by Elizabeth A. Tomlin
Controlled grazing promotes healthy pastures, which in turn promotes healthy soil — and impacts the health and productivity of the cows grazing those pastures.
This fact was shown at Red Gate Farms, Hamilton, NY, during an informative pasture walk and soil health demonstration in partnership with NY Grazinglands Coalition; Cornell University’s South Central New York (SCNY) Dairy and Field Crops team, and the NY Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship.
Red Gate Farms is the second-largest grazing dairy in New York State, and owners Bruce and Nancy Rivington, are a co-owner in Kriemhild Dairy, producers of ‘Meadow Butter’, a product of grass-fed cows.
The Rivington family first moved to the property, where their farm is now established, in the year 2000.
At the time the farmland had been in conventional crops for many years, which had depleted the land of its nutrients and fertility. Conventional tillage and cultivating had caused damage to the soil. This left little behind for the Rivingtons to work with, as their desire was to establish a grazing herd and to do that they obviously needed good grazing pastures.
With that in mind the Rivingtons planned a holistic healing plan to restore the land. They seeded with perennial grasses, and starting with a small herd, they proceeded with their plan, nurturing their pastures, using only cows and pasture management.
Today Rivington reports that the herd, which includes about 350 milking cows, has access to more than 500 acres of lush pastures.
Rivington and his son Brian led a pasture walk at their Red Gate Farms demonstrating the positive impact that controlled grazing has had on their pastures.
“Our fields, with a couple of exceptions, have all been in grass for 18 years,” Rivington said. “It’s a nice dense pasture. We’ve got a wide variety of native grasses and legumes and summer rye grass, but most of what we have is timothy and blue grass.”
Research shows that grass roots form a mirror image of the grass top, so grazing short periods of time results in the pruning of both. Resting the pasture from these short periods of grazing enables roots to grow stronger.
Rivington’s herd is rotated twice daily to achieve these results.
“They get fresh grass every 12 hours, and then the fields get rested again,” he explained.
This method encourages desirable plants to develop stronger root systems, discouraging the establishment of weeds.
Fay Benson, Cornell University SCNY Regional Team/ Education Coordinator NY Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, was on hand at the event to demonstrate and explain how healthy root systems impact soil health.
“The management at Red Gate Dairy focuses on following the natural interaction of ruminants and grass growth,” observed Benson. “The farm doesn’t feed any grain to the cows, which mostly eliminates the need to plow the land. Since the soils at Red Gate are always covered with a living crop, the soil health is maintained — versus a farm that feeds mostly corn silage and soybeans, since those crops require regular tilling or plowing of the soil.”
Benson provided a more detailed and hands-on demonstration with some assistance from Sarah Ficken, Agriculture Subject Educator, CCE Madison County, and the New York Grazinglands Coalition Soil Health Trailer.
In one demonstration a ‘slake test’ showed the same soil, managed differently; one with annual plowing and the other with continuous grass having been grown.
“The break down of lumps of the plowed soil show the weakness of the soil aggregates,” Benson explained. “In the continuous grass soil, the aggregates are much stronger. This is due to the gluing affect on soil particles by the biology. High levels of biology are maintained in a grass soil due to the sugars the plants ‘leak’ out of their roots, and the higher levels of organic matter. Both are sources of food for the biology.”
Benson also displayed a rainfall simulator, set up with soils from different agricultural fields, including a corn silage field and two types of pasture soils.
Plowed soils showed weaker aggregates, displayed in more run off and soil loss, which results in erosion.
On the other hand, the pasture soils showed little or no runoff.
“Water peculated through,” explained Benson. “Which in a field would mean the water is stored for dry weather.”
Benson pointed out some important and interesting facts about soil.
“For every 1 percent increase in soil organic matter, the soil can hold 20,000 gallons of water, per acre — 1 inch of rain equals 27,000 gallons.”
“Plants will exude through their roots 40-50 percent of the sugars they produce through photosynthesis to feed the underground biology, and in a gram of healthy soil there are billions of bacteria, millions of fungi, and thousands of protozoa.”
Benson noted that at Red Gate Farm, the herd is a seasonal herd, with the cows drying off in December and calving again in March and April.
“Since the best grass growth here in the Northeast is in spring and early summer, they set their breeding so that when the cows are at their highest production the pastures are also at their highest production.”
Rivington says his soils are tested at least every three years and, other than manure, nothing is added to the pastures.
In addition to the lush pastures and high butterfat percentage that has been achieved through the 100 percent grazing of the herd, Rivington says there are other benefits as well.
“Grazing is important to the butter because the amino acid profile is better when the cows are grazing fresh grass. It’s got health benefits as well as getting a good taste, you’re not getting a silage taste or any other taste. To me, that’s a benefit,” he said.