Tools for grass farmers to monitor grazing behavior and forage use in real time

Project Overview

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2014: $13,095.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: Northeast
State: Vermont
Project Leader:
Dr. Juan Alvez
UVM Extension

Annual Reports


  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Animal Production: feed rations, grazing management, grazing - multispecies
  • Education and Training: extension, workshop
  • Natural Resources/Environment: biodiversity
  • Production Systems: integrated crop and livestock systems

    Proposal abstract:

    As Vermont farmers transition to pasture-based grazing, their ability to estimate forage intake rates and judge the value forage diversity can affect productivity and milk quality. Our project is designed to evaluate the utility of novel approaches for dairy farmers to estimate forage intakes and grazing behavior of pasture-based dairy cattle. Specifically, we propose to demonstrate the use of grazing activity meters to estimate forage intakes and rumen health for pasture-based dairy cattle in the northeast. We will quantify how different diets affect grazing behavior and in turn how the relationship between grazing time and diet alters rumination activity, rumen pH and health, milk composition, and productivity. Our project builds on an ongoing study to determine how biodiversity affects livestock well-being, health, and productivity. Our overall objective is to test if positive associations exist between ecological diversity and ecological sustainable grazing practices in pasture-based dairy production systems in the northeast. We hypothesize that managing for increased biological diversity in pasture-based dairy production systems in the northeast positively contributes to improved livestock well-being, health and productivity, and creates a positive feed-back ecological service loop that benefits soil composition and natural resource diversity. We propose to conduct an on-farm research investigation and demonstration of tools to monitor grazing behavior, forage intakes, and rumen activity in real time. We will evaluate these instruments by measuring outcomes related to soil biological composition, cattle health, and milk composition to determine whether these tools will allow livestock farmers to wisely manage pasture resources.

    Results presented at local and regional conferences, such as NOFA, Vermont Grazing and Livestock Conference, and Organic Dairy Conference. Provide Final report with evaluation of impact indicators.

    Project objectives from proposal:


    The proposed study will be conducted during the 2014 grazing season on the Choiniere Family Farm in Highgate, VT . Triaxial accelerometers (HOBO pendant G data loggers) will be fitted to neck collars and lower legs of 6 lactating sentinel cows. Dr. Barlow has previous experience using these devises to monitor activity of dairy cattle in free stall confinement housing and currently owns 4 of these units; additional units will be purchased for this study). We will collect a comprehensive set of data to evaluate the potential use of activity meters to monitor forage intakes and rumen activity, including:

    -Grazing activity meter outputs;
    -Rumen fluid pH, volatile fatty acid concentrations, microbial diversity, and consumed forage composition;
    -Pre- and post-grazing pasture species, quality, botanical composition, and yield;
    -Milk quality and composition;
    -Soil composition and bio-soil fungi, bacteria, micorrhyzae and nematodes counts.

    To facilitate collection of representative rumen samples for accurate measurement of rumen health indexes, 6 sentinel cows will have rumen cannulas installed by a licensed veterinarian. To be clear the primary tool being evaluated is the use of activity meters (the accelerometers). The enrolled cows are will be fistulated to facilitate measurement of critical rumen health outcomes related to forage intakes including rumen pH, rumen microbial diversity, and consumed forage composition. We  anticipate few farms would consider routinely installing rumen cannulas in their cattle, although Mr. Choiniere is excited about the potential to evaluate the rumen health of cows on his farm during the grazing season. Therefore, a secondary outcome of this research will be to document thisfarmer’s experience with having rumen fistulated sentinel cows within his herd. UVM researchers have prior experience managing rumen cannulas. We also plan to collect data related to wildlife diversity, and potential cattle and human pathogen prevalence (e.g., teat skin swabs and fecal samples) but these measures are a part of the larger study describing ecological biodiversity on this farm and are not directly related to the proposed evaluation of grazing activity meters.

    The use of grazing activity meters will be evaluated under three dietary treatments: 1) total mixed ration fed in the barn; 2) high diversity pasture (e.g., a multispecies pasture); and 3) low diversity pasture (e.g., a summer annualforage crop). All 6 cows will be fed a total mixed ration in the barn for one month prior to the onset of the grazing season. Subsequently, groups of three cows will be randomly assigned to either a high diversity pasture or a low diversity pasture in each of two season spring and summer.

    Data collection will be performed by Drs. Alvez, and Barlow, and Kraft along with students under their supervision. The during 2014 starting in Spring. Farmer partner will collaborate by setting aside an area for the treatment plots and by recording time, animal performance, and grazing dates.

    a) We will assess soil quality, depth, compaction, using a penetrometer. Carbon, nitrogen, and organic matter content will be determined through a regular soil test. Because soil formation and living organisms are intrinsically connected, we will also monitor soil biology by following the method developed by Earth Forth, which determines total or active bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, and mycorrhizae.

    b) We will also monitor soils by using a technique called “pasture monitoring,” recommended by Holistic Management International. This method consists of throwing a dart over the shoulder for a random sample. Soil surface, habitat and canopy, evidence of macrofauna, plant age, condition and species within six-inch radius are recorded where the dart lands.

    c) Forage. Before grazing, we will record the brix (°Bx) or carbohydrate (sugar) content in forages at two grazing diversities. Brix is determined as a percentage of weight, thus, 1 degree brix denotes 1 gram of sucrose per 100 grams of solution and represents the strength of the solution. Farmers understand that the higher the brix, the more energy is in the pasture. We will then sample forage for yield, quality and botanical composition and determine forage, quantity and quality between grazing methods as follows:

    Preceding forage sampling and botanical composition, we will use the Dry Weight Rank Method to assess the three most predominant forage species in each method. Forage sampling will occur before grazing, where four, 10-cm x 1-m forage samples will be collected along a diagonal line at points chosen by systematic randomization (J. Aleong, personal communication) within each plot, by clipping at soil surface with an electric clipper. Samples will be bagged, identified and separated into grass, legume, and forb components (botanical composition), dried at 55°C for 24 h, and weighed to determine forage yield. Grab samples will also be taken from each plot before grazing for analysis of forage quality factors (dry matter, crude protein, acid detergent fiber, neutral detergent fiber, total digestible nutrients, fatty acid content, and net energy lactation).

    Samples taken during soil collection will be analyzed for below ground biomass production, which is a specific claim attributed to tall grazing.

    c) Animal performance. We will monitor cows randomly assigning them to each of the diet methods. We will assess differences in animal performance between each diversity diet. If possible we will evaluate productive and economic performance per area and per animal.


    March/April 2014 Grant begins. A research protocol will be developed between the research team and Guy Choiniere at Choiniere Family Farm. A survey questionnaire will be established.

    April/May 2014 Six cows will be fistulated by a licensed veterinarian. Four animals will be wearing GPS tracking devices throughout the study to determine movement and grazing efficiency. Animals will need one week to 10 days to heal. Then, they will be exposed to a conventional balanced organic ration diet in the barn for at least two weeks. Rumen, milk, teat skin swabs, and fecal samples will be taken. Ration composition and data will be recorded.

    May 2014 All cows change diet to a pasture with a high diversity of forage species for two weeks. Rumen, milk, teat skin swabs, and fecal samples are taken for analysis. Soil samples will be collected for biological and regular analysis. We will determine the three predominant forage species and samples will be collected to determine yield, botanical composition, and quality.

    June 2014 Three cows change diet into a pasture with low diversity (annual forage) and remain there for two weeks; three cows remain in the high diversity treatment. Rumen, milk, tit swabs and fecal samples are collected for analysis.

    July 2014 (Optional). Cows are separated into three groups of two to try three different annual forages (Triticale, Millet, and Sorgum-Sudan). Each group will remain one week in each annual. Milk, rumen tit swabs and fecal samples are collected. Soil samples will be collected for biological and regular analysis. We will determine the three predominant forage species and samples will be collected to determine yield, botanical composition and quality. Data will be recorded in spreadsheets and transcribed for final statistical analysis and results interpretation.

    Late July A field day will be hosted while cows are under experimentation and farmer is not as busy as in the beginning of the season. Preliminary results and impressions will be presented and discussed with invited farmers and service providers.

    August/September 2014 Case study findings will be shared and verified with host farmer. Case study report will be written and results will be shared at a workshop in a central location (TBD).

    Fall/Winter 2014 Paper preparation for submission in 2015. Results presented at local and regional conferences, such as NOFA, Vermont Grazing and Livestock Conference, and Organic Dairy Conference. Provide Final report with evaluation of impact indicators.


    A summary of findings will be shared with livestock dairy farmers through on- and off-farm educational events including workshops, pasture walks, and conference sessions. We believe that farmer-to-farmer learning is an effective way of conveying information. For this reason, the field day will be held at the host farm. One workshop will be held at a more centralized location to promote the participation of farmers from different regions of the State. In these events we will gather information by way of a survey or an evaluation to measure the impact of learning by participant dairy farmers. Some of the indicators we will focus are: a) measure whether this provides new knowledge to participants; b) intentions to make changes in management practices. While reports and factsheets will be posted on-line, distributed throughout Vermont Organic and non-Organic major media providers, printed summaries will be prepared and distributed among participant farmers at field day and workshop to reach also the ones with limited web access.


    Juan Alvez, Ph.D. is a Pasture Technical Coordinator at the UVM, Center for Sustainable Agriculture. His MSc. and Ph.D. were obtained at UVM Plant and Soil Sciences and Natural Resources respectively. He has studied pasture management and management intensive grazing with Bill Murphy. His research includes how nitrogen, irrigation and soil amendments affect pasture forage yield and quality. He also a studied dairy systems and sustainability and how livestock systems can enhance ecosystem services and sustainable livelihoods. Some of the projects he is currently involved include: Bedded pack systems for Vermont dairy farms, Energy savings through holistic planned grazing, Ecological Restoration of Pine Island, Vermont gricultural Resilience in a Changing Climate and Using Grass-Based Livestock Farms to Demonstrate Regenerative Agriculture Dr. Alvez has experience in planning and conducting research, data collection and analysis, and publishing results. He will be responsible for soil and forage data collection and analysis and workshop and reading material preparations. The UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture has over 20 years managing research projects and providing outreach and event organization around Vermont and New England.

    Guy Choiniere at Choiniere Family Farm has been an active UVM farmer collaborator in a number of research studies. Mr. Choiniere is eager for new information that can help him and other farmers improve dairy production, environmental health and economic profitability. Mr. Choiniere has excellent communication skills, is keen on testing new farm practices, and will be ntegral in communicating the results of our research to other farmers.

    John Barlow, Ph.D., is a pre-tenure track researcher. His research focus is in the area of dairy cattle health and disease. He has prior experience as a practicing veterinarian focused on dairy cattle and PhD in mathematical and molecular epidemiology. Dr. Barlow will lead rumen health data and microbial and dairy sample collection. He will also provide support for implementation of the traxial accelerometers and use of these devices to monitor grazing activity and behavior. Barlow has previous experience with use of activity meters to monitor dairy cattle behavior.

    Jana Kraft Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor at the UVM Department of Animal Sciences. Dr. Kraft holds a B.S. in Nutritional sciences and a Ph.D. in Nutritional Physiology/Lipid Biochemistry from the University of Jena in Germany. Dr. Kraft's research at the interface of animal science and human nutrition integrates ruminant nutrition and utilization of animal models to determine factors influencing the nutritional quality of ruminant-derived fats/fatty acids and their role in prevention and treatment of the metabolic syndrome. She will be responsible for milk quality analyses. 

    Joe Roman, PhD, is a Research Assistant Professor in the Rubenstein School of the Environment and Natural Resources and a fellow at the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics. A conservation biologist, Roman has worked on projects that have examined the relationship of biodiversity and cattle well-being as a Fulbright Scholar in Brazil and the connection between biodiversity and human disease ecology as a Science and Technology Policy Fellow with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He is currently a McCurdy Visiting Scholar at Duke University. He is the PI, along with co-PIs Alvez and Barlow, on a UVM REACH grant:

    Biodiversity and cattle well-being: Forage diversity, microbial diversity, herd health, and milk composition. On the SARE grant, Roman will be responsible for writing the final research paper and will provide support for the rumen microbial analysis and GPS monitoring of cattle.

    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.