HUBBARDSVILLE, NY – The virtual world can only take one so far when applying conservation practices and grazing strategies on farms alongside farmers. Practicality in the field is where it’s at. “In the end we retain from our studies only that which we practically apply,” stated Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe.

On May 3, 33 local New York State Conservation Agency professionals traveled to Madison County for a unique grazing training opportunity on Keith and Jody Palmer’s organic dairy farm in Hubbardsville, NY. The training opportunity, initiated by Madison County Soil & Water Conservation District’s resident “Grass Whisperer” Troy Bishopp, was meant for new district employees using the Agriculture Environmental Management (AEM) grazing planning matrix, conservation staff and ag professionals honing their technical skills in putting practical grazing on the ground and helping farmers be successful practitioners.

Bishopp teamed up with Dr. Samantha Glaze-Corcoran from UMass-Amherst and the Palmer family (Madison County’s 2015 Conservation Farm of the Year) to teach the power of grazing management for profit and improving soil health and animal production systems. Using grazing planning calculation tools and the Palmers’ goals as a guide, agency professionals learned specific considerations to guide decision-making and allocate a forage plan for the herd of 52 organic dairy cows.

The large group started with everyone figuring out their “step” (in feet) and heading out to the pasture, led by Dr. Sam, to measure pasture growth (growing at one inch/day), to determine the right time to graze based on how many leaves were present, to count how many worms were in a shovelful of soil and to use a grazing stick or the Canopeo smartphone app to calculate forage production. During this exchange of observation skills, Dr. Sam introduced the concept of being “thought partners” with farmers, “in helping guide decisions but not making them.”

Plan-to-pasture training delivers hands-on results

Dr. Samantha Glaze-Corcoran shows the plant regrowth after three days of recovery.

This ground-truthing inventory exercise helped as five teams, led by an experienced professional, spread out to estimate a daily paddock size to feed the dairy herd to which they would set the portable fence and move the cows. Interestingly, the friendly competition yielded a consensus of two acres/day for the herd, giving the farm and the people a confidence boost. Volunteers laid out the paddock shift and moved the eager cows while everyone observed how and what they grazed.

After a local lunch provided by Bishopp Family Farm and dairy products from Maple Hill Creamery, the well-fed group visited the cows again and learned about manure quality (pumpkin pie consistency) while seeing dung beetles and golden dung flies miraculously working a cow patty after just one hour. This led to a discussion of how fence and water tub placement and frequency of movement can positively affect fertility placement and increase forage yield. Dr. Sam, paraphrasing Vermont farmer Jenn Colby, said, “The first two days of grazing are in the dining room; days three and four are in the living room; and by days five and seven you’re in the bathroom. For many reasons, we strive to stay in the dining room.”

Bishopp led the group into a mob grazing and paddock design exercise by sandwiching people together in a tight rectangular paddock to mimic efficient grazing, manure deposition and the trampling effect while explaining the need for frequent moves in this situation. He then made a square paddock and the relieved group witnessed how the herd behavior changes. “You can create what you want just by moving fences and understanding herd dynamics,” he said.

The Grass Whisperer Troy Bishopp mimics a mob grazing technique to increase pasture utilization and trampling. Photos courtesy of Troy Bishopp

The group then took a pasture walk to determine a week’s worth of pasture moves and were shown how the Palmers use a grazing planning chart to track their management decisions for organic verification. Ending the training on a positive note, guests were treated to ice cream and participated in “Grazing Olympics,” featuring the portable fence post javelin throw and hay bale toss for prizes.

“I didn’t know about the three- to four-leaf rule for grazing, and seeing it explained in the field was helpful,” said Watershed Agricultural Council Whole Farm Planner Tristin Tait.

“We learned so much and had a great time doing it. What a breath of fresh air after all those Zoom trainings,” said agronomist Ann Marie Calabro from Suffolk SWCD.

“I heartily endorse this kind of outdoor classroom experience and ‘hands-on’ knowledge. From a learning perspective and a networking experience it was a great day of knowledge, continued learning and fellowship in our professional network that share the same passion for farmers, agriculture and the environment,” said Paul Gier, Natural Resource Program specialist from Tompkins SWCD.

John Suscovich, owner of Farm Marketing Solutions, added, “We need more of these kinds of trainings. This was a fantastic example of putting planning into actionable results on the land. I’m excited to be a part of this professional family and to see how it translates into better service for beginning and experienced farmer customers.”

The training was supported by the Upper Susquehanna Coalition, the NYS Conservation District Employees Association, Madison County SWCD, Maple Hill Creamery, Corrine Bishopp and Farm Marketing Solutions.