Upper Marlboro Farm a Model of Best Practices

By Rabiah Alicia Burks

UPPER MARLBORO, Md. – The manager of Clagett Farm strides across a large pasture, expertly avoiding cow dung. As if accustomed to the drill, roughly 45 hungry cows follow closely behind.

“You see this section?” Michael Heller asks, pointing to the area where the cows had grazed. “See how much they grazed it down? It’s almost like a lawn mower came in here and mowed it down.”

But the grass won’t get eaten down to its roots – which would create bare spots and foster soil erosion – thanks to a process Heller employs called rotational grazing. The farm, owned and operated by the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation, serves as a model of how best management practices such as rotational grazing can be used to improve water quality.

It’s one of many voluntary practices recommended for farmers by the state to minimize harmful nutrient runoff into rivers and streams feeding the Chesapeake Bay.

With traditional grazing, cows are allowed to graze freely through in an open pasture. The cows will eat their favorite types of grasses down to the roots, avoiding the grass they do not like. To grow the grass back, farmers often apply fertilizers and herbicides.

Heller instead sections off the pasture on Clagett Farm, forcing the cows to eat all types of grass. The cows are then moved to a new section when the grass has been eaten to about 2 inches high.

And by only using the cows’ natural waste to fertilize each section, Heller explained, Clagett Farm has eliminated the use of fertilizers.

In general, agricultural runoff has been identified by the Environmental Protection Agency as one of the leading contributors of pollution in the bay.

Though the state encourages farmers, through subsidies and grants, to use best management practices, the law does not require them.

“The only requirement that a farmer has in a regulatory context is that every farmer who has over 10 acres and/or generates more than $25,000 in revenue has to have a certified nutrient management plan,” said Dr. Russell B. Brinsfield, director of the Wye Research and Education Center at the University of Maryland’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources said.

The plan, certified by the Maryland Department of Agriculture, has been required since 1998. It sets recommendations for the amount of fertilizer a farmer can apply to a crop and when, Brinsfield said.

In addition to raising 65 cows, Clagett Farm grows 56 types of fruits and vegetables. The farm plants cover crops, ­such as rye and clover, on unused land during the off seasons, Heller said. Cover crops soak up excess nutrients that remain in the soil after seasonal plants, like strawberries and lettuce, have been harvested.

During the spring, the cover crops are tilled into the soil, eliminating the need for synthetic fertilizers, he said.

“It’s one of the most effective best management practices that we have,” Brinsfield said.

To further reduce runoff, Clagett Farm does not plant crops on hills, Heller said. The steep land, susceptible to soil erosion, is covered with permanent vegetation–grass and clover.

On this morning, Gail Taylor and five other Clagett Farm employees are kneeling, pulling weeds out of soil, rather than spraying. “On conventional farms they would just go out in a big tractor with herbicide and spray the heck out of all the fields and try to kill everything with chemicals,” Taylor said.

The costs associated with using best management practices, such as planting cover crops or switching to rotational grazing, can be a financial burden on farmers since their profit margin isn’t great, Brinsfield said.

However, the Maryland Agricultural Water Quality Cost-Share Program provides farmers with up to 87.5 percent of the cost to install conservation methods, said Julie Oberg, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Agriculture.

And the federal farm bill was amended in 2008 to include funding specifically for these types of conservation practices. There are currently 30 current best management practices eligible for these grants, Oberg said.

Heller is proud of the work he does.

“The wonderful thing about all this is it’s using ecological principals in nature itself,” said Heller. “It works for the environment because it protects the bay.”

–by Rabiah Burks

About Us

Bay on the Brink is a multimedia reporting project examining the fate of the Chesapeake Bay. It is produced by fellows at the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism as part of News21, a consortium of journalism schools. This is the fellows' blog. The full project site is here: http://chesapeake.news21.com
A photo on Flickr
A photo on Flickr
A photo on Flickr
A photo on Flickr
A photo on Flickr
A photo on Flickr