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. 



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.