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Grass fed: $10M initiative seeks to boost farmers, economy and environment with grazing

November 26, 2020. Summarized by summa-bot.

For an industry battered by unstable commodity prices, rising costs, market constraints and extreme weather, grassland farming represents a bright spot.

Tired of sending his milk checks to seed and fertilizer vendors. So in 2018, he decided to do something different. Now his cattle spend their days munching fresh grass on his 335-acre farm, leaving Gruenfelder, 35, more time to spend with his family and more money in his pocket. In an era when farmers have been told to go big or get out, Gruenfelder found a way to make his small farm more profitable and more sustainable through managed rotational grazing, a modern take on an old-fashioned practice. “It’s very simple,” Gruenfelder said.

Since switching from confinement feeding to rotational grazing, Jason Gruenfelder said his cows produce less milk, but the farm is more profitable because his costs are so much lower.

Funded by a $10 million grant from the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture, the collaborative — called Grassland 2. 0 in a nod to the prairies that once dominated the landscape — brings together farmers, researchers, food processors and government officials to find new opportunities for grazing and other perennial grassland farming practices. For an industry battered by unstable commodity prices, rising costs, market constraints and extreme weather, grassland farming represents a bright spot, said Randy Jackson, the UW researcher leading the project. Jackson, a professor of grassland ecology, envisions a future of profitable, productive farmland that also promotes clean water, healthy soil, biodiversity and resilience — much like the region’s original prairie landscape did. He considers the grant a “major win” for residents of the Upper Midwest. “We’re going to need farming practices that simultaneously produce healthy food, support thriving communities and restore ecosystem processes,” Jackson said.

“Grazed perennial grasslands do that. ”Go big or get outWisconsin lost 773 dairy farms in 2019, and another 266 so far this year, according to the U. S. Department of Agriculture’s statistics service. Yet the total number of milk cows is virtually the same as it was five years ago, and milk production hit an all-time high last year as farmers squeezed a record 24,152 pounds of milk from each cow. Speaking at the World Dairy Expo in Madison last year, U. S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue warned small farmers there may be no place for them in this economy. “In America, the big get bigger and the small go out,” Perdue said.

It’s the system. ”Less milk, more profitAbout 16% of Wisconsin dairy farmers were using some form of managed grazing as of the USDA’s 2012 Census of Agriculture, said Laura Paine, an outreach coordinator with Grassland 2. 0 and former grazing specialist for the state Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Their father, Jason Gruenfelder, said grass-based farming allows him more time with his family, and there's less dangerous machinery than a traditional confinement dairy.

“It’s really an interesting expose on the supply chain. ”Making ends meetGruenfelder, whose farm is not certified organic, doesn’t get paid any more for his milk, and his cows produce about 30 to 50 pounds per day instead of the standard 80 to 100. But with no seed and fertilizer bills and less machinery to maintain, Gruenfelder is able to keep more of his income. “We don’t go into town and brag about the milk production,” he said.

“It’s clearly a more profitable way to do dairy farming,” Jackson said.

There are environmental benefits as well. According to research by the USDA, UW-Madison and DATCP, well-managed grasslands can reduce soil erosion and nutrient runoff, which improves water quality, reduces flooding while also supporting wildlife, like pollinators, birds and trout. Grasslands also trap carbon in the soil, which could allow agriculture to become part of the solution to climate change and potentially generate additional revenue if carbon markets are developed. “It’s really a win-win-win across the board if it’s done well,” Jackson said. Less time on the tractorGruenfelder first learned about rotational grazing during a farm tour when he was in college.

While everyone else laughed, he recognized how much less work that farmer was putting in. “That guy’s got it figured out,” he thought. But with his older brother running the family farm, Gruenfelder and his wife, Kris, had to start from scratch and couldn’t make the finances work while they were getting established.

He does it once more in the evening. The cows spread their own manure, which helps regenerate the grass before they return to that section. Gruenfelder said his vet bills have fallen substantially since making the switch. “They’re healthier,” he said.

It’s what grandma and grandpa did. ”That’s where Grassland 2. 0 comes in. The collaborative effort — which also includes UW-Madison Extension, the University of Minnesota-St. Paul and multiple nonprofits — will focus on sharing information and resources with farmers while also working to expand markets, identify policy tools and bring together partners at the local and regional level to explore different approaches to expanding grassland agriculture. Jackson hopes that farmers like Gruenfelder can help teach others about the benefits and offer advice on making the switch. He’s also working with David LeZaks, a senior fellow with the Croatan Institute, a nonprofit research institute in North Carolina that works to use investment as a tool for social change and ecological resilience.

LeZaks, based in Madison, hopes to use some of that socially conscious capital to support regenerative farming, much in the same way it has flowed to renewable energy, while also showing mainstream financiers that it’s a sound investment. “There’s already a playbook in many cases,” he said.

Since switching from confinement feeding to rotational grazing, Jason Gruenfelder said his cows produce less milk, but the farm is more profitable because his costs are so much lower.

Their father, Jason Gruenfelder, said grass-based farming allows him more time with his family, and there's less dangerous machinery than a traditional confinement dairy.

This is going back to the roots of what dairying was a hundred years ago. ” Jason Gruenfelder, 35, dairy farmer

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