Vermont organic dairy custom grazing network

Project Overview

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

Annual Reports

Information Products


  • Animal Products: dairy


  • Animal Production: grazing management, grazing - multispecies, pasture fertility, pasture renovation, grazing - rotational
  • Education and Training: decision support system, focus group, mentoring, networking, participatory research
  • Production Systems: transitioning to organic, organic agriculture
  • Sustainable Communities: local and regional food systems, new business opportunities, partnerships, employment opportunities, social capital

    Proposal abstract:

    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.  Dairy farming is time-intensive work and necessarily, the highest quality pasture and the farmer’s time are often prioritized for the milking animals.  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. 

    In order for some dairy farmers to focus on their highest-value activities while still meeting the National Organic Program pasture rule, and investing in the future of their herds, some have partnered with custom grazing operators who manage heifers and dry cows on separate land for a daily fee.  To date, custom grazing arrangements have been extremely localized and dependent upon personal relationships with neighbors or friends.  The project team would like to expand and strengthen a custom grazing network statewide through a series of focus groups, development of guidelines and resources, matchmaking activities, new relationship establishments, and post-grazing evaluation.  During the period of this project, we anticipate sharing resources with more than 300 dairy farmers and potential custom graziers, developing a target of five seasonal custom grazing agreements, and establishing a repository of information for new partnerships.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    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.


    The project methods are designed to use a combination of resource generation and adult-education oriented activities to establish custom grazing relationships which are evaluated and to improve the resources for future relationships. 

    • Facilitation of two focus groups. One group will include 4-5 experienced custom graziers who have entered into past contracts (written or verbal) for at least two years.  The other group will include 4-5 certified organic dairy producers who have contracted out animals in the past. The focus groups will take place at a central location over a 1-2 hour period.  Guiding questions will be shaped using the existing resource materials collected from national and Northeast partners, as well as the experience within the groups.
    • Development of guidelines. A draft “best practices” set of guideline will be assembled from focus groups and resource materials.  This draft will be shared through electronic means through listservs, email newsletters, technical requests, and certification outreach, as well as through in-person conference and meetings.
    • [Optional] Matchmaking events. Depending upon the feedback shared through focus groups about optimal methods to share this information and create relationship opportunities, the project team is prepared to coordinate mini matchmaking events at partnering winter conferences, such as the Vermont Grazing and Livestock Conference, the NOFA-VT Winter Conference, or the Organic Dairy Conference.
    • Develop five test contract relationships. Using the resources developed and multiple outreach methods, the project team will seek partners to assemble five grazing contracts between organic dairy farmers and customer graziers, for one grazing season.  Each relationship will be monitored by a project team member and facilitated or supported as needed and appropriate.
    • On-farm workshop. At the end of the grazing season, an on-farm workshop will combine a presentation of contract grazing best practice guidelines, as well as sharing feedback from the farmers and offering a pasture walk.
    • Final evaluation and resources. To close out the project, the team will use a common evaluation survey across the five relationships in order to update and improve the guidelines, as well as prepare a final report.  The finalized materials will be distributed through common outreach methods (electronic, paper, video) as well as being posted at the central resource site.


    The project is planned to take place over an eighteen-month period, starting in mid-summer of 2016. A timeline graphic is found in the attachment section.

    Quarter 1 (7/1/16-9/30/16)

    • Identify and finalize farmers to participate in focus groups
    • Plan two focus groups (location, details)
    • Develop questions and format based on existing resources and knowledge gaps

    Quarter 2 (10/1/16-12/31/16)

    • Facilitate two focus groups
    • Prepare list/guidelines for best practices
    • Assemble and post resource materials

    Quarter 3 (1/1/17-3/31/17)

    • Initiate matches through existing relationships
    • [Optional] Formal matchmaking events at VT Grazing & Livestock Conference, NOFA-VT Winter Conference and/or VT Organic Dairy Conference

    Quarter 4 (4/1/17-6/30/17)

    • Follow up to formalize grazing relationships
    • Initiate custom grazing
    • Documentation/partner check in

    Quarter 5 (7/1/17-9/30/17)

    • Documentation/partner check in
    • Expand resources as needed
    • One on-farm workshop

    Quarter 6 (10/1/17-12/31/17)

    • Complete grazing
    • Evaluate experience and recommend improvements
    • Update resource materials
    • Submit final report

    The target audience for this information will be certified organic dairy farmers and grass-based livestock contractors.  Our collaborating partners are positioned to share information in a targeted way to both groups. 

    Outreach plan

    The UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture provides staff support to the Vermont Grass Farmers Association (VGFA) and has access to the VGFA membership list as well as the full list of the Pasture Calendar (1200 combined grass-based farmers and service providers).  Project results will be shared through the VT Pasture Network listserv (300+ participants), VT Beef Producers listserv (200+ participants) and associated social media (Facebook and Twitter).  Guidelines and tips gleaned through the project will be presented as a session and handouts at the VT Grazing & Livestock Conference in January 2017 and January 2018.

    Project partners directly working with certified organic dairy farms (NOFA and VOF) will be able to share results through the current dairy certification list (220+), through the NOFA Notes newsletter and electronic newsletter.  Additional materials may be shared in person at the Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Association (NODPA) annual meeting, the NOFA-VT Winter Conference and the VT Organic Dairy Conference in 2016 and 2017. 

    Additional audiences include farmers outside the main mailing lists, and the general public.  An article in the Agriview newspaper and an episode of Across the Fence television show will be planned to assist in general outreach.

    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.