Celebrating the green-up and the underground livestock

CEW-MR-1-Winter green up1by Troy Bishopp

ALBANY, NY — This year’s robust installment of Albany County’s Cornell Cooperative Extension Winter Green-Up Grass-Fed Grazing Conference highlighted burgeoning grass-fed markets, grazing management and the little guys under the soil. As guest speaker, Missouri’s NRCS State Soil Health Conservationist and Beef Farmer Doug Peterson put it, “It’s all about the soil biology.”

The theme throughout the two-day event resonated well with farmers from around the Northeast who continue to hone their skills and minds on how to improve their operations. And lest we forget knowledge is better taken with food, graziers enjoyed “the best conference meals in the region.”

Doug set the stage by addressing his key points: Disturb the soil less, celebrate diversity, feed your underground flora and fauna, keep the soil covered with living roots and integrate livestock into the system. He gave an impassioned plea to improve the water cycle and infiltration rates through building organic matter and giving the land “a balanced diet of plant, animal and root diversity.”

“I always look to the prairie for answers. It’s the gold standard system.”

The conservation veteran pulled no punches in trying to understand and fix the soil through feeding the microbes. He talked about managing soil livestock with purpose and thought which came back to soil moisture and mineral conditions because they live in a sub-aquatic environment. “I agree with Holistic Management founder, Allan Savory: Animal impact is our most powerful tool for improving land with planned grazing. The grazing, root pulsing, trampling of the forage and defecating, all feed this biogeochemical mineral cycle system, he said. The true profit in farming has always been right under our feet.”

He also shared his poignant (and needed) observations on the state of soil and why he is so passionate about improving soil health. “I’m very concerned about soil loss and the broken water and mineral cycles. In my state alone, we have converted 1.5 million acres of grass back into row crops. We have floods in one watershed and drought in another. We have dust storms again. With over 6 billion tons of soil loss in the United States, I’m concerned about the consequences for the next generations. History has a funny way of repeating itself. It’s time to take a longer view of agricultural management practices.”

The Tioga County Boys, Brian Reaser and Drew Lewis gave jovial perspectives on custom grazing, grazing management, grass finishing cattle and learning from mistakes made. Brian attributed much of his knowledge to interning on New Zealand grazing dairies and at Ian Mitchell-Innes’s Ranch in South Africa managing 7,000 head of cattle fighting “bugs the size of golf balls” along with working with farmers in the Susquehanna River Basin at the Tioga County SWCD as a Resource Conservationist.

He said his perspective in grazing has changed. “We need to pay more attention to getting more energy from our grasses for top animal performance. It means changing how you graze and only taking the top third of a generally taller (greater than 12 inches) sward. Monitoring your animal’s rumen fill and rumen PH are keys to success. I’ve learned grazing is about balancing the needs of the animals, microbes with your goals. It’s why I believe in planning all my activities on a grazing chart.”

Drew echoed many of Brian’s sentiments since taking the helm at Brother’s Ridge Farm in Newark Valley and selling grass-finished beef and lamb through the Adirondack Grazers Cooperative. He also shared his experience with leasing land and reclamation strategies. “The combination of grazing cows and sheep really helps improve land. I would unequivocally say having guys like Brian and a group of mentors and peers who share knowledge and provide services for one another has been the single most important fact in my becoming a successful farmer and businessman.”

Jeff Moyer, organic crop systems guru at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, PA, no-till roller crimper designer and past Chairman of the National Organic Standards Board, gave an enlightened presentation in replacing chemistry and biotechnology with biology. His lively conversation, statistics and graphs focused on reducing the carbon footprint through improving the organic matter in the soil and feeding the mycorrhizal fungi. “If I can get soil to 10 percent organic matter in my lifetime, I’ll consider my farming occupation a success.” He also showed practical field trials using cover crop strategies, weed supression and integrating livestock as a needed soil builder.

Popular Green-up speaker, Allen Williams from LMC, LLC an agriculture and food industry consulting firm, gave attendees a snapshot of what’s going on in the beef industry. He brought to bear the high grain prices, record low cattle inventory and severe drought will test the consumer’s drive to pay higher prices. In regards to the grass-fed sector, he said, “Sales have already topped 2.5 billion dollars but is also challenged by the lack of inventory and grass-finishing practitioners. The opportunity in all sectors to be profitable is the optimization of more forage rather than grain.”

He also spoke about improving grazing management, cattle genetics and monitoring brix levels in the pasture in addition to feeding the soil and getting cow costs well below $588  per year to be profitable.

New York State Senator and only farmer serving in the State Senate, Cecilia Tkaczyk, from the 46th Senate District, outlined her work on the agriculture, environmental conservation and education committees. She was overjoyed to have the opportunity to work with the newly appointed New York State Ag Commissioner, Richard Ball from neighboring county Schoharie County on many local food initiatives.

Ross Hackerson of Gray Dog’s Farm in Huntington, MA summed up the two day event with enthusiasm. “Its got great speakers and great food at an affordable price. It’s consistently the best darn conference in the region, said Ross.

For more information on the ideas and presentations shared, give Tom Gallagher a call at the Albany Co. CCE office at 518-765-3500 or visit the website at www.ccealbany.com for updates.

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