Turning to livestock to improve pasture production

Just Add Animals

by Emily Palmer

Just Add Animals

Martin Gee

Healthy livestock is part of the equation to revitalize fields and pastures naturally. Conserved lands and private holdings could be greatly improved when landholders, farmers and the public reach good working relationships and the best scalable agricultural practices are employed.  

This is a landscape that lends itself to livestock: The old stone walls that wander through our woods and fields once enclosed flocks of sheep and herds of cows. They now serve as physical reminders of the pastures we have lost to development and neglect, vacation homes and scrub oak. Those that have been built upon cannot be reclaimed, but for the few pastures that remain, resurgent interest in local food brings a glimmer of hope. With plans for an Island slaughterhouse well underway, and a proven market for pasture-raised meats, more Vineyard farmers are working to restore neglected fields and raise livestock on the land.

“With grass-fed dairy, the quality of your product reflects the quality of your pasture,” says Eric Glasgow, owner and operator of the Grey Barn Farm in Chilmark. He and his wife Molly started a 70-acre grass-fed dairy last year, and are working to convert acres of hayfield into a lush balanced food source for their herd of Dutch belted cattle. Eric and Molly have taken a multifaceted approach: spreading pulverized limestone to balance the pH of their acidic soil, installing irrigation to sustain the fields in the dry summer heat, and incorporating organic composted chicken manure as fertilizer. In some areas they have even tilled and reseeded, replacing less palatable plants such as chicory with more nutritious ones, such as perennial rye and clover. When their herd enters a pasture that is less than plentiful, the farmers quickly notice the difference. “With our cows, you can see the effects of a change in pasture overnight—if the pasture was thin, their hipbones stick out more,” says Molly. A lactating dairy cow must eat around 150 pounds of grass each day to remain healthy, happy, and productive. Many livestock producers jokingly refer to themselves as ‘grass farmers,’ but with good reason. When your animals get their sustenance not from a bag of grain, but rather from the land underneath their feet, the quality of the plants they eat is perhaps the most important variable of all.

Island farmers working with less acreage are turning to smaller animals, particularly chickens, to enhance pasture production. Last year, Jefferson Munroe, owner and farmer of The Good Farm in Tisbury, raised 1,500 Cornish Cross broiler chickens on 3.25 acres at the Tisbury Meadow Preserve. While this parcel has been farmed historically, in recent years the hillside fields have suffered from seasons of overgrazing and neglect, and as a result they are filled with jewelweed, sumac and wild blueberries.

“As omnivores, chickens are able to eat pretty much anything they’re raised on,” says Jefferson. “In fact, I’d like to think that the sumac helps give them their distinctively delicious flavor.”

The Good Farm’s chickens are raised in bottomless pens on the hillside that are moved daily. Raising broilers in these pens eliminates the need for costly perimeter fencing, and also ensures that the small patch of ground beneath the chickens’ scaly feet gets a concentrated dressing of nitrogen-rich manure. Jefferson also mows the property twice a year to keep woody shrubs and poison ivy at bay, and spreads pulverized limestone to counteract the acidity of the chicken manure. Over time, these measures are yielding visible results. “This spring really shows the difference, but even last fall it was clear where the pens had been because of the bright green streaks of grass down the hillside,” says Jefferson.

Chickens do not graze on pasture in the same way as sheep or cows do, but their instinctive scratching for bugs and pecking at greenery also encourages the growth of grass by mimicking herd animal behavior. In their own way, they too can bring a field back to life.

It took years of benign neglect for these fields to become overgrown, and it will take many seasons of hard work, incremental change, and careful observation to make them truly working lands once again. Grass farming is both an art and a science, a profession with no quick fix. The true potential of a pasture is revealed over time, and it will take the best efforts of all Island farmers to make the old stone walls that wander through our woods and fields something more than a reminder of days that have passed.