What We Learned at the 2016 Vermont Grazing & Livestock Conference

By Jenn Colby and Cheryl Herrick

The Vermont Grazing and Livestock Conference is the Center for Sustainable Agriculture’s largest outreach event of the year. Every January, we welcome more than 300 people to share, learn, network, and enjoy a bit of quality family time away from the farm.

While every year is a deeply inspiring one, the 2016 event is one that we keep learning from. As we meet as a staff and talk with our farmer and service partners, we continue to uncover both common-sense wisdom and a pervasive sense of (dare we say it?) optimism in the information that was shared.

One thing we especially note: Vermont’s grass farmers are passionate, incredibly knowledgeable, and grateful to spend an intensive day learning with Jim Gerrish and focusing on Advanced Grazing.


Photo: Don O’Brien/Flickr

Some takeaways our Pasture Program team members are pondering include:

  1. The thought process behind—and use of spreadsheets to think through—making on-farm investments and charting whether and when they should pay back. It’s easier to chart infrastructure investments, but equally important to put numbers to management changes. Changes in management may seem fuzzier (like using a new bull, or feeding twice a day instead of once), but they can make or lose a farm just as much money as a new tractor or watering system.
  2. The emphasis on grass as a solar collector and understanding that there is a prime window where solar collection is maximized by the leaves. If too young, the leaves aren’t large enough to intercept solar rays, and if the plants are over mature, they reduce photosynthesizing efficiency.
  3. The point that even in years with plenty of rainfall and increased production potential, farmers often do not adjust their animal numbers to make sure that the extra forage is used. This isn’t a grazing/overgrazing issue; Jim’s point is that all other things being equal, farmers are leaving money on the table by not taking advantage of the extra production.
  4. When evaluating how much money one spends vs. makes on beef cattle, it’s important to look at cow size. Smaller cows may yield proportionally more saleable meat than larger-framed cows, while costing less to feed and producing less manure to handle.
  5. One of the most powerful tools for a grazier is the use of targeted application of animals, also known as stock density. Whether adding manure to specific areas, breaking up invasive species, finishing beef, or maximizing intake for dairy animals, it all comes down to management.

One attendee told us:

“Jim totally changed my thinking about how well I was doing at intensive grazing. I really haven’t stopped thinking about what I need to change before May to try to achieve that level of grazing success to overall reduce input costs and increase profits.”

What are you planning to do differently this year?  What are you going to try? We’d be excited to hear your strategies and how they’re going for you.

And if you were unable to attend these sessions (and even if you were there), make a note. We’re working on getting Jim back to Vermont, possibly in early- to mid-August, so keep an eye out for announcements soon.

Jenn Colby coordinates the UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture’s Pasture Program, serves as a Farm to Plate Network Working Group co-chair, and operates a diversified grass-fed livestock farm in Central Vermont.  Cheryl Herrick manages communications and the office at the Center for Sustainable Agriculture and lives, writes, and cooks in Burlington.


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