Regional Grazing ConferenceMountains-to-the-Bay Grazing AllianceThursday, January 11, 2018

VWL aims to stay up to date on the most prevalent topics surrounding landscape ecology and management. In attending the Regional Grazing Conference, VWL staff learned about regenerative grazing practices and the important role microbes play in soil health.

The conference began with a lecture from keynote speaker Gabe Brown, a North Dakota multi-species farmer and rancher who prioritizes soil health to improve production and quality of his family’s 5,000 acre operation. While North Dakota may seem foreign to Virginia and Maryland locals, Brown pointed out that no matter where you farm, soil is one thing every farmer has in common and a most important consideration when managing land. Rather than following his neighbors’ conventional farming methods, Brown implements a high stock density (rotational) grazing and no-till cropping system designed to reflect nature. His diverse cover crop and adaptive grazing techniques allow for his soil to maintain and distribute high levels of organic matter, unlike his neighbors. Brown also emphasized the importance of the carbon cycle, detailing how his practices contribute to the cycle and rejuvenate his land. Many ranchers and farmers till, bushhog, hay, and spray pesticides excessively, which reduces soil moisture and results in fewer nutrients for plants and animals. While Brown highlighted the financial gains from his adaptive and holistic techniques, he also stressed how these practices will help ensure the longevity of his family’s farm and ranch. Farming and ranching are by no means a natural process, but there are many ways to ensure that your operation is profiting while also regenerating depleted land.

Second keynote speaker Nicole Masters, an agroecologist and director of Integrity Soils, focused on microbes and microorganisms that are often undervalued by farmers and ranchers and yet should be a key consideration in farm management. Soils depend on a web of key players – bacteria, fungi, nematodes, algae, and more – to maintain structure, retain water, distribute organic matter and nutrients, suppress disease, and carry out many other tasks. In order to care for your farming and ranching operation, you must care for your soil and consider the important relationships between the soil, plants, and above ground management. Masters cautioned that practices such as excessive tilling, pesticide use, soil compaction, and overgrazing, are detrimental to helpful microbes and thus to soil health. She presented several case studies to illustrate how regenerative techniques including adding various mixtures of organic matter back to the soil can restore the health of depleted lands and provide suitable habitat for beneficial microbes. Finally, Masters concluded her talk by encouraging local farmers and ranchers to diversify their crops, avoid bare ground and overgrazing, feed microbes and microorganisms, and improve root systems through species selection and above-ground management.

The conference concluded with a Q&A farmer’s panel. Both keynote speakers, Michael Phillips (VA beef producer), Keith Ohlinger (MD multi-species grazing farmer), and Forrest Stricker (PA dairy producer) fielded questions from the audience. There were several inquiries about strategies for new and inexperienced farmers, grazing techniques, cover crop composition, options for soil testing, and why regenerative farming matters. While members of the farmer’s panel had different goals, they all agreed that it is important for every farmer, whether established or just starting out, to utilize regenerative methods such as rotational grazing, diversifying crops and livestock, and monitoring the soil. They also encouraged new farmers to surround themselves with a support group and find experienced farmer mentors in order to learn more about regenerative farming techniques and observe first-hand the important benefits of those practices that many farmers are experiencing.

Thank you to the Mountains-to-the-Bay Grazing Alliance for organizing this informative and interesting conference. Events like these are essential to spreading knowledge about sustainable land-use practices, and VWL is grateful to be a part of this community.

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