cows in field

William Michael Murphy, 1941-2019

In Memoriam by Fred Magdoff, Emeritus Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences, University of Vermont

Bill Murphy

Emeritus Professor William Murphy, who taught and conducted research and outreach in Plant and Soil Science at UVM from 1979 to 2003, died on June 29, 2019. I am writing this to let you know how important he was to our department as well as to farmers in Vermont and many other parts of the U.S. His contributions were greatly underappreciated by many in his own department, in the College of Agriculture, and in the University.

At a time when animals, especially dairy cows, were being raised and maintained in confinement, Bill studied and introduced the United States to the art and science of intensive rotational grazing management. This is a practice that has multiple benefits for farmers, lowering costs of production while reducing time spent and machinery used for harvesting and feeding cows during the growing season. At the same time well-managed pastures resulted in less stressed and healthier animals, treated more humanely and allowed to walk in fields and to graze as they had throughout their evolutionary history.

Bill was the first person in the US, along with his graduate students, to scientifically study grazing, beginning with single animals in small paddocks and working eventually with whole herds. Through research, his book Greener Pastures on Your Side of the Fence (a bible for farmers beginning grazing), and outreach efforts in Vermont and in other states, he was able to help farmers with details of grazing—how many paddocks were needed, when to

bring the animals in, how to know when to move them, how to handle excess forage in the early season, and how to deal with low productivity either because of drought or natural declines in growth rates late in the season. Rules of thumb and guidelines were developed for estimating the mass of consumable forage in a pasture.

Bill’s work has underpinned Vermont’s organic dairy industry since organic dairy farming would not have been possible without the knowledge of how to best manage pasture resources. Bill struggled against existing paradigms. One influential person maintained that his work was not needed—it was said, “We tried pastures decades ago [through Vermont’s Green Pasture program] and they didn't work.” But what had been previously tried was in reality primitive and inadequate, although it probably promoted the best practices known at the time. And a departmental chair once stopped Bill from teaching what would have been the first organic agriculture course at UVM. Organic agriculture was viewed as cult-like and without scientific background. Many of the claims of organic farmers—for example, that they had fewer pest problems than conventional farmers (something we now know to be true)—were dismissed as nonsense. It is important to remember that there were people early on who were concerned about the effects of pesticides on the biosphere and who knew that there were more ecological ways to grow food.

Bill did many other things in his life, including participation in the Peace Corps and conducting research in other areas of agronomy. But his leadership in research and education about pastures may have had the greatest impact. His influence lives on through the efforts of former students here and abroad and in the lives and practices of literally hundreds of farmers who have discovered the benefits of intensively managed rotational grazing.

He leaves behind his beloved wife Lita, his two daughters Michelle and Nicole, and three grandchildren. Bill will also be missed by many friends and acquaintances who appreciated his passion, dedication, and humor.

Donations in Bill’s memory can be made to the American Cancer Society or by sending a check in Bill’s name payable to the Vermont Grass Farmers Association, 327 U.S. Route 302, Suite 1, Berlin, VT 05641.