MOUNT JACKSON — Students in the agro-ecology class at Massanutten Regional Governor’s School are researching grazing practices for the best health of a farmer’s field and the farmer’s bank account.
Students grew and maintained 82 pots planted with fescue grass for about two months in partnership with Bobby Clark, an extension agent with the Virginia Cooperative Extension in Shenandoah County, as part of a cooperative extension program called Graze 300.
“We had fun. We did the work, like a lot of the programs here. We even had an infestation of fungus gnats,” said Jack Miller, a 16-year-old junior from Strasburg.
“They said it was not a problem,” added Adam Dirting, 16, of Woodstock.
The students solved the infestation problem with sticky traps and less watering, which was all a part of a student-developed pest management program.
The students worked in small groups in order to maintain the pots of fescue grass in the school’s greenhouse. Half of the pots were given treatments to represent overgrazed pastures while the others represented rotational grazed pastures.
Typical grazing allows for exclusive grazing for 200 days and often results in the area being overgrazed. When not grazing, the attle’s feed has to be supplemented, which is a cost to farmers.
Grazing on a rotational system can allow farmers to graze their cattle 300 days a year, meaning less feed needs to be purchased.
Students maintaining their pots to represent a traditional grazing method cut the grass to a 1-inch height two times a week while students who maintained the pots representing rotational grazing cut the grass to 2 inches in height every three weeks.
“That is a pretty good representation,” teacher Kara Bates said.
The students studied the pots, weighed them and pulling the grass out to study the soil for erosion and quality, and the roots for depth and health.
One surprise for one group was the mass of the plants representing overgrazing.
“We had a theory that because of shallow roots they were not using the water we were giving them,” said Alex Newfield, 17, of Harrisonburg.
On Tuesday, they were writing their reports, complete with graphs, on their findings. Their reports will go to Clark so he can use the data in support of rotational grazing.
The consensus: pots maintained to represent rotational grazing had stronger roots, less soil erosion and in general were healthier.