MADISON, Wis. — Scott Merica runs his dairy farm in Iowa County using a somewhat unique tool.

“For me, grazing is my go-to weapon,” Merica said.

Merica's dairy is a grass-based seasonal farm. They look at grass as their crop and cows are a method of harvesting that grass. Of course the cows then turn that grass into milk.

“I would not be farming today if it was not for rotational grazing,” Merica said.

Merica bought his farm with a business partner in his late-20's. He worked on a conventional dairy farm out of college — one based on cows being fed in a barn on a feed mixture year round. He said he would not have secured financing for a conventional farm, but was able to for a rotational grazing one.

“Grazing is a low-cost, low capitol intensive opportunity to get into farming,” said Randy Jackson, a professor of grassland ecology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

Jackson is leading a project called 'Grassland 2.0.' The United States Department of Agriculture is funding the five year $10 million project that is focused on developing an agro-ecological transformation plan for the upper-midwest. 

“How do we transform agriculture in the upper midwest from one that's grain based primarily to one that's grass-based?” Jackson said.

The project is primarily in an information-gathering stage at the moment. The group is holding workshops in places around Wisconsin and the upper-midwest to have conversation with agriculture stakeholders about what the future of agriculture could and should look like. 

Jackson said they ask people who's getting what they need right now out of agriculture and how can we design a system around livestock that gets people what they need. They talk about how people can get what they need while holding on to resources, nutrients, create jobs and help rural communities thrive.

“One of the reasons we talk about grassland is because we think that there's ample evidence that an agriculture that's based primarily on grasslands can do all of those things if well managed and if supported by society, broadly,” Jackson said.

Jackson said farmers like Merica are one example of how it can create jobs and help rural communities. He said the lower cost to start a grazing operation allows a wider variety of farmers to get into the business, and become a part of rural communities and economies.

Jackson said the lower investment to start continues into low-costs to run the operation. He said farmers save money on feed — particularly when it comes to raising heifers. He said it also cuts down on veterinary bills associated with raising animals in close quarters.
Then the cost to feed the animals on grass is cheaper than grains-based feed mixtures.

“It also improves the profitability of a dairy farmer,” Jackson said. “Because it costs less for them to go out and graze.”

Merica said he's still working on making his operation more financially viable than it is. His largest problem is in late-winter months like February and March when there's bad weather and the cows are outside on muddy ground and wasting feed.

“That's where our shortcomings come up,” Merica said. “So we're working on improving that.”

Milk production is also down during those times for his farm. However, during summer and fall months, he said he sees the benefits.

“When we are grazing our cows and the cows are on a full-grass ration, my cost of production is as low as it gets,” Merica said.

Grazing cows in general produce less milk than cows on conventional farms. However, the idea behind grazing is that the cost of production is low enough that the farm is more profitable with less milk.

Merica and his business partner produce their own cheese on his farm with Upldands Cheese — which adds value to the operation. 

For Merica, there is another benefit to grazing, an environmental one.

“We try to think about our farm as an environmental service and less as a production method,” Merica said.

Merica said any farming isn't perfect from an environmental standpoint, and grazing has it's issues too. However, he said grazing has fewer shortcomings than the traditional farm system.

Out of Merica's 600 acres, about 90 percent of it is perennial grass and plants for pasture. There is some tillage where he will grow corn for silage in the winter months, but he tries to keep it down as much as possible. He said that cuts down on diesel use and promotes soil health.

The cows on his farm will spread their own manure, rather than a conventional system where the manure is gathered in one place then the farmer spreads it on fields for fertilizer. Merica said his operation doesn't have the manure buildup.

“So there's less chance for groundwater contamination and for issues with nitrates,” Merica said. “We don't have to use as much fertilizer because the system itself is recycling nutrients.”

The environmental benefits are part of what Grassland 2.0 — which Merica is an ambassador for — is looking at. Jackson said the cows feeding themselves and spreading their own manure is a large benefit. It makes the grass take up the nutrients rather than risking them getting into waterways. Jackson said grain cropping systems are inherently leaky with respect to nutrients, soil and greenhouse gasses.

“So if we can move to perennial grasslands we reduce the loss pathways for greenhouse gasses, nutrients to waterways, etcetera,” Jackson said.

Jackson said the upper Midwest rural agriculture landscape is about 75 percent corn and soybeans. He said about 40 percent of that goes to feed livestock, which is land that could be used for grazing.

“For me a landscape that is 40 percent transformed from corn and beans to perennial grassland, that would be a tremendous win,” Jackson said.

Jackson said the main barriers to people accepting widespread grazing are likely on the social and political side rather than the economic and agronomic side.

Which is why they are trying to establish a wide-variety of people in their workshops, even people who are antagonistic to grassland agriculture. He said bringing everyone into the conversation is key to understanding the impediments to change.

“We talk about 2050 as, what do you want agriculture to look like in the year 2050?” Jackson said. “What do you want your grandchildren to be dealing with respect to an agriculture system?”

He said it's not as if the group is coming for anyone's tractors today or anytime soon. However, they want to hear from people about how hard it would be to make the switch and what it would take to do so one day.

Jackson said the current system isn't working for many people — he points to Wisconsin losing 10 percent of its dairy farms in 2019 alone as an example. His group sees grassland as a way to curb that.

“I also think it would be a huge step towards restoring and rebuilding our rural communities,” Jackson said. “Which have just been decimated by the current agricultural system.”

Grassland 2.0 is exploring several avenues — financial consideration for farmers who want to switch is one possible example.

Merica is part of a grazing apprenticeship program, where he is teaching someone on his farm now how to run a grazing operation. He sees educational opportunities like that and Grassland 2. as a way to show people the benefits.

Merica said he is skeptical if an older generation will be interested in making a switch, but he's hopeful that younger farmers like himself starting out will be interested in adopting the methods.

His largest hope is that grazing can foster rural communities and promote a higher number of family farms. Merica said he doesn't see big farms as inherently bad, but consolidation in the industry makes it harder for new farmers to break in.

“We can have more families back on the land,” Merica said.