That Fork In The Road

For small flock/land managers, we are now moving into some of the most hectic and foundational days in our calendar. We have so many decisions to make and although the choices in front of us may seem small, they are choices that will have profound echoes down the road.

I imagine this time of year like the Y on your keyboard - or this Y on the left, a nod to my Gen X cohort. If you look at Y, you see the line on the bottom and the two branches at the top. Consider the straight line as winter. All through this period you’re doing what has to be done to keep things on an even keel. It’s maintenance mode – everyone is being fed appropriately, is well-bedded in and clean. Repeat. It’s basically the same routine, day-in and day-out.

And then one day, you find that the straight line you’ve been traveling has a branch in it, to the left and the right and you have a decision to make – will you go this way or that? Thing is – and this is critical – every choice you made before you got here is coming with you. Each consequence from each decision – micro or macro – is coming along for the ride, whatever you do now.

Why is this important? Because even when all I’m doing is the daily slog of maintenance, each day is moving me closer to an inevitable choice. That’s just the way this world works. Some of these choices can be seasonal – I deal with them every year – and some of them are more spontaneous but in every case, these branches, my Y moments, depend entirely on my engagement and observation before I get there. If I want a good outcome over the long term (and in regenerative ag, we are obsessive about the long term), I need to be paying attention on the way. I can’t afford to miss a Y.

In my part of the world, Spring is a crazy-making time - a lot of change coming at high speed and on a short runway. Now is the time to really focus your powers of observation. Our growing season is short, our winters are long, our weather is variable and our climate is changing. There is a lot of flux in the capacitor. Decisions I make now – from the bottom of the Y all the way up to the branching – are going to be consequences that either help me closer to our flock and land management goals OR they’ll become dead weight I’m stuck with. In order to cope with a changing climate, I want to build in as much resilience and flexibility as I can on the homestead  – something that just isn’t possible if I’ve shackled myself to a string of previously-made bad choices.

Here’s a real-world example on my horizon - when do I change the feeding program for the horses? When should I pull them off their round bales in our pasture and start feeding them in the paddock – so that the grasses and hay seeds and organic matter and feces that have been scattered across that open space all winter long have a chance to do their work, left alone by busy lips and hard feet? If I wait too long and the rains don’t come, I can end up with hard, compacted bare dirt where nothing grows – and may not again for years. If I wait and the rains do come, I can be dealing with mud and smothered seeds in churned up ground that simply won’t get a chance to recover. If I pull the horses too early, I’m giving myself a lot of extra work in a time of the year when I only have so many resources and lambing has to be my priority. I need to be paying attention. I know this Y is coming and I know that the choices I make now will be consequences I deal with later when I’m deciding how much hay I’m going to need to purchase for winter 22/23 – and possibly for years after that.

Learning how to observe accurately, how to interpret what you’re seeing and understanding the tools you have at your disposal make Y moments a bit more bearable. Not entirely bearable – I think farming is always going to have an element of tooth-sucking second-guessing involved – but more bearable. It takes away some of the guesswork, removes some of the variables and leaves you better prepared for the choice you’ll have to make.

After all, you didn’t need a DeLorean to see it coming.