A new program aims to show livestock farmers in three states how to best graze their way to healthier animals, increased profits and cleaner waterways.
A farmer-to-farmer mentoring program announced Nov. 23 is being established to teach those who aren't grazing their livestock the benefits of the practice and to show those who are grazing how to get the most out of the feeding method. Its educational offerings include two-day grazing schools and field days.
Livestock farmers in 11 Virginia counties — including Rockingham, Page, Shenandoah and Augusta — as well as four in Maryland and five in Pennsylvania are targeted in the effort to maximize its impact on the Chesapeake Bay.
"This program is about farmers talking common sense to other farmers, and a whole community reaping benefits," Michael Heller, manager of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Claggett Farm in Maryland, said in a press release.
"Raising livestock on pasture produces healthier animals and reduces costs," he continued. "Manure fertilizes the pasture rather than running off into nearby streams. Everyone downstream gets cleaner water for drinking and swimming."
The foundation and its partner organizations, which include the Virginia Forage and Grassland Council, received a $492,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service for the program. The partner groups will match that amount, providing nearly $1 million for the effort.
A primary goal is to reduce the number of concentrated animal feeding operations and increase grass feeding.
Most farmers in and around Rockingham County graze, though, so for them the program will provide tips on the best way to manage field resources.
Matt Booher, a Virginia Cooperative Extension crop and soil sciences agent, said that while many local farmers rotate their animals to some degree, he estimated that only 10 percent do it in a manner that maximizes benefits.
"What you want with any given pasture is to have the appropriate amount of rest and recovery time," said Booher, a nonvoting member of the Virginia Forage and Grassland Council's board. "Animals have to be off the pasture for anywhere from 15 days to 30 to 40 days, depending on the time of year.
"A lot of times, even if farmers have their fields divided into multiple sections, they'll graze the pasture down too hard before they move the animals or turn them back into the pasture before they should. I work with a lot of people who have multiple pastures, and their gates are always open. Sometimes, it's as simple as shutting a gate behind the cattle."
Alan Hawkins said he's witnessed the benefits of proper rotational grazing at Tomahawk Farm, his beef cattle and sheep operation west of Mount Jackson.
His fields are easier to manage and no longer need to be bush hogged, he said. More importantly, his cattle are healthier and he saves money on hay.
"The quickest thing I realized in the first year is that it prolongs your grazing year," Hawkins, 32, said of rotational grazing. "I didn't have to feed nearly as much hay, and I had a lot more grass on the same ground."
Alston Horn, a field technician for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation who works with many Shenandoah Valley farmers, said proper rotational grazing increases forage height and water infiltration and decreases pasture runoff.
"By allowing (pastures to have) proper rest," he said, "you can maximize the productivity of the ground, keep it covered at all times and allow roots to grow so you get better moisture intake."
Many farmers, he said, just need to increase their grazing management.
The mentorship program aims to give them the tools they need for rotational-grazing success. They include a state-specific planning calendar for grazers, a quarterly newsletter and a regional conference.
Program organizers hope to create a regional network featuring more than 250 grazers.
That's important, Booher said, because it's helpful to see the techniques in use rather than be told about them. Many farmers already using grazing might benefit from seeing techniques that could improve their practices.
"A lot of times, the biggest challenge with the adoption of any new practice is that people haven't really seen it," he said of the program's mentoring and field day aspects. "Having a place or two where they can see some of these practices in action — where people have converted from continuous to rotational grazing and seen the advantages — always helps with the adoption of new practices."