FAIRLEE, VT— The menu at this year’s 18th annual Vermont Grazing and Livestock Conference had over 300 farmers from around the Northeast munching on grazing, soil health, financial and life goal entrees rich in practical knowledge. Complementing the enthusiasm for this whole farm decision-making focus were delicious local food choices and the ever popular ice cream social that filled participants’ stomachs and minds with a new perspective for the future of grass-based farming.
Michigan farmer, veterinarian, retired Michigan State Extension Livestock Educator and former President of Holistic Management International (HMI), Dr. Ben Bartlett, was a tireless presenter in teaching the principles of successful grazing, low stress livestock handling, running a profitable, pleasurable sheep/cattle farm while giving a keynote address entitled Decisions — More than the Sum(s) of the Parts.
In it he asked the audience, “Are you running the farm or is it running you?” He deemed that “success is making progress towards what you want from life” and introduced graziers to the life pie chart where financial, environmental and family holistic goals are woven into a “guidepost” that decisions are tested and monitored against. He recalled client stories where the drive to produce always out-weighed “going to the kids’ events” and drove a wedge in the farm’s overall viability. “It’s about balance. For those brave enough to sit down with their spouse, the aim is to get the right balance of doing the right things and doing things right,” he said.
The Lake Morey Resort’s parking lot became the conference’s first-ever live animal handling venue as Dr. Ben literally led farmers through a hands-on demo of animal behavior, facility dos and don’ts, animal flight zones and sorting techniques which all complemented his indoor lectures.
Another big component of the “wholes” concept focused on soil health improvement and looking at the intrigue jungle below the surface affectionately known as the soil food web. Abe Collins of Collins Grazing LLC poignantly stated: “Bare soil cannot be a part of our country’s sustainability.”
USDA-NRCS East Tech Service Center Agronomist, Steve Woodruff, aka “Mr. Rainfall Simulator,” asked the audience why there is so much emphasis on soil health? “The prediction of the world’s population growing to 9 billion by 2050, food production to feed this populace, loss of prime farmland to development and energy demand from biofuels and fertilizers all point to building more productive moisture retaining soils instead of just conserving what we have left,” he said. In addition soil quality and ground cover will become an essential strategy in the looming Lake Champlain Phosphorus TMDL jointly developed by the States of Vermont and New York.
USDA-NRCS Windham County, Connecticut District Conservationist, Ray Covino revealed how important soil health, living cover crops and biological “glues” are in retaining water and stopping erosion with the always popular slake test and rainfall simulator demonstration. This set the stage for a look at how the implementation of soil health practices maximize animal performance and per-acre production while potentially saving millions of dollars for taxpayers as farmers perform these ecosystem services.
Eric Noel, Vermont Grass Farmers Association’s president of Health Hero Farm in Hero, VT; Abe Collins, consultant and co-founder of the Soil Carbon Coalition; and the Champlain Valley UVM Extension team of Jeff Carter and Kirsten Workman all hit the mark by teaching farmers about planned grazing, “manure-ology,” cover crop mixes, no-till planting strategies and the financial and water quality benefits of enhancing the soil’s skin.
Jennifer Colby, conference coordinator for the Pasture Program at the UVM Extension Center for Sustainable Agriculture, summed up the soil health piece this way: “As grass-based farmers work to improve systems with an eye in working complementarily with nature, it’s an easy alignment to focus on the biological aspects of the soil food web. Grass-based farmers are ecosystem-minded by necessity, and soil health is an emphasis on building soil ecosystems. There’s a lot more to learn, but this is a first step in the conversation.”
Ashley Bridge from the Adirondack Graziers Cooperative commented on this exciting knowledge: “I love plants and learning how to manage livestock and nurture the ecosystem process with the soil microbes in mind. It feels like the right thing to do.”
Anchoring the other “sums” were 30 additional workshops on grazing fundamentals, designing on-farm research, grass-fed beef production systems, climate change, farm viability strategies, making high quality baleage, balancing ruminant nutrition, extending the grazing season, marketing and a host of lunchtime discussion groups, kids’ conference, one-on-one business planning with the New Farmer Network, a robust trade show and the first ever on-stage, Lake Morey 4-H swine husbandry demo.
The 18th annual grazing conference was sponsored and supported by the Central New York RC&D Council in partnership with the NESARE Holistic Planned Grazing Training PDP Project, The USDA Risk Management Agency, CROPP Cooperative/Organic Valley, Vermont Agricultural Credit Corp., Vermont Economic Development Authority, Vermont Energy Investment Corporation, Wellscroft Fence Systems, Morrison’s Custom Feeds, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Vermont Beef Industry Council, Green Mountain at Spring-Rock Farm, VT Ag Resilience, Westminster Meats, Yankee Farm Credit, City Market Onion River Co-Op, Dirigo Quality Meats, Pyle Agency, Inc., Shelburne Farms, Two Rivers-Ottauquechee Regional Commission, Rural Vermont, UVM Extension Service, UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture, USDA/NRCS VT GLCI, O’ Bread, VT Smoke & Cure, Jasper Hill Farm, Cabot Cooperative Creamery, Applecheek Farm, Cloudland Farm, Cascade Brook Farm, Guild Fine Meats, Lakeway Farm, Wagner Ranch, Healthy Living Market, Horizon Organic, Rock Bottom Farm at Strafford Organic Creamery, Fat Toad Farm.