CANASTOTA, NY – The bliss of autumn is the delight of watching the leaves in their final dance and enjoying the bucolic scene of grazing cows. It was the backdrop for a “casual” pasture walk at Nathan and Kristine Weaver’s 100% grass-fed organic dairy farm featuring Organic Valley’s veterinarian and grazing specialist Dr. Greg Brickner of Wisconsin and grazing consultant Sarah Flack of Vermont.
The premise of the roadshow to the Weavers’ and five other dairies in South Central New York was to learn about successes and hurdles from the 2023 grazing season and discuss ways to become more resilient. The answers were as close as the shovel full of well-aggregated pasture soil containing over 20 worms that Flack unearthed.
Nathan explained his grazing management as “deliberate,” in the context of improving on an individual field by field basis. “It’s about giving the cow the best bite of grass and passing that nutrition to our customers,” he emphasized.
“We try to be flexible in our approach and what the land is telling us,” Nathan said. Based on soil tests, plant species, milk production per paddock and keen observation, he has spread chicken litter, fed purchased hay on land, reseeded and used variable daily grazing moves and intentional grass recovery periods to stimulate improvement on his new farm.
“We try to emulate the old proverb that suggests: The footstep of the farmer is the best fertilizer,” he said.
Brickner used the footstep approach to highlight his latest perspective (as written in the August Graze Magazine) where he discussed the tension of building pasture soil organic matter when grass-fed dairies ship a lot of carbon off the farm in the milk, with not much left for soil building.
“Claims from regenerative beef farmers are not the same claims that dairy farms can make,” said Brickner.
He alluded to the constant juxtaposition of finding balance between milk production and building fertility within the framework of grazing profitability. “In my travels, there is simply not enough fertility in the soil and farmers are in a financial pinch of running high stocking rates and not leaving enough residual behind or have a high land debt-to-animal ratio that is unsustainable.
“The carbon budget cannot be cheated,” he continued. “A grazing system either leaves enough carbon behind to build organic matter or it takes too much and external sources of fertility are needed. Finding the balance and what tools can be used by organic dairy farms is what were here to learn.”
Another hot topic discussed was controlling meadow or spotted knapweed in pastures. “It’s more allelopathic than goldenrod,” said Flack.
The Weavers are getting a handle on it by grazing it hard, “at the time of flowering,” clipping it and doing targeted overseeding; the most effective tool has been bale grazing dairy replacements on an infested field. It appears the flush of impact and fertility along with the native seed bank proliferation has out competed it.
“We’re also seeing some progress with releasing ‘seed head weevils’ into stands, depending on knapweed species,” said Flack.
Brickner gave an update on Organic Valley’s Satellite Grazing Program, in which members can receive a weekly normalized difference vegetation index (NDVI) data map from imagery generated by their “PlanetScope” satellite technology.
According to Esri.com, “With near-daily satellite images and custom mapping, Organic Valley provides accurate pasture condition reports to the farmer’s inbox or mailbox. Though high tech behind the scenes, the delivered product is a simple report that anyone can use, including the sizable percentage of Organic Valley’s membership that is Amish or Mennonite.”
The reports using satellite imagery, automated with geographic information system (GIS) technology, to indicate the health of each paddock, including details used to determine which should be grazed, cut or left to grow.
“The data are then uploaded to a standardized graph or ‘feed wedge’ which shows the paddock that contains the most ready-to-eat grass to the one that contains the least,” said Brickner. “The tool only complements the decision-making power of the farmer’s footsteps.”
The two-hour pasture walk celebrated progress through the eyes and feet of the practitioners where true resilience lies. After the brisk exchange of ideas and context, farmers enjoyed a cornucopia of Organic Valley dairy products and homemade baked goods. That’s carbon worth sharing.
by Troy Bishopp