Wisconsin grazing networks: a status report (Research Brief #49)
Posted January 2000
Grazing networks have played an important role in the adoption of grass farming in Wisconsin. A grazing network is a group of people, usually within the same county or region, which meets regularly to discuss grass-based farming. Wisconsin’s grazing networks are a place to exchange information, build community, provide support, and foster new ideas. A 1998 survey shows that Wisconsin grazing networks are very different from each other, making it difficult for a single program of assistance to satisfy all of them.
Coordinators of Wisconsin’s 23 grazing networks responded to a two-page survey which included questions about network size, membership, and activities. The survey results show the status and organizational form of each network and the challenges they face.
Information from the survey aims to help those interested in beginning a network or borrow ideas from other networks, and to assist agency staff who want to know how to best serve networks.
The research was conducted by Rick Klemme, Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems (CIAS) Director, Laura Paine, Columbia County Crops and Soils extension faculty, Dan Undersander, UW-Madison Agronomy Department, and Margaret Welsh, formerly also of Agronomy and now with the UW-Madison Land Tenure Center. CIAS and the UW Forage Extension Program provided support for the survey.
Previous research by CIAS helped lay out some steps to developing a farmer network (see Research Brief 23) and spelled out the benefits from and challenges facing networks of community supported agriculture farms (see Research Brief 32).
Evolution of Wisconsin grazing networks
Wisconsin grazing networks have been (and still are) at the heart of the management intensive rotational grazing (MIRG) movement. Networks play a key role in information exchange because MIRG is a production method requiring site-specific information not easily transferred by traditional agricultural information sources. Network activities allow for open dialogue and site-specific exchanges, rather than “cookbook” solutions.
Unlike the more highly structured grazing networks in New Zealand, Wisconsin grazing networks have been more informal. The first Wisconsin farmer network, formed in 1986 in southwestern Wisconsin, was called the Southwest Wisconsin Farmers’ Research Network (SWFRN). It was established to help farmers evaluate agricultural technologies and encourage information exchange among farmers. Grazing was not the focus of the group, but was included in its work.
In 1993, SWFRN reorganized as GrassWorks, Inc., a statewide non-profit organization whose primary function is to organize and develop the program for the annual Wisconsin Grazing Conference. A board of farmers directs its activities which are funded through conference receipts.
Characteristics of grazing networks
Some grazing networks evolved from earlier sustainable agriculture networks, while others began from scratch. The newest networks were formed two years ago, with the average network age being five years. The oldest grazing networks are nine to ten years old. Grazing networks cover 51 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties, including most of the state’s major livestock production counties.
A very large central Wisconsin network has a mailing list of 600 people in three counties. Other networks range in size from 10 to 200 members, with an average membership of 84 members (59 members not including the large central Wisconsin group). “Smaller groups tend to be newer than larger groups,” reports Paine, “and are less likely to receive agency support.” However, group size made no difference in the interests and concerns of the networks.
Dairy farmers make up the majority of network membership, ranging from 50 percent up to 100 percent and averaging 79.5 percent. Other farming operations represented in networks include cow-calf, stocker beef, and sheep. Active network members, or those who regularly organize and participate in activities, averaged 48 percent of total membership, or 32 members. The networks with higher percentages of dairy farmers tended to have a higher percentage of active members, in part because active membership percentages are boosted by members with similar interests.
Two of the larger networks reported the lowest percentage of active members, while the smaller networks reported higher percentages of active members. Maintaining a high interest level is difficult with a large group, and smaller groups may be more successful at fostering a sense of community.
Twelve networks are coordinated by agency personnel. Of those, nine use University of Wisconsin-Extension staff and three use staff from county-based Land Conservation Departments. Eleven networks have farmer coordinators. Coordinators keep members informed and organized. Along with other members, coordinators work on challenging network members and stimulating discussion with new ideas.
Most groups have a single coordinator, but some are coordinated by two or more people from different agencies or by a farm couple. Coordinators publicize events through mailings and advertising in newspapers, magazines, specialty newsletters, and on radio. Two groups publish their own newsletter.
Researchers found some differences between agency- and farmer-coordinated networks. Farmer-coordinated networks tended to have fewer members and lower event attendance. These groups had more social events (picnics, golf outings) than agency-coordinated networks. Farmer-coordinated networks also reported more members with “other livestock” (bison, chickens, hogs, emu).
Nearly all of the networks receive some support from agencies, such as postage, copying, and coordinator time. UW-Extension provides such support to over half of the grazing networks, but does not provide financial support. Land Conservation Departments provide similar support to several networks.
Three grazing networks received no agency support at the time of the survey. Two had tried unsuccessfully to obtain agency support, and the third had recently lost agency support and was collecting dues from members to cover costs.
The pasture walk is the primary communication vehicle for grazing networks. Pasture walks typically occur during the main grazing season from April to October. They are usually held on a different farm each month. Pasture walks involve network members (usually 12 to 26 people and up to 75 people) walking pastures to observe pasture composition, grazing management, fencing layout, watering system, lanes, or specific problems.
Other than a brief introduction by the host farmer, there is usually no formal discussion or format. The walk is followed by some refreshments back at the house. Some networks invite special speakers or plan pasture walks around a particular topic. Five of the networks offer a series of pasture walks on the same farm in order to follow the farm’s progress through the season and learn how the host farmer deals with changes over time. These grass series walks are particularly helpful for advanced graziers because they allow for a more in-depth discussion of how complex grazing systems function.
Other network activities include an annual all-day conference in late fall or early spring, a winter planning meeting with a potluck meal, off-season discussion groups, field trips, on-farm research participation, and parlor raising.
Nearly three-quarters of the networks listed specific challenges on the survey. While six cited issues related to grazing management, others listed issues related to network functioning and leadership. Over half of the networks listed meeting the needs of both new and established graziers as a challenge. New graziers obviously benefit from the experience and knowledge of those who are more experienced, but these experienced graziers are facing issues different from those faced by new graziers and may receive less useful information at a general pasture walk.
To address this challenge, some networks use grass series walks and winter discussion groups geared towards advanced graziers. Others have closed their membership so they can focus on special topics such as seasonal dairying, referring new graziers to other sources of information. Assigning a new grazier to an advanced one for mentoring is also a method used by some networks.
The researchers expected that survey responses would provide insight on how agencies can support networks without undermining their independence. “But what we found is that the needs and interests of the grazing networks are too varied for concrete suggestions about agency support,” says Paine. Grazing networks are so varied because they evolved through a unique set of circumstances, needs, and people. And now networks can borrow ideas from each other, build new connections, and strengthen MIRG in Wisconsin.
For more information on grazing networks in Wisconsin, call CIAS at (608) 262-5200.
Published as Research Brief #49