July on the Farm

July’s Focus on Grazing

One of July’s pleasures is walking out through the tall grasses and having a new hatch of pheasants explode around me. Like a string of firecrackers, first mama and a mess of babies blast off in quick succession, then a few more, and when you think it is all over and take a step, there goes two or three more. Life is good.

Life is good, but July usually does have plenty of heat which can come with spells of humid weather. Depending on just how hot and humid the weather, I could graze where there was a breezy, grassy hilltop, or put the cattle in an area with a little marsh that they could climb down in and cool their heals, or I had a couple spots where there is some high ground with shade trees that was open to a breeze. Sometimes an intellectual steer would solve the cooling problem by figuring out how to get his mucky front feet in a water tank. Intellectual if you didn’t consider what it did to the water quality. I would try to string the electric fence over the tank so it made it hard to pull off.

The number of flies pestering the cattle usually increase through July and keeping them rotating to new paddocks helped. The maggots hatched out in the manure and occasionally I could move them about a quarter mile to decrease the number of flies completing their life cycle. The biggest thing I did was to encourage dung beetles. I believe that everything I did that helped the general ecology, helped bring the dung beetles back, and by far the greatest aid was not treating my cattle with ononphores (systemic poisons designed to kill surface insects and internal worms) in the growing season, that then ended up in the pastures manure piles killing dung beetles. South Dakota State University and Jonathan Lundgren had a research project that included trapping, counting, and analyzing dung beetles on my place and others, so maybe one day the vetted numbers will move the whole industry toward healthier environments and less poisons.

Luckily the grass on the edge of the Coteau usually has a pretty good mix of minerals that stem from the soil having a great mix of minerals. The Coteau was one of the places that the last retreating ice age glacier dumped it’s load. Since the soil has developed from geologically young glacial deposits, they haven’t been weathered so long as to leach out the more soluble minerals yet. In many other areas in the country, older soils have become deficient in the more soluble minerals. Also I had a high percentage of converted crop ground where there was deeper top soil with attendant fine soil particles. Deep fine soil has more capability of latching onto organic matter, which in turn can hold onto more minerals until the plants need them. To add the desired organic matter, there has been twelve years and counting of daily rotated grazing on my place. The rotation with pulsing grass growth and sloughing off of roots without chemical sterilization, builds more organic matter, holding more water and minerals, and facilitating the uptake of soil nutrients by the plants.

Mob grazing tramples plant material down against the ground where the soils biology can get to it, and the pulsing of the vegetation in mob grazing, maximizes the nutrient cycling and productivity of the soil. More productivity means more pounds of beef produced per acre. Allan Savory does a great job explaining the benefits of mob grazing, and I encourage everyone who hasn’t listened to his TED talk, to do so. What Savory describes, I saw proof of on my place every day. Pulse, or Mob, or Management Intensive grazing of ruminants is just a win win deal.

Savory came down hard on past academic research that promoted discontinuation of grazing to protect grasslands. Allen agrees that continuous grazing is very damaging, but faults the research for having such a limited scope failing to notice that all extremely fertile original grasslands co-evolved under migrating herds and hard periodic grazing. The ruminant grazers health requires the grass, and the grasslands health requires the grazers. Anyway there has been a back lash from the researchers that he has criticized, and those that just want grazing eliminated on public land.

Allan Savory explains how ruminant grazing was an integral part of synergistic evolution between soil, plants, and animals, and how proper herd replicating grazing by man’s ruminants could once again bring vitality to this planet. The idea that destruction of a lot of the world’s soils has happened because of the continuous over grazing by man’s cows, sheep, and goats is easy to grasp. It takes more thought, but makes as much sense that proper grazing can return the land to health and vitality. Savory’s ideas are getting more traction with the private and public lands managers, who have seen first hand where no grazing can be as bad as poor grazing, especially in our semi-arid regions where most of our grazing still exists.

The reason that most grassland soils are dark brown to black is because they contain tons of carbon based organic matter that has built up over time. Pulling from a NRCS paper called “Building Soils for Better Crops” by Fred Magdof and Harold Van Es: The historic wild grazers were integral in having this happen and outside of the ocean, there is more carbon stored in the world’s soils than is contained in all the planet’s atmosphere, plants, and animals combined.

We can mimic the grazing and trampling of historic migrating wild herds of buffalo, wildebeest, zebras, antelope… by giving cattle or whatever ruminate a strip of grass and moving them everyday or so. Even with a heavy rain and the cattle all bunched up in a corner stomping the forage into the mud, given a week or two, the deep-rooted plants like alfalfa shoot back up. If I were to leave the cattle on that piece and a short time later the new tender alfalfa sprouts got eaten and trampled again, then it might be back to weeds. But moving quickly and given time to rest, the perennial plants cover the wounds with a fresh mat of forage. When I saw annual weeds on my place, I could usually think back and remember some repeated traffic across it or abusive grazing of it.

The Nature Conservancy is a private non profit group looking to protect the natural diversity of whatever remnants of prairie still exist. Management has largely shifted over the years to thinking that in addition to controlled burns replicating historic lightning induced prairie fires, that prairie just doesn’t thrive without the periodic heavy grazing.

Another thing that I’ve become more a proponent of is plant diversity. In our human propensity for monocultures, parks, golf courses, corn fields, and home lawns, there is a tendency for pure stands of one specie of plant. We tend to have the master race mentality, blue grass in our lawns, corn or beans on our cropland, or orchard grass in our pastures, but we need to move more toward diversity. Diversity has gotten some play in the news as the main vehicle in urban pollinator gardens and conservation prairie plantings, and it needs to be the direction we keep going.

I’ve always made light of my non segregated yard around the house. It had a vast array of flowers, forbs, grasses, and critters. Night crawlers, plants, birds, and biology were free to complete in the complex web of life. I let the weak rooted blue grass, openly intermix with the promiscuous crab grass, the gay dandelions, and with a sprinkling of minorities sprouting from the seeds that the dog has hauled in and pulled out of his fur.

Due to social pressure from my blue grass supremacist neighbors, I would mow every few weeks allowing favoritism for their fraternities shallow rooted class. However when we have droughts, it is the dew sipping crab grass sprinkled across my yard that spreads and gives my lawn some green while their spoiled weak pampered bluegrass goes dormant brown and sometimes dies. They also miss out on all the free color and nectar source from dandelions in the early spring.

On a more serious note, there are ways to make yards beautiful in most every bodies definition and still embrace diversity. With the recent worry about pollinators disappearing, pollinator gardens are becoming popular and besides being life preserving, can be very beautiful.