A lifetime of holistic management: Wayne Berry expands and improves operation using holistic management
Wayne Berry and his wife Sharon have a ranch in Willingston, N.D and a ranch in Fairview, Mont., near the North Dakota border. At age 78, after a long career as a teacher and mentor, Wayne is now retired, though he still enjoys helping people with questions about soil and forage.
As an innovative “grass farmer” Wayne has experimented with a wide variety of strategies to convert a traditional farming and ranching operation to a holistic, self-sustaining “grass farm” and livestock operation.
Wayne was born in 1942 on the family ranch in eastern Montana, which was homesteaded in 1907 by his grandfather.
“My grandfather was from Scotland, which may be where my interest in stockmanship came from. My grandfather was a great stockman, raised horses and only farmed because he had to,” Wayne says.
Wayne went to Montana State College/University of Bozeman for undergraduate work and then earned a master’s degree in resource economics.
“By 1980, I was bouncing around the edges of holistic management. I had heard a few really interesting things,” Wayne says.
By this time, Wayne was taking care of his mother’s farm. The first few years were so wet it was difficult to till the fields, and then came the drought of the early 1980s.
“I started to think about drought management and heard about Allan Savory’s school,” notes Wayne. “At this time, we had about 100 cows.”
His family farm had 2,800 acres. Anything that could be farmed was farmed but there was still some native pasture.
“We had three pastures, and they were all pretty beat up. Eventually, we started seeding everything back to grass. It seems like farming takes all the money, so the cattle have to pay the bills,” Wayne says.
Wayne notes he is not very handy with machinery.
“As a kid, if something broke while I was driving the tractor or working with machinery, they would just put me on a tractor that would run, and the men would fix whatever broke. Therefore, I never learned how to fix anything,” he explains. “I probably spent every penny we made farming into upgrading machinery, and the John Deere dealer was advising me this was the right thing to do.”
“When I met Allan Savory, I started to look at things differently,” Wayne continues. “I was recently acquainted with a neighbor who was a great farmer. I asked him if he would custom farm for us if I sold my machinery, and he was happy to do it. So, we sold our farm equipment.”
Expanding the operation
Shortly before this, the 1,000-acre farm next door became available.
“We’d been renting their pasture, and we were given first chance to buy it. The money from selling our machinery wasn’t enough to purchase the place, but it went a long way toward getting us out of farming and into more land for cattle,” says Wayne. “Our first summer we built one-quarter mile of fence, and I realized I needed to learn more about grass.”
Wayne notes he started buying a little more land here and there, expanding his operation of 2,800 acres to about 4,400 acres.
“As we went to planned-recovery grazing, we started seeing a lot more diversity including forbs and warm season grasses. There is now some big bluestem,” he says.
Wayne continues, “At first, our farm was primarily crops with livestock. We were busy farming and didn’t have a lot of time to build fences. Now, 31 years later, we have 110 grazing paddocks, about 40 acres each, and 14 water points. People look at what I’ve done and say, ‘Boy, that’s a lot of work.’ But it just takes time. We only built one-quarter mile of fence the first year.”
Comparing soil health
A few years ago, a piece of land across the fence came back to the farm after a survey put the fences back on line. The piece across the fence had been in spring wheat and summer fallow for a long time.
“We built new border fences, and I checked the soil on both sides. We did the standard simple soil test. I buried two pairs of shorts, one in each area, then dug them up to look at them 60 days later. The one in the old wheat ground had a couple little pin holes eaten through them. I could have dusted them off and worn them again. By contrast, the ones where we’d seeded farm ground back to grass had been eaten up by microbes in the soil,” explains Wayne, noting he then looked at the soil samples, which indicated the wheat ground had 1.4 percent carbon, and the carbon on his side of the fence was 4.6 percent.
“The things I always monitored were soil surface conditions and bare ground, which are indicators of soil health,” notes Wayne. “I now use a step-in post. Where the soil is healthier, containing more organic matter, it’s relatively easy to push those posts into the ground even when it’s dry.”
Wayne says he also looks at soil surface condition. He wants the soil covered with good plant density.
Unique grazing system
Additionally, Wayne developed a bale grazing system allowing him to keep cattle out on pasture through winter, which fertilizes the soil for the following spring.
“During the winter of 2010 and 2011, we had over 100 inches of snow. We normally get about 30 to 40 inches,” says Wayne. “This particular winter we had most of the hay in a paddock where the cows could come to water, and we never had to start a tractor to move snow.”
Wayne has a cousin with 1,600 acres in native pasture and land enrolled in the Farm Service Agency’s Conservation Reserve Program. When she was widowed, Wayne rented her place and grazed it.
“Now my neighbor has her place leased, so with everything together they have about 20,000 acres in one block. They are practicing rotational grazing with yearlings and some cow/calf pairs. The beauty of having the yearlings is flexibility. When grass gets short, a person can always sell yearlings to make sure there will be enough grass for the cowherd,” says Wayne.
Heather Smith Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to email@example.com.