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Two cultures

Woody Lane, Ph.D., for Progressive Forage Published on 01 December 2020
Cattle grazing

This is a bit of a controversial topic: science versus practice. Dear Reader, if you feel comfortable with a passionate examination of a controversy, please read on. Because I’d like to visit about an emerging situation in the grazing world.

Grazing – good intensive grazing – is an elegant synthesis of science, art, economics and experience. But in certain sectors of the grazing world, there seems to be a growing division between the scientific community and some graziers with lots of field experience. It almost seems as if we have two very different cultures.

The first culture is the old stand-by system of science and research. Its roots are in the formal scientific method, and its practitioners are in the agricultural universities, USDA research stations and outreach programs of the extension service and other government agencies. The researchers generate technical information about forages and grazing. They design experiments, test hypotheses, analyze data and train graduate students. Then the university faculty, extension agents and Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) field personnel distribute this information as widely as possible, often for free.

The second culture is less sharply defined, but it is definitely focused on the practical and financial aspects of grazing. This culture consists of folks who work mostly in the private arena: ranchers and farmers, field consultants, writers and publishers of popular grazing magazines. These are very serious and astute people who practice some form of intensive grazing, usually on improved pastures. They pride themselves on producing animal products from forage (meat, milk, eggs, fiber, etc.), generally under earthy banners such as grass-fed, natural, free-range, organic, antibiotic-free and so on.

Some of this second group’s production results are dazzling: grass-fed cattle reaching finished weight at less than 18 months old, grass-fed lambs finishing in six to seven months, a flock of 2,000 grass-fed ewes dropping a 210% lamb crop in a six-week lambing period, grass-fed Jersey cows with a herd average of more than 15,000 pounds of milk and, on many intensive grazing operations, good evidence of vastly improved soil fertility. These graziers often push their forages far beyond any level seen on university farms, and they are routinely the first producers to use new forage species and varieties. The production responses on their farms and ranches speak for themselves.

But here’s the rub. These most progressive graziers, the leaders in their field, are operating out beyond the scientific research establishment. And current university research is not addressing their information needs, even though their financial and production achievements demonstrate they are clearly doing lots of things right.

I can see both sides of this. When I attend some national scientific conferences – like the annual gathering of 2,500 animal and dairy scientists who share their research in more than 1,500 presentations – I am usually dismayed to see only a few good papers on intensive grazing. Oh sure, there is lots of research under the topic of “forages,” but most of these projects focus on only three forages: alfalfa, corn silage or endophyte-infected tall fescue. The problem is: The real on-farm world of grazing and forages is much broader and more complex than this.

To many graziers, the university system often seems insulated and out-of-touch. I’ve listened to senior scientists tell graziers that it’s not possible to raise and finish cattle on grass in only 18 months. That’s an interesting statement when the audience is filled with graziers who make a living by doing this routinely. I’ve also heard scientists say: What’s the big deal about grazing? Corn is still the cheapest and least risky way to go. (As if they haven’t noticed the wild fluctuations in corn prices over the past few years.) Ask yourself: How many land-grant universities have faculty who really understand modern grazing?

The flip side of this coin is: Good graziers are thirsty for information. They are constantly looking for new ideas. Every year, there are dozens of grazing conferences around the country. Many are well attended, but many of these provide programs without university presenters. There are a couple of national magazines devoted to forages and grazing. And looking through them, I often see advertisements for specialized, privately conducted schools and workshops for graziers. These inevitably focus on practical techniques and making money.

Graziers are shrewd observers of their fields, and their experiences have led to good questions that cry out for answers – questions about topics like managing high-quality forages in intense grazing rotations, the effects of high stocking densities on soil health, the interactions of palatability and stocking density among different types of forages, tissue tests from plants versus forage tests, livestock selection using grass-based genetics versus grain-based genetics, the value and effects of extra nitrogen in grazed forages, the practical field use of soil biology measurements, etc. And these are just the tip of the iceberg. In a larger sense, these questions arise from the need to fit science and technology into the shifting sequences of livestock and fences that define good intensive grazing.

Although the university research community may not be providing much state-of-the-art information for graziers, there is no scarcity of alternative sources and opinions. A vacuum doesn’t last long. I’ve read scores of magazine articles and attended dozens of grazing conference presentations that are essentially variations of the “this-works-for-me” school of thought. No scientific references, no extensive literature reviews, no statistics. As a scientist, I shudder but, as a grazier, I am frustrated because good science has not addressed these issues.

For example, a belief making the rounds in grazing circles is: Only animals selected on grass should be used in grass-fed production systems. And its corollary: Genetic selection using expected progeny differences (EPDs) is of questionable value for graziers because EPDs are generally derived from animals fed grain. Again, this theory is testable, but the scientific analysis hasn’t been done, even though EPDs are far more powerful than most people realize. Instead, strongly opinionated writers publish articles in popular grazing magazines that deride the classic EPD genetics and instead tout theories that were popular in the mid-1800s. These theories assert that selecting the best grazing animals can be based on the width of their mouth (for increased forage intake), or on “linear measurements” of an animal’s width and height, or on the appearance of the hair whorls on the head.

We appear to have two grazing cultures, and it troubles me that they seem to be diverging. A strong and vocal part of the grazing community tends to discount the science from universities while, at the same time, the research scientists are caught up in their own cloistered world of publishing articles and chasing grant money and are not providing the information needed by the most progressive graziers.

But we can work together. Successful graziers have made reasonable observations, and they are asking good, insightful questions. Scientists who are interested in these problems could set up experiments to test these hypotheses and generate solid information. But this strategy needs two fundamental things: researchers who are truly interested in forages and grazing, and perhaps are willing to think outside the box; and graziers who are willing to work with them.

I think there are some scientists who are interested in forages and grazing, but they also have many other things on their plates. The grazing community should make a real effort to work with these scientists, cultivate their interests and provide some support for them. Good science results in good information. Then we all win.  end mark

PHOTO: Cattle grazing. Photo by Philip Warren.

Woody Lane is a certified forage and grassland professional with AFGC and teaches forage/grazing and nutrition courses in Oregon, with an affiliate appointment with the crop and soil science department at Oregon State University. His new book, Capturing Sunlight, Book 1: Skills & Ideas for Intensive Grazing, Sustainable Pastures, Healthy Soils, & Grassfed Livestock, is available on Amazon and through Woody Lane.

Woody Lane, Ph.D.
  • Woody Lane, Ph.D.

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  • Roseburg, Oregon