Since our last Grasslands newsletter came out in November of last year, we’ve all had to endure (and continue to endure) our share of hardships. As our Grasslands project has progressed over the past six years, I’ve come to realize that when you’ve got lots of things going on, all over the place, there is always going to be a problem somewhere. It’s inevitable. It’s the law of the mean—the law of averages. Most of the time, the good stuff balances out the bad stuff, but, at times, the preponderance of tough situations overtakes the bright spots, and we’re in one of those times.
In this newsletter, I want to recognize the bright spots, but also acknowledge these tough conditions we’re currently experiencing. Pep talks are good and necessary, but not if they ignore brutal facts. So, I’ll try to give a pep talk here, but in the process I will attempt to honor all the stuff that’s currently kicking our collective butt.
I’ll start in New Zealand. The growing season of 2014-15 coincided with the driest conditions in our region of northern Canterbury in 60 years. It was our second (but first full) year of managing Lees Valley. With a new crew and new enterprises (including dairy heifer and bull grazing, and “hard hill grazing” with our sheep and beef cattle, which had become culturally habituated to the easy flats under previous owners), we knew the learning curve was going to be steep, and the very dry year was an additional stressor that we sure didn’t need. We survived it though, with acceptable (but not great) animal performance, but the human casualties we suffered were sobering. We ended up having nearly complete turnover of our Kiwi crew. It was tough to take and consistently stressful on everything. Zach and I tried to internalize where we screwed up and have endeavored to make adjustments since then, and feel we’re on a healing path, with excellent on-the-ground leaders now in place. Some are Kiwis, some are from overseas, and we’re still working out the dynamic. The key is that we’re all aligned and committed to meeting the challenges that continue to confront us in Lees Valley.
And indeed the challenges continue. For the second year in a row, spring rains didn’t develop at the beginning of this current 2015-16 growing season, and we were forced to turn back several thousand dairy grazers. Growing conditions were even sparser this year, and instead of fast, abundant growth during November, our cool season grasses and clovers (which are all we have) gradually dried out and were largely done growing by early December, which should have been the peak of abundance. Lambing and calving were in full swing by this time. In an effort to encourage the best animal performance possible, we collectively agreed to set stock the sheep and beef cows across all of the lower elevation hill country through birthing and early lactation (in the case of the cows), and clear through weaning in the case of the sheep. This has created unfavorable grazing patterns all across this hill country, which we all recognize, but it was the right decision for the stock in this very tough year. And, thankfully, it did work. Lambing weights were solid (about 2 kg/lamb heavier than last year), and ewe condition is excellent as we head into the autumn (which should bode well for conception rates once rams are turned out in May). Mike and Grant and their crew of shepherds have accomplished an enormous pile of work and should be proud of their result. The lambs are now all weaned, and the ewes have been taken to the high country, which has been rested all summer. The lower hills, assuming reasonable fall moisture, will recover. This land is resilient.
On the flats, Brandon and Rapha and crew have done a great job of managing the grazing dynamics, nudging and nuancing recovery periods, paddock allocations, and grazing pressure to keep everything as optimally balanced as possible. They’ve done this with over a thousand dairy heifers, nearly two thousand dairy bulls, several hundred beef yearlings, 2700 replacement yearling ewes, 800 red deer hinds and stags, and between 160 and 400 lactating beef cows (that we elected to keep on the flats at various points through the summer). They also managed to “reserve” enough country to still make close to 750 tons of silage. And, animal performance has been fantastic, with dairy heifers meeting or exceeding target liveweights, and breeding up 95%. Average daily gain on the yearling bulls has averaged just over a kg/day.
Yearling dairy bulls in Lees Valley, somehow gaining 1 kg/day
Out on Gleneyre, we’ve been finishing/growing a variety of beef cattle that we brought out from the valley, plus another 500 dairy heifer calves. We also managed to put up another 700 tons of silage, and have received enough rain, just in time, to grow decent crops of kale and fodder beet for wintering dry dairy cows.
All in all, it’s been a great result on the animal performance side, but because of the drought, we had to reduce our stocking rate by about 20% (relative to years 1 and 2) on Lees Valley, which has largely wiped out our profit margin. We received some precipitation starting in Jan., with close to 4 inches falling across the valley over about 5 weeks. This greened everything back up, but it was “too little too late” to really grow the grass we should have grown in Oct.-Dec., when the spring rains normally materialize. We now need great autumn moisture to set us up for winter and to give us a chance to build back both forage and financial coffers. As of today, March 3rd, it hasn’t started to happen yet. To add insult to injury, sheep and milk prices have plummeted, which seriously impacts the financial performance of our sheep enterprise, as well as dairy grazing prices over the winter and into next year. But, whatever happens, we’ll make the adjustments necessary and we’ll pull through. Eventually, things are going to turn around—there will be a “regression to the mean”, and we will survive this.
Now, on to Florida, where Ron and crew are enduring the opposite extreme—a horrendously wet El Niño winter. When we started to amalgamate our 4000-head herd of Corriente and Longhorn cows last September, conditions were already extreme. We had received copious, continuous rain all summer, accompanied by exceptionally hot temperatures. All the natives insisted it was an anomaly, and that it would get better. Peninsular Florida tends to “dry out” in the winter, and get a lot cooler. But on Christmas day, temperatures were still climbing into the high 80s, and while it finally cooled off in January, it never quit raining. In Highlands County, more rain accumulated in January since records began in 1860.
A literal river of water, running off the bottom edge of Blue Head
The ranch has been nearly completely flooded all winter, with an inch to several inches of standing water across the majority of the pastures, all crisscrossed by channels of water several feet deep. The extraordinarily wet conditions have been extremely hard on the cattle, some of which came from a long ways west, and knew nothing of smut grass and swamps. Tragically, we have had very high death loss—we think about 10% at this point on the cow herd—and many cattle continue to struggle. The upside is that the majority of these hardy Spanish cattle have somehow managed to hold their condition and survive. We’re now grazing all the improved pastures a second time, and the forage quality on this second time around is superior to the first round, when the cattle were forced to contend with copious quantities of older, decadent forage. Cattle condition has since improved markedly, things are gradually drying out, and spring temperatures will now start to bring on abundant growing conditions.
The good thing about Florida is that we can change things quickly. The ratio of green leaf to gray, dead leaf is now vastly improved. While we’re still not out of the woods, we have enough evidence that “we can do this”, both from the forage management point of view, and animal performance point of view—once we get that “regression to the mean”—which, yes, will happen, eventually. Hang in there Blue Head crew. You guys have pulled through a nasty, depressing, challenging time.
Moving on to Montana, the Northern Great Plains winter has been pleasantly mild and easy, for the most part. With the exception of just a couple bouts of cold and snow, winter grazing conditions have been favorable and the cattle have held their condition well. But now that we’re into March, we need some serious spells of moisture to cross the plains. The fall and winter have been dry, reservoir water is nearly depleted across all ranches, and we have very little stored soil moisture. If things don’t turn around over the next couple months, we’ll be back in a position similar to 2012, which was the driest and hottest year since the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. These mild March temperatures (which are happening here at my office in Boulder, CO, as well) unfortunately feel eerily similar to 2012. On Antelope Springs, we’re struggling to pull out of last year’s drought, with very scant forage reserves heading into spring. On Cinch Buckle, we’re carrying over more forage, but without decent moisture soon, we’ll have to cut back our planned stocking rate. Let’s hope that by our next newsletter this summer, the NGP will have experienced its own regression to the mean, and we’ll be basking in green grass and full reservoirs.
I’ll conclude with some higher-level observations about this idea of “average” and what that means in the context of the world in which we now live. The fact that we’re currently experiencing weather extremes across all of our geographies, from Florida to Montana to New Zealand, is highly unusual. The odds, at least historically speaking, are greatly stacked against such a convergence of events. Even in the context of a gradually warming world, with the associated extreme weather events that climate scientists have long warned us about, our current challenges are unusual.
But, our current collective predicament is not as unusual as it once would have been. Globally, extremely hot temperature events are vastly outpacing “cooler than average” events (let alone “extreme cold events”, which statistically are no longer occurring). These extreme hot weather events are now 150 times more common than they were thirty years ago, annually impacting 14.9% of the earth’s surface each year, relative to the .1% (that’s one tenth of one percent) that was previously impacted. These much hotter-than-average temperatures result in increased evaporation from the surface of the ocean, and atmospheric humidity is now 4% higher than it was three decades ago. This supercharges the atmosphere with energy and moisture, which results in the more frequent extreme weather events we’re now experiencing (for those of you who don’t experience debilitating allergic reactions to Al Gore, watch the following TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/al_gore_the_case_for_optimism_on_climate_change. )
So while it’s unusual to be experiencing our current extremes, from FL to NZ, I’m afraid this is a taste of what will become increasingly common over the balance of our careers, and throughout the lives of our children and grandchildren. Even if the human species corrects its course, the climatic inertia that we’ve created in the atmosphere ensures that we’ll continue to experience increasingly chaotic weather for decades to come. As managers of vast landscapes and thousands of livestock, we are going to be on the front lines of this reality. To emerge as the survivors, we need to continue to build production models that create the highest amount of ecological resilience possible, while still generating a profit. We have the tools to do this, and we are doing this, but we have a long way to go on each of our properties. It will require enormous creativity and continuous effort and monitoring to maintain this balance between ecology and economy, but we’ll figure it out. We have to figure it out.
And “figuring it out” fundamentally rests not on the ecological or economic resilience that we build, but on the human resilience that we’re able to nurture and sustain. We are the keystone species in this whole chaotic mix, and it will be the decisions that we consciously make that will be the difference. If we’re not healthy as a human community, we simply won’t have it in us to make the critical decisions at the critical times.
In that light, I came across the following article: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/28/magazine/what-google-learned-from-its-quest-to-build-the-perfect-team.html?_r=1. It’s about a study that Google carried out called “Project Aristotle”. Its intention was to try and nail down the patterns of behavior that most effectively characterize Google’s most successful working “teams” (this study was brought to my attention by Birju Pandya, in his “servicespace” newsletter—Birju used to work for Larry Lunt and Armonia, and is still tied to Armonia’s efforts). It’s a little long, but I would strongly encourage you all to read it. Its conclusion is that, despite the hyper-digital and technical world in which we all live, we’re still emotionally driven beings, and the fundamental nature of what drives us hasn’t ever really changed. And, as emotional beings, we can’t really interact with each other, in a healthy and optimal way, unless we feel “psychologically safe”. Because we’re now hyper-mobile and no longer live in tribes, (and thus don’t tend to interact with the same humans over the course of years and generations), expecting teams to reach “psychological safety” is a hard ask in the context of the modern world. But, it’s pretty basic stuff, and it all comes down to communication and empathy. There’s nothing new there, but it sure seems like we need to be constantly reminded of it. Read the article and you’ll see what I mean.
So, we’re all experiencing adversity right now. The good news is that we’re all members of a great team of people, and this is where our strength and potential and resilience reside. I know it’s hard to stay connected over the vast distances that separate us, but each of you can immerse yourselves with your on-the-ground teams and partners. Meet. Open up. Tell stories. Learn about each other. Be honest if you’re struggling. Listen intently. Make a habit of it. Let’s solve our problems together through creative, honest, empathic communication.
And that just gave me a good idea. This newsletter should become a compendium of case studies of how we’ve worked through and solved problems together. You guys who like to write—start writing. You guys who like to talk, tell stories to the writers. Let’s get this stuff down and learn from each other.
Hang in there,
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!