NRCS Expert Grazing Guidance: Brian Pillsbury

Producers can double stocking rates with grazing management.

NRCS Expert Grazing Guidance:  Brian Pillsbury

“Managed grazing has become mainstream in Wisconsin,” describes Brian Pillsbury.  “It is no longer a conservation practice on the fringes.”  Last year alone, Natural Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) employees helped Wisconsin producers implement managed grazing on over 10,000 acres of new pasture.

Pillsbury is the State Grazing Lands Specialist for the NRCS, a program of the United States Department of Agriculture.  He provides technical support designing and implementing grazing land conservation practices.

“We develop standards for management and structural practices such as prescribed grazing, pasture seeding, brush control, fencing, weed control, and hay harvest management,” shares Pillsbury.  “I help determine pasture carrying capacity by calculating estimated livestock feed needs against estimated forage availability.”  Pillsbury also develops tools producers can use to implement the managed grazing systems designed by members of his team.

“Brian is one of the most revered grazing specialists in the country,” describes Cody Dvorak, Business Development Manager with Gallagher’s Passion for Pasture Program.  Pillsbury’s grazing experience is life-long.

“I was born and raised on a dairy and beef farm where pasture was the entire diet of our beef cattle during the grazing season,” explains Pillsbury.  Since then, he has amassed deep personal experience increasing land productivity along with his professional skills.

“By changing grazing management to maximum efficiency, producers can increase stocking rates as much as twice the number of livestock per acre for our climate in Wisconsin,” he argues.  “I have seen it with my own eyes on many livestock farms in the last 30 years of my career.”

New Outlook on Managed Grazing

Pillsbury and his team put boots on the ground in addition to relying on their technical expertise.

“The NRCS has helped farmers by listening to their goals, walking their farms, and assessing their resources,” says Pillsbury.  “We provide alternatives which help them be both productive and profitable while helping the land at the same time.”

His concern for these operations is built on personal relationships and the transformations his expertise has made possible over the past three decades.

“I have seen many people who were on the brink of bankruptcy or exhausted from the long hours required to feed and care for livestock,” he shares.  “When they implemented managed grazing, it gave them a whole new outlook on life.  They became grazing advocates to their peers.”

Connecting these advocates who have first-hand experience implementing NRCS grazing plans with new grazers has been the key to Wisconsin’s success.  “These farmers become good mentors because they are very happy with the results.”  That advocacy and word of mouth have resulted in exceptional growth of grazing acres and sustainable farming practices throughout the state.

NRCS and EQIP Dollars

The NRCS helps producers develop managed grazing plans by providing a wide variety of technical assistance.  “We help farmers identify potential problems and solutions with all their natural resources such as soil, water, plants, animals, air, and human considerations on their farms,” explains Pillsbury.

The first step is usually a farm visit.  “We assess their resources such as how much soil erosion occurs, how clean the water is leaving the farm, and how healthy the soil is,” Pillsbury says.  “We’re also looking to see if the plants are vigorous and healthy, as well as if the production system is profitable among other things.”

The next step to solving the problems identified by NRCS during the farm visit is for the producer to consider the recommended solutions and set priorities for implementing changes.  The solutions often include numerous alternative strategies.

“Once the producer decides on a conservation practice, we work with them to design the strategy based on their needs and our specifications,” Pillsbury explains.  “For example, when we design managed grazing and all the facilitating practices, we produce a comprehensive grazing management plan.”

While NRCS expertise is provided to farmers and ranchers without fees, the cost of implementing a grazing management plan can often be a roadblock.  But, financial assistance is available.

The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) is a national funding source administrated through the NRCS to help farmers and ranchers improve their operations while conserving natural resources.  Begun in 1996, up to 90 percent of both equipment and labor costs can be covered for more than 200 conservation practices.

“First, a farmer or rancher needs to request a managed grazing plan,” explains Pillsbury.  An application for financial assistance is completed at that time and the local NRCS professional guides producers through the process.  “We will determine which practices and amounts are eligible for assistance.”

Once submitted, NRCS ranks the application for EQIP funding against other applications with similar practices.  Vulnerable lands, high priority watersheds, and practices which encourage the use of innovation and technology usually receive the highest priority.

“Depending on the amount of funding and the number of applications, NRCS will either approve or deny the application,” says Pillsbury.  “Any denied applications are deferred until the next year and can be submitted again.”

EQIP funding provided more than $6 billion in contracts between 2009 and 2015.  Over 260,000 farmers and ranchers were able to improve and conserve 81 million acres throughout the United States.

EQIP dollars are just one example of the assistance and expertise Pillsbury provides Wisconsin farmers who want to implement managed grazing.  And even with a lifetime of knowledge, he is still learning how to improve his efforts.

“I learn every day on the job,” he shares.  “I’m learning new ways to manage livestock, to design and build grazing facilities, and to manage forages and soils.”  Pillsbury’s knowledge improves long term production and profitability for today’s Wisconsin farmers while making lasting environmental benefits on thousands of acres for the generations to come.

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Karena Elliott is an International Freelance Writer who specializes in the agriculture industry.  She makes her home in Amarillo, Texas.

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