cows in field

Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment: A demonstration farm & educational center for innovative practices in regenerative ag

By Leah Puro, WNC Agricultural Research Coordinator

Wolfe’s Neck Center for Agriculture and the Environment is a nonprofit organic dairy and vegetable farm located along the Maine coast in Freeport, Maine. The center is open to the public all year as an educational center, a research center, and a campground, making the farm a bustling tourist destination as well as a functional production farm. Our management practices reflect these multi-layered goals of the operation. We started our dairy production in 2015 and prior to that, beef cattle were raised on the pastures.

Currently, we are milking 30 certified organic cows in our parlor. We also have a dozen sheep and goats, laying hens and broilers in the summer, and pigs from the spring to the fall. We are home to a vegetable apprenticeship program and host dairy apprentices through the Dairy Grazing Apprenticeship program as we believe that inspiring and training young farmers is integral to our agricultural and food systems. Over the last two years, we have been building up our research project portfolio and investing in infrastructure to conduct research on agricultural practices that can hold up in the face of unpredictable weather patterns and climate change. Some of our projects include The Bovine Burp Buster Project, the Maine Soil Health Network, and OpenTEAM.

Our dairy cows are on the front lines fighting climate change! Wolfe’s Neck Center is part of the Bovine BurpBusters (B3) Project, spearheaded by Bigelow Labs in Boothbay Harbor that aims to assess the impacts on methane emissions when adding supplemental seaweed to dairy cow feed. The vast majority of the methane released from cows during their natural digestion process is through burps; this release contributes to global warming. This has implications for the individual cows and for the environment. At the global level, methane has 30 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide. With over 1.4 billion cows in the world, using seaweed to reduce enteric emissions could contribute greatly to minimizing our greenhouse gas (GHG) impacts. During the B3 project, we quantified the effects of certain seaweeds on animal health as well as on the methane emissions of our cows. Seaweeds contain different compounds that may aid in the reduction of methane that builds up in the cow’s rumen. Starting from a simple seeded line on an aquaculture farm floating along Maine’s coast, certain species of seaweed are grown and harvested. Processors then clean and dry it for distribution to feed producers who, in turn, mix it with grain as a nutritional supplement for dairy cattle. As Maine's oceans warm, aquaculture can contribute to robust coastal livelihoods as local seaweeds find new markets and support sustainable economic activities. Our partners are conducting a supply chain analysis and producing economic tools to help seaweed and dairy farmers balance profitability and environmental impacts in forging links from sea to pasture, to locally-sourced dairy products. The first 10 week trial with our cows at WNC has been completed. We enrolled 22 of our milking cows in the study and divided the group into two groups, the control group and experimental group, to test the effectiveness of the seaweed to reduce methane emissions. The control group was fed the same normal grain and forage ration as the rest of the milking herd and the experimental group was fed forage, customized grain, and the seaweed supplement of interest. Both the control and experimental groups had access throughout the study to The GreenFeed (C-Lock Inc.). This is a system designed to measure gas fluxes of methane (CH4), carbon dioxide (CO2), hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2) from individual animals. By enticing the cows with grain pellets, the cows place their heads in a feeder for a few minutes while the gases from their breath and burps are quantified. The GreenFeed has a cow ID chip reader that can identify each cow and provide data to the team on the gas emissions, the amount of time each cow spent at the feeder, and the number of times each day that the cow entered the feeder. In addition to collecting data on methane emissions, we collected data on milk production, milk quality, animal weight, and overall animal health biweekly to understand the impacts of the seaweed on animal health and production. Now that our first trial is complete, the WNC team and our collaborators will work together to organize and analyze the data to understand how the seaweed additive impacted the methane emissions from our cows.

The Maine Soil Health Network is a project launched through collaboration between Wolfe’s Neck Center and Maine Farmland Trust (MFT) to provide Maine farmers with information and support to improve soil health on their farms. This year is our pilot year in which we have enrolled 10 farms in the program that all have MFT land easements ensuring the land will remain in agriculture production. We have a mix of vegetable and livestock farms all across Maine that are participating. This year, the enrolled farmers will have the opportunity to participate in a regional soil health study managed by Pasa, the Pennsylvania based sustainable agriculture association, which involves tracking management practices and soil test results, access resources in Maine and beyond for technical assistance, and join group calls to share ideas and experiences, as well as focused discussion on topics of interest to the group.

With its launch of a new major initiative in 2019, OpenTEAM Wolfe’s Neck OpenTEAM (Open Technology Ecosystem for Agricultural Management), Wolfe’s Neck Center is transforming into a hub for soil health research, demonstration and education for farmers and the general public with the intention of inspiring action and innovation. The OpenTEAM community is a collaborative community of farmers, scientists, industry leaders and ag technologists with a goal to support producer transition, adoption and support of soil health management practices. The OpenTEAM community offers field-level carbon measurement, digital management records, remote sensing, predictive analytics, and input and economic management decision support in a connected platform that reduces the need for manual data entry and simultaneously improves access to a wide array of tools. OpenTEAM supports adaptive soil health management for farms of all scales, geographies and production systems, and are working to accelerate scientific understanding of soil health by providing more high-quality data to researchers collaborating on the project. In the last year OpenTEAM has grown from 35 to over 200 participants every month. As our membership grows to over 36 collaborating organizations, we are accelerating our shared learning around how we can change our food and agriculture systems through technology. Through OpenTEAM, we are tackling challenges that are often impossible to solve alone using an open source framework to accomplish what Wolfe’s Neck mission is all about: transforming our relationship with farming and food for a healthier environment.