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Conservation and Resource Stewardship Key to Profitable Livestock Farming in PA

Saturday, March 18, 2017 @ 11:03 AM

Posted by John Gerow

Beef cattle on an intesively managed pasture system.CLARION, Pa. (EYT) – Producing high-quality food and fiber while protecting natural resources, and keeping livestock healthy are the threads connecting grass farmers in Western Pennsylvania. More than 300 grass farmers gathered in Clarion at the 20th Annual Northwestern Pennsylvania Grazing Conference in Clarion on March 16.

The event, organized by the Headwaters Resource Conservation and Development Council affords grass farmers a forum to learn more about grass farming and conservation and to share their real world experiences with other farmers working toward similar goals. The Grazing Conference also sponsored by other Conservation Districts, Penn State Cooperative extension and a good number of area companies and organizations involved in supporting livestock agriculture in Western Pennsylvania.

American farming has been machinery and technology-heavy for the past 70 years or more. Farmers have been encouraged to try to bend nature to suit their methods of farming. The results have not been in all ways positive. The number of farm owners has steadily decreased over the years, vast acreages of steep, stony or land otherwise not suited for crop and machine farming have been laid vacant. Consumers have been forced into buying “factory farmed” meat, milk, and eggs; while longing for a better, more natural product. Rural communities have suffered a loss of population and revenues as fewer farmers farm larger acreages while non-tillable land has been left fallow.

Grass farming and holistic resource management (considering all aspects of the enterprise) began to attract attention in the late 1970s in response to milk production cost – price squeeze of the time. The economic viability of grass farming caused sheep and beef producers around the country to reconsider conventional production systems. Adapting land and grazing management first pioneered at Cornell University in the 1930s, promoted by Andre Voisin of France and developed in New Zealand. Dairy, beef and sheep producers soon discovered that they could grow more feed at a lower cost structure than by machine-based farming. Many more consumers now have access to clean, humanely produced meat, milk and wool as grass farmers are able to recoup a premium price for their quality products.

Thursday’s conference, held at the Trinity Point Church of God, featured internationally recognized grazing and grassland consultant Jim Gerrish of May, ID. Mr. Gerrish gave a two-part presentation on pasture management and a third presentation on the economics of producing hay for winter feeding. Almost all grass farmers have adopted some forms of improved pasture management, but most livestock producers cling to the idea of making their own hay. Mr. Gerrish offered some compelling reasons to consider selling off the hay equipment. In his pasture discussion, Jim suggested ways of looking at a growing pasture in some different ways. His comments included considering how much solar energy and carbon dioxide a growing stand of grass captures and how much more water a well-managed pasture can retain. This “holistic” approach seems to be key in making this “new” farming system successful.

Creative marketing for premium products was the topic for Aaron and Melisa Miller of Miller Livestock Co. in Kinsman, OH. The Millers have been grass farming and direct marketing their pastured products since 1999. The Millers market about 90 head of beef, 120 hogs, 60 sheep and 1,000 birds annually. They sell to local restaurants, butcher shops, schools, farmer’s markets and direct to consumers. The Millers gave a thorough breakdown of their production costs and compared their returns from the various marketing options. As American farmers have been far more successful in producing than in marketing, this was a great presentation for this group of entrepreneurs.

Headwaters RC & D deserves kudos for a well-done event in a lovely venue. Shannon’s Catering in DuBois provided an excellent noon feed for attendees and vendors.

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