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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Grass is Greener

Air Date: Week of

Dairy herds aren't getting out to pasture much any more. In recent decades, farmers have been keeping the barn doors shut, preferring to feed grain to their cows to increase their milk output. But farmers in Vermont are challenging the conventional wisdom with a practice called management intensive grazing. The technique is turning out to be lucrative and kinder to the land, as Steve Tripoli reports.


KNOY: The modern dairy cow spends most of her life on a concrete slab. She has only to lift her snout to the trough for a twice daily meal of specially mixed grain. That leaves farmers to do most of the work, growing or buying high-priced feed, storing it, serving it, and then disposing of mountains of manure. Now a small but growing group of farmers is updating an old-fashioned alternative: turning the cows out to pasture and letting the animals do the work. It's called management-intensive grazing, a sophisticated technique that involves moving cows to fresh sections of pasture throughout the day. In addition to lower overhead and higher profits, keeping Bessie on the move is also good for the environment. Steve Tripoli of WBUR in Boston explains.


MAN: You need some white cedars here to block that thing.

MAN 2: Oh, yeah.

MAN: It's not blowing much today. How come?

TRIPOLI: The biting breeze on this steel-gray day isn't considered an especially stiff one on Henry Forgues' farm. The wind is constant here, sweeping enough Lake Champlain out front. One step off the back pasture and you're in Canada. At 47, Henry Forgues is a lifelong farmer. He bought these 240 acres in tiny Alberg Springs 22 years ago. As we stand in a pasture, curious calves tugging at our pants cuffs, Henry Forgues talks about how he's owned this land through some rough times. Especially before he met Bill Murphy, who's here again today.

FORGUES: This type of farming here is what Bill introduced us to, which changed our whole life here on the farm.

TRIPOLI: Forgues says he's not exaggerating.

FORGUES: It's real. Because there's no place else to go with the efficiency and the price of milk wasn't getting any better. And the work load is just getting to be too much.

TRIPOLI: Henry Forgues was caught on a treadmill all too many of his dairy farming neighbors are on. Endless punishing work, not enough income, and way too much debt. What's become the norm in American dairy farming since World War II is this. You grow lots of hay and grain to feed your cows. Then you harvest it, store it, and deliver it to their stalls. Some farmers buy some of their feed as well. The cows pretty much stay in the stalls, which means you have a lot of cleaning up to do. But in exchange for all your effort and the cow's relative lack of effort you get huge amounts of milk. It's called confinement farming. Many farmers make good money this way, but quite a few don't, and New England's losing 5% of its dairy farms each year as a result. When Henry Forgues met Bill Murphy, a farmer himself, but also a professor of agronomy at the University of Vermont, Forgues decided he had to listen to Murphy's advice and try a new twist on an old idea.

FORGUES: Instead of having machinery coming out with a maw and a chopper and blowing it into the silos that we do still have that are empty, most of the harvesting's done with the animals. The cows come out and we let them do the grazing.

TRIPOLI: Putting cows to pasture for most of their feed is the way it used to be, and still is, even in industrialized countries like Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. Forgues says the rediscovery of grazing on his farm has made life almost unimaginably easier. Cows stay outside in all but the coldest weather so no barn clean-ups, and there's no moving manure to the fields. Less work and less of the polluting runoff associated with manure piles. And growing their own grass makes it easier for many of these farmers to be certified organic, which gets them 10% more for their milk. Best of all, Forgues doesn't have to grow, harvest, and store tons of grain.

FORGUES: Talk about anxiety and stress. You have to take this whole farm and push it through an 8-inch pipe before you can make any money. You have to harvest all the feed, and it has to all go through an 8-inch pipe to be put in that silo. And then, to get it out of the silo, you blow it through a 4-inch pipe (someone laughs in the background), so that's that's intensity.

TRIPOLI: It's not that grazing is as simple as just letting the cows out. This method is called management-intensive grazing, and it involves ensuring that cows are on the most productive fields at the most productive times, as well as breeding cows readily adapt to pasture. But on top of everything else, Henry Forgues says the system has freed him from needing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of silos and farm equipment, cost that got him into debt in the first place, and from the time it takes to pay for and maintain equipment. Despite all that, plenty of farmers don't see intensive grazing as their solution.

BESSETTE: With our number of cows, there's one way to do it.

TRIPOLI: Jim Bessette is one of them. His Bestview Farm in nearby St. Albans has 500 milking cows to Henry Forgues' 70. Sipping coffee in his kitchen one morning, country music on the radio, Bessette says just 3 workers raise all the feed for his much bigger herd. Sure, it takes machinery, he says, but economies of scale pay for it. Bessette says he's not feeling stressed by confinement farming.

(Country music plays)

BESSETTE: I was told a long while ago, probably 25 years ago when we put up our first Harvestar silo, you drive down the road, this guy's got a Harvestar and he's making a decent living, and then you go down the road a little further and this guy with a $7,000 bunker, and he's making a decent living. And you drive down a little further and this guy's got a pile of corn just sitting on the ground, and he has more spoilage but he's making a decent living. So it's mainly management.

TRIPOLI: Bessette's neighbor Ted Yandow is a grass farmer, just like Henry Forgues. I asked Bessette, do you ever discuss the advantages and disadvantages of your 2 ways of farming with each other? A moment of silence.

YANDOW: No. He does things, his is the right way.

TRIPOLI: It turns out, Ted Yandow is as ecstatic about intensive grazing as Henry Forgues. He used almost the same words to describe it that Forgues used. "It saved my life." But Yandow says he doesn't approach neighbors about his way of farming, either. In Vermont's tight farming towns, no one wants to be seen as a meddler. The lack of discussion is too bad, say grass farmers, because unlike Jim Bessette they believe that grazing can be done at almost any scale, and that it brings substantial environmental benefits like less chemical use on the land. Henry Forgues' grazing mentor, farmer and agronomist Bill Murphy, says ingrained beliefs also keep farmers from switching.

MURPHY: One thing for sure is pastures have a very bad reputation in this country, from a couple hundred years of mismanagement. The people just don't think they will produce, and they refuse to believe that they will. I know when we first started talking about it here, I only had results from New Zealand to show people. And they'd say wow, yeah, that's New Zealand, it won't work in Vermont. But then we got a few farmers to try it, including on my farm.

TRIPOLI: Experts disagree about the 2 systems, but grass farming is gaining adherence. Vermont grass farmers have formed chat circles to discuss what they've learned with each other, if not with their non-grazing neighbors. A web page called grassfarmer.com lists grazing farms and research in more than a dozen states. There's even a national magazine called The Stockman Grass Farmer. Its catchy subtitle is, "The grazer's edge." But concerns remain. One extension service agent said he worried that grass-based diets are too rich, and that cows will use too much energy processing the extra protein.

(Clanking sounds. Man: "I'd hate to have to start that in the middle of the winter.")

TRIPOLI: Back at Henry Forgues' farm that doesn't seem to be a problem. Forgues says 68 of his 70 milking cows were successfully impregnated this fall, a high percentage for any farm and a sign of good health. Grass farming has led to some pretty uncommon scenes at the Forgues' farm.

FORGUES: They think of this as a fairly unorthodox use for a silo.

TRIPOLI: (Laughs) Yeah.

The door of a silo that no longer stores grain is carefully opened.

(A latch unhooks; loud clucking ensues)

TRIPOLI: To reveal a predator-proof haven for chickens to earn the farm extra income. With debt and overhead way down, the Forgues son has returned to the farm. There's a living there for 2 families now. The Forgues' profit per cow is nearly 3 times what it was before grazing started, and it beats Vermont's average for confinement farmers. And the Forgues aren't the only winners. Grass farmer Ted Yandow, the farmer who says intensive grazing saved his life, says he has almost wiped out a $3-quarter-million debt in a dozen years of grass farming.

(Chickens continue, their clucks echoing)

TRIPOLI: The benefit of management-intensive grazing seem unmistakable to grass farmers. Nevertheless, only about 200 of Vermont's 1,700 dairy farmers make it their primary way of dairying. Still, agriculture officials say grazing has left its mark on the other 1,500. More of them graze more of their cows these days, and they may be creating a hybrid of the 2 methods that will save more dairy farms, even as their once grain-stuffed silos turn to other uses.

(Chickens continue)

TRIPOLI: For Living on Earth, I'm Steve Tripoli in Alberg Springs, Vermont.



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