ANNAPOLIS — As a restoration scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Rob Schnabel shuttles around Western Maryland in his hybrid car persuading farmers to switch to grazing — which he said is healthier, eco-friendly and more profitable than confinement farming, where cows are kept in stalls and injected with antibiotics.
By switching to grazing, farmers can significantly reduce the amount of pesticides, fertilizer and manure entering the Chesapeake Bay. Agricultural runoff, along with urban and sewer runoff, is one of the three top polluters directly affecting the bay.
As a result, the bay foundation established the Farm Stewardship Program, which assists farmers transitioning to grazing by providing them with mentors, financial and marketing advice, and physical labor. The program also helps farmers install and plant stream buffers and trees to prevent harmful runoff and toxins.
“We’re trying to share with farmers the economic benefits,” Schnabel said. “It’s not just tree huggers pushing this water quality thing.”
Schnabel said he has helped to transition 30 farmers from confinement to grazing, and in total, the program has helped approximately 70 farmers make the switch.
However, Schnabel said it can be quite difficult to persuade farmers who are set in their ways to make the switch from confinement farming to rotational grazing, a method of switching cows from paddock to paddock every few days instead of keeping them confined in stalls, where cows are more prone to disease. Some farmers are ready to make the transition within a month and some take as long as six years, he added.
Schnabel is not alone in his endeavor. The Maryland Grazers’ Network, a group of established grazing farmers, acts as mentors for those who want to make the transition.
“We’ve got a group of mentor farmers that have been grass-based farmers for over 10 years,” Schnabel said. “They made the conversion, and they realize that it’s more profitable to go back to farming the way folks did prior to the 1940s.”
According to the foundation, in 1952, 47 cents for every food dollar spent by consumers went to the farmer. In 2000, the amount dropped to 22 cents for every dollar because of transportation, processing, and packaging fees.
The network, which started three years ago, helps transitioning farmers with money for stream buffers and fencing, marketing and pasture management, Schnabel said.
Farmers who switch to rotational grazing will use far less feed and fertilizer, which will save them money in the long run and produce a higher quality product, Schnabel said.
The goal of grazing is to improve economics and help improve water quality, said Michael Heller, a project coordinator for the Maryland Grazers’ Network.
Ron Holter of Holterholm Farms agreed and said he has experienced the benefits of grazing.
“We’ve definitely shown that grazing is more profitable than confinement because expenses aren’t as high,” Holter said. “The cows are doing the work rather than we are, and that’s quite a blessing.”
Holterholm Farms has been an organic pasture-based, seasonal, no grain dairy farm for more than 10 years. The 207-acre farm has 125 dairy cows, which are rotated through different, 3-acre paddocks every day.
While Holter said he isn’t a “carbon footprint man,” he acknowledged the environmental benefits of farming without chemicals and herbicides. Instead of spreading fertilizer and buying feed, the cows are fed on grass in the pastures and spread their own manure.
“Well-managed pastures don’t require the use of herbicides and fertilizers,” Heller said.
Holter said he made the switch from confinement farming in 1994 because it was a labor-intensive system that took up a lot of time and money.
“When we switched to grazing, our net income increased by $300 to $500 per cow per year over being in confinement,” Holter said.
Holter is also one of the eight mentor farmers who gives advice to neighboring farmers who want to transition to pasture-based farming. Since the network started, he has mentored farmers in Washington and Carroll counties, as well as in Pennsylvania.
Because a lot of effort goes into mentoring transitioning farmers, the bay foundation compensates mentor farmers for their time, Holter said.
“As long as we keep making progress and more acres are on the ground, it inspires us to keep moving,” Schnabel said.