Harford farm wins national award Grazing technique is friendly to bay

December 27, 1992|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

Ever seen a green steak?

You probably never will. But in the figurative sense, the choice cuts from Lawrason Sayre's Angus herd bear the universal color of environmental protection.

Since 1987, the 65-year-old Churchville farmer has been converting his traditional beef-cattle operation to one based on a feeding technique used extensively in New Zealand. The technique, called "rotational grazing," helps protect Mill Branch and other sensitive streams that lace through his Waffle Hill Farm and flow toward the Chesapeake Bay.

Mr. Sayre also has installed a number of structures to promote water quality, including a concrete winter-feeding area to collect manure and fencing to prevent erosion of streams.

His efforts, aided by the local representative of the federal Soil Conservation Service and a livestock specialist from the University of Maryland in College Park, received national recognition this month.

Mr. Sayre was one of seven cattlemen in the country to receive the National Cattleman's Association's environmental stewardship award. The award is presented by a committee that includes representatives of the National Audubon Society, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

On Dec. 16, Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer also presented the Sayre family with a citation for its conservation efforts.

The grazing technique, used by a small but growing number of farmers in the bay watershed, has both environmental and economic benefits. It can be adapted to dairy farms as well as those raising beef cattle, said officials throughout the bay states.

Mr. Sayre's 100 head of Angus feast on a mix of grasses and clover, rather than corn, the traditional feed. That has cut use of herbicides and fertilizers almost to zero, while reducing his equipment use drastically, as well as soil and manure runoff.

"We make the livestock work for us," Mr. Sayre said, as he and his wife, Jean, and son, Ned, and Ned's dog, Baxter Black, strolled the lush-green, rolling pastures a few miles north of Bel Air.

Mr. Sayre learned of the technique in 1986, while visiting his daughter, Nancy Ann, in New Zealand. The grazing technique, used by about 30, or roughly 10 percent, of beef producers across Maryland has allowed the Sayres to increase their herd size by 53 percent.

"We were underutilizing the land we had with the conventional style of feeding we were doing," said Ned Sayre, 31.

Using low-cost, flexible electric fencing, the Sayre family subdivides its 215 acres of pastureland and allows cattle to feed in small areas for short periods, which maximizes re-growth of grass, much like a well-tended lawn. Consequently, manure is spread evenly over the pastures.

"It's been a lot of trial and error," said Ned Sayre, who has developed computer programs to track growth of grass in each section of pasture.

"Mr. Sayre's [operation] is the way the cattle industry should go," said Jim Hanes of Winston-Salem, N.C., a board member of the National Audubon Society who served on the award-selection committee.

The grazing technique "is something that we'd like to see on many more farms in the whole bay watershed," said Lamonte Garber, an agricultural specialist working in the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's office in Harrisburg, Pa.

Such efforts are becoming more important, as governments in the bay states of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia strive to reduce amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus entering bay tributaries 40 percent by the year 2000. Excessive amounts of the nutrients kill vital bay grasses and reduce oxygen needed by fish and other aquatic life.

Agriculture is a major source of the nutrients, as are municipal sewage treatment plants, storm water runoff from urban areas and septic systems.

Few of the tens of thousands of farmers in the bay watershed participate in voluntary nutrient- and soil-management programs such as those used by the Sayres, said the bay foundation's Mr. Garber.

"We're certainly in the early stages of the [nutrient-reduction] strategy," Mr. Garber said. In the Susquehanna River, the largest source of fresh water to the bay, "nitrogen is still showing a slight upward trend," he said.

A conservation ethic is central to the way he views his land, said the elder Mr. Sayre, who has a civil engineering degree from Yale University.

"If we don't take care of the land, we're out of business," he said.

Even if a farmer were not as environmentally aware as Mr. Sayre, said Dr. Scott Barao, a livestock specialist for the University of Maryland, the program should be easy to promote.

It costs a farmer about $300 to feed a cow corn for one year, Dr. Barao said, and a farmer can receive $400 to $450 for a calf that cow produces. That amounts to a profit of up to $150, he said.

With the grazing system, a farmer can cut the cost of feeding that cow in half -- and double his profit, said Dr. Barao, who has worked with the Sayre family since 1987.

Said Dr. Barao: "You can sell the program solely on its economic benefits."

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