by Tamara Scully
Conservation planners may not be familiar with working with certified organic livestock producers, and may harbor misconceptions about organic farming. Yet conservation planning and organic livestock farming share the same foundation: to preserve natural resources and promote biodiversity.
“Organic farming lines up really well with conservation planning,” Chad Cochrane, District Conservationist for Natural Resources Conservation Service in New Hampshire said. “We already have a connection.”
Cochrane, along with organic farmer Steve Normanton, of Normanton Grass-fed Beef, in Litchfield, NH, recently presented a webinar aimed at educating conservation planners on how best to work with organic livestock producers.
“Organic farming can be somewhat controversial, either in a positive or a negative way,” Cochrane said. “Organic farming comes with extra burdens, extra responsibilities, and sometimes extra work.”
While organic farmers face many of the same concerns and constraints as conventional farmers, they also face restrictions on inputs, and have less tools to turn to when correcting problems which arise, such as pest and disease issues. Availability of seed and feed is another concern. The organic regulations do affect conservation planning, and planners should familiarize themselves with organic guidelines, to better understand some of the challenges.
“You’re trying not to plan something that conflicts with their organic plan,” Cochrane said. “Don’t let the rules be something that scares you away. Be a little creative and a little flexible.”
Organic farmers are nothing if not adaptable. Finding ways to overcome issues which arise, without turning to solutions such as chemical protectants, requires ingenuity.
“There is no quick fix in the type of farming that we do,” Normanton said. Having a conservation planner — Cochrane — who understands the need to reduce off-farm inputs, and to implement natural strategies to avoid problems has been extremely helpful, he said.
At Normanton’s home farm of 68 acres, the soil is very sandy, and some of the land is in a flood plain. There was no pasture when he began to establish his farm, and he has met many challenges along the way. Fence posts can not be pressure-treated, so black locust has been used. When trying to establish native warm-season grasses, he has not been able to find a source of certified organic seed, and needed an exemption from his certifier.
“Organic farmers have to be very adaptable to situations. They can not just do the same thing over and over again,” Cochrane said. “They’ve got to try new things and do it differently.”
The NRCS’s prescribed grazing plans are a “natural fit” for organic livestock producers. Rotational grazing is “the most efficient way to capture energy and put on animal mass,” Cochrane said, and also builds soil health, protects water quality and allows animals to engage in their natural behaviors, all of which are tenets of organic farming.
“There’s not much difference between grazing organic livestock and grazing conventional livestock when you’ve got a good rotational grazing system in place,” Normanton said. “Multiple species help to combat internal parasite issues.”
One concern organic growers do have is naturally reducing both internal and external parasites. Grazing management can help to do this. Multi-species grazing is one important tool. Chickens — both hens and broilers in Normanton’s system — follow the cattle, distribute the manure, eat the fly larvae and add nutrients to promote rapid forage regrowth.
“Chicken manure is very similar to urea,” Normanton said.
Silvopasturing is a growing area of interest among organic livestock farmers, Cochrane said. Grazing in shaded areas not only extends the grazing season by providing additional pasture, it also satisfies the organic requirements for shade. Pigs are often being used to prepare wooded areas. Normanton has pigs on a four-year rotation throughout the farm, establishing pastures among the wooded areas.
Fencing, water sources and forages are the foundation of successful grazing. Fencing off riparian buffers keeps nutrients out of waters, whether they are farm ponds or rivers. Allowing some access for “flash grazing” can keep areas neat, and add some additional pasture when needed, without impacted water quality.
When rotationally grazing, a concern is getting water to spread-out paddocks. One answer is using trailers to tow water out to individual paddocks. For farmers who need automated systems, more permanent answers need to be developed. If animals are on pasture in the winter, as they often are in organic systems, keeping water and water sources from freezing needs to be addressed. In addition, moving the water source within a paddock can prevent manure build-up, parasite issues and soil compaction, so this may be an important consideration, particularly for organic farmers.
As an organic farmer, Normanton has “no weed control, really, except for grazing and mowing,” and also faces concern finding certified organic seeds for pasture improvement or establishment.
“I’m not just organic, I’m grass-fed as well,” he said, so having the longest season of best-quality forages is important.
Establishing high-quality pastures for the longest grazing season possible, offsetting the expense of needing to purchase certified organic feed, is a primary concern. In an effort to increase the amount of high-quality forages, no-till seeding — to reduce erosion and increase soil health, while addressing weed and fertility concerns — is a recommended practice. The benefits of no-till interseeding of pastures include: avoiding bringing rocks to the surface; decreasing erosion and increasing soil health; boosting the established forages; and saving energy by simply clipping and seed, Cochrane said.
“If you’re putting on all your animal weight through grazing, they need to be eating high-quality and locally-adapted forages,” Cochrane said. The goal is to help producers “gain animal mass more quickly and at the same time protect natural resources.”
Warm-season grasses provide forage during the hot, dry summer months. They have a different metabolism than cool season grasses, allowing them to thrive under these adverse conditions. These native plants are “adapted to hot, dry, nutrient-poor” environments. While slow to establish, “in time, they provide a good forage base,” Cochrane explained.
Adding annual forages is another way to extend the grazing season and add animal gain. Sudangrass and sorghum mixes are being interseeded into Normanton’s pastures. The cool season grasses are closely grazed, prior to interseeding. These plants, unlike native warm-season grasses, do need fertile soils to thrive. But they establish quickly, fill a niche, and allow for high-quality spring, summer and fall forages.
“If you are not working with organic growers, I think you are missing out on a lot,” Cochrane said. “Organic growers have the same classic issues that anyone has when you have livestock on a property.” For planners working with organic producers, it’s all about assessing an issue and “thinking about it in another way.”