Northeast Pasture Consortium accentuates the power of grass

by Troy Bishopp

FAIRLEE, VT – With millions of acres of pastureland and hay crops, the wise use and management of grasslands and forage systems to power the Northeast economy, regenerate agriculture, feed the populace and provide ecosystem services is immense. These humble sods contain opportunities to improve agriculture sustainability while solving many climate resiliency and food sovereignty issues. However, the quiet grass needs some PR now and then to accentuate the positives.

For 24 years, the head cheerleader in this effort has been the Northeast Pasture Consortium. Since its inception, the consortium comprised of member states Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and West Virginia has driven timely, pasture-based information and collaborative research among land grant universities, USDA-Agriculture Research Service (ARS), nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector.

The annual meeting of private and public sector stakeholders held this year in Vermont focused on the misunderstood fescue species, pastured pigs, silvopasture, winter grazing, soil compaction in pastures and pasture practices to achieve Chesapeake Bay’s TMDL pollution diet.

“This event is one of Vermont’s largest perennial gatherings of the people who raise animals on pasture and the service providers that support them,” said Executive Director James Cropper.

The fescues are getting another look as wet weather and stockpiling needs are on the minds of Northeast farmers. Jessica Williamson from Penn State gave an overview of tall fescue toxicosis, which is the second largest annual economic loss to the U.S. cattle industry, and why there is interest in soft-leaf varieties and meadow fescues for palatability improvements.

Jerome Magnuson from DLF Pickseed brought a stimulating message of what cows really want. “Animals’ preference is based on sugar and energy content in the plant more than how soft the leaf is. There’s no direct relationship between leaf softness and digestibility,” said Magnuson. “We need more research, however, as we investigate how new varieties react to Northeast soils and weather.”

Cornell University Forage Specialist Jerry Cherney introduced meadow fescue as a plant that’s been around for 11,000 years and thrives in the Northeast, “even though it’s a slow starter in a pasture or hay field.” His forage trials show improvement when it’s sown with alfalfa or other mixtures at one to three pounds per acre. “The neutral detergent fiber digestibility (NDF) is 2 to 4% higher than other grasses. It makes it much better in producing milk and daily gain than other fescues. Just when you think it didn’t come up after planting, it’ll surprise you,” said Cherney. “Don’t give up on it.”

In the inaugural pasture pigs session, Phil Race of Valley View Devons in Nunda, NY, and Don Wild of Wild Acres Family Farm in Great Valley, NY, shared their experiences of raising heritage fresh air pork/woodland pork and harnessing their instinctive behaviors to produce meat their customers like. They described their feeding, fencing, grazing and handling practices and silvopasture systems within the 480A Forestry Program.

Silvopasture presenters Kate MacFarland from the U.S. Forest Service, Jeff Jourdain of Jourdain Forest Management in Becket, MA, and Kevin Ogles from USDA-NRCS raised the bar of understanding for “silvopastoralism.” They could not stress enough the need for sound planning and skilled management. The group highlighted what is and isn’t a silvopasture in the Northeast, establishing silvopasture from a forest perspective and how to identify the primary objective of integrating animals and woodlands. “The forestry must be sound,” said Jourdain. “No resource is managed to the detriment of the other.”

Winter or extended grazing was a topic of particular interest as the weather challenges of 2019 led to feed inventory shortages. Jessica Williams discussed interseeding forages into corn to extend the grazing season and alluded to the fact that “timing is everything.”

The writer, a New York grazier and Upper Susquehanna Coalition grazing specialist, took the group on an adventure in using perennial pastures and stockpiling management strategies on his farm in getting 240 days of grazing. Spoiler alert: Winter snows and “perpetual Novembers” have limited his progress in achieving the goal of 365 days.

Dr. Heather Darby, agronomy and soils specialist for University of Vermont Extension, offered her extensive experience in using annual cool and warm season forage crop regimes to increase grazing days, improve soil health and build feed inventories.

Cornell Small Dairy Support Specialist Fay Benson spoke about identifying and quantifying pasture soil compaction and measures to avoid compaction by livestock while South Kortright, NY, Consulting Agronomist and Soil Scientist Larry Hepner discussed soil structure changes due to pasture soil compaction and how to fix the problems.

Mark Dubin, agricultural technical coordinator for University of Maryland Extension, gave a somber look at progress to achieving mandated TMDL reduction goals in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed by using pasture management practices from prescribed grazing, alternate watering sites and animal-excluded stream buffer areas. “To meet EPA’s 2025 water quality goals under the ‘modeled’ pasture practices, West Virginia needs two times the level of effort from agriculture, Maryland and Delaware need six times the level of effort, Virginia needs 14 times and New York needs 67 times the level of effort while Pennsylvania needs 69 times the level of effort from agriculture,” he said.

The meeting also engages stakeholders around ongoing research projects. This year’s initiatives emphasized the efficacy and accuracy of in-field brix measurements on forage crops; production management practices on organic grass-fed dairy farms; updating the pasture condition scoresheet; the implications of mob and rotational grazing systems on diversity, yield and quality; evaluating compaction BMP effects on soils; environmental assessments of grass-based dairy production; soil carbon storage in pastures; using a grazing chart as a planning and monitoring tool; evaluating water quality BMPs in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed; and using wool pellets as a fertilizer for vegetable farms.

The Northeast Pasture Consortium honored its retiring executive director, James Cropper, with a “Grazing Champion” plaque for “a lifetime of dedicated service to well-managed pastures and the human and ecological communities that benefit from them.”

The body of stakeholders continues to foster future work in quantifying economics for ecosystem services, soil health, climate resiliency and the viability of grazing enterprises. Evaluating continued research in nutrient dense pasture-based meats and A2A2 milk for human nutrition is a priority along with further research on appropriately adapted Northeast plant varieties and animal genetics, and transferring knowledge to farmers who implement grazing management through increased outreach and education.

To learn more about the Northeast Pasture Consortium’s archived and latest work and research priorities visit www.grazingguide.net.

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