Pasture is often one of the most under-utilized resources on the farm and a poorly managed pasture can be subject to overgrazing damage, soil compaction, and nutrient run-off, providing minimal feed value to livestock. Farmers who are not utilizing pasture effectively have higher production costs, primarily in stored feeds which run about 50 percent of the total cost of production (Ford and Hanson, 1994). However, with a paradigm shift by the farmer to understand pasture as a crop to be managed, livestock production can be supported by high quality forages at lower cost, while improving soil health and water quality. To achieve healthy pasture ecosystems, the farmer must understand the relationship between the soil, pasture plants, and livestock grazing behavior.
When farmers consider adopting new or improved grazing practices, they typically have a grazing plan written by a technical service provider, but rarely is it combined with extensive education or one-on-one continuing support that increases the likelihood of success. Without farmer investment or service provider support, an otherwise good plan may fail.
With the current downturn in milk prices forecasted through 2018, dairy farmers are looking to decrease input costs and reduce economic risks. Erratic weather patterns have increased the risk of relying on annual cropping systems. Under these pressures, farmers who confine cattle or practice continuous pasture stocking are exploring management-intensive grazing strategies to reduce stored feed costs. As farmers consider options for keeping their farms viable, there will be a need for more education of grazing management concepts so farmers can meet requirements to capture those premiums.
Farmer engagement in pasture planning is critical for successful implementation. The pasture management course is not designed to convince farmers to adopt grazing as a management practice if it is not a goal for their farm. The purpose is to provide a small group learning opportunity where farmers who are considering grazing as a new management practice and farmers who would like to improve their existing management can gain an understanding of the fundamental concepts and have an active role in the planning practice. The combination of classes and field days will complement a one-on-one approach to develop a well-designed and well-managed system that will collectively reduce barriers to farmer adoption and success.
Each farmer will develop a plan tailor-made to their operation that accounts for differences in landowner goals, land base, soil type, forage species, livestock breeds and genetics and management practices. While each farm will have shared objective of maximizing forage intake through grazing, there will be differences in application from farm to farm. Each plan will focus on practices that optimize livestock performance, pasture quality and dry matter yield, and the efficiency of forage utilization on the individual farm.
Ultimately, the implemented plan will meet each of the individual farmer’s quality of life goals as well as goals for the animals and land base. Eligible farmers can use the plan they create in class to apply for USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) funding to help cost-share a variety of grazing practices.
Twenty-four livestock farmers complete a pasture management course and develop their own farm-specific grazing plans to gain an in-depth understanding of grazing concepts, which results in the implementation of new or improved grazing practices on approximately 1,920 acres and reduces feed costs per cow by $1.00/day during the grazing season.
This project combines comprehensive education with one-on-one consulting to develop and implement a farm-specific individualized grazing plan. The pasture management course enables farmers to gain an understanding of grazing concepts from both economic and environmental perspectives. Each 12 hour course consists of weekly 3-hour sessions over the course of four weeks with classroom instruction and homework. In addition to the weekly lesson, each farmer, with assistance from UVM Extension staff, creates an individualized grazing plan that takes into account their own farm goals. During the grazing season, each farmer has the opportunity to have on-going on-farm consulting as they implement new concepts and fine-tune their systems.
Topics for the educational program include:
- Pasture plant identification of common grass, legume and forb species, looking at favorable growth conditions for each and how plants respond to grazing impact.
- Pasture nutrition and how it affects grazing behavior and overall intake and animal performance.
- Grazing management concepts such as measuring dry matter availability, determining paddock sizes, the concepts of stocking rate versus stocking density and overall acreage requirements.
- Soil health in pasture systems and the benefits of soil, forage and manure testing to understand nutrient cycling and nutrient management within pasture systems.
- Pasture system design to determine infrastructure needs and management techniques to avoid overgrazing damage, decreased carrying capacity and other negative impacts.
- Grazing record keeping systems and the benefits of monitoring and documenting activities
200 hundred farmers learn about the pasture management course through a direct mailing and informational sessions at workshops and events hosted by the Champlain Valley Crop, Soil, and Pasture Team and other partner organizations.
60 farmers attend one of four field days at pasture-based livestock farms that highlight improved grazing management practices. These field days provide opportunities for farmers who are not practicing management intensive grazing to see grazing infrastructure and concepts in the field.
28 farmers enroll in the pasture management class (2 courses offered per year, for 2 years) and complete weekly lessons on pasture plant identification, pasture nutrition, grazing management concepts, and system design and infrastructure requirements. Over the course of 4 weeks, farmers spend 12 hours utilizing the concepts presented to adapt the ideas to their own farms.
26 complete the course having developed a written grazing management plan meeting Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) standards. These farmers use their completed plan to implement one or more improved practices.
2 farmers host field days to highlight newly implemented grazing practices
24 farmers keep detailed grazing management records to document increases in grazing season length and increases in dry matter intake from pasture, which can then be used to calculate savings in stored feed costs
Milestone Activities and Participation Summary
8 farmers representing 7 operations developed their own formal grazing plans for the 2018 grazing season