Grass and other perennial plants may be just what the doctor ordered for farmers facing the uncertainties of climate change. And beef and dairy products from free-ranging, grass-fed cattle – along with legumes and grains grown in addition to grass – may be just what the doctor ordered for consumers.
That's the "post-oil agriculture" vision portrayed by Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists and other participants at the Farming with Grass Conference held in Oklahoma in 2008. In 2009, the Soil and Water Conservation Society published the proceedings from that conference in an online book, "Farming with Grass."
ARS scientists Jean L. Steiner and Alan J. Franzluebbers co-wrote the foreword to the book and the closing chapter, "Expanding Horizons of Farming with Grass." Steiner is at the ARS Grazinglands Research Laboratory in El Reno, Oklahoma. Franzluebbers is at the ARS J. Phil Campbell Sr. Natural Resource Conservation Center in Watkinsville, Georgia.
The closing chapter was written with Constance L. Neely, vice president of Heifer International in Little Rock, Arkansas. Steiner, Franzluebbers and Neely explain that perennial plants, in diverse agricultural systems, have great potential to enhance resilience against uncertain climate and market conditions.
Steiner's ARS colleagues Bill Phillips and Brian Northup – who co-wrote their own chapter on forage-based beef production – are in the second year of a five-year study to develop a system to produce grass-fed beef for the southern Great Plains. Phillips and Northup are at the ARS lab in El Reno. ARS scientists in Booneville, Arkansas; Mandan, North Dakota; and Watkinsville, Georgia, are also looking for innovative ways to include grazing cattle in economically diverse farming systems.
In summarizing stories from the conference, participants envisioned mixed livestock, perennial plants and other crops, instead of large stands of a single-row crop monoculture. The goal is to sustain farms and rural communities both economically and environmentally, while offering local, healthy foods and other new products.