1997 Project Highlights
SARE Program Advances Grazing Systems
Management-intensive grazing has become one of the most promising agricultural strategies to reduce operating costs, provide environmental benefits and improve quality of life for farm families. Increasingly, producers are shifting from confinement-based livestock systems to raise cows, sheep and hogs wholly or partially on pastures offering a nutritious mix of grass and legumes.Pastures Produce
Reflecting the growing demand forinformation on grazing systems, the USDA Sustainable AgricultureResearch and Education (SARE) program has funded dozens ofcollaborative projects that address how to establish profitable,environmentally sound pasture systems. The SARE program, inexistence since 1988, helps meet the needs of information-hungryproducers trying to adapt New Zealand-style forage systems.
"SARE has funded projects that clearlyshow management-intensive grazing is more profitable forproducers and better for the environment," says SAREDirector Rob Myers. "Many producers emphasize how much morethey enjoy being outside with their livestock in this system,rather than working in the barn all day."
Helping farmers and ranchers save moneythrough grazing system improvements that also protect naturalresources remains a key goal of many scientists receiving SAREresearch and education grants. These grants, typicallyawarded to university and nonprofit organization researchers,require project leaders to collaborate with producers andpublicize their results.
A SARE-funded project in North Carolinacompares an intensively managed grazing system with a livestocksystem relying on row crops for feed, harvested forage andconventional confinement. Economic data for the two systems weresimilar in the second year of the project, but North CarolinaState University project leader Steve Washburn predicts thegrazing system numbers will improve as the fledgling graziersgain more experience developing the right balance between pastureand supplemental feed.
Veterinary costs went down in the grazingsystem because the cows on pasture had fewer health problems."There was mastitis in both groups, but a much lowerinstance in the grazing group than those in confinement,"Washburn says. "The cows are in a cleaner environment."
SARE-funded researchers in Oregon recentlyconducted a more comprehensive study of how rotational grazingaffects the surrounding ecosystem. The project, which examinedhow the sensitivity of riparian habitats varied with grazingseasons of different lengths, suggests graziers can manage thetime their livestock spend in such habitats to minimize impact onwater quality and wildlife.Enhanced Ecosystems
Particularly in semi-arid regions such aseastern Oregon, waterways and wetlands vegetation remain integralto production, providing irrigation for pasture and shade foranimals. Management-intensive grazing systems put less stress onriparian habitats than chemical-intensive row cropping.
"Prior to the use of different grazingpractices, many habitats were removed from the landscape,"says Dan Edge, a wildlife ecologist with Oregon State University."Only in the last 10 to 15 years has their value beenrecognized."
SARE passes information about grazingmanagement techniques through its Professional DevelopmentProgram (PDP) to Extension Service, Natural ResourcesConservation Service staff and other agricultural professionals.The ag educators, in turn, help farmers and ranchers improvetheir livestock operations.
SARE also disseminates information throughits outreach arm, the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN).A Training Priority
A SARE PDP project in the mid-Atlanticregion is educating Extension and NRCS field staff who ratedraising livestock on pasture their top informational need."They have found they can't answer some of the questionsfarmers have about pasture management," says Elmer Dengler,an NRCS coordinator in Allegheny County, Md.
A series of workshops will feature visitsto 12 grazing farms as well as study sessions on soils andplants; animal nutrition and physiology; grazing-system design;and environmental/economic issues.
While many SARE grants consider the"big picture" issues in grazing, others fillinformation gaps by funding producer projects that fine tune farmmanagement skills. Through 1996, 45 SARE producer grants focusedon some aspect of management-intensive grazing.Healthy Results
In Wisconsin, Marcie and Myron Herekreceived a SARE producer grant to study ways to improve theirgrazing system. The funds helped them complete grazing paddockson the 200-acre farm, install a watering system and rebuild a cowlane leading from the fields to the milking parlor. Theimprovements came three years after the Hereks switched from aconventional dairy to a management-intensive grazing system.
Grazing opens the door for cost savings,environmental gains and well deserved quality of lifeimprovements. The grazing system wins out over their formerpractice of raising crops, harvesting grain, feeding the cows anddisposing of manure, Marcie Herek says.
"Grazing is definitely a less labor-and capital-intensive way to farm," she says. "Itprovides a better quality of life for us: Work is easier,involves fewer hours per day of physical labor and is safebecause the amount of time spent with machinery is greatlyreduced."