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Sustainable Agriculture

Building Better Grazing Systems in New York's Finger Lakes Region

For years, Richard Bossard, a dairy farmer in Steuben County, NY, wanted a better watering system for his cows. With hilly pastures and only one watering tank at the lower end of his fields, Bossard found that on hot days his 35 dairy cows, after descending for a drink, were often reluctant to return uphill.

With help from a SARE-funded grazing program that provides technical support to New York graziers, Bossard modernized. He installed a new well, a 1,100-gallon reservoir and a solar-powered pump. Gravity-fed water now has the potential to reach more than 100 acres of pasture.

“A watering system was always my goal, but there was no way I could have done this on my own,” says Bossard, who also built new geotextile fabric and gravel lanes to minimize mud and improve herd health.

The grazing program sends experts throughout 11 western New York counties to provide hands-on pasture management help to interested farmers. The project, coordinated by the Finger Lakes Resource Conservation and Development Council, grew from the recognition that prescribed grazing is both profitable and a preferred practice to protect the water quality of the Finger Lakes, which are surrounded by rolling hills prone to erosion.

“What better land use is there than keeping land in permanent grass?” asks Richard Winnett, Finger Lakes RC&D coordinator and the originator of the grazing program. “Our goal was to curb erosion, but also to sustain small and medium-sized farms. If done properly, grazing can reduce the farm's demand on foreign oil as well as pesticides and herbicides.”

Winnett knew there was interest from farmers in improving or converting to managed grazing systems and, once they hired the two grazing “advocates,” the project took off. The advocates have worked with some 100 farmers on more than 5,500 acres.

The program has helped experienced graziers like Bossard, who wanted to improve watering systems, fencing, laneways or forage, as well as farmers who wanted to convert erodible cropfields to pasture. Almost half of the farmers leveraged their participation to receive cost-share funding through a New York environmental program and the Natural Resources Conservation Service. Another grant is helping some of the RC&D Council inventory endangered nesting birds, such as the vesper sparrow and bobolink, that benefit from healthy pasture.

“I think we've made a significant contribution toward protecting water quality,” said grazing advocate John Wildeman.


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