Vermont organic dairy custom grazing network

Final report for ONE16-256

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2016: $14,957.00
Projected End Date: 04/15/2019
Grant Recipient: University of Vermont and State Agricultural College
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Jennifer Colby, M.S.
UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture
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Project Information


Over 200 certified-organic dairy farmers in Vermont are required to meet a minimum amount of pasture feeding for cattle over six months of age during each grazing season.  Non-lactating animals such as heifers and dry cows may be deferred to marginal, low quality pastures and/or managed in a continuous grazing system, which typically yields lower-weight animals and poorly producing pastures.  According to Vermont Organic Farmers certification staff, close to 50% of Vermont’s certified organic dairy farms use a continuous grazing management system for their heifers. 

This pilot project targeted strengthening and improving custom grazing opportunities between organic dairy farmers and custom grazing operators. The project team conducted two focus groups, developed a resource document for farmers and custom graziers considering establishment of a grazing relationship, two additional handouts, and conducted individual interviews based upon custom grazing experience and lessons learned.  During the period of this project, draft materials were shared with more than 120 farmers and graziers directly in person and through email.

Changes in organic dairy pricing and demand, as well as staffing changes affected the original project design, but also prompted a broader set of potential grazing partners in medium and large non-organic dairy farms, as well as non-dairy livestock. As a result of this project, one documented beef grazing partnership was established and tested within the project period, and one grazing partnership with a large dairy farm was contracted to begin in the summer of 2019, with an on-farm pasture walk planned for Fall 2019. A set of guidelines was created as well.

Project Objectives:
  • Facilitation of dairy farmer and custom grazier focus groups, individual interviews.
    We conducted two focus groups; one with organic dairy farmers (3), one with custom graziers (3).  Additionally, we conducted two onsite in-person interviews with three individuals who have been both dairy farmers and custom graziers, and two phone interviews. One phone interview was with an individual experienced as a dairy farmer and also a 27-year veteran of custom grazing.  The final interview was with a beef farmer who had tested the draft recommendations document. Finally, we tested questions and assumptions through numerous informal conversations at conferences, pasture walks and events. 

  • Development of guidelines. A set of guidelines and recommendations was assembled from focus groups and resource materials.  A draft version was shared through electronic means through listservs and technical requests as well as through in-person conferences and meetings. A final version was developed at the end of the project based on a culmination of all feedback.
  • Test contract relationship. Using the resources developed and multiple outreach methods, the project team followed one custom grazing relationship over the first grazing season.  At the end of the grazing season, an exit interview was conducted with the farmer using the draft recommendations document to assess the usefulness of the document as well as the lessons learned overall.
  • Final resources. The team updated and improved the recomendations document as well as preparing two handouts for use at relevant dairy, pasture and livestock events. These materials are available through common outreach methods (electronic, paper, video) as well as being posted at the central resource site.

Certified organic dairy farms face challenges and limitations from multiple directions, the foremost being the National Organic Program’s pasture requirement that cattle older than six months must receive a minimum of 30% of their daily dry matter requirement from pasture for a minimum of 120 days during the growing season (USDA 2011) .

Pasture forage production depends upon land management/soil building practices, animal rotation frequency and period of time animals stay within a given area. Continuously grazed paddocks, where animals spends weeks, months or a whole season on the same ground produce the smallest amount of forage, particularly as compared to well-managed rotations where animals are moved to fresh feed every 12-24 hours and leave plants to recover. A well-managed rotation has high potential, but also requires a larger time commitment on the part of the farmer to move fence, animals and water daily. Understandably, many dairy farmers must choose to prioritize time and energy on the milk-producing, money-making cows.

Farmers forced to prioritize cow management over heifer management may be in a difficult situation, since heifers are the milk-producing cows of next year. Heifers who do not gain weight adequately may not become pregnant on schedule, and may not be able to produce a high quantity of milk. Every day that a heifer is “open” (not pregnant) is a day that she costs the farmer money instead of making the farmer money.

In addition to the cow/heifer challenge, organic dairy farmers face changing environmental and regulatory conditions. Climate change predictions for Vermont show increasing precipitation events and higher temperatures , which are already being linked to a rising water table, nutrient leaching and changing forage species. Vermont’s recent legislative actions to increase inspection of small farms and raise fence setbacks from waterways will likely have the effect of reducing available grazing acreage for all livestock.

The culmination of these evolving conditions and requirements is that they may seriously challenge the ability of organic dairy farmers to maintain viable businesses.

Custom grazing has emerged as an opportunity for both dairy farmers and contract graziers. In a contract or custom situation, groups of heifers or dry cows move to a separate location for a period of time where they are managed together, sometimes with animals from additional farms. Typically they are intensively managed and moved often to fresh pastures in order to maintain the pasture requirement as well as grow healthy animals and build soil. The contract grazing manager is paid for their land and grazing expertise, and the dairy farmer pays a small fee for the service. This instantly expands the grazing acreage for milking cows at the home farm and allows the dairy farmer to have more flexibility in changing conditions.

To date, custom grazing relationships have largely been neighbor-to-neighbor arrangements and extremely localized. Through this project, the team would like to establish a more formal network of custom graziers and potential customers across Vermont as well as collect and distribution useful resources for both sides of a partnership.

Our project is intended to formalize and adapt some of the region’s past work, focusing on Vermont as the target area. In March 2015, the first annual Northeast Contract Grazing Summit took place in New York, with a great deal of interest and excitement in the topic. Over 200 attendees learned about contract details, grazing rates, relationship building, expectations, managed grazing improvements, and more . The organizers of that event eagerly shared the information that they gathered from presenters.

This project would take that information and use it to work with a target audience of Vermont certified organic dairy farmers. Vermont Organic Farmers (VOF), have documented that close to 50% (over 100 dairy farmers) of the farms currently certified through them use continuous grazing for heifer management. While VOF is not at liberty to advertise or provide individualized outreach opportunities to specific farmers within the certified farms, the numbers show that there is a large number of potential partners who may be receptive to custom grazing information and resources.

In addition to the needs of organic dairy farmers, there are increasingly young and beginning farmers seeking to utilize grazing expertise without personal investment in owned livestock. Custom or contract grazing can help reclaim fallow land, build cash equity or pay farm mortgage payments. Many participants at the Vermont Grazing & Livestock Conference and on the Vermont Pasture Network listserv have indicated an interest in getting into the business of providing these services. Similar to the experiences mentioned above, custom graziers reach out on a case-by-case basis, often trying to meet farmers within their own neighborhood.

In order to formalize the resources and create a longer lasting, more “self sufficient” custom grazing network in Vermont for organic dairy clientele, the project team plans to gather materials from the New York partnership, add feedback from experienced farmers/contractors, produce easily digestible materials, and create a central repository for the information so that any interested parties across the state can determine their own rates, expectations and rewards.


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  • Cheryl and Marc Cesario


Materials and methods:

Basic data collection for recommendations document:
1) Primary focus groups for dairy and custom grazing groups took place January 11, 2017 in Middlebury, VT. The focus groups were scheduled on the same day, however each was held separately in order to preserve confidentiality and encourage honest conversation, since there was some grazing relationship overlap between the interviewees.  The interviews were audio recorded and releases were signed. Handwritten notes were also taken.  Each group was asked the same basic set of questions (below), however, the questions were asked in a conversational manner and not necessarily in strict order. 
2) An onsite interview took place March 21, 2017 in Bristol, VT. The same procedures were applied as above, including the same questions, audio recording and release form.
3) An onsite interview took place March 2, 2018 in Pike, NH. The same procedures were applied as above.
4) A phone interview took place April 2, 2019 with a beef owner who used the document to develop a grazing relationship in 2018.  Notes were typed during the conversation.
5) A phone interview took place April 3, 2019 with a custom grazier from NY. Notes were typed with the conversation, which was based upon feedback on the draft document.

The draft document was prepared for circulation February 13, 2018, and shared with attendees at the NOFA-VT Winter Conference, as well as by request through email.  Informal conversations regarding custom grazing relationships generally took place in an ongoing basis throughout the project, and typically circulated around testing the questions below, although written notes were not captured at the time.

Dairy farmer questions:
• Why do you feel working with a custom grazer is a good idea for your farm?
• How many years had you been in business when you started working with a custom grazer? At a particular herd size, stocking rate, business expansion stage?
• What do you like about working with a custom grazer (benefits)?
• What do you not like about working with a custom grazer (challenges)?
• What arrangement do you base payment on? (per pound gain, per day, other)
• What do you make payment in? (money, livestock, housing, other)
• How often do you pay?
• Do you have a written or verbal lease?
• (If written) where did it come from?
• How/where did you find your custom grazer?
• Do you plan to continue using custom grazing service? Why/why not?
• Are there things you wish you had known about custom grazing (or the person, or the relationship) before it started?
• What would you recommend to other dairy farmers thinking about getting started with a custom grazer? (or who have not worked with one before)
• Does your custom grazer keep accurate records for your organic certification?

Custom grazer questions:
• What kind of client is a good fit, and why?
• What do you like about working with your clients?
• What do you not like about working with your clients?
• What arrangement do you base payment on? (per pound gain, per day, other)
• What do you get paid in? (money, livestock, housing, other)
• How often do you get paid?
• Is custom grazing your entire business or is it part of your farm business/one of many enterprises? If it is one of your enterprises, why did you choose to add it to your business?
• Do you have a written or verbal lease?
• (If written) where did it come from?
• How/where do you find your clients?
• Do you plan to continue providing custom grazing service? Why/why not?
• Are there things you wish you had known about custom grazing (or the dairy farmer, or the relationship) before it started?
• What would you recommend to other custom grazers thinking about getting started with an organic dairy farmer? (or who have not worked with one before)

Exit interview questions (custom grazing relationship prompted by this project):

  • What was it about hiring a custom grazier that worked for your situation?
  • What didn’t work for your situation?
  • Would you do the arrangement like this again?
  • If this did not work for you, what would you look for next time?
  • Did you review the recommendations document before setting up this arrangement?
  • What parts of the document were helpful?
  • What are we missing that should be added?
Research results and discussion:

During the course of conducting this project, several intersecting events prompted a change in the original project design. 

One, the organic dairy milk demand and price declined substantially starting in 2016 and has remained approximately $8/cwt below where it was at the time the project was proposed. Conversations about using custom graziers and the broad appeal of forming partnerships with dairy farmers needing additional pasture and having the cash flow to pay outside contractors like custom graziers almost immediately disappeared as organic dairy farmers tightened their belts.  As noted in the recommendations document, financial behavior/psychology research indicates that making a physical payment for something is difficult and can present a barrier to action, even when the numbers show that it costs less in the long run than covering costs internally. For example, data from Cornell Cooperative Extension shared through a 2009-2011 SARE-funded project regarding custom grazing of dairy heifers estimates that a cost savings of nearly $2.20/cow/day can be realized by utilizing a custom grazier, which is more than $325 over a 150-day grazing period.  Despite the clear cost savings in most cases, a reduction in overt spending has been implemented across the board in the organic dairy communities we interfaced with.

Two, project staffing turnover interfered with the ability to interface with organic dairy farmers as we had originally intended.  While this was disappointing, it did allow us the expand the conversation from organic dairy only into a more creative approach of asking the question, "in what situations could custom grazing be appropriate and/or useful?".  This led the team to investigate beef, diversified livestock, and small ruminant custom grazing situations, and we were able to test a new beef-grazing relationship as a result.  

There were not specific farm changes marked during the project, beyond testing the draft recommendations document, however one farmer did try the tool as the basis of a new grazing relationship and described the knowledge gained through the experience (of the tool and the first season working with a custom grazier). A very small sample size, but the goal of testing the tool was to develop a useful resource for future custom grazing relationships.  The tool appeared to have done that, and at least started conversations around where, when and how it might be appropriate to initiate a custom grazing relationship, as well as how to do it more successfully.

The expansion of the custom grazing audience beyond certified organic dairy has also prompted alternative suggestions; one, for a custom grazing exchange web site interface.  In addition to custom grazing relationships, an exchange web site could be used to buy and sell hay, bring livestock to hay fields for first-pass grazing in years when it's too wet to bring heavy haying equipment onto land, or planting/grazing-to-terminate cover crops.  Also, large dairy farms in Vermont have traditionally raised their own replacement heifers, but a new pilot project was initiated in 2018 to develop a contract between a large dairy and a custom grazier in the Champlain Valley.  By piloting a successful example, it is hoped that more large dairies will partner with experienced custom graziers to use open land for beneficial land management, support the expansion of the custom grazing community, and reduce heifer raising costs while providing successful livelihoods. 

Research conclusions:

Over 200 certified-organic dairy farmers in Vermont are required to meet a minimum amount of pasture feeding for cattle over six months of age during each grazing season. Non-lactating animals such as heifers and dry cows may be deferred to marginal, low quality pastures and/or managed in a continuous grazing system, which typically yields lower-weight animals and poorly producing pastures. According to Vermont Organic Farmers certification staff, close to 50% of Vermont’s certified organic dairy farms use a continuous grazing management system for their heifers.

This SARE-funded project has been focused on capturing important issues for organic dairy farmers and custom graziers in order to begin building a network of custom grazing opportunities to both ease time and labor constraints on organic dairy farmers, and help develop greater economic opportunity for grazing on smaller, beginning, leased, and diversified farms.

In 2017, the project team conducted a series of interviews with custom graziers and organic dairy farmers to discuss the pros and cons of their experiences. The draft version of this guide was circulated as a starting point for further discussion and testing in 2018, and updated through a final set of interviews in early 2019. It includes a combination of general observations from the industry, direct experience sharing from our interviews, and follow up resources to assist custom grazing relationship establishment.

The guide recommendations are intended to be a starting point for consideration, and have been used more widely than the original intent of solely organic dairy/custom grazing relationships. The intention and initial experience is that it be found useful in existing and further efforts, and that farmers continue to share  experiences and suggestions to improve and update the recommendations for a broad range of grazing partnerships.

Finally, several ideas for follow up persist beyond the life of this project, including the development of a Northeast Grazing Exchange web site, a pilot project partnering with a large dairy, and expanded distribution of the recommendations document into projects involving the grazing of small ruminants under solar panels.

Participation Summary
2 Farmers participating in research

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

13 Consultations
3 Curricula, factsheets or educational tools
1 Published press articles, newsletters
2 Webinars / talks / presentations
3 Other educational activities: Attended/tabled at other partners' events (NOFA-VT Winter Conference, Vermont Organic Dairy Conference, Northeast Pasture Consortium)

Participation Summary:

40 Farmers participated
14 Number of agricultural educator or service providers reached through education and outreach activities
Education/outreach description:

Outreach has included a range of individual conversations, formal presentations, and event tabling.  Highlights from the interviews were shared in poster form at the Northeast Pasture Consortium annual meeting in March 2017. The recommendations document was presented via Powerpoint at the February 2018 NOFA-VT Winter Conference, and was shared in printed format at the Vermont Organic Dairy Conference in March, 2018.  The draft document was emailed to over 20 individuals upon request.

Learning Outcomes

3 Farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitudes, skills and/or awareness as a result of their participation
Key areas in which farmers reported changes in knowledge, attitude, skills and/or awareness:

The farm family (3 adults) testing the custom grazing recommendations document on their beef grazing relationship indicated that they used the document successfully to establish their first grazing contract/relationship.

Project Outcomes

3 Farmers changed or adopted a practice
2 Grants applied for that built upon this project
2 Grants received that built upon this project
$23,500.00 Dollar amount of grants received that built upon this project
3 New working collaborations
Project outcomes:


As a result of the initial interviews, changes in the project focus, and expanded idea generation, a proposal was submitted to a regional philanthropic donor regarding the large-dairy custom grazing pilot project concept.  The initial project was funded in 2018, with the grazing contract signed in Spring 2019 for the 2019 grazing season.  Additionally, the funder provided follow up dollars in 2019 to continue providing momentum and outreach to promote the idea. 

Additionally, creative ideas around custom grazing of livestock for a wide variety of purposes have surfaced, including land management of public spaces, invasive species control, stacking enterprises (such as grazing under solar panels), and focusing on specific aspects of the product lifecycle (such as custom grazing stocker cattle or cows/calves as part of a full beed operation).

Despite the shift away from the initial target audience, the excitement and creativity around this approach appears to be expanding, which is a successful impact in itself.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Key to the project's success was the ability of the project leader to work directly with interested audiences and be in a position to coduct ongoing conversations with experts in the field of custom grazing.  Also contributing to the success of the project was the willingness to be flexible and follow the core idea (tool development for expansion of custom grazing) along a twisting path.  If the project had been based around a more regimented field trial, this flexibility might have been hampered, but in the case of tool development, the adaptive learning process was appropriate.  

Overall, the basic methodology was adhered to, and would be again if given the opportunity to try a similar project under different circumstances.  The initial set of questions were continually used throughout the project and were found to be helpful and provide consistency across multiple conversations.

The project team intends to continue using, testing and promoting the use of custom grazing as a tool for the benefit of multiple farm businesses.  If trust is established, both owner and custon grazier can significantly contribute to a win-win-win situation overall (owner-grazier-public) through beneficial management, water quality and local economic development. The team will continue to ask questions around appropriateness of use in different potential grazing situations and pricing schemes, however the importance of the opportunity for this work to be successful stands by itself.  

Beneficiaries of this work are livestock owners and grass-based livestock managers (and existing and potential custom graziers) across the Northeast.  

Information Products

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.