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This Week’s Creature Feature ... A Happy Cow Is a Good-for-the-Bay Cow

Maryland Grazers hope to clean up the Bay getting cattle farmers to switch feed from corn to grass

Cows in the Bay watershed will live happier lives grazing at their whim in green pastures rather than confined in cells and fed a diet of corn.
    Their comfort is so good for the Bay and for farmers that it has earned the Chesapeake Bay Foundation a $200,000 grant to extend its three-year-old Maryland Grazers Network to more farmers in more places.
    The Grazers Network is one of 55 bright ideas on reducing pollution to local waterways and the Chesapeake Bay watershed that share almost $11 million in federal and corporate grants awarded this month. Each program also raised its own matching money, amounting to $11.7 million across the watershed.
    Replacing conventional farming’s diet of corn with nature’s diet of grass won’t please the cows, according to Michael Heller, who directs the Foundation’s Clagett Farm in Upper Marlboro, where he practices what he preaches, raising beef on pasture.
    “Cows like corn the way kids like marshmallows,” says Heller, who also manages the Maryland Grazers Network.
    But cows were born to eat grass, not grain, so, Heller says, “It will make them healthier.”
    The corn that conventionally raised cows eat is disastrous for the Bay.
    “Corn is a very inefficient crop,” Heller says. “The best farmers using the best practices can get corn to take up only about half, never three quarters, of the fertilizer they give it.”
    You know what that means. Nutrients from undigested fertilizer leach out of soil or run off, making their way to the Bay.
    Perennial grass, on the other hand, is the Bay’s best friend.
    “There’s nothing better,” Heller says. “It holds the soil in place and requires few or no additional nutrients.” What fertilizer grass does need, cows provide for free.
    Farmers whose cows graze are happier, too, Heller says, because they save the cost of fertilizer and of corn, which has soared.
    To transform grain-feeding farmers into grazers, Heller employs other farmers, paying them for their time as, “person to person, they help new farmers understand how to become grazers without making mistakes.”
    In three years, the Maryland Grazers Network has enrolled about 75 farmers. Over the two years of the grant, “we’re looking for 30 more,” Heller says, from Maryland to Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia.
    Read more on grazing in Where’s the Beef? at