Farmers' grazing solution helps improve the environment - and their earnings

On the Farm

May 07, 2006|By TED SHELSBY

About 20 years ago, Lawrason Sayre made a key change in the way he runs his 300-acre beef cattle farm near Churchville.

On a visit to New Zealand, Sayre observed how farmers there get most of their feed from pastures planted in clover, alfalfa and orchard grass. At the time, Sayre raised his grain - primarily corn - to feed his cattle, a practice that requires significantly more fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides than grass.

"Those New Zealand farmers had a theory: Make the livestock work for us, not have us working for them," said Sayre, 79, who runs Waffle Hill Farm with his son, Ned. "When you're growing corn for silage, we're doing all the work."

"We work all spring planting," he continued. "We work all summer praying for rain. We work all fall harvesting. Under this program, the cattle are harvesting the fields. They are even spreading the manure."

In addition to requiring less labor, the practice also saves money and is easier on the environment, outcomes that have caught the attention of the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

By going to a grazing operation, the Sayres have reduced the level of phosphorus runoff from their farm after a storm by about 75 percent, according to C. Alan Rotz of the USDA's research service in University Park, Pa.

And the Sayres have increased their profitability by $15,000 a year, Rotz said.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation took notice not of the economics of Waffle Hill Farm, but rather of its contribution to the environment.

The foundation presented the Sayres with the 2006 Conservationist of the Year award during a ceremony in Annapolis this spring.

"They have set new standards for what can be accomplished," said Michael Heller, manager of the foundation's demonstration farm near Upper Marlboro.

Noting that every farm has some environmental impact, Heller said, "They have taken a look at their farm and tried to minimize that impact."

The USDA's Rotz added: "If more farms used the Sayre system, the Chesapeake Bay would be in much better health."

The leeching of phosphorus into the bay was a contributing factor in the outbreaks of toxic Pfiesteria piscicida in waterways flowing into the bay during the summer of 1997. The outbreaks killed fish, caused human illness, forced three rivers to be closed to recreational use and triggered a panic over the safety of Maryland seafood.

The Sayres acknowledge that benefiting the environment was not the primary goal when they made the switch.

"We were looking for ways to reduce our costs of operation, to improve our production," said Ned Sayre, 44. "But the two go hand in hand."

During a drive around the farm in his 1992 diesel-powered Dodge pickup, Lawrason Sayre explained that the cows are moved around the farm to where the grass is always greener.

Ned Sayre does most of this work, setting up 3-acre fields holding about 50 cows each, enclosed by a single strand of electric fence. The cows are moved every few days to a fresh field of pasture, and a complete cycle of the farm takes about three weeks.

"Our grass serves as a cover crop," Lawrason Sayre said of a state program that pays farmers to grow wheat or barley on their fields in winter to draw excess nutrients from the soil.

Ned Sayre said he planted trees along the bank of a creek flowing through the farm to serve as a buffer to keep nutrients from leeching into the water.

"Basically, we are a 300-acre buffer strip," Lawrason Sayre said.

The farmers' biggest contact with the public comes at the Farmers Market in Bel Air on Saturday mornings. The Sayres sell their Deer Creek Beef from a trailer on the parking lot adjacent to the courthouse.

Asked about the award, Ned Sayre said, "It was an honor, but very humbling to think that we were picked from the many, many farms up and down the [Chesapeake Bay] watershed.

"We are just representative of what a lot of other farmers in the watershed are doing to help the bay."

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