by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant
GENEVA, NY — Multi-species farm managers could be onto something. Ross Duffield, farm manager at Rodale Institute, spoke on the topic recently at the last of the series of NYCO Winter Meetings. While many modern commercial livestock operations feature just one species, pasturing them all can lead to problems. Pastures can become depleted as the animals eat only their preferred forage.
He said sequential grazing can help keep pastures in tiptop shape.
“It renovates pasture and reduces parasites,” Duffield said.
He explained that farmers could begin with cows, which eat the tops of forage by pulling and tearing. Next, animals such as sheep or horses crop off remaining forage. Chickens follow, eating the bugs and grubs that live closer to the soil. Lastly should come pigs to excavate as they root, “unless they’re moved aggressively,” Duffield noted.
By sequentially grazing different species, the animals have significantly reduced the pests present and have used all parts of the forage available. Multiple species means more types of plants eaten — even weeds. Duffield has found that pigs, for example, like Canadian thistle and, before it flowers, goldenrod.
By the time the pigs are done, the land could be ready for the farmer to plant a fast-growing forage while the animals work another area of the farm.
The presence of many types of farm livestock also ensures diverse fertilization of the soil.
Duffield has worked with the Rodale Institute since 2013 with more than 20 years’ previous farming experience on a Pennsylvania dairy. He manages the fields at Rodale, including planting, maintains equipment and is expanding the livestock operation, particularly hogs.
Another speaker at the meeting, Aaron Ristow soil health coordinator with The New York Soil Health Initiative, a program of Cornell University, is trying to emphasize to farmers the importance of soil health.
“We are at the beginning of soil health,” Ristow said of soil health research.
Only as recently as the 1950s did researchers begin studying soil health in earnest.
“Healthy soil is like healthy people,” Ristow said. “The healthier you are, the more resilient you are to diseases.”
Healthier soil also tolerates drought and excess rainfall better, which can help mitigate poor weather seasons.
With additional funding, The New York Soil Health Initiative hopes to continue to study the financial benefits of soil health, which Ristow said is “very difficult.”
Farmers also face financial struggles when they want to purchase instead of rent a farm, expand or upgrade their farm or take over the family farm. Even reaching out to agricultural lenders can prove difficult, as a group of panelists indicated. Most expect a farmer to provide a 20 percent down payment, which is difficult when operators constantly funnel any profits into maintaining the farm.
Farmer Derrick Seston, of Georgetown, spoke at the event via phone, as he was unable to attend. He said he began farming in 2012 with seven milkers on rented land belonging to his in-laws. The operation quickly grew.
When he was ready to move onto his own land, he was able to purchase land by consolidating his mortgage. That way, he could make improvements on the farm that helped him increase profits.
He advises other farms to consider using the same strategy.
Farmer Anne Phillips is milking 130 cows in Marathon, NY. In 2011, she had wanted to find a farm to rent and transition into organic. Bankers didn’t want to work with her because she didn’t have the required 20 percent down payment.
“We had good cash flow and good credit, Phillips said.
By 2013, the farm she had her eye on became available. She worked with a private investment company for farms that tries to transition farmers within 10 years from leasing to ownership of the land they work. They provided her with the funding as well as a later improvement, a new milking parlor that’s labor efficient.