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Raising Cows for the Climate
In western Maryland this March, the proverbial lion and lamb seemed to be running circles around each other. Instead of warming up gradually, the temperature rose and fell unpredictably. Warm sun alternated with freezing rain. In response, Ron Holter’s Jersey cows seemed to be clinging cautiously to their winter coats. A patchwork of fuzzy spots remained on top of their emerging summer hides, as they nursed a group of calves testing out wobbly legs.
Unlike most dairy cows, which are confined indoors, Holter’s spend all year living outside, where they develop winter coats for the colder months. As they move from one pasture to the next, they munch their way through abundant fescue, bluegrass, clovers, and chicory. When the grass is less productive, Holter supplements their diets with hay served in the fields. As the cows graze through a cycle of 66 paddocks, each separated by thin strips of electrical fencing, they leave behind chunks of manure to fertilize regrowth.
At this point, Holter says, it’s been about 20 years since the soil in his pastures has been bare. Over the decades he’s spent fine-tuning his grazing system, he has watched as diversity has increased on the ground and in the surrounding environment and soil and water have stopped running off the fields. Wearing a literal feather in his farm cap, he directs attention to the idyllic landscape and talks about how it contributes to the health of waterways and stores soil carbon using sweeping, energetic hand gestures. “By having roots that deep, we are pumping carbon down deep in the soil,” he says. “It’s just a thrill!”
Before he took over the farm, Holter’s father and grandfather grew corn and other crops in contour strips to feed a barnful of dairy cows there. But in 1995, he took a class on rotational grazing, prayed about it, and decided to take his stewardship to the next level.
In the beginning, he made many mistakes. Twenty-five years later, some might see him as the godfather of regenerative grazing in the mid-Atlantic. And now, various forces are converging to create opportunities for more farmers to follow in his footsteps, to scale up the practice in this region in a big way.
In September, just over the Maryland border in southern Pennsylvania, a group of ag organizations launched the Dairy Grazing Project to help small farms convert to regenerative grazing systems. The project aims to recruit at least 40 dairies to achieve Regenerative Organic Certification to sell to Origin Milk, a small brand looking to expand its Regenerative Organic Certified supply chain.
Some of the same organizations are also involved in the Million Acre Challenge, which aims to implement healthy soil techniques—with regenerative grazing at the top of the list—on 1 million acres in Maryland by 2030. That initiative also overlaps with Pasa Sustainable Agriculture’s Soil Health Benchmark Study, which is quantifying the benefits of soil health practices, including regenerative grazing, on farms in Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Benefits for Climate Change and the Farmer’s Bottom Line
Most significantly, the Chesapeake Bay has long faced pollution from farm and urban runoff throughout its vast watershed, and many advocates and scientists see converting conventional dairies and commodity cropland to regenerative pasture-based farms as an important solution. As a part of its Watershed Implementation Plan under the Chesapeake Clean Water Blueprint, the state of Maryland is about halfway to a 2025 goal of implementing rotational grazing on 19,500 acres. Pennsylvania has implemented it on 30,000 acres with a goal of 169,000.
The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has been at the center of those efforts for years. In February, it released a report called “Farm Forward,” outlining how farms in the watershed can participate in improving water quality and mitigating climate change while also building economic resilience. And while the Foundation included information on other practices—including buffers that farms plant along streams to prevent water pollution—it chose to zero in on the potential of regenerative grazing.
“We thought it would be a good time to highlight that … getting our farmers to help clean up the Bay actually has all these benefits for climate change and for the farmer’s bottom line,” said CBF Director of Science and Agricultural Policy Beth McGee. “There are so many dual benefits.”
CBF’s goal is to make a case for more funding for regenerative grazing at a time when the Biden administration is making promises around climate action and negotiations related to the next farm bill are beginning.
Of course, some climate activists advocate for a complete transition away from beef, since, along with lamb, its production results in higher greenhouse gas emissions than any other food. But groups like CBF and Pasa see grazing cattle in a very prescriptive way as one key component to building climate and economic resilience on farms while strengthening regional food systems. And they argue that it goes hand in hand with the overall reduction in meat eating that will be necessary to meet climate goals, as pasture-raised meat and dairy tends to cost consumers more.
The Case for Regenerative Grazing
The Chesapeake Bay has been impaired for decades, and while urban and suburban development contribute plenty of pollution, agriculture is now the largest source. In Maryland and Pennsylvania, nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment move off commodity cropland used to grow feed for chicken and dairy concentrated animal feeding operations and into waterways that lead to the bay. Some of those excess nutrients come from manure from the same chicken and dairy CAFOs, which is spread on fields.
Grazing can eliminate the need for commodity crops grown for feed; it also spreads manure naturally and keeps living plants in the ground at all times, trapping nutrients in place. But leaving a herd of cows outside in a field continuously will lead to a muddy mess. The key is extremely fine-tuned movement that allows pastures to rest and regrow in between visits from the animals. This approach also stimulates more growth in the plants’ roots, helping them draw carbon deeper into the soil. While there are endless variations and terms, that’s what differentiates regenerative grazing (also called “rotational,” “managed,” “mob,” and “prescribed” grazing) from continuous grazing.
Many experts see regenerative grazing as a key climate solution, citing research including studies done in the Midwest and on Will Harris’ White Oak Pastures in Georgia that show the practice can improve biodiversity and result in a reduced carbon footprint due to increased soil carbon sequestration.
But it’s a contentious topic on many fronts. Many argue that trade-offs on land use negate some or all of those emissions savings. Others also question how much carbon can really be stored in the soil and for how long, based on factors like differences in soil type, when soil hits its carbon-carrying limit, and inevitable releases that may occur.
CBF’s “Farm Forward” report featured the results from six case studies its team completed on farms that converted commodity cropland or continuous grazing to regenerative grazing systems. They took soil measurements over a period of two years and gathered detailed information on each farm’s practices. Using models, the results showed nitrogen, phosphorus, and sediment runoff were respectively reduced by 63%, 67%, and 47%. The case studies also showed that the farms that switched to grazing reduced their net greenhouse gas emissions by an average of 42%.
That number is complicated by the fact that the farms were starting from various different baselines and the models are far from perfect. But McGee said that while the case studies were not designed as a rigorous scientific study, they offered some local, on-farm evidence that in a short period of time, “things were moving in the right direction” in the soil, with many of the farms improving measurements on key variables, like organic matter and aggregate stability, which can help farms weather droughts and flooding.
She also pointed to another interesting factor. While methane from cow burps and potential carbon sequestration get all the attention in beef production, on these farms, the largest cuts in emissions came from eliminating the nitrous oxide emissions that result from growing crops for feed.
At Blue Mountain View Farm in southeast Pennsylvania, for example, farmer Matt Bomgardner converted 50 acres of cropland to rotationally grazed pastures for his dairy cattle. In doing so, he eliminated the use of synthetic fertilizer altogether. So while his cows actually burped a little more methane, he cut his nitrous oxide emissions in half and boosted soil carbon a bit, resulting in an overall emissions reduction of nearly 60%.
Holter is one of 30 Maryland and 100 Pennsylvania livestock, row crop, and vegetable farmers who participate in Pasa’s more comprehensive Soil Health Benchmark Study. In a report released in 2021, Pasa’s researchers found that pastured livestock farms consistently outpaced organic vegetable farms and no-till row crop farms across soil health indicators on nearly every field measured.
“Soil science [requires a lot of time to produce results], so that’s one tricky part about it,” said Lisa Garfield, the research director at Future Harvest, one of the mid-Atlantic’s most prominent sustainable agriculture organizations, who manages the Million Acre Challenge. “But it does really show that those management-intensive rotational grazing systems tend to be the gold standard when it comes to building soil health. Farms like Ron’s are doing a great job at building organic matter and keeping healthy soil biology.”
A Resilient Future
Walking his pastures, Holter gets excited about soil biology, but he talks more often about the concrete ways regenerative practices have changed the future of his farm. In the beginning, he said, a hot, dry year meant his pastures would stay brown all summer. “Now, because of our organic matter, because of our deep roots … we haven’t seen desert conditions for 10 to 12 years.”
Through CBF’s Maryland Grazers Network, Holter has mentored dozens of farmers looking to implement regenerative grazing systems. Among them are Mary Kathryn and Andrew Barnet, who run Open Book Farm just a few miles down the road. The Barnets bought 133 acres of land that had once been a conventional dairy and was then planted in commodity corn, soy, and wheat for many years. Now, their farm includes an organic vegetable operation, a section of fields where pigs and egg-laying chickens roam, and perennial pastures where they rotationally graze grass-fed cattle and meat chickens.
“Our farm is fairly rolling, and erosion was clearly a problem in the past,” Mary Kathryn said. “That’s something that we can really see: When there’s a storm, there’s still water headed down the driveway, but much less, and it’s not dark brown.”
In addition to connecting the Barnets with Holter, CBF also helped them access funding from federal conservation programs. They used Environmental Quality Incentives Program dollars to install grazing infrastructure, like fencing and water lines. Conservation Reserve Program funds made planting a forested buffer alongside the stream possible. As they intentionally diversified the farm’s landscape, Mary Kathryn said she could see the overall biodiversity improve alongside their efforts. “There’s so much habitat for a much more diverse range of creatures, and you can really see that,” she said.
CBF wants lawmakers to increase funding for conservation programs like EQIP and CRP and to allocate more funds to Pennsylvania, which typically receives a small share relative to its farmland. “We also think there are some changes to EQIP that could occur that would … [lead to] money being more distributed and prioritized for these more climate-friendly practices.”
However, while federal funds can help, especially in the beginning, farmers are thinking more about the long-term economic model. Holter’s pastures run along the side of a road that was once dotted with a line of dairy farms. “When those farmers [left], two things happened. One is you got bulldozed for development, or two, the crop guys came in,” he said. Not only has his operation survived; he can talk for hours about the economic benefits of regenerative grazing over conventional dairy herds or commodity crops.
Survive and Thrive
All cows on organic dairies must graze for at least 120 days a year, but farmers like Holter and others in regions with ample water graze all year round, and they’re hoping to set their milk apart. Organic milk already fetches a premium price, and Organic Valley pays him an additional $5 per hundredweight since his milk comes from 100% grass-fed cows.
While the 100% grass-fed organic dairy market has not been as stable as it once was in the Northeast, Pasa Dairy Grazing Program Manager Lucas Waybright said it’s still the best bet for farmers in the region, since demand for grass-fed continues to grow and it commands a higher price, and grazing reduces input costs. It’s also much harder for big corporations to push out smaller farms as they have done to some extent in the larger organic milk industry by using concentration to cut costs.
“It definitely appears to be the best option, particularly for small farms that don’t have the scale,” said Waybright, who is just starting to talk to dairy farmers in the region about transitioning to regenerative grazing and joining Origin Milk’s supply chain. “There are definitely unknowns, but there are also unknowns with the markets they’re in right now.”
Bomgardner at Blue Mountain View Farm said, in the “Farm Forward” report, that he saved hundreds of thousands of dollars by putting his cows on pasture rather than having to replace an outdated barn. And while he still feeds them some grain, his feed costs dropped precipitously. “This is really the way small farms are going to be able to survive and thrive, especially in today’s volatile dairy economy,” he said.
Holter also slashed costs in the form of annual feed, fertilizer, pesticides, seeds, and antibiotic bills. “There are very few input costs,” he said. Plus, because of the way calves are weaned and because of the cows’ grass-based diets and daily exercise, his herd is healthy enough that he swears he hasn’t needed a vet in many years.
“These girls are athletes,” he said. “Those girls that stand inside a barn all day long are couch potatoes.” While conventional dairy cows generally only produce milk for a few years before being sent to slaughter, Holter’s cows regularly stay on the farm for around a decade.
As organizations all over the mid-Atlantic push for more regenerative grazing, they’re betting on the fact that other farmers will be able to replicate Holter’s results. The Million Acre Challenge, for example, includes regenerative farms of all kinds, but farmers practicing rotational grazing seem to be leading the charge, Garfield said. “There’s a really enthusiastic movement around this kind of work,” she added.
Will this excitement be enough to help usher in a radical transition on a million acres of regenerative farmland—or half of Maryland’s total farm acreage? That remains to be seen. But it’s clear that the alternative isn’t working.
“It’s a very aspirational goal [to make] really transformative change to the state’s landscape and water quality,” said Garfield. “That’s what’s needed.”
This article was originally published by Civil Eats. It has been published here with permission.
Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism.