Organic Broadcaster

Conservation initiatives can support organic livestock management

By Caleb Langworthy

Every year, I make a point to get out onto a couple of other farms to see their operations. I’m always looking for innovations that I could glean from others to further my grazing operation. Last summer, I visited the Holm Boys Dairy in Elk Mound, Wis., where they raise certified organic, grass-fed custom heifers utilizing managed grazing techniques. As the group toured the farm, we learned how the Holms have used managed grazing to improve the health and productivity of their soil.

A DNR Wildlife Biologist pointed out rare grassland birds in the pasture and buffers around the farm. At the homestead, our local soil conservationist used a rainfall simulator to demonstrate the infiltration and erosion potential of soil from the pastures in managed grazing, as well as soil from neighboring fields under different management. The organic farm’s managed pasture absorbed the most water, had the least run-off, and filtered the most clear water. These are all measurements of good management.

On the Holm farm, it was clear that managed grazing meets the needs of the producer, encourages local wildlife, and contributes to productive soils, plants, animals, and clean water. The same management that led to their productive organic farming system also addresses several natural resource concerns that farmers can look to the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) for technical and financial support. So, if you’re working to improve your farm in similar ways, consider taking advantage of NRCS programs in order to achieve your goals.

Soil health is the foundation on which successful organic farming systems are built. The National Organic Program (NOP) actually requires certified producers to “maintain and improve the natural resources of an operation, including soil and water quality” (7 CFR § 205.200). The goals of improving soil health and water quality overlap with the USDA-NRCS mission “to provide resources to farmers and landowners to aid them with conservation.” The agency’s goal is to ensure private lands are in harmony with the environment.

The 2016 NOP Guidance on Natural Resources and Biodiversity Conservation provides recommendations of conservation practices that a producer may use to meet the requirements of the 205.200 mandate about natural resource maintenance and improvement. That guidance also addresses the availability of USDA-NRCS assistance to implement many of these practices.

A farmer’s interest in creating productive, organic farming systems—through soil building, increased soil organic matter, erosion control, and plant and animal productivity—may coincide well with conservation goals of NRCS. NRCS works with landowners across the country through conservation planning and assistance to address natural resource concerns unique to the property.

I’ve worked closely with my local NRCS conservationist to identify and address conservation priorities on my own farm. Utilizing support from the agency, my wife and I have been able to invest in necessary infrastructure for grazing much faster than we could have done on our own.

Practices that might address the shared goals of NRCS and a grazier could potentially include covering the soil with a diverse mix of productive vegetation and well-managed integration of livestock. In particular, popular programs that might support a grazing operation include several Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) conservation practices such as fencing, livestock pipeline and watering facilities, prescribed (or managed) grazing, forage and biomass planting, and forage harvest management. An NRCS conservationist or a Technical Service Provider (TSP) can work with you to plan and design these practices to meet your objectives.

The best way to start the conversation about what practices might work for your grazing operation is to visit with the conservationist at your local USDA Service Center. You and your local conservationist can work together to determine your shared objectives. Then, through the development of a plan, you and a grazing lands specialist can assess the operation and formulate workable solutions to natural resource concerns. This plan is required to access funding for many grazing-related conservation practices.

Both NRCS conservationists and TSPs can complete a Grazing Management Plan. NRCS provides funds for farmers and landowners to retain the services of a TSP who can do the work of developing the plan and submitting it to NRCS.

Pasture management and grazing provide good examples of potential overlap between organic system requirements and NRCS programs. Organic ruminant livestock operations must graze pasture during a growing season. That grazing season cannot be less than 120 days in length. During that time, pasture must make up a minimum of 30% of the ruminant animal’s Dry Matter Intake. Farmers must manage their pasture as a crop and develop a pasture management plan, submitted with their Organic Systems Plan (OSP), to their certifier in order to comply with the rule.

Organic livestock producers can create a pasture management plan to submit with their OSP while also utilizing the technical assistance that NRCS has to offer by contacting their local USDA Service Center. The pasture management plan that needs to be submitted to your certifier can be developed by you and a NRCS grazing specialist in collaboration through a “Grazing Management Conservation Activity Plan” (CAP 110). The “Conservation Plan Supporting Organic Transition” (CAP 138) may also be an option for livestock producers transitioning to organic production. The CAP 138 Organic Transition Plan will also allow a producer to access certain NRCS programs. These plans may include grazing as a component, but they may also be more broadly focused on transitioning to organic production. Completed CAP 138 Organic Transition plans may also be submitted by a farmer to their certifier to satisfy the natural resource and pasture management plan part of their OSP.

In the development of the Grazing Management Plan (CAP 110), a grazing planner from your local service center will visit your farm and observe it with you. They will provide recommendations based on what they are seeing and what they understand of your goals as a producer or landowner. The TSP will provide you with information about the various soil types in your fields, as well as the potential forage productivity you can anticipate. Together, you will evaluate each potential pasture, consider goals for animal units, and identify major plant species. Your TSP should be able to help you understand your pasture’s major plant species and how palatable they are to your preferred livestock species, how they would respond to grazing, and how plant productivity might be enhanced through specific managed grazing techniques.

Your TSP can also serve in a consultation capacity to offer advice to you, as a producer, as necessary. Unfortunately, many regions lack enough available TSPs to meet the demand of producers seeking NRCS support. You should plan to schedule a TSP who is certified to complete Grazing Management Plans as soon as you are approved through your local office. Some states where there’s a shortage of TSPs, the NRCS office can work with producers on a plan.

A producer can access EQIP assistance after completing one of these grazing or organic plans. Producers can access assistance with a 528 Prescribed Grazing conservation practice directly through the NRCS office.

As you can see, the goals of NRCS and the producers working in organic systems have many potentials to overlap and support each other. Through working with your local NRCS service center, you may be able to access both technical and financial support that can further your operation’s goals.

Caleb Langworthy is an organic specialist with MOSES who is working to help USDA-NRCS agents understand organic production and how the agency’s programs can support organic producers.


From the May | June 2019 Issue


Back to Current Issue

Comments are closed.