The Virtuous University

Management intenstive grazing focus
of research and outreach

Pat and Kristin Hayes run a “Dairy Farm of Distinction,” according to the sign welcoming visitors to their Enosburg Falls farm. Half of their land sits on the banks of the Missisquoi River and sometimes partially under its flood waters. But during a July visit to the farm’s rolling pastures, the water is calm, the fields green from abundant rain, and the cows content. The cows—and the farmers—have reason to be. The Hayes’ use of a new pasture management system has produced healthy, productive milkers while reducing costs for feed and equipment.

While the majority of Vermont’s dairy farmers continue to raise their cows in confinement—fed on forage and grain—a growing number of the state’s farmers are putting their cows out to pasture, adapting their operations to a method called “management intensive grazing.” By moving through a series of pasture subdivisions (paddocks), according to the plant growth, animals harvest their own feed and spread their own manure. Often called “rotational grazing,” the method shifts some of the work from the farmer to cow and lessens the dependency on the labor-intensive growing-harvesting-feeding cycle.

As part of ongoing efforts to expand management options available to Vermont’s dairy farmers, UVM has steadily increased its research and outreach activity over the past fifteen years in the area of management intensive grazing. Pasture management studies are being conducted by researchers in the departments of Animal and Food Sciences, Plant and Soil Science, and Community Development and Applied Economics. Extension specialists throughout the state organize and facilitate pasture walks and conduct workshops on topics such as pasturing poultry, cows, beef, goats, and sheep. And with funding provided by the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Center for Sustainable Agriculture recently hired a pasture network coordinator, Sarah Flack, to promote farmer discussion groups and help a new farmer organization, the Vermont Grass Farmers Association, get started. Cooperation with the Vermont Department of Agriculture, Food and Markets and the University of New Hampshire has also been exceptional in organizing conferences and pasture walks.

Much of the credit for bringing management intensive grazing to Vermont goes to Bill Murphy, researcher in UVM’s Plant and Soil Science Department. In 1981, Murphy began applying management intensive grazing, using a book by Andre Voisin of France, on his farm in Colchester. The results were so beneficial in increasing pasture forage production that Murphy began encouraging farmers to use the practice. Eventually this effort led
to developing the Pasture Management Outreach Program, which combined research, demonstration, and outreach, with funding from the Kellogg Foundation’s Environmental Programs in Communities (EPIC) Project.

“Although putting livestock on summer pasture is not a new concept for most Vermont farmers, management intensive grazing, which makes use of smaller paddocks and frequent moving or rotation of the animals, is,” Murphy says. “This system allows pastures to be grazed more evenly and efficiently.”

“Pasture that is continuously grazed does not have time to recover, and may eventually die. In management intensive grazing, livestock are not moved back into an area until there is a pregrazing forage mass of 2,200 to 2,400 pounds of dry matter per acre, or—in other words—the grass has reached a height of about 6 to 8 inches.”

Management intensive grazing has many advantages over the confinement method of raising dairy animals, according to Murphy and Flack. These include reduced labor, feed, fuel, repair, and equipment costs. Farmers need to harvest and store less forage, and what supplements they do use can be reduced in both quantity and protein content.

How much supplement do pastured cows need? In addition to studying grazing management requirements of pasture plants in drought-prone areas such as Addison County, Murphy is currently conducting research on supplement needs of dairy calves raised on pasture. In a related study, Jim Welch, professor emeritus of animal and food sciences, is investigating optimum feed and nutrition for lactating cows. “There’s enough nutrient in the pasture for lactating cows,” Welch says, “but because the fiber content is so high and filling, high-producing cows can’t eat enough for their energy needs.”

Working with Welch on this research project, Rick Wackernagel is focusing on the economics of feeding grain to cows on pasture. Variables such as fluctuating grain and milk prices, as well as individual management, make this Extension farm management specialist’s work tricky. His aim, however, is to plot connections between feed expense and amounts of milk produced and thus help Welch pinpoint optimal levels of supplementation.

In an effort to enhance the network that assists the state’s farmers, UVM’s Center for Sustainable Agriculture formed the Vermont Pasturelands Network, a collaboration of farmers, agencies, and the University, which coordinates various pasture-related educational activities throughout the state. Flack also helped a group of farmers organize the first annual grazing conference of the Vermont Grass Farmers Association last February, which focused on producing poultry and milk on pasture—and attracted 176 Vermont members. She also coordinates pasture walks and discussion groups for farmers who use, or are interested in, pasture management.

The July pasture walk hosted by the Hayes draws 15 farmers, in addition to Murphy and Flack. Pat Hayes formerly grazed his 70 cows in one big pasture. He has been using management intensive grazing for the past five years and continues to experiment with and improve his methods. As the group traipses over pastures—equipped with a map delineating paddocks—questions, comments, and conversation flow for more than two hours. The focus shifts from the size of water pipes, to a new NRCS cost-sharing program for improving lanes, building fences, and installing water systems; from the effect of hay supplementation on milk output, to the efficacy of ammonium nitrate as a fertilizer for pastures.

Most apparent is the personal impact of these gatherings and the programs and research underpinning them—the proof in the pudding, so to speak. There are no uninteresting or unimportant questions and no one conveys an idea as the “right way.” Everyone is riveted, everyone offers anecdotes—some witty and self-deprecating—and many take notes. Ted Yandow, who dairy farms in St. Albans, speaks passionately about the discussion groups he and many of the farmers attend. “You don’t make decisions on your own,” he says. “You really get to know one another—they’ll even tell you ‘that’s a kinda stupid idea’.” He tells everyone that his group switched from monthly to bi-weekly meetings because “they are very special.”

Advice flows tactfully and is received graciously. Pat Hayes floats his idea about adding a pond, and another farmer passes on a warning from his vet about wildlife parasites. Noting the pasture’s rich mixture of grasses, clovers, and forbs, Murphy reminds the farmers that “grass isn’t just grass.” Sheep farmer Doug Flack amens: “My pasture is a salad bar.” Sarah Flack, tracking the time, herds the group back to the barn. But the discussions continue, now in groups of three and four. Finally, Flack announces next month’s walk, and that seems to be the reassurance that removes everyone’s reluctance to depart.


Helping Vermonters Learn to Live
With the New Genetics

After three days of small-group discussions, role playing exercises, lectures on genetics and medical ethics, and a presentation by parents of a child with Down’s syndrome, twenty Vermont clergy gathered recently for a final show-and-tell session of their concerns about the “New Genetics.” At the top of the flip-chart list of the first group’s report was the question, “Has the train already left the station? Are we too late to have an impact?”
The short answer, as clergy first listed dozens of concerns and later opportunities for their engagement, was an emphatic, “No.”

Many of the clergy’s concerns about the “New Genetics” mirrored those of society: the need to protect the confidentiality of genetic tests that reveal one’s predisposition to diseases; the importance of guidelines on the use of genetic engineering and the difficulty of defining what is “normal”; the need for protections against employment and insurance discrimination for those at higher risk of disease.

But many themes reflected the clergy’s role as counselors: the importance of helping parishioners deal with the life-and-death questions raised by genetic testing and knowledge; the need for the religious community to work together to avoid the polarization that has “marginalized” its role and voice in other social issues, such as on abortion; the need to affirm the dignity of all life and to be humble in the face of life’s “wonder, awe, and mystery.”

For project director Alan Guttmacher, M.D., this wide-ranging discussion, from May 19-21, was the ideal conclusion to the first of 10 retreats in a three-year-long discussion with Vermonters about the implications of the “New Genetics.”

The grass-roots approach of the Community Ethics and Genetics Project is funded by a $579,245 grant from the Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications Program (ELSI) at the National Human Genome Research Institute at the National Institutes of Health. The project builds on Vermont’s town-meeting tradition of community discourse and is the first time, says Guttmacher, the state’s only medical geneticist and associate professor of medicine and pediatrics at the UVM College of Medicine, that any state has attempted to have a state-wide discussion and teach-in on the implications of the “New Genetics.”

“We shouldn’t leave these questions to the professionals and scientists alone. These questions involve huge social issues. Technology is moving rapidly and we need to start the conversations now,” says Guttmacher, who also heads the Vermont Genetics Initiative. The College of Medicine and Fletcher Allen Health Care established the initiative three years ago to coordinate clinical, research, and education programs in genetics.

About 20 percent of the ELSI’s program current $8.2 million budget is being allocated to professional and community education projects, such as the Vermont program, according to Elizabeth Thomson, director of Ethical, Legal, and Social Implications Research at the institute. Since its founding in 1990, the ELSI program has distributed over $40 million in funding more than 135 research and education projects.

The Vermont project is “one of the most ambitious attempts to involve representatives from throughout a state” and one of only a handful of projects that are involving such diverse groups in community discussion, says Thomson.

Over the next 18 months, representatives from health care providers, media, social service agencies, educators, institutional review and ethics boards, concerned citizens, and business, legal, and political groups will take part in nine more three-day retreats at the Bishop Booth Conference Center in Burlington. These retreats will help build the nucleus of leaders for focus groups and a variety of school and community forums and discussions in the second year of the program. The project will culminate with 10 “town meetings” around the state during the third year of the program.

At the end of the three years, project organizers should have a sense of the 10 to 12 issues of greatest concern to Vermonters. During a fourth year, Guttmacher envisions a series of retreats bringing together a cross-section of Vermonters to develop consensus statements and guidelines and possibly recommendations for legislation to address these concerns.

Is four years too long to wait?

Guttmacher thinks not. “In three or four years some of the issues and science will be clearer. I’m not sure that we are wise enough today to come up with anything more than generic statements like the confidentiality of genetic testing is important and ought to be respected.”

Can rural Vermont’s approach be a model for other states?
“Absolutely,” says Dr. Guttmacher. Larger more urban states can have the same discussions by breaking the state into more manageable sizes, such as a large city or county.