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GrassWorks: A place where working dogs (and their humans) belong

Story by Laura Paine. This story was originally published in the Wisconsin Working Stock Dog Association December 2021 newsletter. It has been republished here.

Exactly when dogs and humans started hanging around together is a matter of debate, but it’s been a good long time. Scientists suggest that ancestral wolves were likely the first animals to be domesticated by early humans, some 10,000 to 30,000 years ago. And what was those first dogs’ primary job? Herding! On grasslands around the world, wild ruminants were a food source for humans and wolves. As hunting partners, ancestral wolf-dogs’ herding abilities and hunter-gatherers’ hunting tools and skills benefited both. Domestication of ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats) came later with the help of those same herding dogs.

This ancient relationship is played out daily on managed grazing farms throughout the upper Midwest and the world. Management intensive grazing is a practice that optimizes the yield and nutritional quality of pasture, delivers ecosystem services like soil health, clean water and pollinator habitat, and supports healthy livestock and healthy incomes for farmers. In contrast to confinement livestock production where farmers mechanically plant and harvest crops and haul them to the barn to feed the animals, managed grazing uses the livestock to harvest their own feed and spread their own manure. By patterning our grazing management on the mutually beneficial relationships among grasslands, ruminants, and predators, we can capture the synergies inherent in these natural ecosystems.

John Wentz, stockdogs and steers at Paine Family Farm

The key to managed grazing is mimicking the movements of herds of wild ruminants across native grasslands. We do this on our farms using a rest-rotation cycle, where the herd is moved among sub-divisions or paddock in the pasture. By rotating the herd, we allow every paddock to rest and regrow for three to six week, which keeps it healthy and growing strong. It’s called “management intensive” because the most important input is management. A grazing farmer, or grazier, is always monitoring the condition of the pasture, keeping an eye on rainfall and temperature, watching grazing behavior and body condition, and using the tools of the trade—portable fencing, watering, and stockdogs to make sure the herd is in the right place, at the right time, for the right reasons.

Managed grazing is a skill that’s best learned by doing. As an ecologist and grazing researcher, I spent a decade back in the 1990s learning about managed grazing from the best graziers in the state, but it wasn’t until I had my own farm and my own herd that I really started learning how to graze. It’s exquisitely context-specific. A good grazier learns how to read the land and adapt to changing conditions. A stock dog is the perfect partner for this journey, serving as a second set of eyes and ears, complementing our own skills, just like those early hunter-gatherers.

GrassWorks, Inc. is an organization that celebrates those relationships and fosters that kind of learning among peers. A membership-based, farmer driven community of graziers, GrassWorks helps publicize local pasture walks and educational opportunities around the state and offers educational materials on our website. The GrassWorks conference, in its 30th year, will be held January 20-22 in Wisconsin Dells. The conference, which attracts upwards of 400 people, is a great place to learn about all aspects of managed grazing and to network with old and new friends. Hope you can join us!

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