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Conservation Partnership Initiative for Grazing

Conservation Partnership Initiative for Grazing in the Chicopee River Basin

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Project Overview and Status

In 2005 the New England Small Farm Institute (NESFI) received a the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Conservation Planning Initiative planning grant to support grazing in the Chicopee River Basin, Massachusetts' largest watershed. The only CPI grant awarded east of the Mississippi, the goals of the planning grant were to:

1. Build a diverse Partnership to support grazing and associated natural resource management in the Chicopee Basin, and
2. Plan a way to continue the Partnership to carry out activities supportive of good grazing.

Since its start in June 2005, 28 partners who provide services of some sort to grazers have joined our Partnership. In addition, local officials from 29 of the Basin's towns have participated in project activities.

After a series of meetings and consultations with various Partners, the Partners decided to prioritize a campaign to better manage stocking rates and promote grazing on small acreage farms. Materials were developed and compiled by Sue Ellen Johnson and Madeleine Charney of the New England Small Farm Institute in consultation with the Partners. Project materials (released in October 2006) are available as pdf files on this website, at the library or town hall of each Basin community, and from Project Partners.

Project materials include:

(Please see pdf icon  Left)

  • A brochure on stocking rates for operators of small livestock farms. 
  • A brochure about stocking rates for operators of small horse farms. 
  • A list of Partners and the services they provide. 
  • A matrix of partners that details the audiences and services offered.
  • A bibliography and web addresses identifying resources regarding stocking rates on small acreage and related topics from around the US and the region.
  • A Resource Notebook (a hardcopy version of bibliographic materials) is available in every town of the Chicopee Basin (either in the local library or town hall) and at the NESFI library in Belchertown.

Although current funding for Partnership activities ends in December 2006, NESFI continues to seek support for continuation and expansion of the Partnership. Information is current as of September 2006. We thank everyone who sincerely contributed to the Partnership, and those who genuinely work to support good grazing throughout Massachusetts.

Sue Ellen Johnson Agro-ecologist
Project Leader
October 2006

Why a Partnership for Good Grazing?

Grass-based farming and livestock enterprises are central to agriculture in New England. Our region's soil base, hilly terrain, and rain-rich climate are particularly suited to grazing operations. In addition to small ruminant, dairy, fiber, and cattle enterprises, diversification into grass-based poultry and pork production is increasingly popular. Region-wide consumer demand for grass-farm products is strong because of their social and economic acceptability, as well as their dietary variety. Market proximity and well established buy-local campaigns provide regional farmers with a competitive advantage in providing "native grown" products. Regional support for farming, farmland preservation, and agri-tourism requires a pastoral landscape. For these reasons, small-scale livestock enterprise start-ups, often with limited land, cash resources and/or expertise are increasingly common in New England's upland watersheds.

While farm diversification, including value added enterprises, is being encouraged by regional agricultural and rural community development agencies, natural resource management is often a secondary priority until an operation is established (and problems are all too evident). Increasingly, beginning farmers do not come from farm backgrounds and are not familiar with good nutrient management practices - nor have they been sensitized to the particular natural resource concerns that may be associated with grass-based livestock farming. Good grazing management and water management are key issues.

Well-managed grass-based livestock farming can be uniquely compatible with the environment. Properly managed grass-based systems maintain animal numbers at the recommended number of animal units per acre. The system largely relies on natural nutrient cycling processes. Continuous vegetative cover limits runoff. Manure distribution is ongoing so there is less nutrient loading in the fall and spring, limiting TMDL problems. Animals in grass-based systems are fed less imported grain, reducing the overall loading of phosphorous and other nutrients in the watershed. Livestock tend to be healthier so there are fewer antibiotic residues and pathogens. Livestock diets based on grass enable farmers to reduce row crop acreage on potentially erodable land. Grass systems use less pumped water than comparably scaled confinement operations. Grass-based systems also avoid the risk of more concentrated contamination events associated with confinement systems. However, major watercourses and their tributaries can be negatively affected by poorly managed pastures and poor livestock nutrient management. In New England, numerous small operations can be responsible for significant environmental degradation of surface and groundwater resources. The re-establishment of pastures in overgrown or reforested areas, as well as improper pasture and riparian zone management practices, can disrupt or destroy important terrestrial and aquatic habitats.

Many beginning farmers, and others diversifying into new enterprises, start livestock farming with a business concept that has not included consideration of environmental or regulatory information. They receive both formal and informal advice and information from a wide array of often-conflicting sources. And, while these sources may include formal education and professional consultation, many advisors, including business planners, breed and commodity organizations and agricultural suppliers, do not include natural resource management in their planning process or information services. While USDA agencies such as NRCS and others offer excellent natural resource management guidance, many of those in contact with new farmers are not fully aware of the services (or incentives) available. This project was designed to meet the needs of those farmers.

Why the Chicopee River Basin?

The Chicopee Basin was selected for the initial Partnership for Grazing for many reasons. The Chicopee is an important tributary of the Connecticut River, and is the largest sub-watershed of the Connecticut River. Waters flowing through the Chicopee Basin eventually reach Long Island Sound. The Chicopee River Basin covers 721 square miles in central Massachusetts. It is the largest watershed in the state, and is fully contained within Massachusetts' boundaries. Four watersheds, the Swift, the Ware, the Quaboag and the Chicopee, comprise the Basin. Named streams, flowing a total of over 464 miles, extend throughout the Basin. The Basin encompasses the Quabbin Reservoir and Ware River Basin, which supply much of metropolitan Boston's water. Most of the Basin is upland. Soils are characterized by relatively moderate fertility, best suited to perennial cover (pastures and forests) and animal agriculture. Just over 7% of the Basin is in agricultural use; 70% of the Basin is forested. Forty percent of the Basin is protected open space, so there is long term potential for agricultural operations to continue, despite heavy development pressures.

Quantifying agricultural activity in the Basin, including the numbers of start up farmers, is difficult because census county data used in our calculations do not directly correspond to available watershed data. If anything, the estimations for farms and farm numbers are low. Numbers are estimates based on the USDA 2002 Farm Census.

There are approximately 1400 farms in the Chicopee River Basin. Of these, 250 are less than 9 acres; 500 are 49 acres or less; 400 are between 50 and 179 acres; 200 are between 180 and 499 acres; and 30 are greater than 500 acres. The total acreage in farms in the Basin is 21,000, 16% of which are rented acres.

There are more than 800 farms with pastureland, totaling about 20,200 acres. In addition, pastured woodland accounts for nearly 6,000 acres. Four hundred and sixty five farms use 7,000 acres of cropland for pasture and grazing. Land that is not pasture, but is used for grass forage (i.e., hay, haylage and greenchop) totals another 27,500 acres.

The basin is home to 350 cattle operations (including 100 dairy farms). There are approximately 200 commercial poultry operations. The numbers of sheep and goat farms have increased since the previous census to 175.

The market value of all farm product sales in the Basin is $77,000,000, $32 million of which is attributed to sales of livestock products. Mean product sales per farm are $62,000.

Reflecting general US trends, 600 of the Basin's farms earn less than $2,500 per year and 150 earn more than $100,000 per year. Average farm size in the Basin is just under 100 acres; median farm size approximates 50 acres. Approximately 55% of Basin farmers work off the farm part time. Although 50% of the principal farm operators declare farming as their primary occupation, over 90% of farms have other sources of income. Approximately 350 of the 1,400 principal farm operators are beginners, having operated their farms for less than 10 years. (This qualifies them as beginner farmers under the USDA definition.) No numbers are available for new enterprises on established farms.

Thirty-nine towns are fully or partially located in the Basin, and approximately 185,000 people live in the Chicopee River Basin. Open space and land use pressures are widely recognized as significant concerns and are being addressed by the Partnership through encouragement of well-managed pastures throughout the landscape.