Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Dairy Heifers Eat Weeds, too!

Our work with Kathy Voth and learning to view weeds as alternative forages has taught us many things, and one is that animals can eat more things than we think they can.

Kathy and Julie talking weeds and heifers.
It's just a great example of how the brain-stomach feedback loop is working to help animals evaluate the nutrients and toxins in foods to determine whether they are good to eat, or not.

Here are some videos from project participant Julie Wolcott's farm in Fairfield:

Dairy heifers eating a variety of foods

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Why would we want to teach our animals to eat weeds? A Top Ten List

Last week we spent a  few days with beef, sheep and dairy farmers interested in learning more about how animals can be taught to expand their nutritional palates.  The farmers who came to the events were excited and engaged, and at all three farms we found animals eating some of the target weeds. 

Picking goldenrod for a live weed-eating demo.
As weed-eating trainer Kathy Voth says this process, "helps you feel comfortable with your animals' ability to make good choices."

As Bruce Hennessey of Maple Wind Farm in Huntington said, "I look at my pastures in a totally different way now".  Bruce and his interns Eleanor, Eli and Diane have been teaching their beef cattle to eat golden rod at a leased farm and plan to tackle Canada thistle at the home farm next.

Julie Wolcott of Green Wind Farm in Fairfield worked with her dairy heifers to each a variety of weeds they will find in the pasture, once they are turned out to begin grazing.  The weed-eating program has not only introduced them to a range of weeds from thistle to plaintain, but has also been an easy way to teach the heifers that grass and legumes are tasty and nutritious.  Typically, Julie observes that the cows lose weight when they first go out to pasture, as they adjust to the new food choices.  She is hoping they eat all of the plants more evenly and that the heifers' weight gain continues smoothly.  As Julie says, "This is easy!  Easier than I ever expected."

Jenn Colby of Howling Wolf Farm in East Randolph has been teaching her sheep to eat Canada thistle, but her flock has already enjoyed a varied diet.  Tops on the menu: wild chervil, wild parsnip, burdock and giant ragweed.  As Jenn says, "I haven't experienced the drought challenges that the farms around me have this year.  The sheep love the burdock and milkweed, which are growing back very quickly after grazing....much faster than the grass.  I don't think of weeds as weeds...I think of weeds as alternative forage!"

So...why should you consider teaching your animals to become weed managers?
  1. Weeds are nutritious and highly digestible
  2. Weeds are resilient in a changing environment
  3. Weeds maintain their quality longer than other forages
  4. Weeds take NO work to plant, fertilize or maintain
  5. Weeds have always been here...and likely always will be
  6. Controlling weeds mechanically or with chemical sprays is expensive, costly, and takes time
  7. It's quick and easy,  and teaching animals once means they will teach their herdmates for years
  8. Animals who eat weeds are healthy and grow well
  9. Farmers have better things to do than stress about old weeds (or new ones!)
  10. It's fun (we're not kidding)

To learn more about teaching livestock to eat alternative forages, visit or contact the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture's Pasture Program at

Friday, May 18, 2012

Grazing Experiments on a Central VT Farm

618 loves her chervil!
As a person working in the Pasture Program for over seven years, I expect that readers might wonder what happens on my own farm.  Yes, I graze animals  too!  For the last several years, I've been focused on sheep and feeder pigs, with occasional poultry.  I'll be back on poultry again now that I finished grad school. 

I just posted a photo album on Facebook which should be publicly accessible by others.  If you are on Facebook, please feel free to comment.  As with every other farm(er) I know...our farm is a work in progress.  It's not large; we currently have 11 ewes...but we are growing and learning.  One thing I've learned is that regardless of one's size or experience, there's always more to learn!

I am testing a number of approaches which I've observed on others' farms including taller grazing, planned grazing, silvopasture/fallow land reclamation, and eating weeds. I'll keep posting...hopefully you'll keep checking back.


Monday, May 14, 2012

Healthy Animals Means Healthy Food...and Healthy Discussion

I was recently passed a commentary piece produced by CAST, the Center for Agricultural Science and Technology. In it, the organization discusses the "direct relationship between animal health and safety outcomes".  It spends a significant section talking about how diseased animals can pass on pathogens to consumers through the slaughter process, and how animals which appear healthy on the outside can actually be full of disease vectors.  The upshot of the article is that animals raised outside, without antibiotics and in less "controlled" circumstances will be less safe and more dangerous to the consumer.

I was asked to weigh in on this organization, and this commentary for an online magazine article. Frankly, it was an awkward request.  I work with farmers on a daily basis who believe that they are doing their best to raise the healthiest and the highest quality animals for their consumers, consumers whom they often know personally.  That said, not every day is sunny and picturesque on a grass-based farm.  At the same time, I have personally visited confinement farms considered within the industry to be very well run.  The point is, despite everyone's best efforts, no system is perfect.  Without much exception, all sides of this issue would agree that healthy animals mean healthy food.  In the bigger picture, we need healthy soils which lead to healthy animals which lead to healthy people and a healthy planet.

Deep issues require discussion and reflection.
The thing made me feel awkward about commenting on the CAST publication was that I don't like to play small local ag and big ag against one another.  While I most often find myself on the side of the small agricultural operations both because they tend to be the farms that I best understand and the farms one is most likely to find in Vermont, I also need to acknowledge that there's a lot to learn from big farms.  "Big Ag" has spent a lot of time and money on the issues of food safety, animal housing, disease and transportation.  They are incredibly well organized.  Can we not learn from them?  Must we reject everything about them because we disagree with their perspective?  Must they do the same with us, when we have learned so much about animal behavior, consumer relationships and beneficial management of the environment?

At the same time, I question the logic from CAST that small organic or grass-based farms are unsafe.  I was serious when I noted in the article that their view is "reductionist", because that's actually the nature of hard, laboratory science.  It must be reductionist in order to tease out small differences that approach the ability to reject a null hypothesis (in the world of double negatives, this is almost like saying you accept your actual hypothesis).  That sort of focus on individual parts reduced down to comparable attributes is incredibly difficult in the real world.  In applied science, whether performed by a University Extension researcher or a farmer with test plots, there are many, many variables. 

On the farm and in the field, we must think holistically.  Everything on a farm is some variation of managed risk, whether that means we use two strands of fence or four; invest in a tractor or an ATV; plant ryegrass or corn.  We must balance whether a new farm enterprise is worth taking extra time away from the kids' Little League games. 

This blog post may seem to ramble a bit, but I think that's my ultimate point.  It's not fair to ask for a two-second sound bite on deep issues like animal health or food safety.  These are much larger conversations.  And I do mean conversations or discussions.  I don't mean ignorance or dismissal.  We all must learn from one another.  We all have something to teach. 


Thursday, May 10, 2012

Brown Bag Weeds Webinar with Kathy Voth

Our terrific partner Kathy Voth did her first official public webinar today!  She shared her knowledge and experience in a one-hour overview at lunch.  
Kathy and a VT Devon steer making friends.

If you'd like to catch the webinar, we recorded it!  Click here to watch.

As Kathy encouraged in the webinar, she is available to help you teach your own animals to eat weeds!  And if you are in Vermont or the Northeast, we'd like to hear about your successes and challenges in trying it on your own farms.

or the Pasture Program at

Friday, February 24, 2012

Teaching VT Sheep to Eat Bedstraw

Kathy Voth and Kimberly Hagen
News from the field!

Here's farmer and grant participant Kimberly Hagen teaching her sheep to eat smooth bedstraw, a notorious plant in Vermont.  Think your animals won't eat it?  This technique has worked on all different types of ruminant animals, with differently sized herds and with different weeds.  It can work for you.

Call us if you'd like to learn more...we have a project underway right now and are happy to help!

Teaching Sheep to Eat Bedstraw on Osprey Hill Farm (YouTube streaming video).

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Temple Grandin and the VT Grazing & Livestock Conference

Wow, what a ride the last month has been!

First, we'll start by detailing some of the press around the conference.  We've been quite lucky to have printed articles by the Burlington Free Press, the Bradford Journal Opinion, the Valley News, and even the Lancaster (PA) Farming magazine.  Yow!

Upon further investigation, I also found a blog posting about the event from Walpole Valley Farms. Thanks Chris and Caitlin!

Overall as the coordinator of the whole show, I can say that this was an amazing, humbling experience.  Dr. Grandin directly touched the lives of over 800 people in less than 12 hours.  She was incredibly patient and kind.  She signed hundreds of books and appeared in at least 50 pictures.  She took the time to answer individual questions when people came up to her with concerns about their animals OR their family members. She spent TIME to make sure they had answers. Dr. Grandin was giving, to a fault.

At the end of the evening, we settled up her traveling expenses.  We chatted for a few minutes and then she was done, time to sleep...and she walked off to her room without a backward glance.  I had this odd flash of the movie Shane or some other classic film where the kid watches in awe as their hero rides into the sunset.  Instantly, I was eight years old.

Safe travels, Temple.  Thank you for pausing one day with us...


Dr. Temple Grandin and Jenn Colby of the UVM  Center for Sustainable Agriculture at the 16th Annual VT Grazing & Livestock Conference.