Re-integrating livestock at the Rodale Institute

By Amanda Kimble-Evans and Jeff Moyer

There are two very divergent schools of thought in the world of livestock management. Much of the conventional industry doesn’t even consider livestock rearing as an agricultural practice. Livestock are simply recipients of agricultural commodities. But, it can be argued, that this divorcing of animals from agriculture has played a large part in building our broken food system.

We know a diversified farm is a healthy farm, and after years of building our soil and our research with agricultural crops only, we knew it was past time to invite grazing livestock back to the farm. The question was really how best to go about it. A lot of farmers don’t see themselves as livestock farmers and the Rodale Institute falls soundly into this category. We aren’t set up to raise animals--they are 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week responsibility and we are a small non-profit with limited ability to have evening and weekend staff.

But this challenge led us to think about a problem in the wider farming community. If a farmer growing grain recognizes having animals on the soil would be good for the farm, good for the food system, and good for the animals, could he or she incorporate animals without becoming a full-time livestock farmer? On the other hand, the new certified organic pasture regulations mean dairies with small landholdings will need to get their animals on pasture somewhere to either come into compliance or transition to organic.

Taken together, an opportunity exists for organic grain farmers to add a neighbor’s livestock to their land. Limited, admittedly, by proximity, the arrangement would be a win-win-win and could increase the number of dairy farmers transitioning to organic.

The Institute is lucky to have a neighboring dairy farmer who is interested in going organic. But, he has 64 cows and only 44 acres. That works in a conventional system but not in a certified organic system. Unless he could get access to more land, he would be excluded from accessing the organic marketplace.

So, we’re working together. The cows will graze on the Rodale Institute land, giving us the benefit of the animals without the complication of raising them ourselves. And our neighbor will be able to transition his herd with the goal of producing certified organic milk at the end of one year while, at the same time, transitioning his pastureland to certified organic after three years.

In the short term we’ve fenced in about 80 acres. The animals will rotate through our cropping system as any other “crop” would. In the long term, we’re going to fence about 170 acres. About one-third of our farm will be actively grazed at any time, excluding any research ground and the orchards. Including the neighbor’s acreage, we should have more than 200 acres in pasture-crop rotation.

And we’ll be studying both the herd and the pastures all along the way—animal health, nutritional value of the milk, and soil health on both our pastures and theirs. It will be fascinating to witness any number of transitions along the way. We have land that has been managed organically for 40 years seeing animals on the soil for the first time (high-level soil management to an even higher level of soil management), land that has been managed conventionally (dependent on chemicals and double and triple cropped) transitioning to organic pasture. We also have the personal transition of the farmers both at the Institute and on the neighbor’s farm.

We’re looking forward to a successful collaboration for everyone involved and to sharing the details of the process with the wider agricultural community.

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