In a roundtable discussion at the annual Northeast Grazing and Livestock Conference, producers discussed forage biodiversity.

  • Matt Choiniere of Choiniere Family Farm, Highgate, VT

Choiniere and his dad ship certified organic milk to Organic Valley’s Vermont GrassMilk route.  Under their management, they have 140 acres of pasture and 350 acres of hayland and they milk 80 Holsteins.

According to Choiniere, “Biodiversity is something that is not limited to plants and animals. It also includes the microbes in the soil and the fungus, bacteria and all the insects and little things we can’t see.”

Rotational grazing has been a key practice in achieving greater biodiversity in their pasture system. Over time, their intensive approach – moving the herd every 12 hours – has helped to eliminate undesirable grass species and perennial weeds.

Grazing didn’t, however, increase their legume species, so they have successfully used frost seeding to introduce red clover. They have also used a power harrow with a seeder attached to the back. “So, we’re not necessarily deep tiling, but just prepping a seedbed and broadcasting seed on top of that. It’s proven to be a good way to incorporate new species,” Choiniere said. With this method, they have introduced vetch, plantain and chicory.

The farm has also tried a technique called ripsowing. The practice involves using a subsoiler to rip 14-inch deep trenches into an existing pasture. The subsoiler is equipped with a seeder and liquid injector, which sprays a home-brewed biofertilizer on top of the seeds. The seeds are laid in the trenches and then rolled.

They have had challenges with ripsowing, however. Germination is successful but getting the perennials to establish has proved difficult. “I don’t necessarily think it’s the fault of the ripsower. It’s also operator error in seeding depth and having the roller tension on enough to close the rips back up so there’s actually a seed bed for the seeds to land in,” Choiniere said.

By measuring milk production and components and using forage analyses, Choiniere feels he is able to quantify how successful their attempts to improve biodiversity are. “You can compare from one field to the next where you’ve taken steps to improve and where you have not,” he said.

To measure whether the efforts to increase biodiversity are successful, Choiniere also relies on visual cues. He said there are more insect and plant species in the pastures. One surprise is how fast manure patties disappear.

“When we first started grazing, you’d still have some manure left out there from the previous grazing, but now within a day, there’s fresh manure patties full of dung beetle holes,” he said. Not only have insect populations increased on their farm, but also bird populations.

Different takes on biodiversity

This is the ripsower in action. Photo courtesy of Choiniere Family Farm

  • Katherine Carestio of Back Bone Farm, Hector, NY

Carestio raises 45 head of grass-fed beef in the Finger Lakes region, finishing about 15 head per year. In 2015, she and her husband began reclaiming 75 acres of marginal pasture ground dominated by brush and goldenrod. They’ve added an additional 25 acres of pasture since then.

She said, “I consider myself a grass farmer whose main job it is to capture sunlight and manage forages. We’re trying to provide this grassland ecosystem that supports a variety of microorganisms in addition to the cows.”

Their soils were very low in phosphorus, so once they removed the brush, their first priority was spreading lime to help increase the biodiversity of plant species. Another biodiversity practice they use is bale grazing. They purchase all of their winter forages. Although it’s more labor intensive, they unroll the bales of dry hay directly on their pastures during the non-grazing months.

According to Carestio, the seeds in the hay eventually germinate, increasing the diversity and density of their pasture species. By strategically placing the bales, she feels she can target areas that need improvement.

This winter, she reduced the density of hay fed on pasture to two tons per acre. Her hope is that she can prevent damage to the pastures, especially when it’s muddy.

It has taken five years, according to Carestio, to see the benefits of their efforts to increase biodiversity. She can now see the increased water holding capacity of their soils and the soil’s ability to recover after extreme weather events. She is also getting more pounds of forage per acre, which has enabled her to increase her herd size without needing additional land.

  • Matt Harris of Harris Farm, Dayton, Maine

Harris Farm direct markets milk, beef, sweet corn and mixed vegetables in southern Maine. Harris manages the dairy and beef parts of the operation. He said that the varying soil types on their farm push him to take biodiversity into account.

“We have every soil type known to man from ledge to gravel, to clay to swamp, in a matter of 100 yards. For us, biodiversity is really a necessity in order to utilize the land we have,” he said.

One way he copes with these differences in soil conditions is by using 12 different species when reseeding a hayfield. Another strategy was the purchase of a no-till drill. “We’ve moved into an 80% no-till system. One of the best investments we have ever made for biodiversity on our farm is a Great Plains no-till drill,” he said. “It allows us to improve the forage stand without having to do any soil disturbance or tillage to the ecosystem we can’t see below ground.”

The no-till drill also allows him to better utilize cover crops, getting them in faster in autumn with less soil disturbance. In spring, they plant corn with the drill, and it’s had a noticeable impact on the soil structure and fungi, according to Harris.

Harris is also experimenting with using winter forages to increase the diversity of his stored feed. If he plans to reseed a perennial stand of weak hay the following spring, he will no-till a winter forage mix into the field in autumn. This intermediate cropping step helps dry out the soil in spring as well as provide an early cutting of feed. He believes the slightly drier soil in the spring widens his planting window for the new hay stand.

“The traditional method of plowing, discing again and again and trying to get it smoothed out and seeded at the correct time was not working,” he said.

by Sonja Heyck-Merlin