Keeping Farming Practices in Sync with Natural Systems Will Always Keep You in the Green
By Kimberly Hagen
Sharing is almost always a good practice. It’s just not cool to take the last cookie on the plate, or the last beer in the six-pack (especially after a day of haying) without offering to share it with others. The generosity of the gesture will often return tenfold. And that is the general rule of those systems in place outside the door of the house and the barn too. Ignore the rules of those systems and you will pay – someday, somehow, somewhere.
Far too many folks have the mindset of taking all that nature has to offer in how they manage their farm, without a thought about sharing. And then it comes back to bite them.
It’s such a simple rule, yet so difficult a concept to accept, and so absolutely necessary to keep a farm successful. So, on a practical level, what do we mean when we say farming needs to be in sync with natural systems and mindful of sharing the bounty? Here are two great examples of how and why it works to the betterment of both the farm, and the world outside the farm.
Example One: Grazing
I wish I had a nickel for every time a farmer told me the animals were staying out on the pasture until it was “all cleaned up” meaning, of course, that it was all eaten down to a uniform 2 or 3 inches. Most likely many of the plants in that pasture were munched, not just once, or twice, but three, or even more times. It’s a mindset of taking it all, because it’s what’s needed in the immediate. Instead, ideally what should happen is, the plant is grazed once, and more than half of it left remaining there on the pasture floor, the residue left to photosynthesize and feed the plant roots for it to regrow, and then slowly decompose, and add organic matter to the soil.
“But I can’t do that. It’s too expensive I have to get all the feed I can off that ground,” is what I typically hear. Overgrazing leaves the plant with no option for regrowth, but to draw on reserves in its roots, for the energy it needs to get going again. There is a cost to that and it is expensive. Once the reserves are all used up, there isn’t anything to draw from, and the plant pulls into itself and literally shrinks.
Walk into an overgrazed pasture and you find miniature versions of plants, and not much available for a mouthful. With consistent over-grazing, the bounce back and regrowth become more and more feeble, turning the pasture into nothing more than a holding pen or exercise yard. The animals find a nibble here and there, but for all practical purposes, the pasture is not a viable functioning food source and continues to decline. Even worse, the soil becomes a compacted, impermeable piece of adobe hardpan, directing all rain and nutrients elsewhere, starving the plants on top of overgrazing them. The costs grow exponentially, to the soil, the water, the air, the animal health, the financial health and the whole farm and its community. And the expense to renovate grows exponentially as well.
The greater the natural fertility in your soil, the longer you can continue with this disregard for the natural systems on your farm, but eventually the plants will give up and, lacking the energy or reserves to replenish, remain stunted in their growth. Eventually the only viable grazing period is May and June, the first flush of the year. You could bring in purchased feed – for a price. Or pasture can be rented at another farm – for a price. Plus the inconvenience of transporting the animals either by walking, or trucking them.
Pushing to the edge and taking all there is, will only leave less and less for the farm’s future wealth. With incremental additions, i.e., leaving plenty of residue for feeding the plant and the soil, the general health and wealth of the farm grows too, with soil that can feed the forage, and forage that can feed the livestock, and livestock that can feed us. Farm management really is all about sharing – taking only just enough to keep the farm healthy and productive, and leaving the rest for replenishing the systems that supply the farm. But it also means feeding – which is a form of giving back or sharing the nutrients. Like all living things, soil and plants need food if they are to grow. Animals can provide these nutrients in the form of their manure when they graze in the pastures, but they can also provide this manure to hayfields, if those are worked into the grazing management system, to be grazed at some point after a hay crop has been removed.
In nature, everything strives for equilibrium, so that within an ecosystem, somebody’s junk is treasure for another – the waste product from one species is the food of another, and everyone shares. When something moves out of balance, a correctional shift will evolve. Here in the northeast, we need only think of the inter-related boom and bust cycles of pine cones, squirrels and coyotes. The pines have a boom production in cone production, and in the following year, the squirrel population explodes with the plentiful supply of good food. The year after that, the coyote population explodes with the plentiful supply of a furry hot breakfast every day. And all of the scat and urine dropped on the ground feeds the roots of the pine trees. There’s a lot of sharing going on as the system fluctuates, stretches out, and pulls back in to keep it healthy and functioning.
All of this requires lots and lots of observation, and getting to know your farm’s ecosystem in the deepest sense, from the soil and microbes therein, to the animals and their yields in terms of milk production, or pounds of weight, and what it takes from the farm to get that yield. The rules are the same, but because the variables of soil, temperature, water supply, etc. can be so radically different, every farmer really must find his/her own way and every farm will be different.
Example Two: Internal Parasites
They aren’t going away. In the world of small ruminants, internal parasites tend to play a role larger than the Abominable Snowman or even the Cookie Monster. After several decades of rigorous, full-on attack with chemical dewormers, we are back to square one, or even further back in some cases, since many animals now have little, if any, resistance, and our pockets are empty. It’s been an expensive effort.
The first step in this issue is to admit the internal parasites are here to stay. Eradication through chemical dewormers is not going to happen. We can’t beat the natural ecological systems, and as in the case with grazing, working with the natural systems might get us ahead. So how does this look on a practical level? Good management practices.
At one time these animals were always on the move, and early shepherds kept a nomadic existence, following their food and fiber on the hoof. By confining them to the same ground/pasture, we’ve brought on these parasite issues and the animals can’t get away from them. Instead we should move them – they need intensive rotational grazing since the larval stage of these internal parasites live in the water droplets close to the ground – so moving the animals once they have grazed the top few inches, keeps them from the likelihood of ingesting these larvae.
Ruminants also need forage variety, and not a monoculture pasture. Different plants have a variety of nutrients and minerals. When these animals had a nomadic existence, they nibbled on all kinds of green living tissue, acquiring what they needed through the different plants. Some of these plants contain substances that are toxic and naturally repel these internal parasites – most noticeably higher levels of tannins. By giving the grazing animal periodic access to plants that have these high levels of tannins, research has shown that these parasites tend to not stick around and exit fairly quickly – right out the back end.
Spending hours and hours running mechanical equipment, and using fuel to eradicate pastures of “undesirable” forage species, makes very little sense – nutritionally, economically or for the environment. By taking the time to observe the interactions of the plants and animals on your farm, and the response of the local environment to them, and then changing management practices to work within and/or complementary to those systems, everything comes out ahead. The farmer spends less time “in battle” using fuel and labor to beat “back the jungle” that will most likely reappear as it wants, the animals graze and balance out the plants’ needs for being pruned for healthy regrowth, and the animals acquire the nutrients and energy they need to grow and produce.
So, make a plan of action. For example, schedule a time – perhaps one or two mornings a week – when you visit the pasture with your animals, or walk your fields, hedgerows and woods and really spend the time to observe. What do the animals eat, and how do they eat? Do they take one bite and move on, or do they stay in one place and eat everything around them? Do they concentrate on one plant species, or nibble a mixture? What plants are growing on your farm? What keeps coming back and seems to like it there? Is there a good mixture of plants in your pasture? How do the plants respond to being grazed? Is that response different in the early part of the season versus mid-season or late in the season? What insects are flying around or scuttling along in the forage? Do their numbers change with the grazing regimen?
You get the idea, pay attention to what systems are already in place and working on your farm, and work with them the best you can. It is probably the wisest investment you can make.
Kimberly Hagen is the Grazing Outreach Specialist at UVM Extension. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.