Integrated Vegetation Management

With recent attention upon wildfire capacity to generate seemingly unstoppable damage, grazing as a possible solution is being discussed a bit more aggressively.  Most of the discussions either present cattle as the assumed grazing herd animal, or propose using sheep and goats as an alternative to traditional weed abatement activities like mowing and string trimming. In these instances the outcomes often either cost a lot of money, generate outcomes that result in undesirable secondary impacts, or some combination of the two.

Most instances in which grazing herds are used to alter the urban vegetation occur in areas of affluence, and result in elevated cost to benefit outcomes.  In communities that have a high value of improvements and cost basis, the expense of hiring grazing herds to reduce fire danger is acceptable. In areas that have lower housing valuations and operating budgets, hiring qualified operators to deliver managed grazing services becomes much more challenging.

Between the fall of 2008 and the summer of 2012 I developed a community wide grazing program that had a total cost that was less per person than the price of a sweetened cup of coffee beverage from the local coffee shop. In order to derive affordable pricing, timely completion, and beneficial biological outcomes that satisfied the various environmental documents, many perceptions and assumptions were challenged. The grazing activities that occurred as a result of this effort have demonstrated the ability to use herds for human and landscape benefit at affordable prices across economic demographics.

At first glance there appear to be little if any differences between my developed program and the many other grazing projects operated across the region. A more detailed study of my operations suggest a very different approach and subtle but different results. To distinguish my grazing philosophy, methodologies and operations from the alternatives I call my work integrazing.  Most service grazing activities identify thatch removal or reduction as the primary goal. My systems approach includes as many of the expressed desirable outcomes as possible, and then works to optimize the aggregate combination of the system components rather than focusing on any single component. In this way the system delivers healthy soils, plants, water, and animals while also creating an outcome that assures that the neighboring humans will be protected from catastrophic fire.

The integrated approach is not infallible. Animals still get sick and sometimes are affected by natural elements that impact their appearance and health. Some grazed areas appear unsightly depending on what is happening with the weather or with the plant management strategies. Areas are sometimes suggested to be too heavily or too lightly grazed depending on who is doing the suggesting. We humans all have our own ideas about what is acceptable and appropriate. What we don’t always have is a healthy way to regulate, express, and modify our positions as they relate to the population at large.

Within all this complex biology certain things have become better understood.  There is no single style or method of grazing that works all the time in all cases. What has become known is that we have an ability to influence the landscapes in ways that can improve water quality and retention, enhance soil health and function, reduce levels of accumulating fire fuels, redistribute energy resources between plant types, improve public safety, reduce the fossil carbon demand within landscapes, and grow more food and fiber from landscapes that are presently killing us.

Simply putting animals into an area of brush or plant material is no guaranty of success. When, where, how many, and for how long the animals are present within a landscape are all important considerations.  The recent fire disasters are reminders that a lack of a functional and effective plan is not a good idea. The desire to create grazing plans and activities are admirable, but will only succeed if they are well thought out and organized into workable endeavors.

One of the most critical considerations for long term success is to view projects over a longer time horizon.  Projects that operate in singular fashion or intent should be avoided. Allowing adequate time to get herds adapted to the landscapes, and to modify the landscape to some functional and healthy balance must also be embraced. Rather than expressing fuels reduction as the primary goal, we must pursue activities that lower the fuels to safer and healthier levels as a secondary result of healthy landscape management activities.

Regarding grazing as a continuum rather than a tool is important. Most of the developed strategies for managing landscapes class activities into events that are considered to be discretionary and episodically optional.  Given how natural processes function within soil environments and how soils respond to cumulative effects over time, grazing must occur in some routine manner over a long time horizon in order to develop a stable and functional biological equilibrium.

For 13 years I operated a labor contractor business providing vegetation management services to clients with timbered landscapes.  During that time the acronym IVM (aka IPM) stood for integrated vegetation or pest management. It encompasses various tools, methods, and strategies, that all follow a reductive pattern. For the purposes of this writing IVM stands for something much different. In my style of grazing we do integrate items, but do so in a manner that optimizes the combination of the items rather than maximize or minimize any of the parts. It creates and leverages positive feedback synergy loops that derive increased total system function

The animal herds allow plant system biomass to be segregated and reorganized into a modified collective balance much different than occur when animals are excluded. One of the key activities is the use of animal consumption of portions of the combined plant community in a cyclic fashion that retains much of the energy value within the system.  This is very different than actions that alter the ratios of plant species biomass by killing a selected portion of the plant population. In this way our activities more closely mimic natural food/energy web mechanics that have been occurring for thousands of years.

In this document I originally set out to describe my work with sheep and goats within public and private landscapes.  As I kept pondering how to present and describe what I do it occurred to me that my operations are very different than they initially appear.

At first glance I am merely another person out of a larger group of persons providing services to landscape managers and owners via the use of animals.  A more detailed study of my operations suggest that integrazing is something very different.

Integrazing versus managed grazing or IVM takes a bit of getting used to. In general any organized and structured activity using animals as the work force is an example of managed grazing.  Integrazing operates at a much more complex level of activity. It produces outcomes often described as primary goals in secondary fashion. It operates in ways that sometimes appear to be hypocritical or counter intuitive. It requires the involved humans to conduct themselves with a heart of leadership rather than as ego driven persons in positions of power.

There currently exists a massive wisdom void within the governing elite when it comes to landscape management. Much of this is a direct result of the entitlement mindset and arrogance that is so deeply rooted in the prestige and salary levels of the people in the various positions of power. Our current cultural mindset presumes that big paychecks paid to educated persons equals competence. This is one of the very counter intuitive things that is difficult to reconcile with a logic based approach. A simpler thing might be to say that most people are a bit lazy. The end result is the same.  Projects that take years of dedicated work to refine and understand are often devastated with a few hasty reactive decisions in a moment of perceived crisis. Apathy can also devastate well designed and functional projects in very short time intervals.

What then is the answer? Or a possible answer? The solution is actually very simple.  Develop functional systems that deliver the needed results and sustain them over time. Time is the key. Unlike machines or technologies that can be arbitrarily started and stopped at will, animal based systems have to be operated continuously. When bosses alter things without regard for the living animals, the programs fail to deliver their full potential.

Time being acknowledged as a key factor then requires the landscapes to be treated as living systems that operate over long term life cycles. Even though most plant growth occurs annually, the soil lives or dies continuously just like the animals. If the system is then treated as a soil and plant system with regular episodic animal visits, decisions occur from a healthier and economically sustainable perspective. This difference is the essence of integrazing. Integrazing starts with the soil and plants and then works backward to include the animals in ways that support all three in healthy fashion, both physically and financially. Most other systems start with some arbitrary mandate and attempt to satisfy the mandate from a linear and often narrow approach. Livestock producers who view the land and plants as a means to an end rather than a resource to support all life always fail the true test of sustainability over time. One of the most basic economic and biological principles is that trading one item for another in diminishing cyclic fashion eventually depletes the items to zero.

True sustainability is economic in our human culture.  Money runs the developed world. It is the most common standard by which we measure things.  As unpleasant as it is to face such a truth, it always comes down to money when humans make the decisions.  The challenge for us humans is to fully understand the costs of our decisions.  Failing to manage our open space landscapes in ways that prevent both casual and catastrophic loss has a price.  Trying to short cut with one time actions is a classic pattern of behavior akin to trying to treat a brain trauma with a band aid. It may look good for a little while, but doesn’t save the body that houses the brain. When we short cut the landscapes we end in some state of death or loss. There is no free lunch.

As we witness ever larger catastrophic disasters upon landscapes it is still worth doing good things with animals. Soils sustain life, and their ability to do so depends on keeping them healthy and alive. Soils and animals have continuously evolved over millennia. Trying to sustain them separate from each other is foolish. Trying to combine them in ways that violate natural laws and basic common sense and wisdom is costing us dearly. Trusting ourselves enough to steward our soil based systems with healthy animal inclusion makes dollars and sense.