Farmers, researchers form Grassland 2.0 to expand beneficial grassland agriculture

This article was written by Grassland 2.0 members Anne Nardi, Jacob Grace and Laura Paine. It was original published in the Organic Broadcaster and has been republished here.

What will it take to make a large-scale shift to perennial grazing systems in the Midwest? Grassland 2.0, a newly formed collaboration based at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, aims to find out. The group is bringing together farmers, researchers, state and local agency staff, milk and meat processors, and citizen groups to seek transformative solutions to the social, economic, and environmental challenges facing Midwest food and farming systems. According to the team, the foundation of sustainable landscapes is grasslands. “We’re going to need farming practices that simultaneously produce healthy food, support thriving communities, and restore ecosystem processes. Grazed perennial grasslands do that,” said Randy Jackson, a UW-Madison researcher who leads the project.

Research shows that well-managed perennial pastures are a productive, profitable means of raising livestock that provide many of the ecosystem services once provided by the region’s native prairies, such as water absorption and filtration, soil building, wildlife habitat, and resilience to extreme weather. Grassland agriculture also can decrease oversupplies of commodities and dependence on exports to maintain viable prices for farmers, enabling small, family-owned farms to stay on the landscape.

The Organic Pasture Rule, which requires that livestock obtain at least 30% of their dry-matter intake from grazed pasture throughout a grazing season of at least 120 days, ensures that organic livestock producers are already practicing grassland agriculture. But grazing implementation methods can vary widely and additional management may be required to obtain the full range of ecosystem services provided by a well-managed grassland.

Grassland 2.0 is sharing information and grazing resources with organic and non-organic producers who face technical or economic barriers to adopting and maintaining well-grazed pastures. Fortunately, there is a wealth of resources and information available. GrassWorks, Inc., a Wisconsin nonprofit dedicated to managed grazing, and the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship, the first formal agricultural apprenticeship in the U.S., are just two examples of some of the organizations working to support grazing on the landscape. The region also has an extensive network of experienced graziers and that gives Jackson hope that even greater adoption is possible.

Kevin Mahalko, an Organic Valley farmer-owner and president of GrassWorks (and a MOSES On-Farm Organic Specialist), hopes Grassland 2.0 can provide some much-needed outreach and support for grazing. “For the last 10 years, there really hasn’t been much state support for grazing,” Mahalko said. “We have a baseline level of grazing outreach, but we definitely need to expand on that to push grazing forward.”

The Grassland 2.0 project is funded by a five-year grant from the USDA National Institute for Food and Agriculture. According to Jackson, this is noteworthy in itself. “This grant is a major win for the thousands of farmers who are grazing across the state and beyond, and a major win for citizens of the upper Midwest, who desperately need incentives, expertise, and policies that promote sustainable agriculture.”

Joe Tomandl, Executive Director of the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship and a dairy grazier himself, agrees. “The fact that this project is endorsed and validated by the University means a lot,” Tomandl said. “Managed grazing has the ability to address and solve so many of our unintended consequences of large dairies. It can remediate surface and groundwater pollution and soil runoff while reinvigorating rural communities and sequestering carbon. We need to figure out the market, the workforce, and the system that will allow this management system to work. It is there—we just need to scale it.”

To bring about large-scale agricultural change, the group is looking to bring processors, lenders, policymakers, and state and federal agencies together to take a holistic approach and map transformative pathways
forward. The group has collaborative teams approaching the issue from different perspectives, including policy and governance, sustainable supply chains, community engagement, and scenario development.

Tomandl is most excited about the supply-chain work. “We need to develop market-based systems that influence how land is managed by farmers. Grassland 2.0’s supply chain team can help facilitate that process by validating ecosystem-services markets and support the formation of new markets,” he explained.

For Mahalko, policy and governance are the key to large-scale change. “I think, personally, that a lot of what is done on the land is policy and what is driven by the government. We need to change farm policy to encourage sustainable conservation farming in general and really support grazing for not only efficient production, but also the myriad of benefits grazing provides ecosystem services. If we can shift that, that would be huge.”

Grassland 2.0’s policy team is working to understand the current status and historical trends of policies that support or constrain grass-based agriculture. This includes developing a Wisconsin Grazing Policy Profile highlighting existing organizations, policies, and funding supporting managed grazing in the state, with plans to produce similar reports for additional states.

The team also is partnering with the Pasture Project at Winrock International to develop web-based decision support tools that will help users explore “what-if” scenarios, such as changing farming practices or management strategies on a farm or across watersheds.

Jim Munsch, a beef grazier and consultant, is excited to see how the decision-support tools the team is creating could influence producer management decisions. According to Munsch, the ability to talk brass tacks at the field level can be powerful. “You will actually be able to stand there with a producer and say, ‘for this 30-acre field, you are losing this amount of soil and this amount of phosphorus. If you change your management, you can get 2.5 tons of high-quality dry-matter per acre and reduce your soil and P loss. And, if you use pasture as a food source, you can reduce the cost of raising a dairy heifer by this much.’ The power of persuasion for the landowner will be immense.”

While the project’s goals are certainly ambitious, Jackson noted that the stakes couldn’t be higher. “Last year an average of two dairy farms per day went out of business in Wisconsin. It is time for us to come together and ask: What do we want from agriculture?” Jackson added, “Profitable farms cultivating healthy people; thriving, diverse communities; clean water, flood reduction, stable climate, and biodiversity are possible; but realizing these landscapes will require all of us.”