CAZENOVIA, NY — The word of the day for Central New York farmers is RAIN. The monsoonal trend has frustrated farmers, flooded fields, pushed back planting and harvesting schedules and created the need for sunshine to lift morale back on the farm. The silver lining to this year’s moisture is abundant pasture production for those who use it to feed livestock. But how do you begin to manage such overabundance and reconcile a pasture plan with what nature throws at you?
Taking on this daunting, pragmatic question were the husband and wife team of Matt Volz and Lela Niemetz from GreyRock Farm CSA in Cazenovia, NY who hosted 30 farmers at a recent pasture walk supported by a partnership between The Natural Resources Conservation Service, Morrisville State College, and the Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District. “The biggest opportunity for me was hearing about all the options in management styles to help us make profitable decisions,” said Volz.
Matt described the multi-faceted 270-acre, horse-powered farm which showcases a raw milk dairy operation and is diversified in grass-fed beef, pastured pork, broilers, layers, and fresh produce, sold through CSA shares, restaurants and their iconic, post and beam farm-store. The farm is also host to local events and tours and also is a hub for FoodFeasible LLC, where Lela, a registered dietitian-nutritionist, uses local food and agriculture to teach and create cultural wellness programs for individuals, families, and businesses.
The sod stroll, with a coincidental rain cooling the group of farmers, began with how the single strand electric fence, laneway system and above-ground black plastic water line around the 25-acre dairy pasture helps Matt manage his 12, 100% grass-fed, Brown Swiss cows. Portable fencing allowed Volz to create any size paddock he desired and gave him flexibility to move his cows several times a day to keep milk production up by consuming fresh forage often. This strategy on his Honeoye soils yielded lots of grass, maybe too much grass, if that’s even conceivable.
Associate Professor of Soil Science and Agronomy at Morrisville State College, Dr. Jennifer Gilbert Jenkins, liked this situation for soil health as she drove the shovel easily into the cottage cheese-like soil structure. “Look at the diversity of these roots, she said. The better you manage the top growth, the better the root structure and soil biology there is.” She described how forage residuals play a role in regrowth speed but was also concerned about what she termed as a smothering effect of excess pasture growth being trampled. She also addressed compaction issues, weed problems and fertility needs. “Proper grazing management and its associated soil heath properties really do mitigate weather issues, whether it’s too wet or too dry.”
The topic of what to do with Matt’s tall, excess pastures with only one grazing on them, hit upon many farmer discussions and revealed many options, including keeping your pastures well-manicured for public perception. Reigning in the forage growth ideas included traditional haymaking, mob grazing, brush-hogging, stockpile it for fall grazing or for wildlife habitat and one farmer suggested just leaving it until next year to see how the extra rest and residue would help next year’s soil health and fertility. “The most important thing to remember is Matt and Lela’s goals in the process of making these kinds of land management decisions,” commented Dr. Jenkins.
After a full evening in the pasture, the walk ended late with the farm’s milk and cookies served in the farm store with plenty of networking amongst the guests. “I was completely new to this but it gave us plenty of ideas on how to develop our 12-acre family farm using the principles we learned,” said Jaclyn Presley of Chittenango, NY. “This confirms our vision that high quality soil and pastures are totally relatable to a nutrient dense diet for humans, said Niemetz. We’re excited to share with customers the benefits of what we do and why we do it.”
“For me, it was great to have a chance to talk with guests about raw milk and showcase how it’s produced in a manner that respects our commitment to working with nature. We’re hoping these types of events bring customers to our farm so they can taste the terroir of our work. We need this support to be sustainable,” said Matt.
To learn more about soil health and pasture management initiatives email Dr. Jennifer Gilbert Jenkins at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 315-684-6577.