May on the farm

May’s Glorious Growth

In May, the geese pairs have at least nested, if not hatched out nests, while asparagus, new grass, early weeds, and pasque flowers are up, assuring us that spring has arrived. The barn swallows come in hoping to be in time for the first hatch of mosquitoes and other flying insects. I get a kick out of Lop, my border collie dog, that thinks he can herd the low flying, swooping and zigging swallows away from my tilling and planting. He lays down at his chosen vantage point, and when I get close he goes streaking out after them. I wonder if the swallows pay any attention at all.

In this business one usually ends up a tractor jockey for at least a few days every May, whether it is to revitalize an old hay planting, plant some annual forages for October and November, or patch up a sacrifice pasture that the cattle tromped bad during a wet spring. Riding the tractor back and forth for me was a little repetitious, but with my old equipment there was an amazing amount of mental exercises. One thing that always amazes me is how some wildlife have adapted to our farming practices. The best was a hawk that would land right in front of my oncoming tractor, and then hop to the side at the last minute. This happened about three times before I figured out that the hawk knew there were mice nests in that area, and his bird brain was good enough to connect the tillage equipment with mice exposed trying to escape. Escaping one danger, only to blunder into the mouth of another.

But most of all I see growth. Cool season grasses and early forbs are at peak production and by the end of the month the warm season grasses are usually emerging from dormancy, bluestem, switchgrass, grama grasses, and such. The grass and forbs (plants like alfalfa, clover, and dandilions that have branching and lobed leaves) and other greenery are cranking out tons of carotene, chlorophyl, and minerals, that would infuse my beef with nutrition.

Plants have perfected a symbiotic association with microbial fungi that colonize their roots, creating mycorrhizae (my-cor-rhi-zee), literally “fungus roots,” which extend the reach of plant roots a hundred-fold. The mycorrhizae work with the microbial community in the soil, providing a symbiotic web of life. As Michael Pollan recently noted, “Some researchers believe that the alarming increase in autoimmune diseases in the West may owe to a disruption in the ancient relationship between our bodies and their ‘old friends’ — the microbial symbionts with whom we coevolved.”

I worked hard at grass farming, because if I got that right, getting the nutrition for the beef right came easier. And the natural habitat loves a healthy pasture, loves a prairie. The different plant communities participate and create homes for many in the complete web of life… bird nests, pollinator bees, soil microbes, and the cycle of life and food web all stays vigorous, right up through us human critters.

If we could just regenerate some of the native prairies original 8-10% organic matter in a human time scale! Even by regenerating just a few percent more of organic matter, we could likely double the amount of heavy rains that soil can absorb and hold for when it is needed. Maybe save some of that extra May rain in the ground for July and August. The organic matter also acts as a huge buffer, absorbing, releasing, or orchestrating the dance between plants and nutrients. In the unplowed ancient prairie, the roots would continually die back, some being sloughed off when the above ground portion couldn’t support them in the fall, or when the plants were eaten back or trampled down by the prairie buffalo and other grazers. The freezing and thawing and froth of microbial activity would lead to soil that was finer; and with all that organic matter, more friable.

And since organic matter is mostly carbon, and we want carbon banked in our soils, not cycling in our atmosphere. By returning to 8% organic matter in our prairies soils, it would take millions of tons of carbon out of the atmosphere and put it to better use under ground. It is quite possible that if we still had all the carbon in the ground that existed before man’s agriculture, there would be at least a quarter less circulating as carbon dioxide today in our atmosphere. Rebuilding our soils by using plants to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and store it in the root zone has to be central to repairing the planets carbon balance.

Many people think of earthworms as the main organic workhorse in the soil, which isn’t true, and although they provide us a worthy service, the Northern Plains got along without them for thousands of years. Actually they didn’t survive the coming and going of the ice ages in our part of the world. Earthworms only exist in the Northern Plains today because early immigrants brought them in with potted plants and the like on sailing ships, and pioneers likewise brought them west. Other soil biology, mostly microscopic, did the job just fine before the earthworm.

Earthworms however give us a handy visual reference to how alive our soil is. If there are earthworms, there is likely a fair mix of other soil biology. Earthworms typically ingest small soil and sand grains into its gizzard, which are used to grind the larger organic stuff in the soil into a fine paste for digestion. The excreted material and worm tunnels aid the other soil biology in fluffing, aerating, and fertilizing.

The application of most chemical fertilizers, sprays, and dusts have disastrous effects on soil biology including earthworms. A slug of nitrogenous fertilizer can make their home too acidic, super-phosphates are hard on soil biology, as is just the disruption due to tillage in switching land from pastures to crop farming. Originally, the grassland plants and large ruminants provide the organic matter, surface mulch, and moderate temperature and moisture that soil critters, both tiny and large favor.

“…what now remains of the formerly rich land is like the skeleton of a sick man, with all the fat and soft earth having wasted away and only the bare framework remaining. Formerly, many of the mountains were arable. The plains that were full of rich soil are now marshes. Hills that were once covered with forests and produced abundant pasture now produce only food for bees. Once the land was enriched by yearly rains, which were not lost, as they are now, by flowing from the bare land into the sea. The soil was deep, it absorbed and kept the water in the loamy soil, and the water that soaked into the hills fed springs and running streams everywhere. Now the abandoned shrines at spots where formerly there were springs attest that our description of the land is true.” —Plato, 4th century B.C.E.

One of my goals over the years has been to get a thriving population of dung beetles back on my property. The original dung beetles had been killed off by the poisons used prior to me. I figured if I could get them all back slurping up and digging through manure, changing the temperature and moisture levels while dispersing the manure pat before most of the fly maggots could hatch out, there would be fewer flies tormenting the cattle. Also, the dispersed cow dung wouldn’t kill out the grass underneath it and the fertility would move quicker back down into the soil.

The biggest health problem due to the face flies was the spread of pink eye. A bacteria attack that caused discomfort, and could eventually permanently impair vision or cause complete loss of sight. Besides decreasing the pesky flies that irritated the eyes and spread the bacteria, the other thing I did to protect the health and immune system of my cattle was to supplement mineral and sea salt, and sometimes apple cider vinegar. This strong immune system kept pink eye essentially non-existent and saved me in many other ways. Like in the winter when the weather was expected to swing back and forth from mild, to wet and cold.

The apple cider vinegar was probably better then we can buy at the health food store, and was (unpasteurized), and unfiltered. It wasn’t even diluted down to 5% acid. I bought 55-gal barrels full, with an especially biologically live mother, or the soup of brown biology in the bottom of the barrel that supplies the greatest health benefit of all. In the winter I would take a hand saw and cut a ½ plastic 55-gallon barrel in two and let them lick it off the frozen surface of the half barrel tub. If for some reason I saw some indications of stress during real miserable wet, cold, windy weather, I’d add some hot water once every few days to make it easier for them to get more if they wanted. Like with mineral and salt, I feel cattle have an instinctive sense for how much they need. Also, I got sold on the value of The Mother when the cattle licked an indentation down to the bottom of the barrel, and they took their long tongues and mined out The Mother from under the frozen cider above. Cows are tough, but a little pick-me-up tonic in tough weather never hurts.

Conventional livestock operations bank on the tough nature of cattle, and low price competition encourages them to push the limits of the cattle’s health trying to cut corners. They have a lot of silver bullet antibiotics and drugs to help save them financial ruin for the cut corners. One of the things that got pushed too far and gave the industry a black eye was the feeding back of slaughter wastes leading to Mad Cow Syndrome. This wasn’t a bacteria or a virus but what was called a prion, and the first bad scare was several years back when 210 cattle died in the UK. These prions when transmitted to humans cause what is known as Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease. Similar prions in sheep are called Scrapies, in fish Whirling Disease, and in deer Wasting Disease.

Mad Cow isn’t initially obvious, and detection goes unnoticed, and so there is a great danger of transmission to humans. On close slaughter inspection after advanced degeneration of the diseased animal, the brain and spinal cord take on a spongy appearance. The initial causative prions are thought to be rare mutations, which seem to be more likely to happen in poor environmental conditions. In sheep and beef, the disease transfer in a feedlot has been traced to feeding the diseased slaughter wastes back to healthy animals.

For the years leading up into the 1990’s it was fairly commonplace for remains of meat and bonemeal from cattle and sheep to be fed back to their own kind. The ultimate departure from what they are designed to eat. The fallout from Mad Cow caused the U.S. in 1997 to finally place regulations prohibited the feeding of meat and bone by-products to ruminants. It shakes consumer confidence knowing that food regulators knew that wastes were being fed back and didn’t put regulations into place beforehand. I think we can thank big industries muscle that tarnishes our governments oversight. It screams the message that we need to feed our livestock the food they were designed and selected to forage for.

In the case of ruminants like beef, that ideally means a diverse mix of grass and forbs (forbs are the broadleaf plants like clover, alfalfa, and dandelions.) The original grasslands were mixes often of 100 or more different plant types. Plants that rooted at different depths, emerged at different times, had different characteristics, provided different nutrition and minerals, and outside of an ice age, some in the group could adapt to whatever mix of climatic conditions came along. The mix of native prairie species are the best protection from drought and weeds, giving a mix of plants that can flourish in our widely varying climate.

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect.” –Aldo Leopold; 1948: A Sand County Almanac