Privately-owned grazing land is an important landscape feature in Pennsylvania. Many people identify pastoral settings with animals grazing on them as good farming practices that are also good for the animals. Grazing and browsing animals are used to manage grasses, forbs, residues, and shrubs on pastures and other grasslands, crop fields, and forests. Well-managed pastures and hay fields provide valuable products, conservation of natural resources, and valuable wildlife habitat, making them assets not only to private land users but also to the greater agricultural and rural communities.
In Pennsylvania, the overall number of farms decreased by 6.5% between 2007 (63,163) and 2012 (59,309). The total number of farm acres in the state is 7,704,444. Of that total, permanent pasture constitutes 814,210 acres, and pastured cropland constitutes 118,049 acres. The number of farms in Pennsylvania with cropland used solely for grazing or pasture in 2012 was 4,962. The average dollar value per acre of pasture is $2,600.00. (Source for all information above: 2012 Ag Census, NASS)
Major benefits realized from grazing and pasture lands include: 1) provision of feed and forage for livestock production, 2) reduction in soil erosion, 3) seasonal protection for nesting birds and wildlife habitat, 4) better water quality, 5) improved soil nutrient content and soil health, and 6) providing food and recreation. While grazing and pasture lands may have their own natural resource concerns, conversion of short rotation cropland and hayland to a grazing system may present excellent opportunities for livestock producers to distribute nutrients away from concentrated areas and reduce fuel inputs needed to produce feed. Converting short rotation cropland to perennial grasses for producing cellulosic biomass also presents new opportunities for conserving natural resources.
In terms of planning, landowners incorporating pastures and grazing into their livestock operation have access to technical and financial assistance through USDA programs, but there is a need for increased management on the part of the producer which seems to be a prohibiting factor for overall success. While there is a reduced need for fuel and feed inputs, the producer needs to be able to rotate the livestock between pastures to ensure healthy plant growth. Grazing management is the key to healthy, productive pastures and healthy, productive pastures are the key to healthy, productive animals. Working with technical partners such as USDA/NRCS, conservation districts, and Penn State Extension, landowners can get the help they need to get started. There are also professional grazing groups such as Pennsylvania Grazing Lands Coalition and Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative or local producer groups that can advise and address the training and education needs for producers.
Envirothon teams will learn how Best Management Practices are used to protect grazing and pasture lands, improve grazing management schemes, promote pest management, and improve habitat for nesting birds and other wildlife. Information provided will demonstrate the importance of finding the optimum balance between natural resource protection and agricultural use on grazing and pasture lands.