When Jim Munsch was a kid, farmers found advice just a driveway away. “If you had a problem, you could go to your next-door neighbor and learn a lot from him,” remembers the Coon Valley, WI, beef grazier.
He isn’t alone in lamenting a bygone era when homesteads were closer and producers could work and talk together often. Among the grazing community, however, pasture walks have harkened back to those days when the exchange of on-farm information was common.
“Pasture walks are a way to replicate that ability to go to your neighbor and ask him, ‘Gee, I have this problem, how do you deal with it?’ ” Munsch says.
Having organized nearly 50 pasture walks and educational workshops, Kirsten Jurcek, a grazing specialist for Town & Country Resource Conservation and Development, Jefferson, WI, knows how to get the most from the on-farm educational experience.
“If a picture is worth a thousand words, then an experience is worth a million,” Jurcek philosophizes. For beginning graziers, a pasture walk might be an exercise in “visualizing what you plan to do based on what you’re seeing.”
Experienced producers, however, are sometimes too close to their own situations to problem-solve effectively, she says.
“You go to someone else’s farm and you might get a great idea,” Jurcek offers. “Maybe you’re frost seeding and not getting the catch you want, or your manure is too loose. At a pasture walk, you might learn about no-till drilling, and maybe your neighbor even has a drill. Maybe you hear about supplemental feeding that would firm your patties up and put better gain on your animals.”
Asking good questions of your host and being a careful observer are good ways to glean as much as possible from a pasture walk, she says.
“Some people will come just to socialize with friends and neighbors,” cautions Bob Van De Boom, a Delavan, WI, beef grazier who has hosted pasture walks. He thinks there’s more to be gained than that. “At a pasture walk, you have 10 to 30 different farmers and maybe customers. With so many resources in one place, there are tons of good ideas in every group.”
Capitalizing on the unstructured time with other farmers while walking from the pasture to the barn, or eating lunch, ensures that you won’t miss a story or anecdote that could benefit your own operation, says Van De Boom.
Terry Groth, who held a pasture walk on his Jackson, WI, farm last year, puts it best: “You’re basically shopping for ideas and tips. We all say, ‘If I could do this again, I’d do this or that differently.’ Well, this is your chance to skip that step and learn from another farmer how to do it right the first time.”
Groth remembers talking with an invited expert and another farmer at his pasture walk. “They saw the woody growth along my stream – mostly buckthorn and other trash – and told me I needed to put that into grass, and that I could use my goats to browse the brush down.”
He learned that grass holds stream banks in place better than woody species and plans to clear a third of a mile of brush this spring.