Grazing Researcher’s Holistic Approach

Forage and livestock extension specialists across the country serve as producers’ go-to experts for forage, grazing, and production and management questions. Furthermore, these pasture pros perform vital research which helps farmers and ranchers make better decisions and run more profitable, sustainable operations.

“So what’s a typical day look like for a forage and grazing researcher?”
Among those in the profession, Dr. Jason Rowntree of Michigan State University in East Lansing stands out as someone blazing new trails in the extension field. While he considers himself an applied researcher by and large, the associate professor of animal science is more likely better described as a renaissance man approaching not only his work, but every other facet of his career and personal life, with a holistic and purposeful mindset.

"Life, farming, ecosystems, policy - it's all messy and complex," says Rowntree. "I believe we need a research model that better reflects those real world challenges versus reducing variation to answer smaller questions. Looking at things from a systems-based level gives us that."

Forage Extension Agentlong with his work at the university, Rowntree is also a certified holistic management educator and passionate advocate for regenerative agricultural practices. This fervor shows in the myriad of roles he also serves in the greater ag community. The impassioned, energetic educator is also chairman of the board for theGrassfed Exchange, a volunteer, non-profit focused on educating and facilitating ideas between regenerative ranchers and grassfed industry supporters through annual conferences and education. Additionally, he's on call as science advisor for the Savory Institute and on the advisory board forStandard Soil, a startup that aims to meet the nation's growing demand for grass-finished beef while restoring the ecosystems they manage.

Of all his responsibilities, however, Rowntree notes being faculty coordinator of MSU's Lake City Research Center, is among his favorites. He uses the LCRC's 810-acres of managed land and 180-head Red Angus beef cattle herd to study how grazing livestock can improve landscapes and mitigate climate change through capturing carbon and other ecosystem services.

Last year, Rowntree played a major part in helping the facility to become the first and currently only accreditedSavory Institute Hubto be affiliated with a university. The Savory Institute and its hubs like the LCRC provide holistic management training and implementation support for farmers, ranchers, and land managers worldwide.

Pasture Walk and Talk"With the LCRC I have a unique opportunity to demonstrate regenerative agricultural principles at a systems-based level at a land grant university research center," says Rowntree. "We are able to use this farm in a way that hopefully creates change on a global level and also integrates those ideas into our relationships with students and staff here. That, I believe, is hard to come by anywhere else."

On the flip side, says Rowntree, there are also challenges in a job like his. Likely one of the hardest parts and most necessary skills he has personally discovered vital is the ability to develop research models which balance real-world perspectives, while still maintaining a robustness that will stand up to scrutiny.

Essentially, says Rowntree, "We've got to be able to toe the line, 'Does this matter to people?,' but likewise be able to structure our research in a way that keeps our funding and gets us grants and papers published."

Forage Meeting in the PastureWhat also might come surprising to producers, Rowntree explains is a majority of his job is actually reading, writing, and managing people, projects, and budgets.

"Someday's I feel like my life is one conference call after the next," says Rowntree jokingly. "I'd much rather be out in the field, but at the end of the day, I love my job. I have the wonderful opportunity to work with young people, be progressive through extension, and meet and form relationships with some amazing, bright people, some of who I believe are the real thought leaders in agriculture today."

So what's a typical day look like for a forage and grazing researcher? Well, no two days are the same, describes Rowntree, and normally his schedule varies. On an average day, however, he says he starts early. He calls his farm manager on his drive to work to get updates on farm research happenings. Once at the office, he gives himself at least two hours to focus on important matters like working on a research manuscript or writing grant proposals. Mid-mornings are spent mentoring graduate students and coordinating with research staff. In the afternoons he spends time on "outwork" meetings like media interviews or farm visits.

Cattle on Green PastureFor example, says Rowntree, "Today I've done an interview with NPR, done work on planning for a trip to Georgia and then Texas for the Texas A&M Grassfed Beef Conference, and tomorrow I'm on a speaker panel for a conference with the law school here on campus."

As it gets closer to the growing season, Rowntree's duties take him farther north to the research centers he manages. There he gets his fix for field research and works with graduate students on the many ongoing research projects he has throughout the summer and fall. Some of his students' current projects include a life cycle analysis and landscape assessment of grass versus grain finishing and a study of the impact of different grass finishing methods on fatty acid and nutrient profiles in beef.

Pasture and Forage TalkIn the months ahead, Rowntree says his research and outreach work will also take him to Africa for 18 days to work with the Savory Institute on landscape monitoring and engaging tribal communities to implement holistic management. And he'll be traveling to Paris with two nonprofit organizations he works with to interface with UN officials on climate change issues. 

Despite the many hats he wears, however, it's evident Rowntree remains a humble man.

"I treat a person that has ten cows the same as somebody that has a thousand," says Rowntree. "And no matter how people produce food, I try to respect and appreciate their land and reasons regardless if I agree or not."

In agricultural extension and research work, says Rowntree, it's important to engage everyone and treat people equally.

"Because you see, you may have a young person or beginning farmer that could be the next Kit Pharo or Gabe Brown," says Rowntree. "You never know what that person may blossom into being and what great things they might do or teach us."

Interested readers can follow Rowntree's research and extension efforts on the Lake City Research Center'sFacebook Page.

Authored byJesse Bussard, an agricultural writer based in Bozeman, Montana.

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