Bee-Friendly Beef

Photo by Amy Johnson

Project Objective

This project aims to support the recovery of declining pollinator communities through habitat enhancement on working farms. By introducing native floral resources to livestock pastures and assessing pollinator community response, research findings will be used to provide recommendations for bee-friendly grazing strategies.

Description

In collaboration with Virginia Tech (VT) and the University of Tennessee (UT), VWL piloted a new study in 2021 to develop bee-friendly beef production practices through a series of demonstration sites and on-farm trials. What do we mean by “bee-friendly beef?” Pollinators have experienced precipitous declines in recent decades due, in part, to changing land-use and declines in floral resources. The objective of this project is to explore avenues to increase pollinator conservation opportunities on working farms. Integrating native wildflowers into pastures across the 37 million acres of the fescue belt in the Southeastern U.S. has the potential to conserve pollinators while maintaining cattle production. The predominant grass across these landscapes, tall fescue, feeds millions of cattle and grows well during the cool spring and fall seasons. However, this non-native grass introduced from northern Europe outcompetes native grasses and wildflowers, which contributes to declines in populations of pollinating insects. This project examines the integration of native wildflowers into traditional fescue-dominated grazing systems. 

In 2020, experimental trials were initiated at VT and UT sites to determine optimal methods for establishment of wildflowers in actively grazed sites. In 2021, we used results from the first year of establishments to initiate six on-farm trials through VWL in Northern Virginia. VWL staff conducted baseline vegetation surveys in the study fields at each farm, followed by field preparation to decrease cool season grass cover. A winter cover crop was planted to provide grazing forage and to control erosion within the study field. Following a second spring field preparation, the native wildflower seed mix was sown with a seed drill into the wildflower-enhanced treatments in early June 2022. The wildflower seed mix was determined based on species that are native to North America, are nontoxic to cattle and sheep, and bloom at different times of the season so that flowers will be continually available to pollinators throughout their foraging period.

Follow-up vegetation surveys and pollinator surveys are being conducted in the late summer and early fall of 2022 and in subsequent growing seasons to compare floral resources and pollinator abundance and diversity within cattle pastures enhanced with native wildflowers vs. traditional fescue pastures. These research findings will be combined with results from a forage analysis and an economic impact study through VT and UT to provide recommendations for bee-friendly grazing strategies.

Sources of Funding

USDA NRCS Conservation Innovation Grant program and the USDA NIFA

Collaborators

Virginia Tech (Bee-Friendly Beef) and The University of Tennessee

Project Contact

Erin Shibley, VWL Survey Coordinator, ThadyE[at]si.edu

In the News

Volunteers Assist with Pollinator Counts