By Diane Schivera, M.A.T.
This is my annual wrap-up of meetings I attended in 2016, beginning with the 20th annual Northeast Pasture Consortium (NEPC) meeting held in Maine at the Harraseeket Inn in Freeport. It was very exciting to have the meeting in Maine for the first time in its history.
The meeting sessions included a retrospective on the 20 years of the NEPC, an update on orchardgrass die-off findings from Virginia, and talks on riparian grazing management, on a dairy grazing apprenticeship program, on milk production and the health of grazing dairy cows and on risk management tools for forage and pasture producers. A producer showcase of Maine farmers included Lisa Webster from North Star Sheep Farm, Steve Morrison from Clovercrest Farm and Gabe Clark from Cold Spring Ranch. If you would like to see complete notes taken by James Cropper, executive director of the NEPC, please let me know and I will forward them to you.
Dr. Yousef Papadopoulos, research scientist at the Kentville Research and Development Centre, Forage Breeding, Science and Technology Branch/Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada in Truro, Nova Scotia, addressed “What’s New in Forage Plant Breeding.”
Pastures benefit, he said, when frost seeded with a legume, such as a grazing clover variety, birdsfoot trefoil or alfalfa, depending on the soil type and fertility levels. Cattle will choose birdsfoot trefoil or alfalfa first when grazing, so populations of those species can become depleted in the pasture. In one out of three years, he added, frost seeded legumes will germinate well in a pasture.
Dr. Heathcliffe Riday, USDA ARS research geneticist at the U.S. Dairy Forage Center in Madison, Wisconsin, discussed “New Traits and Improvements in Old Traits in Forage Legumes.” The only breeders for grazing varieties of red clover seed are in Wisconsin and Nova Scotia, he said, and they are trying to breed for taller varieties that last in the field for four years. Most varieties used now last only two years. A new, taller birdsfoot trefoil variety is coming soon.
Joe Schmidlen, Northeast territory manager for the seed company Barenbrug USA, discussed “What’s new from Barenbrug in plant breeding? Products-Programs-Performance.” It can take 17 years to develop a new variety, he said, which makes you rethink the reluctance to purchase the more expensive seed rather than generic varieties.
He noted that Freedom medium red clover is a new, very productive variety, and Starfire II is coming soon.
Alice white clover, he added, develops a good stolon and spreads well but does not take over. It is still a strong fit for the Northeast.
Tim Fritz from King Agriseeds said that mixtures that fit your eco-zone are best, giving improved yield and stability.
Jim Cropper commented the Kentucky bluegrass survives being cut low and yields best with that management.
Next, Sarah Flack spoke about “Zero grain dairy: Lessons learned from farm successes and disasters.” When starting to breed for a no-grain, grass-fed dairy cattle herd, she said, select animals that produce more milk and maintain body condition better on pasture and that reduce production when fed grain. Pick animals that are short and beefy. Using some Milking Devon genetics is advantageous.
Prepare well to have enough quality pasture and low neutral detergent fiber (NDF), higher digestible hay acreage to feed the herd an increased amount of forage.
Know how to evaluate rumen fill, udder fill and body condition scoring, Flack emphasized. Monitor the herd’s reproductive rates and keep the calving interval at 12 months. A 4-month dry period can help cows maintain body condition scoring.
Also, monitor soil fertility because you are no longer bringing in fertility as grain. Improving soils and forages can take seven or eight years. You might have to lower you stocking rate and density.
To stimulate cows to eat more, rotate paddocks more often and have a diverse species blend in the pasture. Birdsfoot trefoil tannins bind some protein in the feed, which helps lower the milk urea nitrogen on spring pasture.
Do cash flow and economic projections before starting, said Flack. Realizing that income will decrease because of decreased milk production, calculate whether your decreased input costs will balance that decreased income.
Maine Grass Farmers Annual Conference
Flack was also the keynote speaker at the Maine Grass Farmers Network annual conference. Her talk there was based on her book, “The Art and Science of Grazing – How Grass Farmers Can Create Sustainable Systems for Healthy Animals and Farm Ecosystems,” which I reviewed in the September-November 2016 issue of The MOF&G.
Brett Chedzoy, senior resource educator and forestry specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension in Schuyler County, New York, talked about silvopasturing, which is more common outside of the United States. The goal is to combine forest, forage and animals. He said that optimally managed silvopasture will produce sustainable, good wood and pasture. On the other hand, trees will not bounce back easily from poor management, due to soil compaction and breaking of lower limbs.
Progress to a productive silvopasture can be difficult to see, and you will think there is no regeneration if an area supports thick brush undergrowth but little tree growth, he noted.
For forests to be grazed, added Chedzoy, they must be readily accessed, be fenced and have water available. A productive site will have a well thinned stand that yields enough quality food. Farmers must be willing and able to care for intensively managed livestock.
From 2000 to 2002, goats grazed intensively in Cornell’s Arnot Teaching and Research Forest to control interfering understory vegetation organically. This was labor intensive, and using net fencing in the underbrush was difficult, but the goats successfully removed brush the first year. During the next two to four years, grass grew under the trees without seeding or fertilizing.
Silvopasturing makes sense, said Chedzoy, because the portable fencing now available creates management options for livestock producers, and because new biomass and fuel wood markets exist. He recommended working with a forester for best results. Silvopasturing also increases farm viability by supplying the local food market; and it can offer the farmer new crops, such as locust fence posts.
He noted that past management in the woods was poor, with overstocking and underthinning, which produced poor feed. Now farmers manage better for quality pasture by stocking and thinning properly.
Stands must be modified so that enough sunlight penetrates to enable germination of the forages you want to grow. Winter feeding of hay will add to the seed bank in the soil.
As with all new things, start small, Chedzoy emphasized. He recommended the social network site https://silvopasture.ning.com/ as well as Cornell’s ForestConnect site at https://blogs.cornell.edu/cceforestconnect/.
Dan Hudson, agronomist and nutrient management specialist with the University of Vermont Cooperative Extension, gave a talk entitled “The plot thickens – The pasture toolbox: What should you expect from your forages, and what should they expect from you?”
To avoid disappointment, always test the soil for nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium first, he said. Then use appropriate management and have reasonable expectations. Your goals should include producing low-cost, quality forages. Test and evaluate them for energy, protein, fiber and digestibility.
Pay attention, also, to the tolerance of pasture species to drought, water and soil acidity.
And, of course, consider the financial return per acre.
He asked, what grows when you do nothing? Are existing plants happy? Are the soil texture, fertility, moisture, drainage and pH suitable? Will livestock or tractor traffic harm plant crowns? Is your harvest schedule affecting plants? How are pasture plants, bacteria, pathogen propagation and other plants interacting?
Regarding nutrients, Hudson noted that the potassium levels of legumes will be highest in the first cut and will decrease progressively with the second and third cuts.
Apply boron at 2 pounds per acre in a micronutrient fertilizer blend, he suggested; and he noted that high nitrogen soil favors grasses over legumes.
Birdsfoot trefoil germinates well in clay soil, said Hudson, but it adapts to different soil conditions, including wet or poorly drained soils. It does best with a pH of 5.5 to 5.8. It is winter hardy and very persistent once established. It will self-sow if allowed to go to seed every four or five years. The dark purple seedpod turns brown as it matures.
Birdsfoot trefoil has a higher level of bypass protein (protein digested in the small intestine) than alfalfa, making it an excellent feed for ruminants. It is a later maturing forage with quality maintained well over time. Good plant survival requires leaving 4 to 5 inches of top growth at harvest. Plant the seed 1/4 inch deep at 8 to 10 pounds per acre alone or at 2 to 6 pounds per acre in a mixture.
Red clover seed is inexpensive, said Hudson, and this is a good companion for most grasses, supplying nitrogen to improve grass growth. The bits of clover that break off during drying make a fuzzy, dusty hay.
Alsike clover, he warned, can photosensitize light colored animals, especially horses.
Sweet clover hay is difficult to dry, and Kura clover is slow to establish. Its rhizomes are said to sleep the first year, creep the second and leap the third. It is very persistent. Be sure to inoculate it, said Hudson.
Perennial ryegrass is easily winterkilled. It likes cool, wet weather, is easy to establish, is often seeded with red or white clover and benefits from some nitrogen coming from that clover.
Italian (annual) ryegrass should be seeded early at 4 pounds per acre in a mix. It grows fast and benefits from nitrogen from a companion clover. Harvest this ryegrass early and quickly, said Hudson, for a very nutritious “one-day hay” – hay that is cut and baled on the same day when conditions permit.
Meadow fescue has an upright growth habit, matures early, grows in good to moderately wet soil and produces quality forage.
Reed canary grass is slow to start, is high in fiber and has low digestibility.
And finally, smooth brome, said Hudson, is good to plant with birdsfoot trefoil. It spreads by rhizomes and forms sod.
Grazing and Conservation Seminar
In September I attended Grazing and Conservation: A Working Landscape Seminar, at Harvard Forest in Petersham, Massachusetts – an interesting event with many good speakers and two tours of local grazing operations. The tour of nearby Hardwick Fields featured grazing Devon beef cattle. Here, Ridge Shinn of Hardwick Beef is advising about grazing management to improve production of the fields and of the beef animals. The other tour was of a golf course donated to the Harvard Forest where a small number of dry dairy cattle are grazing in order to demonstrate permanent pasture and a limited rotational grazing setup that neighborhood farmers might use.
This seminar was the brainchild of Shinn, who spoke at the first Maine Grass Farmers Network Conference, which was held at MOFGA’s Common Ground Education Center. David Foster, director of the Harvard Forest, and Brian Caldwell from Brandeis University helped implement the Grazing and Conservation seminar.
The seminar focused on the intersection between agriculture and conservation through grass-based agriculture. With presentations and discussions, we explored opportunities to meet conservation goals and generate local food with agricultural management, at lower costs than controlling vegetation mechanically or with fire.
The starting point for the seminar was the framework of the Wildlands and Woodlands vision of the New England Food Vision: to increase land protection in New England while managing much of it for a range of benefits, including food, wood and ecosystem services. A simple example of this focus – and the topic of one session at the seminar – is balancing cutting hay with leaving habitat for the nesting bobolink. Other sessions discussed water, soil fertility and carbon, forage, and economic resources. Notes are available at https://harvardforest.fas.harvard.edu/working-landscape-seminar and at https://harvardforest.fas.harvard.edu/sites/harvardforest.fas.harvard.edu/files/Harvard-Forest_FallSymposium2016–talk-summaries.pdf.
The seminar was held in the Fisher Museum of Harvard Forest, which has amazing dioramas depicting the history, conservation and management of central New England forests. If you are ever in Petersham, stop in!
Diane Schivera is MOFGA’s organic livestock specialist. You can reach her at 568-4142 or [email protected].