One Fall day of my youth, my mom dropped me off at our vet’s clinic (Dr Pallaoro) where I got to ride along on a few weekends. Supposedly, I had mentioned being interested in being a vet when I grew up. My mother thought this was a grand idea, and had cornered Doc Pallaoro into letting me tag along, but I can’t remember having any thoughts about growing up, let alone a career. Possibly a few vague thoughts of being a farmer. Weekends were for scraping together dangerous tree forts, radical bike operation, and generally walking on the edge, as I remember it.
But at the clinic I climbed into Dr. Pallaoro’s pickup with my big sack lunch, and we spent a typical large animal vet’s morning, visiting sick cattle, sheep, and horses. The last stop that morning was to post (post-mortem) a horse that had obviously died several days earlier. Obvious because I could smell the stench before I saw it. About the time the intestines were all uncoiled and cut open and all the worms spilled out, you could cut the fumes. It was only ego and sheer will that kept what little breakfast was left down.
I was amazed by Doc Pallaoro’s unperturbed manner as he cheerfully explained the different organs, how they worked, and what we were seeing in great detail. I might have remembered some of it, if two of my senses weren’t on over load. With the case solved, we walked back to the truck and got our lunches. Sitting on a log under a nice shade tree, Doc Pallaoro sounding puzzled and amazed said: “A big GROWIN’ boy like you ISN’T HUNGRY!” I started to cement an idea of the nature of this man when we were done for the day and with a smile and twinkling eyes he hid a big open bag of manure behind his partner’s truck seat.
Our ancient ancestors developed senses that still today help warn us away from rotting and putrid things, but how about the recent scary human inventions and interventions now in our food?
It takes more time and labor to produce good healthy food without the inventions, but there are advantages. Besides producing food that is in sync with what our ancestors’ bodies adapted to, it is what plants, soil and nature on the prairie co-evolved with. Central to today’s prairie process is mob grazing, or moving cattle everyday or so, which mimics the herd-plant relationship that evolved when the buffalo roamed the prairie. Buffalo were constantly on the move. Today’s frequent moving of cattle has been streamlined with the invention of lightweight, easy to use electric fencing and modern piped livestock watering systems, but it takes extra time and the returns are mostly longer term so it is a hard sell to other ranchers.
There has been a little better success in selling something called patch burn grazing. The Nature Conservancy is primarily the one around here doing patch burn. I described this a few newsletters back, but basically the method burns a different piece of open prairie every year, which results in cattle preferring to start out grazing the flush of early grasses that spring up on the burned area, and re-grazing the continuing growth of tender young grass rather than grazing the grass mixed with old coarse thatch in other areas. So the cattle graze one area of a range hard one year, but let it rest for a few years while other areas are targeted. Not quite the graze hard one day and the buffalo herd moves on, allowing for a long rest, but much better than having it grazed long and hard every year, as is often the case in conventional ranching. Patch-burn grazing produces wildlife and diversity advantages and has become a common conservation tool on native prairie owned by the public and conservation organizations.
The annual plains states patch-burn grazing tour and conference was here in Gary at the end of September. We had tours of a couple sites where patch-burn has been ongoing including 7-Mile Fen that adjoins my property. I sold this piece of native prairie to The Nature Conservancy and they have rented it back to me the past few years. It is great for me as they do the extra work of burning off a different portion every Spring, and I get affordable extra acres of improved stock cow grazing and wildlife habitat next door. The sit down conference portion was at Buffalo Ridge, a large set of beautiful brick buildings (the old School for the Blind) transformed into the perfect place for reunions, weddings, anniversaries, and conferences. (Buffalo Ridge has a nice restaurant so come on up, have supper, pick up meat and or see my operation. Enough requests for grassfed beef and maybe I can get them to start buying!)
It was noted at the end of the conference that there is a limit on how many patches of ranchers land they can burn every Spring, because of the expensive fire control equipment and trained manpower needed. Since bigger conservation budgets aren’t likely, future expansion depends on rancher cooperatives being trained, self financed, and doing Spring burning themselves. This would be around calving and fixing fence, so will ranchers find the incentive, the time, and the money?
I don’t know what will happen, all I know is that we have to somehow rescue our grasslands. Rescue them from over grazing and more importantly, rescue them from the farm bills big safety net under commodity crops like corn and beans, intensifying the strangle hold of an industry that has grown up around corn and beans, and is resulting in our grasslands vanishing to feed the beast. The government is floating the commodity chemical complex which makes for, among other things, cheap cattle feed, and any land that can grow corn or beans becomes to expensive for anyone with inclinations to grow anything else, like grass. If the public wants the benefits of air, water, food, and wildlife friendly grasslands then they need to scream about the farm bill that politicians are currently haggling over.
We need more healthy grasslands, patch burn or mob grazed, I don’t care. Although I am partial to mob grazing as why invest money and time in patch burn when you can multiply the productivity advantages by embracing mob grazing. The trampling and much more frequent pulsing of the vegetation in mob grazing maximizes the nutrient cycling and productivity of the soil, and more productivity means more pounds of beef produced per acre. Ranchers as a whole like diversity and wildlife, and the conservationists among us early adapters are already figuring out the nuances of how to maximize wildlife habitat.
Back to the conference; the comment that I found most encouraging at the conference was that Minnesota will probably use their recently passed Legacy Tax to try and connect much of their fragmented conservation lands. Even though any amount of grass or natural prairie is valuable for wildlife, it has become clearer that large tracts of prairie are much better than many small ones. If Minnesota can enroll landowners in federal conservation easement programs or buy land to create connecting corridors that would link with existing conservation land, they can allow plants and animals to move and expand many miles without having to cross a border prickling with chemicals and cultivation.
We often think in terms of deer and pheasants that can easily cross stretches of cropland, but how about frogs, snakes, dung beetles, microbes, or native plants? Even if these corridors are only a half-mile wide in spots, having them unbroken in length for miles would be a boon to the myriad of life central to a native prairie. In our conference tour of the large Chippewa Prairie I was fascinated by the research on the movement of the hognose snakes. They found that the snakes move over a huge area and seemingly seek out different landscapes different times of the year. Also, it was noted how the plentiful pheasants all to often lay a lone egg in an established not so plentiful grouse nest. The grouse population is further diminished because the incubation time for pheasants is a few days less then grouse, and the mama grouse gives up on the rest of the eggs and takes off with the single pheasant chick. Also of note was that populations of two common prairie butterflies, the Poweshiek Skipperling and the Dakota Skipper, have crashed. More indicators of something significantly wrong.
I think that things like the Legacy Tax and The Nature Conservancy are great, especially when they keep conservation land on the tax roles, but a big chunk of financial support for grassland conservation will continue to come through hunting licenses and from hunting groups.
I work closely with an avid hunter and neighbor whose son Loren lately bragged about how he was bitten by a wild goose his dad had shot but he retrieved. It obviously wasn’t totally dead, but he was tough and boasts: “It was almost as big as I am.” He talks about his stitches from another escapade and accepts the idea when told that he is dangerous. When many kids are inside watching TV, Loren is out playing on big round hay bales, dreaming up forts, and basically living on the edge. The next time he comes over and helps me trap pocket gophers maybe we should go over to the east side of my place. I saw a dead deer over there and was wondering if one of these nice days, he and I shouldn’t take a sack lunch over and see what it died of. I could teach him about organs and muscles.
But let’s wait until it has gotten refrigerated a bit more.