University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers have established a partnership with Organic Valley, the nation’s largest organic farming cooperative, to study how to make pastures more healthy, productive and sustainable. Organic Valley has more than 800 dairy farmer members in the Midwest, including 110 in Minnesota. The project was sparked by changes in federal regulations that emphasize the role of pastures in organic dairies. One of the lead researchers is Erin Silva, UW-Madison assistant professor in organic production systems. The interview also incorporates information from Anders Gurda, UW-Madison associate researcher in organic and sustainable cropping systems.

Q: What’s the purpose of the research?

A: We’re looking at productive pastures in terms of yield, and also at the specific quality of pasture at various points throughout the season, including the more challenging drier months in July and August. We’re also looking at pasture composition with respect to its energy, fat and micronutrients that allow for a higher quality feed to promote the health and productivity of the animal. Not all pastures are the same, and in fact they can vary quite a lot. Some have a diverse mix of grasses and legumes, but others can be dominated by a single grass species or overrun with weeds.


Q: What makes a good pasture?

A: Good pasture depends on many factors, including the farm location, the grazing animal, the soil type and the climate. Generally, having multiple species of grasses and leguminous forbs, such as clovers and alfalfa, constitutes a healthy pasture. A “typical” Midwestern pasture could include one or more of half a dozen species of grasses, as well as legumes. Greater diversity in a pasture will more effectively control weeds, provide forage throughout the growing season, improve nutritive value and ensure that the soil and the animal are in optimal health.


Q: What sparked the research?

A: The quality of pastures has become more important recently because in 2010 the U.S. Department of Agriculture clarified a regulation about the role of organic pasture. Until that point, there weren’t really any guidelines for farmers, such as how often do the animals need to be on pasture, and how much dry matter actually has to be derived from pasture. USDA said that organic dairy herds have to get one-third of their feed essentially off the pasture during the grazing season. So it really was a call for farmers to ramp up their pasture management and the productivity of pastures.


Q: Did organic farmers seek your help?

A: Organic Valley reached out to us because they want to improve pasture productivity per acre. Organic Valley has 640 farmer-members in the state and another 1,160 across the nation. Many others are interested, too, and Wisconsin ranks first in the nation for the number of organic dairy farms.


Q: What happened next?

A: In 2012 we convened an “organic pasture summit” at UW-Madison. It became obvious to me that it was a complex issue that would require the expertise of a great deal of people and perspectives. We brought in about 25 weed scientists, soil researchers, agronomists and people from the USDA Dairy Forage Research Center on campus, as well as the Organic Valley technical staff and farmers, and people from the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.


Q: What has come from that?

A: We conducted on-farm surveys to get a current snapshot of pasture health on 20 Organic Valley member farms that agreed to participate. We are still analyzing that information, but some preliminary trends have emerged. We found that there were significant differences in terms of overall productivity and pasture species composition, sometimes even on different pastures on the same farm. That highlights the importance of soil testing, and perhaps adding a soil fertility amendment or increasing the diversity of pasture plants growing in a field.


Q: So this is also about better management of existing pastures?

A: Yes, and there’s even an additional layer of complexity with pasture management. It’s not only management of the pasture as a crop, but also the management of the herd on that pasture. So making sure that the animals are set out on that pasture at a time that allows for optimal quality of that pasture as a feed source, that the stocking rate is appropriate so the pasture isn’t overgrazed, that the pasture has time to recover and that fertility management is appropriate. So there’s definitely different layers of management that can be put on that pasture to try to maximize quality and productivity.


Q: That sounds like it could be a lot for dairy producers to take on.

A: It’s often overwhelming to say you need to be doing these 10 things to be able to optimize pasture quality and productivity. But we can help by suggesting what practices might have the most impact, or how various practices might be integrated over a period of time.


Q: How might this help organic dairy farmers in Minnesota as well as in Wisconsin?

A: There’s certainly similarities and lots of overlap with other farmers across the Upper Midwest, in Minnesota and into Iowa. This may also benefit consumer confidence. An increasing body of research shows that organic pasture has benefits with respect to milk quality in terms of the fatty acid profiles and other aspects related to human health. So improving pastures will also allow the consumer additional peace of mind with respect to the organic products that they’re purchasing from the grocery store.