Tomorrow's Grass, Today: Temporal Discounting on the Landscape

In my grazing practice, I'm a student and observer of Holistic Management, an approach to ranching and land management that helps producers orient their daily decisions to support their long-term social, ecological, and economic aims. 

These aims are referred to as one's "holistic context," and there's a guided discovery process that holistic managers use to identify what kind of business, environment, or lifestyle they want. But regardless of all the subjective variations, at the crux of one's context is the health of the ecosystem, because no human endeavor can be sustained for long if its very environment is compromised.

Ranchers practicing holistic management are as varied as the day is long--they may be traditional pastoral herders in Zambia, conservative Christians in Alberta, California coastal queers, or fifth generation Arizonans, but central to all of their contexts, by design, is to manage for an ecosystem with an increasing plane of balanced productivity and ecological health (as measured in things like soil carbon, species biodiversity, wildlife habitat, etc).

Core to the holistic management of livestock is the grazing planning chart, which was developed by Allan Savory after years spent not only managing large wildlife reserves but also serving in the Rhodesian military. It was the latter experience that helped him see that the complexity of managing land, animals, and people, with the added variables of extreme weather and market volatility, is not unlike a military operation, and no operation would ever be conducted without a detailed plan. I know very little about the military (any military!) but I do know that there's often a days- or weeks-long set of actions that must happen in a particular sequence in order to achieve the desired end result of a specific operation or campaign.

Savory adapted the planning process he successfully employed during his military career to the work of land management when he observed that ranches, game parks, and wildlife reserves may have a specific set of desired outcomes, but without a clear plan that informed their day-to-day, the abstract and distant goals ("more wildlife," or "healthier streams") were almost unnoticeably compromised due to daily decisions that incrementally chipped away at the health of the environments.

Plant recovery periods are not only a great example of how this works, they're also the foundation of an environment on an increasing plane of health. Without an articulated plan to not put livestock back on an area of ground until a certain amount of time has passed (with time correlating with stage of plant development) it's very easy to begin moving livestock willy-nilly, making decisions for the sake of convenience over and above the health of those little grass plants. 

Someone can do this for a few years and barely notice a change unless they are looking closely, but repeat this often enough and soon all of the plants who form the foundation of a healthy grassland are shrinking in size and failing to reproduce. From there, the environment begins to slip at a more noticeable rate. 

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All of this underscores the elegance of holistically planned grazing: it overcomes a really common psychological bias sometimes called "temporal discounting." Temporal discounting is the human tendency to weigh near-term gains well above long-term gains, to the extent that "less, now" is valued more highly than "more, later." That which can be experienced now is more tangible and easily acted-upon than future gains, which seem too abstract to appreciate if not framed concretely.

Temporal discounting has to do with why it's easy to spend one's money fast shortly after pay-day, decreasing steeply as funds run low, or why we may have a stated aim of losing weight but drinking a beer every night persists as a habit.

Here in California, the value of the grazing plan becomes especially clear in about mid-June. That's right on the heels of when the bulk of the vegetative growth for the year (in weight) has just occurred within a 2 month period, and forage begins to shift dramatically from being very high in protein to much higher in carbohydrates - and just taller and denser, period. As a result, cows go from having to eat quite a bit of watery, thin feed to meet their daily nutritional needs to significantly less (by volume). The "burn rate" thru pastures for a given herd size slows up, and all of the ranch's feed is in front of us. 

During those times, it's really tempting to look at the oceans of grass and think one will never get through it all. One feels the urge to add units and stock up. And indeed, too much growth can be a double-edged sword, if the vegetation is so thick that cows walk on far more than they eat, both wasting its feed potential and laying it down as thick thatch rather than smaller bits of litter. 

But spend a little time on the grazing plan, and one quickly begins to realize that they might need every bit of that feed in the months to come--that in fact, only very deliberate grazing every day will result in there being enough feed many months down the line when one needs it. Careless grazing of that feed too soon in the season will result in greater difficulty in utilizing that feed in the months to come. And a pasture that is grazed sloppily may see all of its perennials eaten up, with plenty of standing annual grass that's nonetheless off-limits to cows because grazing them on it might mean they are over-grazing the perennials that are just starting to recover. 

All of this is to say, the holistic grazing plan helps us budget. It makes the needs of the distant future (recovery days needed for plants, metabolic needs for lactating cows, etc.) inform the actions of today. 

Ranches that don't practice this can luck out or hobble along for a while, but eventually the lack of comprehensive planning will come home to roost. The good grass gets eaten up too soon and cows need expensive supplements. Water isn't in place when it's needed, and a hastily put together plumbing work-around breaks and drains the tanks. Owners begin to feel financial strains, and employees feel overworked and under-appreciated.

This kind of contraction puts so much psychic pressure on decision-makers that the moments when they most need clear-headed reasoning (to bail out the sinking ship) coincide with the times when their cortisol levels handicap sound thinking.

Hence, good grazing planning is not just about improving on ecosystem health and a ranch's productivity, but also aids in maintaining intact psyches amidst an agricultural economy that is historically extractive by design. 

Addition by Subtraction

I migrated from farming into livestock grazing in large part because of my deep love for land and wildlife, and my desire to address global issues on a practicable scale. Yet a common misconception I often face in my work is the idea that the cows are in the way of wildlife, both directly and by taking their food. If this were true, my work would be highly contradictory and misguided. Note that I work primarily with cattle but much of this applies to other ruminants... and wild species as well. 

Livestock eat grass, but you can bet that because we're talking about relationships within a complex trophic web, this is not a zero-sum activity. Most grasses exhibit a response to grazing and animal disturbance that is often overlooked by those who aren't. We talk a bit about how grass benefits from having old, dead material cleared off to allow light to reach new growth points. And we talk about the nutrient-cycling benefits of grazing animals (wild and domestic): animals yield that dead material to the soil, where it can break down biologically in the soil instead of oxidize chemically into the air, and grazing animal disperse fertility across fields and add their own fertilizing urine and biologically active manure to the mix. 

But it's critical to also acknowledge that when plants are grazed appropriately during the active growing season (which in coast range California is approximately mid-March thru May, depending on seasonal variation in precipitation and temperature), the plants will not only recover quickly but will actually be stimulated to put on more growth than they otherwise would. Provided they aren't grazed too soon in their development, or grazed down to a nub, even with a significant removal of vegetation the plants will regrow bigger and better than they would with no grazing at all. 

What's more, the plants continue photosynthesizing longer than they otherwise would. Below is a photo where I installed a temporary fence in the same place twice this year - in late January and again in late March (a 60 day recovery). The green side was grazed twice during the growing season, and the brown side not at all because there were certain species we wanted to express without animal impact this year. On the left, the grasses have already senesced (set seed and died), whereas the grasses on the right are just beginning to flower. 

At left, no grazing from mid-October. At right, two quick grazes with 60 day recovery period during the growing season. 

At left, no grazing from mid-October. At right, two quick grazes with 60 day recovery period during the growing season. 

The difference is pretty stark. I should note that the fenceline also approximates a slow change in soil depth, because the flowers we were protecting grow in thinner, rockier soils. But the abrupt change has at least as much to with grazing, and the sharp line in the grass is exactly where I built my fence.

When viewed from above, the grasses grew back denser and more lush on the right side than on the left. And most importantly, they continued to grow for at least a week longer than the ungrazed grasses. This means more energy was created through photosynthesis, and more calories made available to surrounding biota. That green grass is edible sunlight.

The longer a pasture can photosynthesize, the more it's yielding to its environment. With the help of big animals, we can keep grass plants photosynthesizing for longer, literally making more life for all entities above and below ground.

Land Marks

I don't understand everything I'm involved in.

- Wendell Berry

Photo by Patrick Baz

Photo by Patrick Baz



Why do we destroy what we love? 

I grew up in a ratty, rural stretch of North Carolina surrounded by farm land, and I did a lot of rambling. One day I set off on a familiar shortcut through the woods but soon discovered my pathway blocked by mounds and mounds of ... trash. Old microwaves and TVs, sofas and mops, bottles of Windex, and the shapeless and neon plastic miscellany that accumulate over a modern lifetime.

As it turns out, our neighbor's old mother had died, and rather than pay the dump fee at the county landfill he emptied the contents of her house into the woods--his woods. 

I've cited this experience in intelligent circles, thinking it underscored a clever point: that people can live close to the land and still destroy it. Trash it, mine it, graze it into dusty and compacted oblivion.

The stereotypes are readily at hand--the "white trash" tendencies of shabby rural abodes to accumulate junk comes to mind. I thought it meant that those people just weren't thinking correctly. Maybe they didn't read enough Wendell Berry.

But maybe I had it wrong. There is an an implicit ethic in rural areas of dealing in tangible materials. Could there be an intimacy to scattering one's belongings across generational land, to be slowly subsumed in the humid forest for generations yet to come? Maybe there's something dear about mining my mountains--about yielding a lifetime of possessions into my forest. 

Recently I've been reckoning with my own rural roots, and have realized the degree to which I've strangely identified as a middle-class suburbanite, despite growing up with marked financial deficits and never living in the suburbs. I grew up relatively isolated, not attending school until college, so I never claimed "country folk" as my people, and subsequent friendships with more urban and well-off peers have no doubt shifted my cultural locus geographically and economically far off its real center of gravity.

Reviewing my upbringing with a native eye, I find I understand a lot more of it than I thought possible. There is a grounded sensibility within rural mindsets that is difficult to describe. 

In contrast to it, the consumer hypocrisy of progressive, educated, urbanites has been fodder for many a hot take. It's not my intention to recapitulate that in full, but there are a few things I've got to say, hopefully without trafficking much in tropes.

The first is that the urbanist mindset--by which I mean the mental state that allows us to navigate urban life without suffering too much cognitive dissonance--is one of NIMBYism-by-design. Generally speaking, cities are hubs of extraordinary abstraction, where the material implications of the ideas and products exchanged in the urban market are not readily apprehended. It's simply not the job of cities to respect natural boundaries, because cities were built by and for the surplus of natural boundaries transgressed.

Dealing with resources in rural areas means we confront our consumption more directly. But much of American society is both obsessed with and made uneasy by consumption. With our national DNA rooted in Englightment thought, it's no surprise that we are uncomfortable with the more atomic and base nature of our being.

We're fabulous consumers of packaged and assembled market goods, yet we're not very accountable to our primary resources--of the blood, the flesh, the oil, the bile, the semen, and the water we depend on to survive. We talk a good game about clean energy while making relatively few personal efforts to achieve such, and view coal companies and their employees with smug disdain. We say we don't want to kill animals to eat them, so we source our protein from remote places whose histories we cannot know, whose extirpated animals we cannot recall, and whose land injustices we remain oblivious to. We all use wood and paper and we rage when our national parks are opened to logging companies.

The hypocrisy is real--so real as to be banal and commonplace--and we all know it. It may not be by design, but it's a byproduct of design: what could be better for a capitalist economy than for people to be able profess their precious moral code publicly, while privately contradicting it without consequence? We can easily achieve secure the cache of being progressive and informed, but without demanding the systems of production to actually change. 

Where can we go, if we maintain that we have already arrived?

This is something that folks living far removed from nature may have trouble reconciling: the sense of accountability that causes us to brazenly spoil the land near to us. Progressive city folk celebrate local food, while some of their poorer and more rural counterparts re-localize their trash.

Yet consider how we get piercings and tattoos on our own volition, but would reject and feel violated by anyone else having such designs upon our flesh. There's a transpersonal identification that happens when you feel you belong to a place. It's hard to explain, and impossible to justify the ugly ways in which it's expressed. But it's there.

I'm not justifying our abuses of land. There's plenty wrong--plenty that is simply dysfunctional. Notions of ownership is a double-edged sword. Yet maybe it's my own feral and rural-raised brain talking, but desecration of a landscape through scattered trash, and anointing it with consecrating objects, seem like two points on a circle.