Friday, July 29, 2011

Darts R Us

I've been promising for some time to talk about our SARE Comprehensive Grazing Course.  It's a pretty cool project that I'm very excited to be part of.  Here's some text from an article I wrote about one recent training day, with photos:

What do a retired NY NRCS employee, a permaculture consultant and a U.S. Senator's staffer have in common?  Darts!  This is no smoky bar room game, but an opportunity to learn more about reading the farm's environmental landscape and monitor biological changes resulting from farm management decisions. For many natural resource and grazing planners, these ideas are leaping off the page into the pasture as part of a NESARE-funded regional comprehensive grazing course.

On this sunny day in Highgate, VT trainees from four states join lead trainer Troy Bishopp and VT training coordinator Jenn Colby at Maplewood Organics to try their hands at sizing paddocks, moving cows and throwing darts.  Host farmer Eric Noel has been using a planned grazing system for six years, focusing on high density animal impact and grazing the plants at a taller height to address his own farm and family goals.  Some of Noel's decisions mean his cows have cooler feet and greater comfort in the summer, nesting bobolinks have safe areas to raise their young, and the farm business is more profitable by using stockpiled pasture rather than purchasing stored feed.  As Noel describes, he tries to bring the animals to feed, or the animals to pasture, and "tries to eliminate starting the tractor."  His stockpiled feed strategy saved him nearly $1100 in 2010 feed costs.
After a morning session dedicated to understanding the farm's current grazing system and developing the "grazier's eye" regarding how large to make a new paddock for Maplewood's head of 150 mixed age cattle, the trainees debate the workings of the four ecosystem processes integrated throughout the farm.  Observing the water cycle, mineral cycle, energy cycle and community dynamics are ways to understand and identify areas where farming systems are working well and guide answers as to why they might not be.  Effective breakdown of manure and plant matter, well drained pastures and fields, a healthy mix of plants are all indicators of well-functioning systems. Today, some of the more experienced trainees have a lively discussion about the benefits of dying plant matter, "litter", to the health of the soil. 

Once the basics were established, participants break into subgroups to practice throwing darts and assessing what's down at the soil level.  Trainees are joined by additional Extension staff, a Holistic Management course trainee, and Jenny Nelson from US Senator Bernie Sanders' office.  Each group is assigned to a different pasture in order to collect baseline information that Eric Noel will be able to use in the future to understand whether his decisions are improving or degrading his farm.

Moving along a straight line, one person throws a dart.  The team hastens to see where the dart hit and fills out a worksheet detailing the type of material the dart hit, and spreads the plants apart around the dart to really look at what's going on.  They record percentage of bare soil, plant species, presence of worm holes, soil type and more.  This hands-on activity requires getting close to the soil and plants, and might lead to getting a little dirty.  These trainees loved it.  "I found more things going on than it looked like to the casual eye", says Bruce Howlett, a grazing planner with MA NRCS.  "I really enjoyed seeing all the worm activity", says Dan Hudson, UVM agronomist.

Ending the day with refreshing mint and strawberry ice cream from Strafford Organic Creamery, the trainees are enthusiastic about the next training session.  As part of the course, they are translating what they learn directly to farmers through a three-year intensive partnership.  What's next?  Whether throwing darts, driving posts, or discussing feed cost savings, we know there'll be a quiz on this.


Friday, July 1, 2011

How Now Keyline Plow

The plow shanks run below the surface slicing through the soil.
Field Report from the June 9 Keyline Plow Event hosted by Lyle & Kitty Edwards:

Our workshop occurred on the first sunny day in weeks and understandably was lightly attended by farmers.  It was a perfect opportunity for our project team to check out the site, oversee a new round of plowing (this is Year 2 of the project), talk with our host farmers about their observations so far, and have a little professional development around the concepts of keyline plowing and set up.

You can learn more about the keyline project and how we are testing ways to address pasture compaction through plowing and the use of tillage radishes at the VPN web site.
Up close: the shanks leave a small opening.

Extension Agronomist Sid Bosworth describing grass structure.
Project coordinator Rachel Gilker and host farmer Lyle Edwards .
Keyline plowing uses a subsoil plow method with a very flat plow shank (about 8%) to slice through the soil and create channels below the surface.  These channels help break up soil compaction, create a place for new roots to grow with less effort and direct water more easily.  While most of the participating farmers are not testing the plow for its water-directing capabilities, they've observed changes in water movement anyway.  

In the course of our visit, the group was able to check out the plow lines from last year.  The cuts were completely sealed and mostly indetectable. 

Our partner and Keyline plow owner/operator Mark Krawczyk showed us how he sites the original line using a laser level over the transition point of the land where it moves from convex to concave.  This is the key line. 
Once the first line is flagged and plowed, Mark travels the same line (often a curving trail) in parallel passes.  This year's plowing will be at a deeper level than last year's.  Typically, the first application is at a shallower depth to start breaking up compaction and then following applications can go deeper without burning out the tractor.
Lyle Edwards describing his observations.

While Mark continued the plowing, our group went on to look at the pastures and refresh ourselves on pasture plant ID with Extension Agronomists Sid Bosworth and Dan Hudson. 

The plow has containers to spread seed into the plow cuts.
A great day.  UVM graduate student Bridget Jamison is working with the UVM Plant & Soil Science Department to study the changes in soil structure, density and carbon sequestration through the project.  We'll be sure to share results as soon as there are some to report.  In the meantime, plan now to attend the pasture event August 10 at Guy Choiniere's farm to learn more about his results with the keyline plow, as well as how he's feeding small grains from the farm, and managing manure through a bedded pack barn.

Here are a few more photos to complete the day.  Is it wrong to hope for rain next time?


 Agronomist Dan Hudson and grad student Bridget Jamison.
The lovely Kitty Edwards.

Once the key line is determined, new cuts are parallel.
A roller has now been added to the back of the plow.
Final stop: a quick visit to the Butterworks Farm Jersey calves!