When UVM agronomic and soils specialist Heather Darby initiated a study of twenty grass-fed dairy farms three years ago, there were 130 of them nationwide. This year she is heading a study of all grass-fed dairies, and there are now 500. The effort is funded by a $1 million grant from USDA.
Well-managed grazing can rapidly increase soil organic matter, and sequester carbon by “percentage points in years, not lifetimes,” Darby said. Soil organic matter (SOM) creates soil that acts like a sponge, absorbing water during heavy rains, and retaining it during dry spells. This in turn helps keep waterways cleaner and prevents flooding. Other environmental services include a local cooling effect, due to soil being continuously covered with growing plants, and a measurable increase in rainfall.
Grass farmers provide these environmental services as part of their business model, and grass-milk currently receives a premium price in the market. But Darby worries that even so, it’s not enough to make a decent living. “We need to bring farming and the environmental community closer together,” she said. “We need food, and we need the environment. These aren’t just things we want.”
The money from USDA’s Organic Research and Extension Initiative will fund a look at where grass-fed dairy works, and how it can work better. The grass-trend is consumer-driven, and that’s one of the things Darby’s team will study. Why exactly do consumers want grass-milk? Taste? Personal health? The environment? That part of the study includes pulling grass-milk from grocery store shelves all over the country and sampling.
But the bulk of the study focuses on the farmer. A survey has just gone out to grass-milk farmers nationwide asking about what has worked for them, what has not, and what issues they’ve had during the transition. The responses will form a database that participating farmers can consult. It will also deploy a benchmarking program to help farmers track production and costs, so they can compare within the grass-milk community.
Another part of the research focuses on nutrient flow, a major difference between grass-fed and conventional dairy. Conventional farmers can feed grain to make up for a poor forage crop; grass-milk farmers don’t have that option. That can strongly impact productivity. Soil depletion is also a concern. After all, nutrients are leaving the farm in the form of milk or beef. These need to be replaced, or the soil will deteriorate.
Darby sees this as a relatively minor problem that can be solved in a short timeframe, a year or two, as compared to the much longer time it can take to transition to a different breed of cow. One of the most important strategies is to incorporate legumes like clover and alfalfa into the pasture mix. These plants fix nitrogen from the air and can supply it to the grasses that grow with them, eliminating the need for chemical fertilizer—a major source of greenhouse gases. Legumes also provide nutritious fodder and contribute to biodiversity. (Red clover, a classic pasture legume, is the Vermont state flower.)
Darby has seen an increased environmental awareness on the part of farmers over the past ten years, and farmers are responding to consumer demand. But grass-milk often requires more acreage which may create pressure to clear land. And farm profits, or lack thereof, is still a big problem.
“When will we bear the true cost of having food and the environment?” Darby asked. “How will we pay for it?” Or as farming consultant, Ray Archuleta, has often said, “To go green, you have to be in the black.”
Darby is not just an academic. With her husband she owns and operates Darby Farm, a seventh generation vegetable and fruit farm in Orwell, VT. Darby is also a hops expert and is currently experimenting with milkweed as a commercial crop. Her study of the reality of grass-fed farming nationwide is one ray of hope for the struggling dairy industry in the Northeast and for the environment.
Jessie Haas has written 40 books, mainly for children, and has lived in an off-grid cabin in Westminster West, VT since 1984, www.jessiehaas.com.