Climate-related hazards, including extreme precipitation and warmer temperatures, pose threats to agricultural production across the board, including grazing lands for animal agriculture — an important sector of the agricultural landscape in the Northeast. While grazing and pasture lands have been called a building block of climate smart agriculture by Secretary Vilsack, farmers in the Northeast need help translating the growing body of research on soil health and its implications for adaptive grazing management into their on-the-ground management practices.
Pastures and hayfields in the Hudson Valley are typically located on less than prime agricultural fields, such as, sloped, poorly draining land. Management practices for hay production are typically oriented towards volume production. As a result, farmers cut fields at less than ideal times relative to soil conditions. Repetition of these practices leads to surface and subsurface soil compaction. Soil compaction negatively impacts water infiltration, aeration, biological activity and nutrient exchange, which limits nutrient uptake and pasture regrowth. The management of hayfields is often a net nutrient-extractive process, with little or no animal manures or fertilizers returning to the property. These practices limit biological activity in the soil, which limits productive capacity.
Through Glynwood’s work training farmers, we have observed that regional farmers lack applied opportunities to learn about mitigating these problems through improving soil health practices and adaptive grazing management. This observation is supported by surveys and interviews with program participants and by needs identified by the beginning livestock farmers we are incubating at our Hudson Valley Farm Business Incubator (HVFBI) outside New Paltz, NY. Addressing this training gap will help mitigate climate vulnerability and improve the sustainability of our region’s livestock farmers by giving farmers the practical tools they need to apply principles of soil health to their management decisions. This will, in turn, result in improvements in water quality and the protection of natural resources. Furthermore, if our regional farmers are better able to translate and adopt these underutilized practices, they stand to benefit from improved productivity, a reduction in costs, and potentially an increase in net farm income.
The critical importance of soil health to mitigate climate-vulnerabilities in pasture-based livestock systems has become more widely understood and accepted in recent years. Unfortunately, livestock farmers in NY’s Hudson Valley lack sufficient opportunities to learn about practices and methods that increase resilience to climate-related stressors. The goal of this project is to increase the rate of adoption of underutilized, but beneficial, practices among regional livestock farmers by providing practical and tangible opportunities for them to learn about these practices. Project lead, Glynwood, will partner with livestock farmers, specialists at Cornell Cooperative Extension, NRCS and researchers at UMass Amherst to conduct two on-site demonstrations and a Soil Health Field Day. Instruction and results will be shared through presentations at regional conferences, with additional outreach via online methods (blog posts, external articles and a video). These activities represent a meaningful increase in the number of available opportunities for regional farmers to improve their soil health and adaptive management knowledge and skills.
Our overarching goal is to increase the rate of adoption of underutilized soil health measures and adaptive grazing practices among regional livestock farmers. To accomplish this goal, Glynwood has used the land it manages at the Hudson Valley Farm Business Incubator as a demonstration of pasture improvement methods in partnership with commercial livestock farmers Back Paddock and Grass + Grit Farm. The demonstrations inform the educational opportunities we offer to regional livestock farmers, including: a Soil Health Field Day; presentations at regional conferences; and online dissemination of our findings via video, blogs and articles. Educational opportunities scheduled for January 2018 will focus on easily implementable and cost-effective ways that livestock farmers can replicate the benefits of our demonstration on their farms.
Expected outputs include:
–Two demonstrations of pasture improvement and warm season annual forage, including recommendations for how farmers can cost-effectively apply findings.
–30 regional farmers educated about soil health principles at Soil Health Field Day.
–75 farmers educated about implementing soil health principles through conference presentations.
–85% of farmers we reach, and who have management authority of their farms will implement at least one principle they learned from our project, as measured through six-month follow-up surveys.
This demonstration project was designed to answer the question: which pasture treatment, or combination of treatments does the most to improve soil health, pasture regrowth, soil compaction, and forage quality and species diversity? Further, the data collected will allow us to estimate the cost-effectiveness of each treatment from the farmer’s perspective, resulting in recommendations for pasture improvement methods on similar soils. These recommendations will be the focus of our educational efforts at regional conferences and in online articles.
The pasture improvement demonstration features sixteen 40’ by 40’ plots dedicated to a variety of pasture treatments. The treatments include a control plot, managed grazing by sheep and cattle, application of compost, application of fertilizer (high Ca limestone) and keyline plowing to mitigate surface and subsurface soil compaction, and all possible combinations thereof (see attached diagram).
Material and labor costs per treatment have been tracked by Glynwood staff and will be shared in written materials about the demonstrations.
The demonstration areas allocated for rotational grazing were grazed on July 6 – July 7 by eleven head of cattle. The grass height at the beginning of paddock residency was 18”. Cattle were rotated out of the treatment areas when residuals were between 6-9”. The cattle, as planned for, had trampled most of the unpalatable plant species in the paddocks.
After allowing ample pasture rest and recovery, the demonstration areas were grazed again, this time by nine sheep owned by Grass + Grit Farm, from August 29 – September 4. The flock was removed from the paddocks when the forage residuals were between 6-9” and the sheep had trampled most of the unpalatable plant species in the paddocks. The length of grazing periods were determined by an estimate of available biomass and pasture rest/recovery period. Non-grazed plots were mowed (clip and leave) before the plants ‘headed out’ in mid-season.
Other treatments were managed as follows:
— Twenty-four cubic yards of finished compost was applied to the appropriate treatment plots on April 18th.
–Fertilizer was applied in 2016, so it was determined that we would not apply more limestone in 2017.
–Keyline plowing was completed by Glynwood staff on September 22nd, after the final grazing.
Glynwood staff and partnering farmers took soil samples in the fall from each treatment plot. Samples were sent to Cornell University for a Soil Health Assessment, including soil penetrometer readings taken by Glynwood staff and partners to gauge soil compaction. Additional soil samples were sent to Agro One for soil chemistry analysis. Plant samples were taken in late summer and sent for a forage analysis by Dairy One Labs.
Additionally, Glynwood staff and partners conducted three plant forage species counts over the course of the grazing season. This was done by recording observations in a 2’ x 2’ plot in each treatment area. Worm counts, an indicator of soil health, were conducted twice during the season. Glynwood staff and partnering farmers dug 1′ x 1′ sections of soil in each plot, shoveled out at a depth of six inches. A worm count of 3-5 worms is considered good.
Data review and analysis will be conducted by Glynwood staff, Jason Detzel of Cornell Cooperative Extension and Dr. Masoud Hashemi of University of Massachusetts. Data analysis will allow us to understand and communicate:
- Which treatment, or combination of treatments, does the most to improve soil health, pasture regrowth, soil compaction, and forage quality and species diversity
- The cost-effectiveness of each treatment
- Recommendations for pasture improvement methods on similar soils, but for larger pastures
Warm Season Annual Forage
Farmers in the Hudson Valley region have struggled during the hot mid-summer season with poor performance of native pasture plants. As a result, farmers have had inadequate forage for grazing livestock and many have had to feed out hay in the middle of the summer. According to research conducted in 2010 by Dr. Heather Darby at University of Vermont Extension, warm season annual grasses have the potential to produce six tons of dry matter per acre. The warm season annual forage demonstration will highlight the use and benefits of annual warm season forage as a climate resilience/risk management strategy. This demonstration is designed to answer the question: what is the cost effectiveness of planting warm season annual forage vs. buying in hay in dry seasons when perennial forage is not available?
Glynwood staff will track total costs of production and work with Cornell Cooperative Extension to survey regional farmers about the cost and availability of locally sourced hay to feed in mid-summer. Glynwood and CCE will survey regional farmers for information about bale grazing in summer via random survey of known livestock grazers.
Glynwood staff prepared the four acre demonstration area in May – June 2017. The fields were seeded in brown midrib sorghum, pearl millet and crimson clover when the soil temperature is 60 degrees (typically early June). A cool and wet spring kept us from completing field preparation and seeding until mid-June. The seeding rates were 35 lbs BMR Sorghum, 6 lbs pearl millet and 5 lbs crimson clover per acre.
The forage was grazed twice by cattle between July and September. The intervals between grazings were determined based on pasture regrowth, and grazed until forage residuals were reduced to six inches. The length of grazing periods were determined by an estimate of available biomass and pasture rest/recovery period. Glynwood staff monitored and recorded data related to forage output and regrowth through use of an NRCS pasture stick. The quantitative measurement of dry matter of warm season forage was calculated by Glynwood staff.
Cost of production and forage output will be evaluated to determine the value of the forage. The data will be compared with the cost of buying in comparable dry matter content via hay. The data comparison will highlight the cost effectiveness of planting warm season annual forage.
Glynwood has established demonstration plots and protocol for monitoring long-term change over time. End-of-season samples have been sent to laboratories, but Glynwood has not received all lab results as of this writing. Glynwood will share and discuss the results with partners upon receipt of all lab results. A summary of findings will be shared with Glynwood’s final report.
Glynwood will evaluate and summarize its findings on the cost and impact of pasture improvement treatments. Costs related to pasture improvement methods used by Glynwood were mostly for labor. These expenses will be analyzed in the winter of 2018. Pasture improvement strategies are long-term, thus the effectiveness of various methods will be understood best after multiple years. Support from SARE has allowed Glynwood to establish and test demonstrations and monitoring protocol which will benefit livestock farmers for a long time.
Glynwood and partners look forward to comparing anecdotal findings with the results of the Cornell Soil Health Assessment. Glynwood staff has observed a significant improvement in water infiltration following the use of the keyline plow.
Glynwood established protocol for hands-on pasture quality and soil health indicators. These simple ecological monitoring practices include forage species and worm counts. Ecological monitoring is a good practice that encourages farmers to slow down and closely observe pasture conditions and the effects of farm management decisions. These two observations require a lot of labor, so it may be impractical for most farmers to replicate this over multiple observations. Adapting the monitoring practices by reducing the number of sample plots or alternating plot observations would make this more feasible for replication.
Glynwood and partners conducted three forage species counts during the season. The species counts highlighted a broad mix of plants. The plant community offer a mix of good forage and forbs, as well as a significant population of sedges and other plants of low palatability to livestock. By surveying and documenting pasture plant species before and during treatments, Glynwood has strong baseline data for monitoring changes in the makeup of pasture plant species. [See the attached Forage Species and Worm Count records.]
Glynwood and partners conducted two worm counts during the season, each indicating a very healthy worm population. During Dr. Masoud Hashemi’s visit at our Soil Health Field Day, he shared that he instructs his students to make a mustard solution to soak the sample area before conducting the worm count. The solution irritates, but does not harm the worm population, and causes the worms to move towards the surface, easing the worm count process. This is a procedural change we would recommend to speed the process.
Glynwood also established a warm season annual forage demonstration area. This demonstration has allowed Glynwood to showcase and monitor the effective use of brown midrib sorghum, pearl millet and crimson clover for cattle forage during the warm season. It was a challenging season for the establishment of these species, as field conditions were wet and cool further into June than anticipated. The brown midrib sorghum grew well, while the other species did not.
Overall, the warm season annual forage mix yielded an estimated 22 tons of forage over the two grazing periods, averaging a yield of 3.5 tons per acre. The four acres seeded in the forage mix were broken up into one acre plots. Two of these plots performed well. Another performed well, but Glynwood was unable to graze it a second time due to an early light frost. Glynwood did not graze the plot a second time due to concerns for plant toxicity to the cattle. One plot, more poorly drained than the other areas, performed quite poorly. The sorghum never reached its potential height, and it was not grazed a second time due to poor plant regrowth.
Seasonal variability is to be expected, so these outcomes would not sway us from recommending this blend of forage species to another producer.
Glynwood staff will coordinate with partners in the first quarter of 2018 to review data, soil test results and forage sample analyses. Glynwood expects to receive the last of the outstanding soil test results shortly and will set time to review this information with partners upon receipt.
Glynwood staff and partners are set to present at two conferences in January 2018: the Northeast Pasture Consortium in Albany, NY on January 25th, and at the Livestock Institute of Southern New England Conference in Bristol, MA on January 28th.
Glynwood staff plan to complete the final report by the end of March.
Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary
The development of the two on-farm demonstrations described in this report are a significant part of the SARE-supported work. Glynwood has succeeded in developing a demonstration area to monitor pasture improvement treatments and four acres of warm season annual forage.
Glynwood has written several newsletter articles on its SARE Partnership Grant. Glynwood has more than 5,500 subscribers to its mailing list. The first article can be read at: https://glynwood.org/farmer-training/climate-resilience-healthy-soil-sare-grant.
Glynwood staff and Pat Knapp, a partnering farmer from Back Paddock Farm, taught Rotational Grazing and Soil Health at the NOFA Summer Conference. The workshop was well-attended and received by twenty participants.
We hosted a Soil Health Field Day, a full-day intensive on the subject, with multiple collaborating educators. Please read Glynwood’s newsletter and view a short film about the Soil Health Field Day here: https://glynwood.org/resource/farmer-training-soil-health-field-day-2017. During the Field Day, the videographer also captured this interview Dr. Masoud Hashemi in which he discusses principles of soil health. Twenty-five regional farmers joined us for the Field Day, which included Soil Health 101 by Dr. Paul Salon, Water Infiltration demonstrations by Fay Benson, and tours of the field demonstrations interpreted by Glynwood staff, Jason Detzel and Dr. Masoud Hashemi.
Glynwood staff and Pat Knapp from Back Paddock Farm look forward to presenting on Rotational Grazing and Soil Health at the Northeast Pasture Consortium and the Livestock Institute of Southern New England, both in January 2018.
Glynwood staff will write a newsletter article to share its findings, upon review of data and test results, in the spring of 2018.
We have received positive feedback from cooperators and participants. We will more formally survey participants later this winter and expect a significant increase in the number of farmers reporting gained knowledge, etc. once we have more data.
Glynwood staff and partners will complete data analysis this winter. We will share our findings with conference workshop attendees and Field Day participants, and survey participants about knowledge gained this winter.
Thank you to everyone at SARE for their support. We look forward to completing the project in 2018.