Plans Built on Grass

Everything I plan is stacked on layers of utterly unpredictable events and utterly uncontrollable forces. And yet I find that the more planning I do, the better prepared I am for the year.

Winter is time for farm planning. This year, I keep returning to Eisenhower’s wartime aphorism: “I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

I suspect the principal benefit from these planning activities comes from immersing myself in possible failures. Forecasting allows me to become acquainted with some, although not all, of the ways my plans might run aground. In thinking through the possible movements and flows, I can foresee various alternatives. The exercise itself creates the limberness needed for the moments of crisis. When the inevitable blindside comes, I will have at least practiced enough to have developed some heuristic patterns for routing the farm toward better outcomes. Or that’s my hope.

As I create the plans for the farm, I’m never starting with a blank slate. I’m working within a complicated biological system. Each aspect has capacities, opportunities, and constraints. On top of that biological system, I’m trying to layer on an economical system, something that requires infrastructure and labor, something that produces products, and, hopefully, something that pays enough to keep our family doing this work year after year.

The Land Base

This farm is a 97 acre patch of land. It is predominantly pasture, with hedgerows and woods breaking up the fields. Half of the farm is hillside, half is flat. The soil is heavy clay and prone to puddling. The farm grows grass abundantly from May through August, and then grows grass slowly between September and early November.

Aerial view of the farm. Google last updated this in 2016, so it is a bit dated.

But beyond these generalizations, each field has a different character. Slope, sun exposure, wind exposure, and soil type vary across the farm. Even basic soil fertility levels are surprisingly variable, with one field out back stubbornly holding out at 3% Soil Organic Matter while another one just 500 feet away measures 6.5% Soil Organic Matter.

Each field has something to offer, and each one requires a knowing approach from us. The lowlands will hold water in dry times while the slopes will provide dry ground in wet times. Our more heavily wooded fields grow less forage, but provide welcome shade on hot summer days. Each paddock fits into its place within the farm ecosystem.

Grass is Central to Planning

Weather will always be a fickle partner, sometimes helping the farm and sometimes betraying it. Crop yields vary, and occasional total crop failures are unavoidable. But I can insulate the farm from some of these fluctuations by anchoring it in grass and grazing it with grass fed herbivores. Unlike annual crops, grass has perennial roots in the soil, so the pastures can persist in both wet and dry years. Grass growth will of course be influenced by the weather, but it won’t ever be a total bust the way a planted crop can be.

Grass therefore is the cornerstone resource on Wrong Direciton Farm, and the grass fed cattle that graze it must therefore be the cornerstone species. All my plans are built around the cycles of grass growth, the patterns of cattle grazing that grass, and the subsequent cycles of regrowth.

Cattle take their time to size up on grass. They are born on the farm next door, but arrive here between six and eight months old when they are weaned. They’ll then remain on our pastures for another one and a half years just eating grass. There is a slow-moving cycle of cattle entering the farm, growing, being slaughtered and butchered, and then being replaced with new calves. This creates the synchronization signal of the farm’s clock.

Fitting in the Birds

Perhaps the chickens and turkeys would be surprised to learn this, but I only plan for them after I’ve laid plans for grazing cattle. In our pasture system, poultry are secondary pasture users. Although cattle can get all their nutrition from grass, the birds can’t do this. Their nutritional needs are different, so grass is just one component of their diets.

The pasture raised poultry are more schedule-dependent than cattle. The poultry season begins in April and ends in November. The birds grow more quickly than the cattle, but their management requires more intense involvement from us. They depend on us for food, shelter, and protection from predators. As we plan for our year ahead, we need to match our customer demands to a production schedule during these few months.

Planning and Adjusting

But despite all this talk of planning, I’ll need to keep a loose grip on everything, admitting that at best I’m just guessing on probabilities.

Will it rain at all the right times? Will our economy hold up with high inflation rates? Will China’s hoarding of the world’s grain stockpile create a chicken feed crisis? Will I be struck by lightning?

I don’t know.

I’m building my plans with as much flexibility as possible. I’m confident that some good grass will grow. And that some of my plans will be duds. I can only do my best.

Ice covered teasels. Photo Credit Rachel Perozzi

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