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Forage discussion groups – A group effort

Woody Lane Published on 26 September 2014

This article is the second of a two-part discussion intended to explain the mechanics and organization of privatized forage discussion groups. See September’s issue for part one. Click here to read part-one.

I’ll continue my description of three private forage discussion groups in western Oregon. I am the facilitator of these groups. In a previous article, I described how they formed and how they conduct their meetings.

Here I’ll go under the hood and examine why farmers and ranchers join these groups and continue to come back year after year.

One obvious attraction for members is valuable information. Month in and month out, every meeting includes a detailed discussion about technical issues. Groups select their own subjects.

For example, in addition to the pasture walks, some topics discussed during the past year include forage tannins, bypass protein, young animal nutrition, early weaning on pasture, warm-season grasses, risk management, efficient allocation of farm tasks, preparing for drought, wood ash as fertilizer and unusual forages such as festulolium, reed canarygrass, novel-endophyte tall fescues, plantain and the high-sugar perennial ryegrasses.

Presentations and presenters come in assorted flavors. Presenters may be outside guests or group members or me (as part of my facilitator role). While we usually use low-tech white boards, sometimes we’ll have PowerPoint presentations or online videos, and sometimes a guest will join us by speakerphone.

But regardless of the logistical details, these meetings do not resemble the classic “educational workshops” where a speaker stands up in front of a crowd, gives a formal presentation, answers a few polite questions and then goes home.

Not at all. Each group meeting resembles a roundtable conversation with rapid-fire questions and explanations and technical descriptions moving back and forth between everyone in the room. Information flows two ways, three ways, multiple ways, sometimes in bits and starts, but in the end, everyone gains, and after many of these meetings, the gains can be considerable indeed.

Let’s think about this strategy for a moment. It represents a complete reversal of the traditional top-down flow of information from a speaker to ranchers. On one hand, the decentralized conversations during our meetings are exciting and stimulating.

On the other hand, this concept can be a challenge to speakers accustomed to the more traditional methods of roles and information flow.

An important feature of these sessions is that members will discuss confidential information – like certain details about their operations – which can help the other members understand a situation and formulate good suggestions. This reveals two very important and attractive aspects of these groups: closed membership and trust.

Closed membership is absolutely critical
Closed membership provides a common experience that, over time, allows for information to build and people to grow.

All three forage groups in western Oregon are closed organizations. Closed means simply that meetings are restricted to members and their guests, not the general public.

The meetings are not advertised. These groups also ask a reasonable prerequisite of potential members: that new folks should have either taken courses or have extensive background knowledge. During the meetings, we don’t want to go backwards and explain to a new person basic concepts like the meaning of legume inoculant or a fertilizer specification.

Members already know those principles; they don’t want to rehash them. Since membership assumes a common body of knowledge, conversations can build on this knowledge and include greater depth and detail than is possible in open, public forums.

This is no small thing. Increased knowledge carries a sense of professionalism and pride. Let me illustrate this with an example from music. If you’ve ever listened or danced to fiddle music, you’ll appreciate that good fiddle playing doesn’t come overnight or from some mysterious genetic process. Good fiddling takes years of training and lots of practice.

When a person first learns the fiddle, he usually joins “slow jams” where musicians play basic tunes slowly, thus allowing everyone to contribute and learn. But once he masters the basics, he wants to expand beyond simple tunes like “Oh Susanna” and “Old Joe Clark.”

To improve his fiddling, he needs more complexity, faster tempos, more melody and texture. Soon, he locates advanced jam sessions with other, better musicians, where the tunes are challenging and complex, where he can learn and perfect new techniques.

Let’s come back to forage and livestock. In our increasingly complex world of farming and ranching, where can a producer go for advanced sessions? Not to educational clinics that are open to everyone. For an experienced rancher, those sessions are kind of like musical slow jams, where elementary material is repeated over and over.

Not to a government agency that administers regulations and subsidy programs. And often not to the extension service, with its declining public funding, because extension is usually constrained to work with all producers and does not have the time or resources to provide direct service to a select, closed group of advanced producers over a long period of time.

But there is an alternative: private discussion groups. These groups are the equivalent of advanced music sessions for graziers. These groups are where experienced farmers and ranchers can build on their knowledge and work on advanced techniques.

The second aspect of these discussion groups is trust. As folks meet together month after month, they develop a sense of understanding and empathy for each other – a group of like-minded people in the same profession who get to know and respect each other’s situations. This understanding encourages folks to discuss things at a level impossible in open meetings.

But these discussions also entail a tacit agreement among members – that private details discussed at these meetings are for each other’s benefit and are confidential to the members. New Zealand farmer study groups have a succinct way of describing it: “What’s said in the shed stays in the shed!”

Another value in these Oregon groups is the variety in membership. These discussion groups are not dairy groups or sheep groups or beef cattle groups. Members come from all types of livestock operations and backgrounds. There is great strength in this diversity.

Everyone brings a wealth of experience to share, sometimes with very different perspectives, and some members may also have specialized skills like engineering, accounting or marketing.

Each group becomes a kind of a support network – for evaluating new ideas, for cooperative marketing or purchasing arrangements, for sharing equipment, for conducting on-farm trials, even as a convenient venue for outside speakers.

A member once brilliantly summarized this concept when he said that he couldn’t live long enough to make as many mistakes as all the members had already made, and the forage discussion group allows him to learn from those mistakes.

Finally, let’s talk money. Ranchers pay membership fees to join these groups. A fee-based structure accomplishes two fundamental things: The money allows the group to hire a facilitator who takes care of administrative details and makes sure things run smoothly, and membership fees inherently put a monetary value on the experience, which encourages everyone to take it seriously and conscientiously. It’s really a business decision.

Members feel their dues are like an investment – that membership in these groups can save them many times that amount in timely evaluations, new opportunities, better information and avoided mistakes.

It’s all about economics and profit. Here are some examples:

Quite a few members, after many in-depth discussions about forage varieties, have tried new types of forages with good success. Forages like plantain, hybrid forage brassicas and Italian-type annual ryegrasses have allowed them to utilize fields more efficiently, extend their grazing season and increase animal productivity at a net profit.

  • Members have trimmed feed costs by using alternative feedstuffs like cull peas.

  • Members have increased forage availability by refining their fertilizer strategies.

  • Members have improved labor efficiency by redesigning their internal fencing. The bottom line is lower breakeven prices for their products.

We’ve done something special here in Oregon. These private forage discussion groups are serious, professional organizations with members working to survive in a complex and unforgiving agricultural world. This is group effort at its best.  FG

Woody Lane
  • Woody Lane
  • Ruminant Nutritionist and Forage Specialist
  • Lane Livestock Services