Integrated learning courses for sustainable livestock production

Final Report for LNE03-184

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2003: $123,216.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2005
Matching Non-Federal Funds: $19,312.00
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Lisa McCrory
Northeast Organic Farming Association of Vermont
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Project Information


A series of learning courses on sustainable livestock production were offered in 2004 and 2005. These courses were designed in a way to offer multiple forms of learning within a subject area; from lecture style format, to hands-on activities, on-farm learning and an opportunity to work with a farmer mentor.

Course topics offered were:

1) The Dirt on Soil – a course designed to help enhance soil health on the farm and to promote crop productivity and quality.

2) Greening the Farm – a course designed to help build productive pastures, and a grazing system tailored to the course participant.

3) Livestock Nutrition and Healthcare – a course designed to help participants raise healthy ruminants through good preventative care, nutrition, and the use of treatments which are natural or approved for use on organic farms.

4) Marketing Your Livestock Products – a course designed to help the participant develop and improve their four P’s of marketing – product development, placement, price and promotion.
Each course met on 3 successive 7-hour class days that were 3 or more weeks apart. The space in between each class session allowed the attendees to digest what they had learned, apply some new techniques and ideas, and come back to the class setting for continued learning about the subject at hand. Returning to the classroom, participants were able to share their experiences, successes, failures, questions and frustrations, creating a learning community within the room.

The following year, 12 on-farm technical workshops took place, which were hosted by 3 participating farmers from each of the 4 courses. Here, the host farm was able to share some facets of what they learned from the course(s) that they took and share the results of their new application(s) or management change(s).
Another item offered to farmer participants in each of the courses was the opportunity to work with a farmer mentor. For a $100 contribution, the farmer could work with a chosen mentor (or mentors) for a total of 25 hours ($500 value). Through the SARE grant, mentors were paid $20/hour for their time. Some basic guidelines for the farmer/mentor relationship were laid out in an agreement form that both parties completed together. Contents of the agreement included an outline of what they hoped to accomplish, and how the mentoring process was going to happen (phone, in person, email, a combination thereof).

To supplement the grant, other funds and in-kind support were raised which helped to make the courses more dynamic, brought in many notable speakers from around the Northeast, and provided the participants with a text book and handouts/additional resources for each class session.

The mentoring portion of the grant had remaining funds that were not being used, so permission was granted to use some of these funds to provide additional hours requested by mentor/mentee teams, to support a Northeast Sustainable Livestock Conference in March, 2006 and to sponsor some on-farm workshops in 2006 and 2007 that covered subject areas relative to the courses offered in 2004 and 2005.

Conference supported by mentor funds: The Northeast Sustainable Livestock Conference, which took place March 2 & 3, 2007 in Fairlee, VT offered subjects relevant to all four livestock courses. Many of the course presenters who participated in the original courses were invited to speak and were asked to take their subject area to the next level.  Other presenters were some of the farmer mentors and still others speakers were individuals who had participated in one of the courses. Having them speak at the conference was testimony to fact that they had gained significant knowledge from one or more of the courses and had something to share with an audience of their peers.

2006 sponsored workshops using mentor funds: On August 16 and 17, 2006, Dr Anne Zajac, a veterinarian from Virginia Polytechnical Institute came and offered two workshops on parasite management for ruminants titled: ‘The Scoop on Poop: Managing Internal Parasites in Small Ruminants’. A total of 20 people attended the presentations and hands-on workshops, which were organized by the Small Ruminant Dairy Project at the University of Vermont.

2007 sponsored workshops using mentor funds: On August 1, 2007, Mentors Jack and Anne Lazor of Butterworks Farm in Westfield, VT hosted a workshop on their farm titled ‘Grazing and Animal Health Management’. A total of 28 people attended this workshop. On August 8, 2007, Chester and Betsy Abbott of Wayside Farm in Randolph, VT hosted a workshop titled  ‘Organic Dairy Grazing’ 8 people attended this workshop. On September 21, 2007, John Jr and John Sr and their spouses Rocio and Judy Clark of Applecheek Farm in Hyde Park, VT hosted a workshop titled ‘Multi species Grazing’. The Clarks were mentees for two of the Livestock courses and have since been on the speaker circuit sharing information on heritage breeds, grass fed meat and milk products and more.

Presentations and Poster Displays:

1) On October 19-21, 2004 Northeast SARE held a conference titled Setting the Table: Tools and Techniques for a Sustainable Food System in Burlington, VT. A poster promoting the NESARE Learning Courses and the mentoring component was displayed and promoted at this event.

2) In August, 2006 Lisa McCrory (Project Coordinator) and Heather Darby (Dirt On Soil Course Coordinator) attended the National SARE conference in Oconomowoc, WI to present the layout, design and results of the NESARE Learning Courses highlighting the mentoring component.

3) In January, 2007 Lisa McCrory (Project Coordinator) was asked to speak at the Ecological Farming Conference in Pacific Grove, CA. There she sat on a panel with other Program Coordinators sharing the benefits of using farmer mentors and describing the mentoring program design; its successes and failures.

This grant seemed to take on a life of its own; producers and resource specialists were anticipating similar workshops and courses to be offered on a regular basis and to some extent this has turned out to be true. By stretching the remaining mentor funds and collaborating with other like-minded organizations (such as UVM Extension, UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture’s Vermont Pasture Network, and UVM’s Small Ruminant Dairy Project) we continued to offer opportunities for continued learning.


The goal of this grant was to increase the viability of livestock operations in the Northeast by providing new tools and information offered in a way that could measure improvements in management and overall success of the farm operation. Recognizing that there are different styles of learning, we developed a delivery mechanism for farmers; using practical hands-on learning and written resources.

In this project, a series of learning courses were created supporting livestock producers who wish to add or improve certain management skills to their operation.  A series of 4 course topics were offered over a 1 - year period. Each course lasted about 2 months, meeting every 3 weeks for practical/hands-on learning. Attendees were expected to go back to their farms to apply these new skills, and journal their experiences and observations. Farmer mentors worked with some of the participating farmers, helping them build skills and further their learning through experience and example. On-farm technical workshops took place during the second year of the grant. Three farmer participants from each of the 4 courses hosted on-farm technical workshop demonstrating some of the practices that they learned.

These courses attracted a wide audience of producers, including new farmers, who had a desire to improve and develop skills in managing their land, tending to livestock health and nutrition and growing product for market.  Technical workshops, farmer mentoring, a 2006 Sustainable Livestock Conference and Fall Forage Field Days were offered from 2004 – 2007 weaving together multiple learning styles and mediums for the delivery and application of information, encouraging continued learning from the soil to the plate.

Performance Target:

1. Of the 60 farmer participants in the learning courses, 40 will develop a work plan with a mentor and will adopt 3 new practices realizing an overall improvement in the sustainability of their farm.

Total number of farmer participants was 160, which was more than twice the anticipated registration numbers we proposed in the grant. We found that there was a lot of enthusiasm and interest in the courses offered, so chose not to turn people away if we exceeded our registration goals.

The total number of farmers working with a mentor was 30, which was 25% less than proposed in the grant. Some of our registrants were initially interested in working with a mentor, but found the courses to be very comprehensive and included a lot of experienced farmer input throughout the 3 course meetings.

Overall, the experience was very positive for the mentors and the mentees. Time spent within each committed pair ranged from 2 hours to 50 hours. Though mentor time was limited to 25 hours per mentor/mentee pair, some farmers were granted extra time with their mentor(s) if substantial work was getting accomplished.

2. Of the 40 that develop a plan and adopt new practices, 12 will hold on-farm technical workshops for at least 240 attendees demonstrating the practices they have learned.

We achieved our goal of holding 12 on-farm technical workshops, hosted by course participants. Total attendees at these workshops were 215 which is 25 less than anticipated in the performance target. Nine of the farms hosting an ‘On-Farm Demo’ worked with one or more mentors and 3 of the host farms did not work with a mentor but participated in at least one of the courses.


Materials and methods:

Each of the four courses has similarities in their design and some differences depending upon the subject and time of year. We felt it important to engage the audience and give them opportunities for some hands-on experiences as well as bringing in speakers who could share information in a lecture format. Three of the four courses were given a 3-ring binder containing the agenda for each of the three class days, plus articles and resources relative to the course subject. In addition, speakers often came with supplemental handouts and notes were taken by a staff person which were made available at the following class meeting or mailed to participants after the final class  took place.

Course Descriptions

The first course, ‘The Dirt on Soil’, did not receive a binder, but participants did receive handouts at each class meeting as well as Fred Magdoff’s book, ‘Building Soils for Better Crops’.  The three classes took place in March and April with the hopes that participants would be able to apply their new skills right away with the coming growing season. Cost for the course was $75 for all three or $30 per class. Organizations that sponsored the course through financial support and/or time were UVM Extension, USDA Risk Management Agency, Highfields Institute, USDA NRCS, University of Maine, Lakeview Organic Grains, Flack Family Farm, Waste Not Resources and Franklin County NRCD.

* Class One focused on the soil basics and started with plenary discussing “what is a healthy soil”. Attendees were then broken into smaller groups and rotated between five sessions: 1) reading your landscape, 2) biological properties, 3) physical properties, 4) chemical properties and 5) a final plenary that would pull all these subjects together called Strategies for Healthier Soils’.

* Class Two focused on integrating the components of soil properties covered in class one to emphasize how everything is interconnected. Subjects covered were 1) Understanding How Nutrients Work in the Soil and How to Manage Soil Fertility Short and Long-term, 2) Compost and Animal Manure Management, 3) Cover Cropping and Crop Rotations, and 4) Soil Management for Pests.

* Class Three connected the health of the soil with the health of the crop.  Subjects covered were 1) Understanding Forage Quality, 2) Forage Testing and Interpretation, 3) Factors Influencing Forage Quality, 4) Presentation on Sustainable Soils and Livestock Health. Participants were given opportunities to taste, touch and smell various dried and ensiled forages to complement the lectures.

Greening the Farm was the second course offered. Participants received a notebook binder containing articles and resources on grazing and grazing systems plus Bill Murphy’s book ‘Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence’ as the course textbook. Classes took place May 26, June 26 and August 28, 2004. This course was more spread out with the hopes that participants would be able to develop or improve their grazing system as the course was taking place. Cost for the course was $75 for all three classes or $30 per class. Organizations that sponsored the course through financial support and/or time were UVM Extension, UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture, Vermont Technical College, and USDA Risk Management Agency.
* Class One was spent reviewing the resources available in the class and sharing individual goals to help mold the direction of the grazing course. The rest of the day covered presentations on pasture species, pasture quality indicators, soil types, soil fertility, growth patterns of pasture plants in the Northeast and fencing. Participants were shown how to put together a grazing plan for their farm followed by a hands-on demonstration on fencing systems and appropriate grounding.

* Class Two included classroom time and field-based learning.  Classroom time included a presentation on the economic successes of a grass-based system followed by a farmer panel sharing their grazing program and how they deal with the ‘summer slump’ and stretch their grazing as late into the fall as possible. The afternoon portion of the class offered a variety of work stations, both indoor and outdoor, where participants could learn more about water systems, small ruminant grazing, poultry grazing, pasture plant identification, beef grazing, parasite management, and electric fencing and grounding.

*Class Three focused on livestock nutritional needs and included information on feeding strategies for pasture from ration balancing through the grazing season to winter feeding options and more. Following this talk, participants traveled to one of three possible livestock farms to see how the different farms managed pasture. One was a dairy farm, another was a nearby beef farm and the third was a diversified farm raising poultry, hogs, sheep and cows on pasture.

Livestock Nutrition and Healthcare was the third course offered meeting three times between September 24 and October 22 with an additional ‘day on the farm’ on October 23rd to look at livestock health case studies. Participants received a notebook binder containing articles relative to the topic and Dr Hubert Karreman’s book ‘Treating Cows Naturally’ for a textbook. Organizations that sponsored the course through financial support and/or time were UVM Extension and USDA Risk Management Agency.

* Class One  brought in speakers to address 1) Meeting Livestock Nutritional Needs for Maintenance, Growth, Production and Reproduction, 2) Bio-Security: Administering Nature’s Vaccine and Other Ways to Protect Your Farm from Invading Germs, and 3)  A Farmer Panel Addressing Nutrition, Prevention and Healthcare.

* Class Two covered preventative health care, the abc’s of organic livestock farming, parasite management strategies, and medicinal and nutritional uses of herbs.

* Class Three featured Dr Hubert Karreman who spent much of the day talking about how to treat livestock with natural remedies touching on health situations including dry cow care, mastitis, pneumonia, calf scours, hoof problems and reproduction.

* An additional class was offered, with priority given to farmers working with mentors.
This was a one day, on-farm workshop on a transitioning dairy farm. Participants were able to gain practical skills in diagnosis, observation and early intervention as well as how to administer many types of treatments.
Marketing Your Livestock Products was the fourth course offered meeting three times between January 31st and March 28th, 2005. Participants received a notebook that contained a publication titled ‘Market Planning for Value Added Agricultural Products’ by Lynda Brushett & Gregory Franklin. Other handouts in the notebook included publications by ATTRA on marketing of livestock products, and relevant handouts from speakers. Organizations that sponsored the course through financial support and/or time were Vermont Agency of Agriculture, UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture’s Vermont Pasture Network, UVM Extension and USDA Risk Management Agency.

*Class one covered adventures in Marketing with Mary Peabody where the speaker set the stage for the course; providing an overview of how marketing fits into business planning and goal setting. The afternoon featured farmer panelists who shared their marketing stories including the history of their farm, the products that they offer and their marketing strategies.

*Class two focused on determining or setting a price, understanding the FDA regulations under the Bioterrorism Act of 2002, and demystifying the meat, poultry and dairy regulations (state and federal) when it comes to labeling, processing and choosing a production facility.

*Class three was about promotion; telling your story and selling your product. Chef Harv was our special guest who was invited to help attendees think about effective promotion techniques, and ways to sell their product by telling their farm story.  Farmer panelists shared how they marketed and sold their product as well as experiences within different marketing channels.

Research results and discussion:

The four Livestock Courses, tied in with the mentoring opportunities and the On-Farm Demos has proven to be a very successful model for farmer learning, farmer mentoring and farmer leadership. What was not anticipated within the grant was the fact that mentor funds did not get used up very quickly. This is not because farmer mentoring did not happen; rather, it was a challenge to get the mentors to keep track of their time and bill accordingly. Some mentors were helping producers out with a 5 minute phone call here, an email there and at least one visit to the mentee farm and to the mentor farm. A couple of the matches were just too far away from each other and they were unable to find a common time on the calendar to make a face to face meetings happen and over time they lost the motivation. The continued learning offered by the Sustainable Livestock Conference (2006) and a series of sponsored workshops in 2006 and 2007 were very effective ways to use up the remaining mentor funds.

Though it is not likely that these courses could be offered every year, producers thought that offering some of these course topics every other year would draw enough interest to support the cost and energy to pull them together. One or two courses could be offered each year, offering a similar curriculum each time or offering advanced courses where there was interest.
NOFA-VT is currently evaluating a number of farmer mentoring models with the hopes of establishing a sound program for producers growing fruits, vegetables, livestock and crops in 2008. The pieces learned from this grant will help us implement a more effective model including a realistic appraisal of the amount of staff support needed to keep the farmer mentor/mentee relationships alive. The mentoring model that is being utilized by California Certified Organic Foundation (CCOF) has qualities in their design that NOFA-VT hopes to incorporate into its mentoring program this year.

Participation Summary


Educational approach:

The courses were videotaped with the hopes that the media would be edited and available to the producer audience. This project proved to be too much of an effort due to lack of time and lack of editing & video production skills. Two of the talks from the Livestock Nutrition and Health course were videotaped, reproduced, and sold as VHS resources. Copies of these have been included with the final report. Sales of these tapes were very few and the quality is not very good, so they were not marketed beyond the registrants and NOFA membership. The marketing course was videotaped and someone was hired to edit and copy these talks to disk. By the time the video editing project was completed, too much time had passed and we felt that marketing the tapes would not be the best use of time. Copies of these DVDs are included with the final report.

No milestones

Additional Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Impacts of Results/Outcomes

One of the strengths of this grant and the courses offered was our ability to partner with other organizations; pooling resources, knowledge and experience. The other organizations that helped with the planning and orchestration of the livestock courses were NRCS, UVM Extension, University of Maine, VT Agency of Agriculture, Vermont Technical College, UVM Small Ruminant Dairy Project, UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture and the Vermont Pasture Network. These collaborative efforts have allowed producers and professionals to recognize the common thread that the various organizations hold; that organic management and sustainable management are oftentimes saying the same thing. At the same time the various resource professionals learned more about the initiatives and programs being offered by their counterparts allowing for greater collaboration and networking in the future.

We reached more than twice the number of farmers projected in the grant proposal. Clearly the topics being offered were interesting and filled a need. Evaluations from all the classes scored very high with ratings of very good to excellent.  Farmers who attended these workshops left with the intention of making significant changes within the following 6 months. Many of them were contacted by phone or mail one year later and here are excerpts from some of the evaluations and phone conversations:

The Dirt on Soils

* ‘In managing my soils and crops I found I had to change my mindset from the conventional world of feeding the crop and now focus on feeding and nurturing my soil so that the soil takes care of the crop.’

* ‘The soils course was a wonderful primer and of course, my favorite class was the one on forages. I gained enough knowledge to begin to know what questions to ask and to explore more on my own.’

* ‘I only wish that there had been more time to ask questions or that there was a part two.’

Greening the Farm

* ‘ The Pasture Course was terrific. I really appreciated Gwyneth and Lisa’s trying to include information on non-ruminants. I had done a lot of reading so that the speakers’ experiences were the highlight of the course; Sid Bosworth, Doug Flak, Tim Barrows, and Jim Kleptz.’

* ‘I learned to become more aware of the fields, pastures and how they change over the course of the year and what’s in them, and what will benefit and animal.”

Livestock Nutrition and Health Care

*  ‘This past spring we used less supplement in the barn to increase pasture dry matter intake. We also have included colostrum in our mastitis treatment protocol.’

* ‘We are thinking more closely about our grazing system and have tried a different treatment for a sick calf. The sanitation/biosecurity section gave us a confidence boost as we already do a lot of it and reinforced the importance for us to change out calf packs more frequently.’

* ‘I feel more comfortable about the science behind the therapy and have gained more confidence to try alternative treatments. I have also changed my dry cow program and how I treat mastitis.’

Marketing Your Livestock Products

* ‘We have had a tremendous boost from  the fencing projects, the [Marketing] course, the input from the next generation, and help from our farmer mentor. We have a lot of hope for the future, and have taken many of the steps necessary to begin a successfully maintained business that will take us into the next generation.’

Farmer Adoption

There were multiple courses offered and many ways that farmers benefited and adopted new practices. Enclosed with the final report is a letter of thanks from one of our farmer registrants who participated in the Dirt on Soil course and the Grazing the Green course. Her letter titled ‘Died and Went to Heaven’ expresses her sincere gratitude for the courses and the opportunity for continued learning with farmer mentors who were getting compensated for their time. Her appreciation and accolades for the courses were great to hear and were heard from many others at the end of the courses.  

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

The Livestock Courses and the On-Farm Demos were well attended and a lot was learned at these events.  The On-Farm Demos provided written material about the host farm plus an outline of what was going to be covered adding some structure and focus for the day. Additional study is not needed, but additional offerings of the livestock courses should continue. NOFA-VT plans to continue collaborating with other resource organizations and will rely on sponsorships to keep registration fees at a minimum.

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.