walks for grazing farmers as well as classroom training and classes to earn credits.
Beginning grazers, says Paine, need outreach and basic education, most often provided by local grazing networks, Extension agents, technical colleges, UW-Madison specialists in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and organizations like GrassWorks.
Initial grazing planning is often done by agencies like the NRCS and Land Conservation Department.
For existing grazers the need involves advanced education from the same sources that have been helping educate beginning grass farmers. These existing grazers also need the conservation agencies to help them upgrade their grazing systems and update grazing plans.
Paine said that agency representatives involved in the grazing needs assessment have committed to helping leverage resources in a number of ways.
At NRCS, the administration will encourage more of the county staff members to become trained in grazing planning and to participate in professional development activities that relate to grazing.
Paine said county UW-Extension committees may be able to use the needs assessment to focus the criteria they will use to fill county agriculture agent positions.
Officials with UW-Extension can use the results of this assessment to encourage committees to hire people with expertise in managed grazing, she said.
The needs assessment may also be used to encourage existing county extension staff to get training in managed grazing.
At the state’s technical colleges, administrators can incorporate training on managed grazing into the in-service training for staff members and the various agencies can work together to develop a curriculum that can be made available to technical college instructors to use in their classes, she said.
Dick Cates, head of the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers, has plans to make more of the curriculum for the grass-based school available through distance-learning classes.
Paine’s working group identified as "unmet needs" any kind of program to "train the trainer." Such a program would develop a formal structure to provide ongoing professional development for agency staff to become knowledgeable and comfortable with managed grazing.
"We currently have a program for training on basic grazing planning, but developing a broader understanding of grazing systems required additional training and experience," she noted.
This need, she added, can probably be met through the strategies mentioned with agencies and local educators in extension and technical colleges.
Another need that would go unmet without some new strategies would be providing support and education for existing and new grazers through the grazing network structure.
Paine said it would be possible for one or two local agency staff to act as liaisons to each grazing network, to cover this need.
Support could also come from the development of a system of "Master Grazer" mentor-farmers who could be available to provide one-on-one assistance to farmers in their area, especially if a stipend could be offered for their efforts.
The working group also said that where grazing farmers, or those who want to begin grazing, do not have agency staff available to offer guidance, there could be a void in providing funding for technical assistance.
Paine said they determined that some of this funding could potentially come through the EQIP cost-share program at NRCS in a mechanism similar to nutrient management planning.
The state would need to work with existing grazing specialists and/or certified crop advisors, she said, to ensure that there are enough contractors available to deal with producers who sign up for the cost-share on grazing planning.
Another unmet need identified by the working group was a clearinghouse structure to network and coordinate resources among agencies and organizations. GrassWorks may be the best organization in the state to take on this role, Paine added.
At the end of 2013 most of these areas will be losing support resources when state funding for the GLCI ends. The working group developed maps that show where the needs of farmers are greatest and smallest, and where technical assistance capacity is greatest and smallest.
MAPS SHOW NEEDS
The maps that were developed by Paine’s working group show where there are the most grazing educators and where grazing networks exist – there are currently 22 such grazing networks.
The maps created by this working group also divide the state into regions and show where most of the dairy farms are and where managed rotational grazing dairies exist in the state.
Also included are Wisconsin beef herds and where beef herds are raised using rotational grazing, based on the last Census of Agriculture data.
Dave Johnson, a grazer who represented GrassWorks on the working group, noted that there was a lot of funding for grassland and grazing planning that was so-called "earmarks" attached to Congressional bills. Much of that went away a couple of years ago. State funding goes away after this year.
The working group was formed to try to figure out where the holes will be when grant funding runs out.
State Agriculture Secretary Ben Brancel assembled the leaders of the various federal and state agencies that have an impact on grazing to get the ball rolling on this effort.
Paul Onen milks 100 cows east of Stevens Point in Amherst Junction, and is past president of the GLCI. He said there are large areas of the state served by grant-funded specialists and those grants will run out at the end of 2013.
"A lot of capacity will be lost but the NRCS has stepped up to the plate by encouraging county staff to participate in grazing training and to encourage technical assistance through EQIP," he said.
Education is a "tougher nut to crack," says Johnson, a shepherd with 220 acres and a flock of sheep. (He is also a "shepherd" to a flock of souls at the New Hope Community Lutheran Church in Hixton.) "A good share of the state will have some difficulties" once this funding runs out," he said.
The clearinghouse for information is one of the ideas from the working group that is extremely important, says Johnson. Grazing has taken hold in Wisconsin over the last 20 years. "What we do now is important for the next decade or two decades.
"Can we find ways for grazing initiatives to continue? Consumers today are much more interested in how food is produced and they are taking an interest in farming."
GrassWorks, he said, can help people find the right kind of connections and get the kinds of information out on grass-based farming.
Paine said one of the chief goals of the working group was to make more effective use of the limited resources. The information clearinghouse was especially important. "Can we help grazing networks get information from a central hub like the clearinghouse?"
One of the conclusions of the working group, she said, is that the limited resources that are left should be used to support networks and use the networks to identify farmers who could be mentors to others who want to set up grazing operations.
One of the concerns Onan has is that many of the state’s grazing networks cross county lines but sometimes agencies’ work stops at the county line.
"A lot of these networks could be shored up with just a few thousand dollars," said Paine.
Brancel said that there are many people doing a very good job with generating resources on grazing in the state, but he found there was not a great system connecting them all.
"There is the GrassWorks grazing conference, NRCS people and extension people and they are all doing a very good job, but to me there was no programmatic coordination among them, so that you would recognize where you would have really strong leadership and the ability to deliver a service.
"That was the thought behind some of this effort," he said, of the working group.
Cates of the Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmer program said the idea of utilizing the elder farmers in the state is a good one; providing mentoring to younger farmers who want to get into grass-based farming.
"That would engage one of the greatest resources we have in the state – the elder farmers," Cates said.