A Maryland dairyman felt like a lone wolf when he started down the decade-long path to nourishing his animals and his land differently. A Virginia cattleman said his neighbors laughed at him, and a Pennsylvania rancher agreed. No other farmer they knew was using grazing techniques this way.

Ron Holter, a sixth-generation dairy farmer in Frederick County, MD, has seen his soils vastly improve since transitioning his cows to managed grazing. More farmers and ranchers are making the switch in the Bay region, thanks in part to education on the benefits. (Courtesy of David Nevala/Organic Valley)

 “Now,” said Mike Phillips, a farmer in Rockingham County, VA, “the ones who laughed are asking how we’re doing it.”

Phillips was at a Regional Grazing Conference in Maryland early this year, where 170 farmers and landowners from across the Chesapeake Bay region gathered to learn about growing grasses, crops and livestock in a way that benefits the soil as much as their bottom lines.

At the gathering, a consensus that might still be laughable in other agricultural circles has become well-rooted: One of the best things farmers can do for their land is to add livestock — and to carefully manage where the animals eat and when.

This approach also can be a boon for water quality because it improves the soil’s ability to retain nutrients, reducing the amount that is carried by rainfall and groundwater into local streams and rivers.

“Grazing is one of the very best agricultural uses of farmland when it comes to the Bay,” said Michael Heller, manager of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Clagett Farm in Upper Marlboro, MD, and an organizer of the conference. “But it has to be well-managed.”

The scientists who study the practice and its impact on soil health call it management-intensive grazing, because the technique involves much more than letting cows roam freely on the range.

Managed grazing entails systematically rotating animals through fields, often one small section at a time, and allowing their manure to naturally fertilize each area. Each plot is allowed to “rest,” free of livestock, for weeks or months to promote better forage in the future. In the process, the animals eat only a portion of the grass or crop while trampling and fertilizing the rest, forming a protective layer that improves soil health over time. 

Farmers use terms like rotational grazing, mob grazing, holistic grazing or cell grazing to describe their practices, but the concepts are similar. The approach has been slowly spreading since the 1990s, when portable electric fencing first made its way to the United States from New Zealand, making it easier to closely manage where animals graze.

Buck Holsinger, a farmer in Shenandoah Valley, VA, grazes his Galloway cattle almost year-round. He sells their meat directly to consumers and has worked with state and federal programs to plant trees on the property. (Whitney Pipkin)At grazing conferences, farmers explain that growing the right mix of grasses and crops — and carefully guiding grazers through the buffet of diverse plant species — has reaped dividends for their soil. But scientists are only beginning to study how and why that is.

“We’ve always assumed that having perennial diverse plant species will help with soil biology, and soil health equals water quality,” said Rob Schnabel, Maryland restoration biologist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Schnabel is working with a coalition of farm agencies and nonprofits that are wrapping up a three-year study of farms that are transitioning to grazing. “We’re finally marrying everything together with the hard data to prove it,” Schnabel said.

Ray Weil, a professor of environmental science and technology at the University of Maryland, said that it’s easy to explain why grazing is good for the watershed — and a growing body of research is beginning to back it up. A database search for scientific papers on “grazing” brought up 250 results.

“There’s no question,” Weil said, “that putting land into perennial vegetation is one of the best things you can do for soil.”

That’s true for lawns that are mowed or fields that are hayed. But grazing, Weil said, takes the benefits a few steps further by keeping the nutrients on the landscape, with the animals both consuming and fertilizing the pastures. That process eventually removes the need for chemical fertilizers for the grass and purchased feed for the livestock. At the same time, it reduces water pollution, assuming the grazing animals are also fenced away from waterways.

“Farmers used to have a little of everything, and then they began to specialize with feed lots in one place and feed in another,” Weil said. “Now, we’re starting to think about putting them back together again.”

Intensive grazing first took hold among early adapters such as Michael Heller, who started using cattle to improve 150 acres of Clagett Farm soil 35 years ago. At the time, soil conservation experts told Heller that the former tobacco-and-corn farm had the most eroded soils they’d seen in the three-county area.

“They said, ‘all your topsoil is down in the Chesapeake now,’” Heller recalled.

Heller started down the long road to improvement: planting perennial grasses to keep the dirt in place, then bringing animals in to consume and fertilize those grasses. Over the last three decades, the amount of organic matter in those soils, one measure of soil health, has increased from approximately 1 percent to 4 percent. And each percentage point represents an exponential increase in the soil’s ability to retain water. 

“Drought years are when we see some of the major benefits,” Heller said. “It’s almost like free irrigation when you can improve your organic matter.”

Because managed grazing also reduces the amount of sediment and nutrients washing into streams, the Chesapeake Bay Program recognizes it as a practice worth adopting — and, advocates argue, worthy of more federal and state funding. 

Federal dollars and regional nonprofits have recently coalesced to encourage more grazing, which is comparatively cheaper to implement than paying farmers to use other conservation techniques, such as planting cover crops. 

A nearly $500,000 federal grant awarded to a tristate coalition of farm agencies and nonprofits in 2016 is funding a flurry of workshops and conferences intended to spread managed grazing across Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland. Since 2008, the Maryland Grazers Network has been connecting beginning farmers interested in raising animals on pastures with experienced mentors. A 2016 directory for consumers looking to purchase grass-fed meat now includes 194 farms in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and West Virginia — a number that’s tripled since the first directory was published in 2005.

Consumer demand has also fueled increased sales of grass-fed meat and milk, which boast better ratios of omega-3 fatty acids compared with products from grain-fed cows. Nationally, those sales have doubled nearly every year since 2012, but still account for just 4 percent of beef sold in the United States. 

Intensive grazing often appeals to young and beginning farmers because it eschews the costly machinery that would be used to harvest feed crops. Simple electric fencing and water troughs can be moved by hand and are less expensive than erecting buildings for confined animal feeding.

But transitioning from a feed-based system to managed grazing can be a big leap for producers. There’s a lot more to it than throwing open the pasture gates.

Ron Holter started transitioning his sixth-generation dairy in Maryland’s Frederick County to a pasture-based operation in 1994, slowly removing the need for fertilizers, pesticides and antibiotics as the cows ate more grass and fewer grains.

The operation, which sells its milk through the Organic Valley cooperative, finally earned the 100-percent grass-fed label in 2007.

“It takes a while to get your soil healed and regenerated enough to support the cows,” said Holter, who runs the farm with his wife, Kathy, and 27-year-old son, Adam. Now, “we know there is life out there in the pastures. We can see that above the ground — the dung beetles, insects, spiders — everything is crawling with life out there.”

Farmers who have made the slow switch to grazing each have their own stories. Their fields came back to life. Their bills went down, and some expenses disappeared.

“We were taught to value bushels per acre and pounds of milk per cow,” said Forrest Stricker, a fourth-generation dairy farmer from the Reading, PA, area at the grazing conference. “But, at the end of the year, we had no money. What led us to this model of agriculture is it cut our costs.”

CBF’s Schnabel said that the economic benefits of grazing for dairy operations are well-documented, but current studies are working to generate similar data about beef operations.

Still, obstacles remain. Transitioning an existing operation to grass-based feeding can take years, if not generations, and still carries a stigma in some farming communities. More farms will consider making the change when commodity prices are down and the idea of selling meat directly to local markets or a specialty wholesaler is more appealing.

Weil said that getting more farmers to consider grazing amounts to “a paradigm shift,” not unlike early efforts to get crop growers to till less or plant more cover crops to benefit both soil and water quality.

“You’d think grazing would be the simplest thing in the world, but it actually is very complicated,” Heller said. “It’s a whole different mindset.”