SPRING GREEN, Wis. – The grassland Dick Cates manages at his family farm near Spring Green is vastly different from that of smallholders in Ethiopia. But some grassland-management concepts and tools are universal.
That was a point Cates drove home in August during a 10-day class in Kombolcha, a city in north-central Ethiopia. He taught a pasture-management class offered through the Catholic Relief Services Farmer-to-Farmer Program, which receives grants from the United States Agency for International Development. U.S. volunteers share their agricultural skills through short-term training and technical-assistance projects. The program and volunteers help farmers and agriculturists in developing countries improve productivity and conserve natural resources.
Cates is an emeritus director of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Integrated Agricultural Systems and the Wisconsin School for Beginning Dairy and Livestock Farmers. He’s accustomed to teaching students about grasslands, pasture management and managed grazing. But his August class was comprised of about 40 Ethiopian development agents who have responsibilities similar to county Extension agents in the United States. They belong to the Kombolcha Agricultural, Technical and Vocational Education and Training College.
By providing training to the agents, Cates was helping farmers throughout Ethiopia. Most farmers there raise between four and seven head of cattle on 1-acre parcels. But tools for helping to boost productivity are universal regardless of size, he said.
He introduced the class to beef-cattle ration-balancing software provided by Bill Halfman of the UW-Wisconsin Beef Information Center. Cates also demonstrated a beef-cow-ration balancer spreadsheet developed at the University of Minnesota. It helps farmers determine the nutritional requirements of cows and balance rations to help satisfy those requirements. The development agents used computers to calculate net energy and protein of different feedstuffs such as wet brewers grains, wheat, corn stover and grass.
Most of the forages Ethiopian farmers provide to livestock consist of warm-season tropical grasses heavy on fiber. Cates with a machete cut 10 meters of grass in Ethiopia; the grass could be swathed. Allowing time for grass to regrow before returning animals to pasture is important, he said. Many pastures in Ethiopia are overgrazed.
Cates showed the agents how to use a pasture – or grazing – stick and a pasture plate. They are tools to help farmers estimate the amount of dry matter and pasture-forage density in a pasture, when livestock should be moved to new pasture and more. And he provided information on manure scoring to determine the nutritional status of cows.
He also gave each development agent a copy of “Pastures for profit: a guide to rotational grazing,” written by Dan Undersander of UW-Madison, now agronomy professor emeritus, as well as colleagues from UW-Division of Extension and the University of Minnesota-Extension. The publication addresses subjects such as pasture-plant growth, animal needs, grazing patterns and rotational-grazing systems.
“I wanted to provide information to the agents to help farmers determine ration quality without the benefit of near-infrared spectroscopy or a wet lab,” Cates said.
He also gave each agent a copy of Aldo Leopold’s “Sand County Almanac.” Cates, a past recipient of the Wisconsin Leopold Conservation Award, teaches conservation practices along with pasture management.
During his time in Ethiopia he attended a livestock sale. He said it made quite an impression on him. Sellers from about a 10-mile radius would walk their animals to a central point. There they would meet one-on-one with prospective buyers to barter. There were no sale barns and no paddocks. Buyers would then walk home with the animals they purchased. With information development agents received from Cates and the Farmer-to-Farmer training, the buyers might improve their livestock production.