Finding the balance in times of changeby Troy Bishopp

LAKE MOREY, VT – What makes a room full of farmers erupt in a standing ovation for the 24th Vermont Grazing and Livestock Conference keynote speaker, Dr. Jason Rowntree? His heartfelt message that regenerative-acting farmers can heal the planet, feed a populace with nutrient-dense food and provide a nation with a path to resiliency for their grandchildren. Nothing stirs farmers’ emotions more than being appreciated for their toil and stewardship.This year’s theme of finding balance in times of change brought over 300 farmers, agribusinesses and service providers into the adaptive management mindset.

“How can we ever find stable ground in a changing landscape?” asked conference coordinators Meghan Sheradin, Jenn Colby and Colene Reed. “Our intention is to propose strategies based in flexibility, resiliency, learning from one another, making connections, listening, finding new ways to be successful and building on the great foundations before us. These are not prescriptive strategies, but principles to help each of us address new challenges as they evolve. If we are to be successful, we must do so together. None of us is as smart and as strong and as successful as all of us together.”

The two-day annual event started on Friday with intensive sessions on outdoor hog production led by farmers Bill Parke of Blackview Farm, Peter Burrows of Brown Boar Farm and Phelan O’Connor from Pigasus Meats. Discussions centered on winter management, pasture rotations and woodlot systems as well as sharing thoughts on the future of outdoor pork production in a changing marketplace for meat in New England.

A large group also bundled up for a winter cattle management field trip to Dave and Jody Horan’s Northeast Corner Beef Farm, where they raise registered Hereford cattle and showcased their redesigned housing after a barn fire in 2007, now an easier-to-manage and easier-to-calve system. The contingent then visited Earl Ransom’s Rock Bottom Dairy Farm, home of Strafford Organic Creamery, where they learned about the evolution of managing bedding pack barns, composting and nutrient management while enjoying homemade ice cream.

The learning continued with tools, decisions and practical applications in sheep genetics and finding effective uses in estimating breeding values to increase production of grass-fed lamb with Tom Hodgmann of Waldoview Farm in Maine. Dr. Jason Rowntree, Ph.D., of Michigan State University, Dr. Sheila Patinkin of Vermont Wagyu and Brent Beidler of Beidler Family Farm teamed up for a chat about developing the “right” genetics for cattle on grass and how to make good decisions to get there. Their perspectives came from research, using ultrasound and other data to select sires for particular traits, culling decisions, keen observation and maximizing selection to increase forage efficiency and improve profitability.

The day finished with the pros and cons of a custom grazing business opportunity, a focus group to seek farmers’ input on existing climate adaptation tools and resources through UVM research, and a riveting regenerative agriculture example presentation from Seth Itzkan of Soil4Climate, from his recent trip to Kenya and the Massai Center for Regenerative Pastoralism.

A trade show ensued, followed by dinner and a special “Farmer Origin” story matinee where they shared tales of their mentors, “a-ha” moments and trials and triumphs in farming. It was also a celebration to honor the “forage-centric” Dr. Sid Bosworth, UVM’s state Extension specialist in agronomy who mentored countless farmers and students around the Northeast who recently announced his retirement plans.

Saturday’s agenda featured workshops on grazing management, hiring farmers as watershed contractors, options to rejuvenate old hay fields, parasite control in small ruminants, expanding northeast ruminant meat production, real issues facing young producers, beef profitability indicators, farmer innovations, marketing and agroforestry. The pump was primed for Rowntree to deliver a pasture view on restoring carbon to the soil and debunking some common myths about grazing animals.

“Because of tillage or overgrazing, roughly half of the ‘pre-Green Revolution’ soil carbon has been eroded. This soil loss has caused challenges to functioning water cycles combined with increases in sedimentation and eutrophication in large water bodies. To counter these agriculture challenges, there is growing research that indicates there are agriculture practices that can actually restore large amounts of carbon back into the soil while improving water cycling. These agriculture practices are considered ‘regenerative’ because they leave the land improved from an ecosystem service standpoint,” he explained.

The associate professor of animal science at Michigan State and holistic management educator said he was hopeful to be investing in biological systems. “The linear agricultural system is broken and can’t breathe on the perspective of ‘always more,’ and that technology will solve the problems. We have killed it with technology – but how about the forests, the grasslands, the oceans and the soil biology?” asked Rowntree. What fires up the passionate soil saver? He said it’s holistic planned grazing (HPG) and adaptive multi-paddock grazing (AMP).

“The number one problem around the world is over-grazing; however, the epic debate surrounds ‘refereed science,’ where the animals are the perceived problem,” said Rowntree. “We must address our land management footprint before reports like EAT-Lancet suggest we cut our meat consumption by 90% to save the planet. That’s a reductionist mindset with a lot of misconstrued notions.”

Using AMP grazing, land managers can allow cattle to graze an area with relatively high density, like wild migrating herds, but then allow for adequate plant recovery. This allows for a deeper, healthier root systems and builds organic matter in the soil, which acts as a sponge for available moisture. “Our four-year study suggests that AMP grazing can potentially offset greenhouse gas emissions, and the finishing phase of beef production could be a net carbon sink, with carbon levels staying in the green rather than in the red,” said Rowntree.

In Rowntree’s and other scientific partners’ research, titled “Impacts of soil carbon sequestration on life cycle greenhouse gas emissions in Midwestern USA beef finishing systems,” it was found that AMP can sequester large amounts of soil carbon, emissions from the grazing system were offset completely by soil carbon sequestration and soil carbon sequestration from well-managed grazing may help to mitigate climate change.

Rowntree sees industry mindsets wanting to lower their carbon footprint by 30%, and starting to partner with “regen” farmers because they see the potential of managing wholes, plants, grazing animals and soil health as drivers toward this mission. “We are developing ecological outcome verification and lifecycle value assessment tools to gauge grazing lands ecological health. We must monitor and calibrate the results in real time in an effort to be rewarded for good management,” said Rowntree.

“Today the oil industry is paid to extract carbon at a rate of $400/ton while farmers are being paid $15/ton to put it back with no allowance for water. Equity is needed. Strategies that reward farmers at higher monetary rates are necessary because the future is in the soil and its proper management,” emphasized Rowntree.

“I think we must operate under the premise that agriculture is part of a natural, complex system and that it needs to change to a holistically managed, regenerative framework to thrive. We must find balance between land use and economic resilience. Changes must be fostered from land managers to technical advances. We must act now and be working together for our future,” he stated.