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Private forage discussion groups

Woody Lane Published on 29 August 2014
Private forage discussion groups

This article is the first of a two-part discussion intended to explain the mechanics and organization of privatized forage discussion groups. Watch for part two in a later issue. Click here to read part-two.

One of the most exciting things I do as a private consultant is to be the facilitator of three private forage discussion groups in western Oregon. These groups are composed of farmers, ranchers and other agricultural folks who come together each month for pasture walks, technical updates and opportunities to share information about issues that affect their operations.

These groups are special; they are not only financially self-supporting, but they have operated very successfully for nearly 20 years. As of this writing, we have conducted more than 470 meetings.

There’s a lot to cover, so in this first article I’ll describe how the groups formed and how they operate. In a second article, I’ll discuss why they work so well.

The first discussion group began in 1995, after I had conducted a couple of 10-week forage courses here in Douglas County in southwestern Oregon.

A few ranchers who took these courses wanted to continue their education and build on that information, but they didn’t want to repeat the formal course structure again. Instead, they wanted to try something different, a type of regular meeting where they could learn from each other and try new forage techniques on their own ranches.

So in July 1995, we held their first meeting on one of the ranches. We took a pasture walk and then came back to the house and conducted an exercise of choosing fertilizer options, which included detailed calculations about the economics of each option.

Then we got down to the hard stuff: How could we best organize this group and, most importantly, how could we fund it? We were in unknown territory here, at least with our experiences in the U.S. By the end of the evening, however, the ranchers decided to approach this problem in a businesslike way. It was clear that the group would not be a social club.

It would be a professional organization of forage-based operations. This took money. So they created an organization that required members to pay dues constituting a private, self-funded discussion group.

The money would primarily pay a facilitator (my role), who would take care of the organizational details, arrange for guest speakers, provide some instruction and facilitate the meetings.

And so the first group was formed – the Umpqua Valley Forage Study Group (UVFSG). The UVFSG has been meeting regularly for more than 18 years, and some of those original organizers are still active members.

A few years later, two additional groups formed, similarly evolving from forage courses I had conducted in their respective areas. In March 2000, a group of ranchers on Oregon’s beautiful south coast formed FANG – the Forage and Nutrition Group.

The south coast is a rugged area covering two large counties, and some members must drive through mountain passes to attend FANG meetings. In May 2002, ranchers in the southern Willamette Valley formed WVGANG – the Willamette Valley Grazing and Nutrition Group. This group draws members from across five counties in western Oregon.

You might ask, are clever acronyms required? Well, the name selection process is, uh, an industrial secret. Here’s a hint: It may involve a contest and a vote. (You should see the names that were not selected.)

A few words about organizational structure. Each group consists of 15 to 28 member operations. Dues of $100 are paid every six months, and all members pay the same amount. Membership is quite varied.

Members include forage-based farms and ranches that raise many types of livestock: beef cattle, dairy, sheep, horses and even pastured chickens.

Some sell hay or other products. Marketing goals vary across the spectrum from standard commodity markets to sales of purebred breeding stock to organic farmers’ markets. Ranch sizes range from 20 animal units to more than 1,000 animal units.

One important feature is that membership is by operation, not by person. Which means that everyone from a member farm can attend meetings, including family and hired help. Essentially, membership is a place at the table, and an operation can fill that place with everyone on the ranch.

And membership is not limited to livestock operations. Members in these groups also include feed stores, seed companies, veterinarians and even government agencies. Some folks who work for these places also operate their own ranches, so they are particularly happy with this arrangement.

Each group has its own bank account and treasurer (usually one of the members). This person sends out bills and keeps track of finances. The bookkeeping is simple; it’s really just a few transactions each year. This arrangement means that each group owns itself. They hire their own facilitator and, if they choose, they can also apply for outside grants.

Like any long-term organization, the groups do experience some turnover. Over time, some members leave for various reasons. So how do the groups gain new members? Interestingly, all three groups have set a prerequisite requirement for new members: They must already have some knowledge about forages and cannot be absolute beginners.

This philosophy stems directly from the underlying rationale for forming the groups, namely to build on what members already know. Therefore, the groups expect that potential members have already gained some knowledge from course instruction or they are already very experienced and knowledgeable graziers who bring a lot to the table.

A person with knowledge can participate actively in the discussions, which benefits everyone, while a novice can really only listen during meetings and generally have little to contribute.

The groups do not advertise their meetings because they are not public affairs. Potential members hear about the groups by word-of-mouth (which in agriculture is actually very effective). A potential member is invited to attend a couple of meetings as a guest and participate in these meetings like everyone else.

After a couple of months, the person can be invited to become a full-fledged member and begin paying dues.

One practical criterion for limiting membership is the size of our on-farm meeting venues – a meeting larger than 20 to 25 people will not fit comfortably in most living rooms.

Meetings are usually held on member ranches, rotating through the membership over the years. But locations are flexible. Some meetings are held on non-member ranches or at schools or other facilities – wherever is appropriate for the group’s goals. We’ve even held meetings on golf courses (after all, golf courses work extensively with forages, albeit from a different perspective).

What occurs at these meetings? Meetings last three to four hours, and we generally begin in the late afternoon. We gather near the barn and start with a pasture walk, although the weather may influence our exact timing. The host usually distributes maps and soil test reports to everyone.

Lots of intense discussion occurs in those fields, especially about soil fertility, forage species, grazing techniques, weeds, irrigation and a myriad of details of the forage-based operation. And economics – lots of economics. Our pasture walks always includes discussions about finances, how these fields fit into the enterprise model, goals of the rancher for that field and for the operation, and possible alternative options for managing the fields and using farm resources.

After the pasture walk, we move indoors and have a no-nonsense discussion on a focus topic. This is important. Every meeting includes a focus topic: a technical subject that is pertinent to the host operation.

Some typical focus topics include livestock nutrition during fall and winter, a detailed evaluation of new perennial ryegrass varieties or the novel endophyte tall fescues, evaluations of marketing techniques and web-based options, methods for improving labor efficiency, etc.

Sometimes we’ll have a guest speaker, either in person or by telephone (speaker-phone), and occasionally I’ll conduct a short lesson on nutrition. We are very flexible and responsive to member needs.

So why are members enthusiastic about their groups? Why do they keep coming back month after month, for years, and why are they willing to pay for it? I’ll cover these points in the second article.  FG

Private forage discussion groups go beyond the basics, delving into soil tests, management practices and economics. In short, it gets personal. Photo ccourtesy of Woody Lane.

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