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Practice the Grazing You Preach

University of Vermont Grazing Specialist puts grazing practices to the test at home. 

by Amy Overstreet 

Vermont farmer Cheryl Cesario is a University of Vermont Extension grazing specialist and also mom to four-year old Normandie Fleurette. (Photo credit: Douglas Gayeton, Lexicon of Sustainability)

Marc and Cheryl Cesario own and operate Meeting Place Pastures in Cornwall, Vermont, where they raise grass-fed beef and certified organic eggs. With 500-acres of certified organic pastureland, they harness solar energy that is converted into a wholesome and nutritious feed (grass) for their animals. Their Angus and Devon cows graze during the growing season, and are moved up to three times a day to new paddocks. “A lot of people see cows eating grass and think it’s easy, but it’s not,” explains Marc.  There’s a lot that goes into making sure you’re capturing as much solar energy as you can and converting it to grass.”

Cheryl and husband Marc manage their farm using the practices and grazing techniques that she teaches other farmers about through her work as a University of Vermont Extension grazing specialist. Besides managing multiple herds totaling 290 head, they are also raising their daughter, four-year old Normandie Fleurette. “We try to incorporate her as much as we can,” said Cheryl. “We were driving past the farm the other day and she told me, “I love my cows.” The Cesario’s are excited to see the next generation taking ownership and developing a sense of pride.

Fencing cows out of sensitive areas at Meeting Place Pastures accelerates vegetation recovery and protects soil and water quality. (Photo credit: Tim McCoy, NRCS)

When asked why they chose to farm organically, Cheryl says it’s the only form of production they know. “In addition to all the biological benefits, organic production allows us, as a small farm, to sell our products outside the commodity market and capture a premium. That keeps us competitive in the marketplace and contributes to the viability of our farm.”

Feeding their cows on organically managed pasture is an integral part of the Cesario’s farming philosophy: “Low stress and a forage-based diet make happy cows and our happy cows produce rich, flavorful meat that is nutritious, tender and of excellent quality.”

The USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has worked with the Cesario’s to install soil and water conservation practices through the Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP​). Financial assistance through EQIP helped them adopt intensive rotational grazing and conservation practices to support it. As a result, they have improved their financial bottom line, reduced their dependence on off-farm inputs, improved the health of their soil, protected water quality, and saved time and money. Rotating their animals also gives their pastures more time to recover after grazing periods.

Under previous management, cows were allowed uncontrolled access to Beaver Brook. This created a resource concern because of excess amounts of nutrients that entered the waterway. Right: The area is now protected with fencing and used for crossings only when necessary. This allows vegetation on both sides to regrow. (Photographer: Tim McCoy, NRCS)

“You’ll have 40% more yields in a six-week period by moving cows around,” explains Cheryl. “If you’re feeding hay to your animals in the middle of summer that could cost $30-50 a bale. If you have to put out three or four bales a day, that’s a lot of money when you look at the cost of purchasing feed instead of producing your own.”

In 2009, the Cesario’s purchased their first 97 acres, and immediately consulted NRCS​ to find out how to transition the cornfields into organic pasture. They also planted a hedgerow and trees to provide a buffer for a nearby stream, installed watering tubs and water lines for their cows, and erected fencing to keep the cows out of nearby Beaver Brook. “We did most of our own fencing, but as we added acreage, the assistance we received from NRCS was so helpful because we could do more and make an even bigger impact with conservation,” said Cheryl.

The Cesario’s worked with NRCS Soil Conservationist Tim McCoy, who helped them develop a comprehensive grazing plan for the health of their animals and their forages. “Fencing cows out of sensitive areas really speeds up the rate at which vegetation recovers,” McCoy said. Their grazing plan is paying off with improved yields and extended length of their growing season. “Good rotational grazing and long rest periods mean that our cows look really good,” said Cheryl.

Want to learn more about the NRCS?

The NRCS​’ Environmental Quality Incentives Program’s Organic Initiative helps producers conserve their land and also supports USDA National Organic Program standards. Eligible participants receive financial and technical assistance to implement conservation practices and develop conservation plans that address natural resource concerns. Payments are made to participants after conservation practices and activities identified in an EQIP​ plan of operations are implemented. For more information on financial and technical assistance available through the USDA NRCS, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov.

Diverse pasture plantings provide the Cesario’s livestock with a well-balanced, nutritious diet. In addition, using season-specific plantings benefits the entire ecosystem. McCoy says their stewardship makes a difference in the health of natural resources on and around their farm. “Marc and Cheryl have transformed marginal land into healthy, productive pasture and reduced the environmental impact associated with grazing large herbivores,” said McCoy.

The Cesarios are also managing pests by organically mimicking nature. They are experimenting with nest boxes and tree swallows to attract more birds to reduce populations of flies that can negatively impact the health of their herd. “Our animals aren’t coming back into a barn every day, so it’s a bit more challenging if a problem arises,” says Cheryl. “For us, disease prevention is critical.”

Amy Overstreet is a South Carolina native now living in Williston, Vermont where she is an outreach specialist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). She is a 23-year employee of NRCS and enjoys hiking, ballet dancing, reading, and hanging out with her husband Tim and two rotten dogs, Gus and Newton. She can be reached at amy.overstreet@vt.usda.gov. Additionally, for more information on financial and technical assistance available through the USDA NRCS, visit www.nrcs.usda.gov

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