“We’re shedding farms,” Randy Jackson remarks grimly one autumn day over video conference. A professor of grassland ecology in the department of agronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Jackson points to the fact that a record 10 percent of dairy farms in his state of Wisconsin shuttered in 2019, another milestone for a local economy that led the nation in farm bankruptcies last year.
Wisconsin’s dairy sector contributes more than $45 billion to the state’s economy and employs 154,000 people. Thus, dairy farm closures have enormous trickle-down impact. “There are less than 7,000 dairy farms left in the state,” Jackson adds morosely. “Two go out of business each day.”
As the American dairy sector has consolidated and moved south and west, small and mid-sized farmers have paid the price. Thirty percent of the nation’s dairy operations have shuttered over the last 10 years.
The question remains how to reverse this trend and create a sustainable production system in the Upper Midwest. “It’s livestock production that’s based on grassland instead of grain,” says Jackson.
With $10 million in funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Jackson is at the helm of a new research effort to revolutionize agricultural systems in the region with a focus on livestock and milk production dependent on perennial grassland. A diverse team of scholars, agricultural extension agents, policymakers, farmers, and a slew of private sector partners—cheesemakers, lenders, agricultural sales consultants, and others—have signed on to participate.
The effort, called Grassland 2.0, is a five-year project housed at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that aims to begin transforming the Upper Midwest’s farm landscape from 75 percent corn and soybeans to 75 percent perennial grassland, Jackson explains, while acknowledging that this monolithic task will take decades.
It’s an ambitious goal, but Jackson says timing is of the essence, as the current system “only works for a very few and is devastating rural communities and environments.” Instead, the group aims to build a thriving, pasture-based farm economy while transforming the region’s rich agricultural landscape to one that “provides for us while building soil, cleaning water, reducing floods and supporting biodiversity.”
Through the establishment of up to five learning hubs, the team will engage several dozen existing farmers —grass, commodity, and confinement dairy operations—to draft transformational agroecology plans. A slew of others in the industry are poised to participate with the goal of strategizing how to overcome impediments in transitioning to grassland production. The initiative is rooted in not only recognizing the value of pasture-based meat and dairy as food but as tools in environmental stewardship, if managed properly.
Jackson says Grassland 2.0 will build the infrastructure and policy support necessary to scale up, transition, and encourage new operations devoted to managed grazing—an approach that involves rotating cattle and other ruminant animals through a series of small pastures or paddocks to help build up perennial grassland. Joining the likes of Allan Savory, president and co-founder of the Savory Institute, and Will Harris, a fourth-generation Georgia livestock farmer and owner of White Oak Pastures, this herculean effort aims to revolutionize a multi-billion-dollar American agricultural industry that Jackson and others say is increasingly fixated on the bottom line regardless of social or environmental impact.
“How do we invert the agricultural paradigm from one that’s dominated by grain to one that’s dominated by grass?” Jackson asks, reflecting on the question at the heart of the team’s effort.
A Market Overhaul
The managed grazing model is designed to mimic nature’s long-evolved process of wild herbivore dependence on the bounty of the land. Untouched sections of earth rest and regenerate between grazing, fueled by manure dropped and trampled into the soil by herds as they traverse the land, naturally building soil quality.
Beyond dairy, the U.S. is the world’s largest consumer of beef, and cattle production here was a $66 billion dollar industry in 2019. Most of that production centers around large-scale feedlots, where cattle are finished on grain in confinement, causing them to grow much faster than they do on pasture.
The environmental impact of the industrial production model is well documented, with research showing that 25 to 33 percent of greenhouse gases emitted globally are attributable to agriculture overall and 18 percent to the livestock sector. The need for land to both rear animals and grow crops for their sustenance has resulted in massive deforestation. Further, animal agriculture is recognized as the largest agricultural polluter of waterways globally, driven in part by the massive amounts of manure produced on livestock farms that often makes its way to waterways, leading to massive dead zones.
Feedlots are recognized for their efficiency and managed grazing has faced criticism for its relatively low outputs. Cattle are also a significant source of methane, regardless of how the animal is raised. However, as a recent life-cycle assessment from researchers at Michigan State University and the Union of Concerned Scientists demonstrate, when resource input, output, and environmental impact at all stages of the production cycle are taken into account, grass-fed grazing comes out on top with a lower carbon footprint overall.
Feedlot systems do produce lower emissions, the researchers note, but multi-paddock grazing has the potential to sequester large amounts of carbon in the soil, which in turn can offset the emissions produced by cattle while grazing. “Soil [carbon] sequestration from well-managed grazing may help to mitigate climate change,” the authors write in the analysis.
Additionally, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have found that managed grazing systems involve fewer costs when it comes to caring for and feeding animals, and requires less labor for tasks like moving manure from barns or lots, making the net farm income profitable overall.
Consumer demand for grass-fed beef and dairy is also on the risea recent report projected that by 2024, the grass-fed beef market could grow by an additional $14 billion in the U.S.—due to animal welfare and environmental and human health concerns. However, demand exceeds supply and much of the grass-fed beef consumed in the country is imported from places like Australia and Central America.
“For years now, we’ve been trying to get a handle on how to market grass-based products,” said Bob Wills, owner of Wisconsin’s Cedar Grove Cheese and Clock Shadow Creamery, about an industry where grass-fed milk can cost two and half times more than conventional dairy. “We worked with a group of farmers who pitched the cheese as being healthier due to its higher levels of antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids, and things like that, but it wasn’t very successful.”
Wills says in the cheesemaking industry it’s common to choose products made from the milk of animals grazed on pasture for competitions, as these cheeses generally taste superior. However, he says, how to market this to consumers remains a mystery for many farmers, especially considering the wide variety of grass-fed and pasture-based labels that have come out from a range of certifiers in recent years.
Jackson says the Grassland 2.0 effort will work with producers like Wills to develop supply chains in the region. “This work includes both farm-level needs but also financing for processing, distribution, and marketing infrastructure,” he adds.
“The markets are pretty nuanced,” the researcher says. He hopes new markets can be developed in the region that allow niche products that add value, like those made by Wills, to flourish. Further, in the beef sector, Jackson says more processing facilities are crucial to meet growing consumer demand. “We need to work with financers and lenders to develop supply chains,” he says.
However, this transition will take time, Jackson acknowledges, noting that the goal of Grassland 2.0 is to identify impediments that can be reversed over generations with the goal of lifting all players in the system.
“What do we do with all of the grain-focused equipment?” Jackson asks about a substantial challenge facing the team. “How do we negotiate relationships with lenders, fertilizer, and seed consultants? It’s about identifying all of those things and understanding how we can unravel and move towards something beneficial for everyone.”
The Carbon Question
Wills says he is drawn to Grassland 2.0 not only because of its focus on improving bottom lines for farmers and other producers, but also the fact that it plans to do so through a commitment to agricultural practices that prioritize a healthy environment.
Jackson agrees. “We want to transform most of the landscape in the Upper Midwest to a farming system that not only improves the environment but supports healthy communities,” he says about a region that includes his state of Wisconsin and which stretches into Minnesota and the Dakotas.
The data on the climate benefits of managed grazing is still limited. In addition to the previously mentioned life-cycle assessment, research from White Oak Pastures and General Mills shows that beef produced on the Georgia ranch has a carbon footprint 111 percent lower than beef produced conventionally. But the study has yet to be peer-reviewed.
The USDA’s Climate Hubs also note that the model promotes climate resilience. “Soil structure, soil cover, and soil organic matter are all enriched,” the organization writes about the practice. “This in turn enhances life in the soil, reduces runoff, limits soil erosion, and promotes improved water quality. More even manure distribution increases manure management effectiveness and efficiency.”
Beyond the United States, one study in Brazil found that cattle operations that practiced rotational grazing and other sustainable practices produced 19 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions in their first two years of practice compared to conventional farming systems. Additionally, the researchers discovered that after this two-year period, the emission decrease rate reached 35 percent.
Despite limited data connecting managed grazing to carbon sequestration, there’s a growing body of anecdotal evidence. For example, Scott Mericka, co-owner of Grass Dairy and Uplands Cheese in southwest Wisconsin, has seen first-hand the positive environmental impact managed grazing can have. “The goal of our farming system is to graze as long as possible and produce milk that is in harmony with the environment and a cow’s natural instinct to be outside and grazing,” he says.
According to Mericka, the potential for carbon sequestration is a big part of what attracted him to raising his animals on pasture.
“If we can create a collaborative of small to mid-size farms like mine that can sell farming as an environmental service in terms of carbon sequestration, wildlife habitat, water quality, soil erosion, et cetera, family farm operations will be helped tremendously,” Mericka says.
Pursuing Fundamental Change
Jackson says a key component of the effort is lasting policy change. “Policy needs to incentivize and provide opportunities for people to do things differently,” he says.
“Without some changes to the farm bill, it’s hard to imagine how anything changes,” Jackson adds about the monolithic federal legislation that determines the way farming practices are shaped and are incentivized. The bulk of the budget attached to the bill typically goes toward supporting large-scale animal operations and the commodity crops used to feed the same animals.
“We need to disincentivize some current farm production efforts and incentivize others focused on grassland landscape,” Jackson says. “Our efforts on policy will be driven by conversations that emerge from the learning hubs”
At the state level, Wisconsin has historically incentivized grazing lands. It instituted the federal Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative (GLCI) to provide funding for technical assistance to grazers on-the-ground in the state. From 2000 to 2010, the program helped to create more than 110,000 acres of new pasture and more than 104,000 acres of improved pasture in Wisconsin. At the program’s height in 2008, more than $1 million in funding was provided to practitioners in Wisconsin from state and federal sources. However, by 2012, money for the program was exhausted and has not been renewed. “Just reinstating GLCI would take us a long way in terms of technical support with folks on the ground to help develop grazing plans and identify markets,” Jackson says.
Michael Happ, policy specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), says from his perspective on a national perch, Wisconsin has been the center of significant grazing success over the last 30 years. In the state, approximately 20 percent of existing farm operators already practice managed grazing. “I’m excited that people are talking about this,” he says. “As people are discussing the role agriculture can play in mitigating climate change, managed grazing can be a helpful tool.”
As a researcher, Jackson says the biggest challenge isn’t access to data regarding how to implement managed grazing systems or their impact, it’s the lack of willful effort to implement and incentivize these systems. “We have the information we need to make decisions,” he says.
Jackson notes his team’s research effort now focuses on building decision support tools to help farmers, policymakers, business owners, and others in the supply chain to recognize managed grazing’s vast potential. “We have one model in particular that we call SmartScape,” Jackson says. “It’s a landscape tool where we can sit with farmers and policymakers and turn the dials and ask: ‘What if we put grass here; corn here?’ We can reconfigure the landscape and look at what the ramifications are for profitability, soil carbon, soil health, greenhouse gas emissions, and on and on.” He says this work also targets the potential for the 40 percent of corn production nationally that’s currently devoted to ethanol production.
In addition, Jackson says building Grassland 2.0 will require trust-building and transparency. The only concept he says will not be tolerated at the table is the idea of continuing the status quo.
For operators like dairy farmer Scott Mericka, the potential is enticing. “I’m going to put my whole heart into this movement,” he says. “I’m knee-deep already despite the rough years we’ve seen recently.” Mericka’s voice teems with hope, transfixed by the effort to build a model prioritizing regeneration over extraction.
Top photo: Bert Paris at his farm outside Belleville, Wisconsin. (Photo by Finn Ryan, Grassland 2.0)