On February 5 at 8:00 AM, the Pasture-Based Farming Research Needs Discussion session began, moderated by Mr. Joe Hatton, Private Sector Co-Chair of the Northeast Pasture Consortium. Mr. Hatton had led the Private Sector Research Needs breakout session on Tuesday. Two farmer members were spokesmen for two priority research needs, riparian area grazing management for water quality and forage production and the orchardgrass die-off problem in the Mid-Atlantic states.
Riparian Grazing Management
Mr. Lawrason Sayre, owner of Waffle Hill Farm, Churchville, MD, spoke about the dilemma he faced with having to fence off streams running through pastures on his farm. Permanent fencing is expensive and cost prohibitive if it involves several thousand feet of it. Meanwhile, the streams are not highly impacted by cattle when rotational grazing is used as has been done for several years on his farm. He felt that such a disincentive to graze grassy riparian areas could lead some farms to crop these fields instead of grazing them. He was not sure that the landuse conversion would make the streams less prone to nitrogen and phosphorus inputs from the adjacent new landuse. More likely, it would worsen sediment inputs even with a grass buffer setback. He feels that Maryland is the guinea pig to test the waters for excluding livestock from streams through the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.
A review of recent literature is in order to see what is already been studied but not disseminated well. Even the ban of spreading manure from November to mid-March is untenable, where pastures are stockpiled for late fall and early winter grazing. We need a water quality validated riparian zone pasture management system. One person observed that you do not always the get the answer that you are looking for. However, so far, the research is in short supply for either side of the stream-side exclusion of livestock issue to be sure they have the correct take on the issue.
Dr. Les Vough was pleased that the Consortium was able to get MDA and USDA-NRCS in Maryland together for the riparian grazing session. It got them communicating with each other and the people impacted by the Nutrient Management regulations. The listening audience suggested other problems with total exclusion of livestock along stream corridors. Some have seen invasive species such as multiflora rose, thistles, autumn olive, and a host of other unwanted plants invade these narrow stream corridors since they are often not wide enough to allow access for mowing machinery or are dangerous terrain to traverse with a tractor. If left to naturalize, these stream corridors will eventually be tree-lined. This creates shady areas near the streams that would entice livestock to camp under the shade.
If grazing management is long term continuous grazing, this eventually leads to compacted and bare soil areas adjacent to the stream that are often highly fertilized by dung and urine. This too creates a worse situation than a random urine or dung spot occasionally deposited in or within a few feet of a stream in an unfenced situation. The fencing practice alone without a good grazing management plan on the remaining riparian area pasture would not necessarily reduce inflows of nitrogen and phosphorus to the stream either. Repeated, close grazing with little or no ungrazed grass buffer between the stream and the remaining pastureland is unlikely to cause a change for the better.
The other issue of permanent fencing is that in floodplain situations, the fence will be a constant maintenance headache. If not maintained, it is no more effective than a grazing management plan that is not faithfully followed. Enforcement of either practice is difficult. Putting up a “permanent” fence gives a false sense of security to environmental agencies. One flood or a down tree limb on the fence could render it useless. Is there a plan to investigate every stream-side fence after every flood event? Is it easier to check the fence than checking the grazing management of a pasture? Not really, especially once the fence disappears from road view.
If a stream crossing is constructed, but not gated, livestock still have access to the stream, just at a more concentrated spot. Is this a water quality improvement? Not if access to the stream is still 24-7. How often is the operation of this “improvement” going to be checked for compliance? Realistically, not often or at all. There are priorities and personnel and time constraints. Structural practices are often seen as complete and walk-away practices. Job done. This is incorrect. Nothing lasts forever, and without maintenance and follow-up checking, no surer to be there than a management practice.
Mr. Don Wild was the spokesman for the orchardgrass die-off issue. He said that orchardgrass is one of our most productive pasture grasses in the Northeast, particularly for dairy farmers. It is the foun-dation of a pasture mixture. He was worried that this problem of whole stand loss in the Mid-Atlantic states could progress northward into New York and New England. The grass is highly adapted to the climate and soils in the Northeast.
As a seed dealer, he felt that research needs to be done immediately to see what the underlying cause is. The audience responded by agreeing that it has become a serious problem in the southern part of the Northeast. One person thought it might be related to a soil fertility or soil compaction issue. There is anecdotal evidence of this from farmer interviews. Another mentioned that Virginia Tech University had one researcher working on the problem and recently has a graduate student working with him on this issue. They have found that the bluegrass and hunting bill-bugs are apparently to blame for a lot of orchardgrass die-off in northern Virginia. The VT graduate student is going to conduct on-farm survey later this year to investigate the cause of orchardgrass loss.
It was suggested that a Virginia Tech speaker be invited to our next conference. There also is a Mid-Atlantic Task Force looking into orchardgrass die-off. Don also mentioned that the cereal rust and mites have been a problem on timothy as well. He knows of 5-6 farmers having this forage problem. Variety improvement of bermudagrass to make it more winter-hardy was suggested since our native warm season grasses have not performed well under agronomic management and have some nutritional drawbacks as well.