My top 3 livestock grazing gurus
I’ve spent a great deal of time over the years (nearly a decade to be exact) learning about forages and livestock grazing in one form or another. From studying livestock grazing systems in graduate school to working on a large-scale grazing outfit for a short time, these topics have been a big focus for me. Concurrently as a freelance writer, I’ve made these issues a cornerstone of my work spending countless hours speaking and learning from experts in the field and writing about what I've learned. Along the way, as any student might experience, wisdom from a few gurus, in particular, stuck with me a little more than the rest.
Today, I’d like to share with you a little about these choice experts who’ve had the biggest impact on my own learning, as well as offer up some of the writings that have transpired from my conversations with them over the years. In turn, I hope you might seek out their work and learn from them, too!
#1 Jim Gerrish
If anyone could be called a grazing guru, it’d be Jim Gerrish. As I’ve said to others in the industry, Gerrish has more grazing knowledge in the end of his pinky finger than most of us could ever hope to accumulate in a lifetime. For the first 20 years of his career, Gerrish worked in beef-forage systems research and outreach at the University of Missouri, as well as operated his own cattle and sheep operation in the northern part of the state. He eventually quit the academic world and struck out on his own as a grazing consultant, moving West and settling in central Idaho.
Today, Gerrish manages a seasonal grazing operation on a prominent Idaho ranch known as the Circle Pi and travels the globe helping livestock producers to become better graziers and forage managers through his business, American GrazingLands Services. He’s also the author of two must-have grazing books I highly recommend, Management Intensive Grazing (MiG): The Grassroots of Grass Farming and Kick the Hay Habit: A Practical Guide to Year-Around Grazing. His first book, called MiG for short, was my initial introduction to managed grazing and helped me to better understand that a pasture is more than just a place where grass grows and cows graze. A pasture is also a very ecologically dynamic and biologically important place.
#2 Kit Pharo
Kit Pharo is the founder of Pharo Cattle Company, a seedstock and commercial bull producer of Black and Red Angus, Hereford, and composite bulls based in Burlington, CO. A self-starter and marketing dynamo, Pharo and his wife Deana, built PCC from the ground up starting in the 1980s and today their ranch is among one of the most successful in the industry. Their secret: a commitment to a low-input ranching philosophy. This philosophy encompasses three fundamentals including the use of proper grazing management, calving in sync with nature, and matching cows to their environment. While not everyone’s cup of tea, using these three core principles has allowed Pharo to build a seedstock operation with a rate of success many others only dream about. For me personally, Pharo is a continual inspiration to challenge the status quo. He dared me to question my own thinking at a critical point in my academic years and is part of the reason I do what I do today.
#3 Charley Orchard
While he’s out of the spotlight and back on the ranch these days, Charley Orchard had a big impact on the ranching world (and myself) during his research and consulting years. A fourth generation Wyoming rancher and holistic management advocate, Orchard developed a unique rangeland monitoring system for ranchers and land managers called Land EKG (also the moniker of his business). Based on over 50 years of ecological research and interviews Orchard conducted with ranchers, this monitoring methodology was developed to be simple, effective, and easily taught to ranchers in a matter of a day or two. It requires no range degree or knowledge of plant identification past knowing the difference between grasses, forbs, and shrubs. From my perspective, Orchard’s monitoring method is a real game changer for the ranchers who adopted it and empowers ranch managers with invaluable data to better manage the landscapes that sustain them.
I was fortunate to work with Orchard for about a year at Land EKG’s headquarters in Bozeman, MT in 2013 before he closed up shop later that year to head back to the family ranch. While he’s no longer traveling and teaching range monitoring, Orchard’s legacy continues with his monitoring methods being used on more than 7 million acres across 16 western and midwestern states and Canada. His work has also been supported across a number of stakeholder groups from ranchers to federal agencies and conservation groups.
Obviously, these three grazing experts aren’t the only individuals worth knowing about, they’re just the three who’ve had the biggest influence on my own journey to learn more about the soil-plant-animal interface. When looking for a good mentor or guru, I have these pieces of advice:
- Find those people in your interest area who are the best at what they do.
- Develop a relationship with them.
- Learn from them.
- And, always respect them.
Do these four things and you'll be amazed at what can transpire. Now get out there and find your guru!