I wanted Maine grass farmers to know that MOGFA, Cooperative Extension, Unity Barnraisers and a group of farmers received a SARE grant to establish the Maine Grassfarmers Network. We began to work on the following objectives in May:
1. Four regional workshops will be held in Maine for Cooperative Extension educators, Maine Department of Agricultural personnel, University faculty and staff, MOFGA and other educators from nongovernmental organizations, and other agriculture leaders, with members/leaders of the Vermont Grass Farmers Association.
2. A Grass Farmers’ directory will be created and maintained by the professional support network. It will include an email network of producers and educators, developed and maintained by Cooperative Extension.
3. Producers will hold four to six farm tours each year for educators.
4. Professionals will work with the groups noted in #1, above, to hold workshops at MOFGA’s Farmer to Farmer conference, the Maine Agricultural Trades Show, and at annual meetings of the Maine Beef Producers Association, Maine Sheep Breeders Association (MSBA), Maine Dairy Association, Maine Alternative Poultry Association (MAPA), New England Livestock Alliance, Maine Organic Milk Producers, Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA) and Maine Cheese Guild.
5. An annual conference for producers and educators will be established.
6. Tools to improve competencies of professionals and farmers will be created. Topics will include forage ID, fencing methods, watering systems, pasture management (reclamation, set-up, evaluation), predator control, genetics and such marketing options as cooperatives.
7. A Maine Grass Farmers’ Network will be developed and will establish small local study groups and pasture walks.
I attended a three-day conference this winter and would like to give you some of the highlights.
The Northeast Pasture Consortium is a USDA-funded group that promotes pasture use in the Northeast and holds an annual conference and meeting. This year the conference was in Binghamton, N.Y., before the Grasstravaganza. The first speaker, John Roche of New Zealand (by way of Australia and Ireland), addressed “Effective Pasture in the Northeast.” Roche avidly promotes pasture use while minimizing unnecessary fixed costs, primarily by reducing the amount of equipment and number of buildings you have to maintain. Roche believes that you can get an 80% gain in economical production by getting your system correct, another 10% by producing good feed, and another 5% with fine tuning. He believes that a 10% return on assets is necessary to make those assets economical.
Supplementary feed, said Roche, is used ONLY when pasture is not available and is not to be used as complementary feed. The pounds of milk produced in relation to pounds of grain consumed can be increased with quality pasture. Without any grain, grazing animals do not metabolize nitrogen from the pasture so well, so N utilization and the protein level in the milk will be reduced. This will also result in urine with more nitrogen and could create more pollution if the manure is not managed properly. That said, Roche noted that when quality pasture is available in New Zealand, farmers reduce costs by not feeding any grain.
Roche is a big fan of perennial ryegrass because it is so productive. If it is grazed down to one leaf, it will grow only roots; to two leaves, it will grow tillers also; it is best to leave at least 2.5 to 3 leaves to get the maximum regrowth. In the fall, animals should graze it closely (to 2 to 3 inches) to prevent winter kill due to smothering. Tetraploid varieties (those that have four sets of genes instead of the normal two sets; a result of mutation) will survive the winter better than diploids.
A panel discussion on Organic and Value-Added Dairy Production and Marketing followed. Kathie Arnold, an organic dairy farmer from New York, said that she likes to have her summer calves on pasture as soon as they are taken from their mothers. With good pasture as the only feed, the cows get 20 to 25% of the ration as a TMR (total mixed ration) and the rest from pasture.
When seeding down new pasture, Arnold used a grain drill to add orchard grass and clover first, simultaneously, then timothy later. Many of their pastures now consist of white clover, timothy and chicory. Fertility is maintained by spreading manure on the pasture; ground rock phosphate and lime are added if soil tests recommend them.
Arnold believes that culturing (testing the milk to see what bacteria are causing a problem) is an invaluable way to control mastitis. The farmers separate cows with high somatic cell counts and cull if necessary.
Fay Benson of Cornell University Cooperative Extension mentioned two useful Web sites: Graze N.Y. (www.grazeny.com) contains grazing information, and Quality Milk Production (www.qmps.vet.cornell.edu) has updates on organic udder health.
Other panelists spoke for Dave Evans, a N.Y. producer who does his own bottling of 600 gallons per year and makes seven varieties of very tasty yogurt, sour cultured milk, whipped cream and chocolate milk. His extra milk goes to Horizon. His six family members and two hired folks do all the work.
An afternoon panel covered “Forage Breeding for the Northeast.” Mike Casler from the USDA-ARS Dairy Forage Research Center in Madison, Wisconsin, noted how few forage grass breeding programs exist: one full-time and three part-time in the United States; more are in Canada and Europe. The grasses receiving attention now are smooth bromegrass, timothy, orchardgrass, reed canarygrass, meadow fescue, festolium, ryegrass, tall fescue, meadow bromegrass, switchgrass and bluestem. Much research focused on hay and silage production before 1990; since then more attention has been given to management-intensive pasture systems. The Research Center has even started using livestock as grazers in some of its programs, rather than mowers, although grazing presents new and unique challenges to agronomists and breeders.
Reed canary grass WR97 and Meadow fescue WMF1 are good varieties for pasture use.
Spring Green festolium, a cross between meadow fescue and perennial ryegrass, has been selected for winter hardiness. The Center is breeding new varieties of nonheading orchard grass, but getting seed from it is difficult.
Casler said that most varieties of organic seed, including timothy and Spring Green festolium, come from Europe. The major problem with growing organic seed is providing the right amount of nitrogen at the right time to promote seed head formation.
Chad Hale from DLF International Seeds discussed objectives of breeding forage grasses, including greater dry matter yield and quality and less lignin (since crude fiber is indigestible). An increase of 1% in digestibility will improve production by 38 pounds of milk per ton of dry matter fed. Regarding soluble sugars, cows can sense an increase of 1% in the sugar content of plants and, thus, eat more. Higher sugar concentrations also hasten silage fermentation.
Ray Smith, Forage Extension Specialist, spoke about breeding grazing-tolerant legumes. He believes that grazers get the largest gain in production from a pure alfalfa stand, from a grass/ clover mix next, and get the least from pure grass. But alfalfa survives better in a mixed sward. The following survivability percentages occurred when animals grazed a pasture continuously: alfalfa – 17, birdsfoot trefoil – 24, Kura clover – 99, red clover – 14, white clover – 108 (indicating that all of the white clover survived and some even reseeded, so more white clover was present after grazing than before). These figures indicate that for all of these legumes except Kura clover and white clover, rotational grazing is better for pasture survival. Check www. naaic.org to find alfalfa testing results. Always let alfalfa get to 8 inches tall before grazing. Red clover is being bred to improve survivability with grazing, because it is not very good now. Alfalfa can also be damaged by insects. (https://northeastipm.org is a good site for insect ID.)
Dick Kauffman from WL Research, a seed company in Columbia, Penn., said that traditional plant breeding is being used to increase glandular hairs in alfalfa; these hairs increase resistance to potato leaf hopper, a pest of alfalfa.
Heather Karsten of Penn. State University reported on her work on the fatty acid composition of forage species; the effects of pasturing on omega-3 fatty acids; and the vitamin A and E content of poultry and eggs. Chickens fed alfalfa or clover had higher concentrations of these vitamins in their eggs than those on grass pasture. Vitamin A is 40% greater and E is twice as high in eggs from legume pasture.
Consider Complete Foods
Tilak Dhiman of Utah State University showed examples of improved nutrition from grass-fed animals and stressed the need to look at the whole system and not just a single fatty acid or vitamin. His research showed that milk from cows on pasture with no supplemental feed had 500% more CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), 300% more vitamin E, 78% more beta-carotene, 400% more vitamin A in the liver, and were generally lower in fat and higher in protein than those receiving grain. It takes 24 days to maximize CLA concentrations in milk after turning cows out to pasture and 5 days for CLA concentrations to return to pre-pasturing concentrations after removing cows from pasture. Brown Swiss cows produce the highest CLA concentrations, Holsteins are next and Jerseys produce the lowest. The dryer silage is, the less it produces a livestock product resembling an animal on pasture, because of oxidation that occurs after cutting. Once animal products are frozen, CLA concentrations stay the same, because no oxidation occurs.
Grain fed to beef permanently affects the nutritional content of the meat. The rumen pH is affected by the grain and changes the rumen fauna, which affects the product. Some research has shown more trans-fatty acids in pasture-fed beef, and consumers have heard that trans-fatty acids are detrimental to their health. But these are not the same as the synthetic trans-fats that occur from cooking: The natural ones are precursors to CLAs in the human body.
Dhiman stressed the need to get grass-fed products to consumers, adding that the USDA needs to set a standard so that “pasture-raised” means an animal received 100% of its feed from pasture, rather than the 80% definition now used.
David Baer of USDA/ARS-Beltsville summarized several human nutrition studies on the effects of supplemental CLA. Positive, negative, and no effects have been found. Gaps in the current state of knowledge result from inconsistencies between human and animal studies; higher amounts used in human than in animal studies; and the use of supplements rather than enriched foods in all human studies. Baer stressed the need to think of products as complete foods and not just individual nutrients.
A spirited discussion questioned whether good as well as bad trans fatty acids exist and how the difference can be demonstrated and presented to the public. Some people asked whether the benefits of CLAs were emphasized enough in the presentation. Baer responded that he did not want the group to oversell the benefits if they do not actually exist. The minimum effective dose is still unknown, as is the amount of a food that must be consumed to supply a particular dose.
About the author: Diane is MOFGA’s technical services assistant. You can contact her with your questions about animal husbandry at [email protected] or 568-4142.
Web sites for dairy, pasturing, insect identification:
www.grazeny.com – Graze N.Y. – grazing information
www.qmps.vet.cornell.edu – Quality Milk Production — updates on organic udder health.
www.naaic.org – Alfalfa testing results.
https://northeastipm.org – Insect identification