Pasture walk eyes clean waterways

By Kate Barcellos
Staff Writer

POULTNEY — Healthy pastures don’t just mean happy cows — they mean a healthy Lake Champlain, which has been an unwilling host to an extremely rude visitor.

Blue-green algae, or cyanobacteria, can produce toxins that sicken and kill people and animals, kill off entire sections of water-ways, raise the cost of water treatment and hurt industries that use clean, fresh water, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

A few years ago, more blooms began popping up, threatening the lake’s inhabitants and water quality. So, in 2016, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets implemented Required Agricultural Practices to help protect the lake and the people who love it, in accordance with Act 64, passed in 2015 to help protect Vermont’s waters.

Some of those practices start on dry land far from the lake, in places like 587 Blissville Road in Poultney: Liberty Farm, where the grass really is greener, more diverse, and an example of a grazing pasture that helps Vermont’s ecosystems instead of harming them.

The Rutland Natural Resources Conservation District, the Poultney-Mettawee Natural Resources Conservation District, and the Bennington County Conservation District are teaming with University of Vermont Extension’s Grazing Specialist Cheryl Cesario to walk local farmers through the process and the pastures of Liberty Farm, at 10 a.m. July 23, where they’ll learn about pasture management and transitioning animals onto pasture sustainably while benefiting their yields, diversifying their grasses and preserving the water.

“A lot of times, people don’t get off their farms all that much. This is an opportunity to look at his setup, understand why he does certain things,” Cesario said. “We’ll look at why plants grow and how, and how animals play a factor in their growth, general grazing concepts, hand in hand with what’s actually on the ground there.”

The stroll is made possible through a $5,000 grant from the Vermont Agency of Agriculture Food and Markets to help farmers understand the new RAPs.

“The department of ag wanted the conservation districts out there,” said Nanci McGuire, district manager of the Rutland conservation district. “Our mission is to work with folks to be good stewards of the land. If the grazing is done properly, then there won’t be issues of nutrient runoff from the fields.”

One of those nutrients is phosphorous, a main ingredient in many fertilizers that farmers use on their fields and gardens.

“Too much phosphorous promotes excessive growth in freshwater waterways,” said Jennifer Durham Alexander, agronomy outreach professional for the Poultney-Mettawee Natural Resources Conservation District. “The total maximum daily load for phosphorous in soil is 20 parts per million. If you exceed that, you need a draw-down plan — what the farm will do to reduce that number.”

Healthy pastures benefit the farmers, too. Cesario said farmers who have successfully transitioned from confined feed to pasture saw better health, better feet, better manure in their fields and better cost benefits for their feed.

Which, for dairy farmers, means more milk, and theoretically, more cash.

“I have a farmer who told me she’s saving 7 pounds of grain per cow, and the cows on average are making 5 pounds of milk more each. For 60 cows. That’s 300 pounds per day extra in the bulk tank,” Cesario said.

Transitioning from grain to pasture isn’t always feasible, Cesario said, but there are ways to augment infrastructure and practices to make the change easier, such as night grazing and utilizing the cost-share programs available through the state.

But even those can be difficult for farmers to handle financially, especially for dairy farmers in Vermont, Cesario said.

“With cost-shares, the farmer will still have to come up with 20-25 percent of the cost,” Cesario said. “Depending on what item it is, that can still be quite an expense. The animal paths through the fields can be improved with stone, and the cost of that can be a barrier, but there are funding channels that increase the rate. It’s helping farmers navigate what is available to them.”

On the walk, Cesario said, they’ll identify what types of plants are ideal in a grazing pasture and how to cultivate them.

“What we want to see is a nice diversity of cool-season perennials and lichens,” Cesario said. “You want at least five types of grasses and a few types of lichen — as much diversity as possible, because then you have a buffer against changing conditions.”

Anyone interested may participate in the walk free of charge, but must register with Nanci McGuire at 775-8034, ext. 117, or email to register by July 19.