Maine is seeing a surge in small farms, with more than 1,000 farms added in the last 10 years, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture.

A majority of this growth has come from small-diversified vegetable farms that are marketing directly to consumers through farmers markets, farm stands and Community Supported Agriculture (CSAs).

This growth has propelled Maine into the No. 2 ranking in the U.S. by Strolling Through the Heifers, a Vermont-based local food advocacy group that puts out a locavore index ranking states by their commitment to local foods.

But there is a way for Maine to increase farm revenues and viability even more by tapping into an underutilized resource: grass. Maine has a huge amount of grass pastures and hayfields that can produce quality milk and meat at a low cost.

While vegetable farmers need high-quality soils to grow high-value crops, grass and legume pastures can produce feed for livestock on more marginal lands, thus opening up the potential to grow Maine’s livestock industry.

Additionally, the benefit of integrating livestock with other enterprises such as crop production provides a multitude of benefits to farms, soils and farm profits. Grass-based livestock production can also help to preserve open space along with providing other environmental benefits.

The Maine Grass Farmers Network is a farmer-led organization that is holding its annual conference this Saturday, March 21, at Kennebec Valley Community College in Fairfield. This 10th annual conference is featuring a variety of speakers and national experts discussing grass-fed livestock production.

The keynote speaker, Gabe Brown, was recently featured in the science section of the New York Times for his sustainable farm practices that include livestock production and improved grazing management techniques.

So why is Maine positioned to be a leader in grass-based livestock production? Maine has a substantial amount of acreage that is underutilized that could potentially produce high-quality forage (grass) for beef and lamb production.

From abandoned hayfields in southern and central Maine, to idle and rotated potato ground in Aroostook County, there is untapped potential. Our climate is ideal for growing cool season forages due to our moderate temperatures and our increasingly valuable rainfall.

When properly managed, grass and legume fields can produce high-quality feed for grazing as well as for stored feed for winter consumption. Grazing animals can be on pasture for six months of the year, with minimal purchased inputs.

So what is grass-fed livestock? The Agriculture Marketing Service has defined grass-fed livestock and has a verification program for beef and sheep producers. In short, livestock must be fed only forages — and no grains or grain byproducts.

While this may reduce growth rates compared with conventional feedlot produced livestock that are fed significant amounts of grains during their lifetime, grass-fed and finished livestock utilize much cheaper feed sources, especially here in the Northeast where a majority of the grain concentrates are imported and expensive.

Additionally the market demand for livestock products from animals that consume only forage has increased significantly. The end products of grass-fed livestock contain lower levels of fat, and that fat often contains higher percentages of Omega-3 and Conjugated Linoleic Acid or CLAs, considered the “healthy fats.” One of the largest growth segments in the organic industry is “grass milk” from cows fed only forages and no grain.

There are challenges to growing quality grass fed livestock. While some think that turning out animals to pasture is a low level of management, to be able to produce quality feed and quality meat products takes what producers call “managed intensive” practices. Achieving growth rates for beef and sheep to get to a body condition that will produce a quality piece of meat requires not only quality pastures, but quality stored feeds that are high in digestible nutrients, so animals will be able to consume high amounts of feed and produce a quality product.

Maine also faces other challenges in growing its meat industry. The Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society has an initiative entitled “More Maine Meat” and is investigating methods to get more quality Maine product into the hands of consumers.

Quality, consistency and convenience are all important to the consumer, and currently Maine lacks some of the producer knowledge and infrastructure to make that happen.

The University of Maine Cooperative Extension is partnering with MGFN and MESAS to try and grow this industry in Maine. The MGFN conference this weekend is a great opportunity for livestock producers to learn more about the industry, production practices and marketing opportunities.

For more information about the conference and MGFN, visit http://umaine.edu/livestock/mgfn/conference/.

Rick Kersbergen is a professor with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension and works out of the Waldo County office. He has worked for the university for nearly 30 years, conducting educational programming and research throughout the state of Maine. Contact him at Richard.kersbergen@maine.edu.

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