April on the Farm

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Grassfed Beef Almanac

Here I give the account of my years trying to master the science and art of farming, and doing it in an ecological, biological, nature friendly manner while producing marbled, flavorful, affordable grassfed beef for the local market. This is a compilation of that work in almanac form.

April’s Warming Soil

The second the winter’s snow pack goes in April, the cool season grasses spring to life. They might get snowed on again, but it is spring and time to start watching for pasque flowers. On the first really warm sunny day my thousand-pound steers will likely buck and kick up their heels like calves. Also fast on the heels of the departing snow and ice is the aerial invasion of hawks, eagles, and turkey vultures besides the geese, ducks, and more commonplace migratory birds.

I live on the South Dakota Minnesota border and a week after the first arrivals the air is full of the sight and sound of geese. Swirling masses coming up off the lake to the north, slowly sorting themselves out into formations, getting some leaders to decide on a direction, and lighting out for the next stop on the trip. Obviously, there isn’t a good consensus on the right direction, as one big bunch heads north, one northwest, and others head back south. Geese politics. It takes something as significant as late winter storms to get everybody going the same direction, and it is fortunate that unlike human invasions, there isn’t collateral damage.

Bent over working out in the pasture I get a chuckle when I look up and see 80 to100 cattle in a ring around me watching my every move. I know they are there because they have cleaned up all this pasture’s new grass that had emerged on the heels of the snowmelt. Now they want me to unroll a fresh new bale of hay for them. They have eaten the better stuff out of the last bale, and well, they would just as soon pick through another as eat more of the last one. So as I cut and stack next winter’s firewood they are like gawkers at a sporting match, shouldering in for a better view, smelling the wood chunks, pushing in from the back, scratching on the woodsplitter, bawling, trying to convince me that they are starving. Fakers all of them. Every bit as good as human kids leaving the brussels sprouts, but did someone mention dessert?

By mid-April, winter may have gotten its second or third wind. Maybe there’s snow in spots up over the tops of my knee high winter boots. I cringe at the thought of ranchers calving in this. Wet and snowy springs have to make cow calf operators think hard about calving in May and June, when the calf could land in new lush grass, instead of a snow bank or mud hole. Early calving is a hold over from a time when farmers raised both cattle and crops and needed to get calving over before starting to plant, but May June calving is so much nicer.

Late in the month I usually see cattle egrets hanging around my stock, catching the insects that the grazing stirs up. These and the rest of the migratory mix are a blessing. After the silence and starkness of winter I’m more attuned to notice and appreciate the deep green of the new grass, the cheery meadowlarks, the croaky red-winged blackbirds, the honking geese, and even the reawakening of the frogs, toads, and whistles of the stripy gophers. Spring is full of life to see and experience, but what is going on under the soil surface is where the wonder and marvel of nature is really happening. The soil is the medium where everything above is anchored, and as a food producer, this is where wholesome, ecologically raised food production has to start.

Ninety percent of all organisms on the world’s land mass are designed to live underground. In addition to bacteria and fungi, the soil should be filled with protozoa, nematodes, mites, and microarthropods. There can be 10,000 to 50,000 species in less than a teaspoon of good soil. In that same teaspoon of soil, there can be more microbes than there are people on the earth.

It is interesting that if we have a good healthy gut many of these same microbes are in us. There are a hundred trillion microbes that can aid our digestion. About four hundred different types, some we know deal with specific digestion processes of sugars or starches or other things, and some we just don’t know what they do. We are made up of ten times more bacterial cells than we are made up of other types of cells. (Biology “R” Us, or Got Biology). It is ironic that when we drop some food in clean dirt we are conditioned to refrain from picking it up, dusting it off, and eating it, since a whole lot of these bacteria are ones we share with the soil.

I am surrounded by conventional farmers that know amazing amounts about technology, machinery, and the perfected science of domineering the land, but are largely indifferent about the nuances of soil biology. Science can provide us some of the indepth nuances and when mixed with observation and intuition, the mix of science and art get the best out of biological farming.

Life below the soil’s surface, mostly microbiological, like the yeasty growth of a loaf of bread. Life that was multiplying rapidly to take advantage of new warmth, moisture, and food. All of the roots of last year’s annual plants, much of the sloughed off perennial roots, plus all of the last generation of soil critters and plant residues flattened against the ground are food. Add in the winter’s freezing and thawing that release new minerals to the meal, and it is a feast for the soil beasts. This is the kind of life that produced the original black prairie soils, which had ten times more organic matter and carbon than we have left today, after years of conventional tillage and crop farming.

Historically, the teeming soil life evolved in concert with the plants so as to orchestrate the uptake of nutritious minerals including all the micro and trace elements. Organic soils from highly mineralized parent soils produce plants that have boron for our bones, chromium for cholesterol and fat, cobalt—the central atom in B12, copper for blood, bones and nerves, germanium used in many functions, iodine for thyroid and hormones, iron for blood and brain, manganese for nerves and bones, molybdenum for overall cell function, selenium for heart and pancreas, vanadium for bones and teeth, and zinc for reproductive organs. We need all these along with the better known, calcium, chloride, magnesium, sodium, and sulfur. If organic matter isn’t there to orchestrate mineral uptake by the plants, then a shortage in our food could lead to one of our body’s vital systems shutting down. We may only need a trace of it, but we do need it. What Leonardo DaVinci said five hundred years ago is probably still true today: “We know more about the movement of celestial bodies than about the soil underfoot.”

We can buy soil biology and reinoculate the soil with at least some of the organisms killed by previous farmers’ use of caustic chemical fertilizers and toxic herbicides, pesticides, and nematicides. One article that caught my eye was on a company called Inocucor Technologies that was selling “biological accelerators.” It was started by a couple of Canadian scientists who began in 2007 and were mainly selling to organic farmers and greenhouse operations. Why it stands out is that Inocucor, in their rush to secure their place in corporate America, took on Bayer CropScience CEO Jim Blome as a board adviser. Bayer of neonicotinoids fame has been at the heart of biological and ecological destruction in agriculture. I guess up in the corporate world it doesn’t matter what side you are on as long as you know how to make the company money.

Once I had a debate with a conventional farmer over farming methods, I was told “you can bust your ass for years getting this organic stuff to work, but when you retire or die, someone like me will convert that place back to conventional in an afternoon.” Well, I worried a little about that and it eased my mind when I eventually put a perpetual grassland and wetland easement on most of the property. As long as U.S. Fish and Wildlife has a say, it won’t be plowed up and converted back to conventional in an afternoon, or ever.