Grazing helps farmers maintain healthy soils that absorb polluted runoff and improves overall herd health. Photo Credit: Emmy Nicklin/CBF Staff

Grazing for Clean Water and Profitable Farms

Twenty years ago, CBF's Clagett Farm Manager Michael Heller began grazing livestock on the property's steep fields. The practice has spawned a profitable operation raising grass-fed beef and lamb for local markets. It has also helped maintain healthy soils that absorb polluted runoff and protect the nearby Patuxent River. Most importantly, the grazing serves as a model for other farmers.

Good pasture management lowers costs and improves animal health because pasture plants provide healthy food for cattle. It also provides major water-quality benefits. The plants used for grazing capture rainfall and build healthy soil. Grazing animals naturally distribute manure where soils can use it, reducing the amount of polluted runoff going into the nearest stream.

To attract more farmers to grazing, Heller teamed up with CBF Restoration Scientist Rob Schnabel, University of Maryland Extension, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), and other farmers who have shifted from grain to grazing to form the Maryland Grazers' Network. A key element is farmer-to-farmer mentoring. The network provides outreach and technical assistance for current and new grazing farmers through its experts in pasture and forage composition, financial management, marketing, and funding. Now including 50 Maryland farms, the network also provides two-day grazing schools and field days, an annual planning calendar, a regional conference, and a newsletter.

Based on the Grazers' Network success, CBF and our partners have received an NRCS grant to expand, allowing the Mountains-to-Bay Grazers' Alliance to encourage grazing operations in Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. In its second year, the Alliance has already built a regional network of 250 grazers; added 1,400 acres in pasture farming; and conducted research on soil health, air and water quality, and economic benefits. More recently, CBF secured roughly one-million dollars through the NRCS Regional Conservation Partnership Program to provide technical and financial assistance for farmers in Maryland wanting to convert to grazing.

With measurable benefits in farm profitability, environmental health, soil health, and sustainability, grazing's time has come, and its expansion across the region will be good for us all.

The Bay can be healthy again. Together we are working to restore it. Watch how.

Sidebar Photos: 1. Emmy Nicklin/CBF Staff, 2. Kaitlin Newman, 3. Robert Miller.