How the Pasture Project Works

The Pasture Project exists to increase the acreage in the Upper Mississippi River Basin that is under more environmentally-sustainable management.  The primary ways we do this are:

  • By helping farmers and landowners integrate livestock and rotational grazing on their farms.
  • By supporting the network of farmers and advocates promoting soil health and the many practices that develop it.
  • By directly tackling major educational, political, economic, and social barriers to reintegrating livestock.

Three principles shape how we go about our work:

1. Change is scary and hard.

In farming, the stakes are high – management changes can impact not just the business but the family’s whole life. But farmers don’t stay in business without adapting again and again. And that’s how we approach supporting change. It’s about seeing possibilities and taking a step, then looking around, and maybe taking another. There is no single path to change and we cannot know what is the “right” choice for any farmer.

2. Community is essential.

We are privileged to work with dozens of farmers, partner organizations, businesses, and government agencies. All are deeply committed to changing the focus of agriculture from productive capacity to healthy soils and supporting it with their resources, talents, and experiences. We attempt to knit together and add to this developing movement, maximizing the effectiveness of individual efforts and making the whole stronger than its parts.

3. There are no guarantees.

We develop these into approaches which we then rigorously pilot test alone or in combination, to determine the value relative to cost and how well they help us meet the bigger our goal.

More About the Pasture Project's Innovative Model

Allison Van, The Wallace Center at Winrock International,
An article by Pasture Project manager Allison Van for the proceedings of the American Grasslands Conference.

The Pasture Project is a multi-faceted partnership that conserves and expands acreage in well-managed pasture, benefiting water quality, wildlife habitat, carbon sequestration, and small farm profitability. The Wallace Center at Winrock International, with support from the Walton Family Foundation, initiated the project in 2011 to work with farmers and farmer supporters in the Upper Mississippi River Basin. Last year, Pasture Project and partners helped farmers and landowners improve conservation practices on more than 10,000 acres vulnerable to runoff by implementing approaches ranging from increasing grazing intensiveness to grazing cover crops on row crop fields and converting row crop fields to pasture.

The Pasture Project operates with a basic premise: we do not know how to motivate farmers and landowners to improve conservation practices on millions of acres within current policy and financial contexts. Although there is significant experience informing best practices, there is no single, straightforward answer and adoption of conservation practices remains low compared to need. So, the Pasture Project has stepped away from more traditional models and embraced experimentation and design thinking.

In practice, the project is developing, testing, evaluating, or scaling more than a dozen approaches at the same time. Approaches are targeted at different audiences and geographies with unique theories of change. Each viable idea goes through several rounds of initial review (developing) and is then piloted (testing). During testing, regular reviews support adjusting the approach. At the end of a pre-determined testing phase (generally six months to three years) a determination is made whether the approach should be expanded, contracted or ended. This process is informed by rigorous quantitative and qualitative evaluation. Project staff examine the return on investment of each approach in terms of improved management of acreage in the short-term and the increased capacity by place-based organizations/individuals to help farmers better manage over the long-term.

Examples of approaches, target audiences, locations, and stages of development:

Approach Type of Work Audience Location(s) Stage of development
Whole Farm Planning

Partnering with other organizations to meet all conservation-focused technical assistance (TA) needs; relationship managers direct TA according to farmer/landowner wishes

Direct Technical Assistance Farmers/landowners with over 100 acres Pilot in Kickapoo Watershed, Wisconsin Developing
Grazing Cover Crops

Planting multi-species cover crops in row crop fields and grazing with cattle in fall or spring

Demonstration sites Row Crop farmers, grazers, conservation community, farmer supporters 6 farms in Minnesota and 2 in Iowa Testing
Adaptive High Stock Density Grazing

A grazing methodology that focuses on flexibility to suit the land, livestock, and farmer’s lifestyle

Demonstration sites Conventional cow-calf producers or backgrounders (beef and dairy) 5 farms throughout Illinois Testing
Grazing Champions

Current graziers with 2-10 years of experience are trained in media and presentation and given opportunities to become spokespeople for grazing

Outreach All farmers and landowners Throughout Upper Mississippi River Basin Testing
Land Trust partnership

Partnering with a land trust to combine easements and long-term management plans as well as finding viable tenants

Land Access Conservation-minded landowners Pilot in Kickapoo Watershed, Wisconsin Evaluating
USDA-AMS Grassfed Beef Report

An official federal pricing report to bring transparency to the market

Policy All considering or engaged in grassfed beef production National Complete

The Pasture Project’s structure poses many challenges to and unique opportunities for effecting change.  Researching and piloting such a variety of approaches demands project staff and partners think critically about and remain engaged with many highly distinct pieces of work.  The project must simultaneously forge new directions and respond to changed circumstances, partner needs, and the feedback from farmers and landowners about existing approaches.  Project staff must decide regularly how to balance time between multiple needs. Although there is widespread acknowledgment that complex problems require adaptive solutions, implementing a truly flexible and adaptive approach has been challenging and requires a level of discipline in objectively evaluating progress that, as staff grow attached to different approaches, can be difficult to muster.

bull_900x600pxTwo particularly interesting trends have developed as the project has grown.  First, staff and partners are combining approaches in key watersheds where there is potential to improve management on at least 10% of the acreage within ten years.  Wisconsin’s Kickapoo River Watershed is the first site where as many as eight approaches are coming together.  The area has a long history of sustainable agriculture but suffered a major setback when several years of high corn prices led to thousands of acres of grassland and pasture being converted into corn production. Together with a dozen cross-sector partners—including Trout Unlimited, The Mississippi Valley Conservancy, USDA-NRCS and Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) – the Pasture Project is working to convert tens of thousands of acres back to grass through a diverse array of interventions.

The partnerships directly engage with non-operating landowners around leasing decisions, work with Wisconsin DNR to open select public land to conservation graziers, create grazing plans and help producers access EQIP funds, combine easements, provide lease brokering, continuously feature compelling stories in local media, host field days, train new technical assistance providers, and will soon launch whole farm planning assistance.  At the same time, Pasture Project staff are working with partners to identify 1-2 other watersheds to focus long-term efforts.  This on-the-ground work is expected to complement region-wide initiatives and national level policy and messaging work.

Second, The Pasture Project emphasizes joint financing as a means of forging partnerships and strengthening buy in.  As the project’s funding has grown, the percentage of funding dedicated to a specific approach in a particular stage of development is declining, largely because participant farmers and partners are taking on some of the financial responsibility.  An excellent example of this is the Grazing Cover Crops demonstrations in Minnesota and Iowa.  To match funds received from USDA-NRCS through their Conservation Innovation Grant program, two new funding partners began supporting the Pasture Project.  Three implementing partner organizations more than matched the funds provided to cover their implementation responsibilities.  Participant farmers picked up half the costs of equipment and seed, and local seed companies notably discounted mixed species covers.  Sharing both costs and credit widely has deepened the partnerships both among the organizations and with the individual farmers.  What started as a Pasture Project approach has become so collaboratively owned that the nature of our strategy has evolved and decentralized.  This level of collaboration among farmers, organizations, and sectors is what the Pasture Project strives for across approaches.

Developing and maintaining substantive relationships allows each organization, landowner, and farmer to hone individual strengths and maximize impact.  As a project that encourages staff and partner farmers and organizations to imagine and propose new innovations, then test and accept results, there is a dynamic energy to the work and significant progress in shifting acreage to better management.  Although working with many partners to implement so many approaches is a challenge, the Pasture Project team believes dynamic and creative partnerships are essential for landscape-level change.

Approach Why this? Stage Major Activities
State Land Maintenance costs for large tracts of land can eat away at state budgets.  Grazing is a cost-effective way to maintain such land and give local, conservation-minded graziers an opportunity to start or expand their operations. Implementing We are doing a series of pilots with land managers at the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources
Compiling and Developing Materials
Amazing resources have been developed to support livestock rotation.  They’re not always easy to find though, and there’s a lot that’s less helpful.   It would contribute to the community to crowdsource and feature the most helpful resources on the web, then develop what’s missing. Implementing This website is the start of this process and we will be adding new resources and materials regularly.
You can help by pointing us to resources we should consider sharing.
Grazing Champions Several incredibly talented “super stars” of grazing speak a great deal and are the focus of much media. We build capacity and opportunities for local graziers to have more visibility, speaking engagements, and press coverage. We believe being local and earlier in the development of their farms makes them highly relatable to audiences considering livestock rotation. Implementing Pasture Project recruits and trains graziers to present and speak to the media. We do four trainings over two years – storytelling, presentations, working with the media, and bringing it all together.  We then find opportunities in their local/regional media to feature the graziers and support them speaking publicly.  Visit our Grazing Champions page for a lot more.
Grazing Education and Apprenticeship Pasture-based farming is gaining traction, so there is increasing need for advanced grazing education and apprenticeships.  Rather than duplicate the excellent programs doing this, we are working with Green Lands Blue Waters to coordinate efforts and support educators. Implementing With Green Lands Blue Waters, we hosted a webinar series for grazing educators focused on the topics deemed most challenging to teach and featuring some of the best educators in the region.  Watch the webinars here. We are now working with partners to determine what a Grazing Educators network might look like and what it would do.
Grazing Cover Crops There are many ways livestock can be reintegrated into row crop operations to support the profitability of the major crop.  One of the most promising is by grazing cover crops either in the off-season or as part of a multi-year rotation. Implementing With partners and demonstrating farmers, we are collecting economic and soil health data and raising awareness of the practice in Minnesota and Iowa.
Adaptive High Stock Density Grazing demonstrations In Illinois, funding cuts have significantly reduced the opportunities graziers or those considering grazing have for learning about new methods. Implementing We are in the second year of the demonstrations with five farms throughout the state. We are tracking soil health and working closely with partners to use the demonstrations as a platform for re-establishing robust grazing education.
Field Days and Education Events These are well-documented approaches to introducing farmers to new ideas. Evaluating We and our partners regularly host field days and other educational events.  We are attempting to learn more about who comes to field days and why, and how we can support those coming in making decisions and implementing changes that are right for them.
Land Trusts By definition land trusts are conservation oriented; yet they are faced with limited budgets.  They have significant acres of vulnerable land in their control and generating profits from a sustainable enterprise would be beneficial. Evaluating Ongoing work with Mississippi Valley Conservancy and the Nature Conservancy in Wisconsin – will continue to work with renters/managers of three farms owned by MVC and one owned by TNC.
Watershed Integration Focusing intently in a few key geographies that have the potential to impact the rest of the region allows us to integrate approaches and customize them to support all the existing work in the watershed. Developing We are currently working intensively in the Kickapoo River watershed in Wisconsin, and will be engaging in one or more additional watersheds over the next two years.
Train the trainer There is a need for more skilled technical assistance providers who can help farmers directly.  We are exploring partnerships to train and help launch TA providers in key watersheds. Developing In partnership with Wisconsin NRCS, we hosted a technical assistance training in 2015 and are continuing to work with several of the participants.
Credit trading There are mechanisms available for water quality credit training in parts of the region, and carbon trading throughout.  Functional markets could help provide funds for the implementation of management changes. Developing We are currently researching and considering this approach.
Whole Farm Planning Farmers have limited time and sometimes organizations with the same goals but different solutions – no till, cover crops, grazing, buffers, etc. – compete for that time. Developing We will soon begin a pilot of Whole Farm Planning in the Kickapoo River watershed.  The plan is that a Whole Farm Coordinator will do an assessment of more diverse operations and manage the array of technical service providers to support the farmer according to his or her wishes.