Vermont organic dairy custom grazing network
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.
In order to assist dairy farmers in focusing on their highest-value activities while still meeting the National Organic Program pasture rule, this pilot project is aimed at strengthening and improving relationships between organic dairy farmers and custom grazing operators. The project team has initialized activities 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.
To date, the project team has scheduled four focus groups (two for dairy farmers, two for custom graziers) in early January, 2017. A draft set of questions has been developed. One presentation sharing the results in scheduled for January 21, 2017 at the Vermont Grazing & Livestock Conference. Additional presentations and written recommendations will be shared through appropriate venues throughout the spring. The project is slightly behind the projected timeline due to a change in project staff, and farmer schedules (for focus group attendance), but will be back on schedule in January.
- Facilitation of two focus groups.
Original plan: 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.
Adjusted plan: We have adjusted the focus groups to take place in two different locations for each audience. The day is now planned to start with dairy farmers in the morning overlapping lunch, and work with the custom graziers in the afternoon (also overlapping). This approach is intended to reduce location bias by increasing areas represented, and to also provide a social interaction opportunity (lunch) for both parties while talking with them separately to allow for more honest feedback.
- 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.
Update: Recommendations will be developed after the focus groups for presentation at the Vermont Grazing & Livestock Conference on January 21, 2017. A more polished set of guidelines will be distributed starting in early February, and additional presentation opportunities are being investigated.
- [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.
Update: A matchmaking event will not be taking place at the Vermont Grazing & Livestock Conference, but is being investigated for other events.
- 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.
Update: None at this time.
- 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.
Update: None at this time.
- 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.
Update: No specific update, however the project team is thinking about the evaluation survey as we finalize focus group questions and talk with the target audience, about what will be most important to capture.
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
Update: Quarter 1 milestones were largely pushed into Quarter 2 due to a change in staff and the need to bring new partners up to speed.
Quarter 2 (10/1/16-12/31/16)
- Facilitate two focus groups
- Prepare list/guidelines for best practices
- Assemble and post resource materials
Update: Focus group structure and questions were drafted. Focus group timing was unworkable for enough of the farmers that it was decided to reschedule the events for early January. The initial data presentation is scheduled for January 21, 2017. As the other Quarter 2 milestones depend on the focus groups, those milestones will be pushed to Quarter 3. It is expected that the project will be back on track in Quarter 3.
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
Update: Matches may be initiated through a presentation at the Vermont Grazing & Livestock Conference. The workshop session is a shared time slot with the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship (national) program, and is aimed at connecting older dairy farmers and younger farmers looking to gain experience. If session marketing is successful, this combined audience might be the perfect group to be informally matched.
Quarter 4 (4/1/17-6/30/17)
- Follow up to formalize grazing relationships
- Initiate custom grazing
- Documentation/partner check in
Update: The project team fully expects these milestones will be met as projected.
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
Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes
While it is too soon to describe this occurrence as a direct impact, the timing of this project lines up with an exciting opportunity recently introduced to the Northeast. The Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship program is a national, structured apprenticeship program designed to connect experienced dairy farmers with less experienced farmers seeking to round out their grazing education and work experience. Initiated in Wisconsin, the program has only recently been introduced in this region and now has two Northeast education coordinators; one in Maine and one in New York. While not a program strictly for certified organic producers, the grazing component is an absolute requirement (as described in our previous materials, and the project summary), and thus a natural fit with this SARE project. We expect that the outreach will easily overlap, and look forward to new opportunities arising from this partnership.