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The Mini Manure Migration!

The pasture we graze clearly illustrates what happens to pasture land that is not carefully managed.

In a past era, these pastures were the main pastures of a dairy farm. I don't know many details about how that dairy farm was run, but I can tell by observing the fields that they were subjected to a very typical low stocking density with minimal or no rotation. What this means is that the cows had continuous access to the entire pasture. This is a very normal way of pasturing animals. In this system, it is assumed that the animals will take care of themselves and go find the grass they want. After all, that's what their legs are for right?

The problem is, cows, like us, don't care to walk any further then they have to for food. And, if their water source is a fixed tank near the farm center where they are milked, that means they probably won't stray far from the farm center unless they have to. Farmers also don't like to work any more then they have to (especially in the winter) and so very often they will feed all winter hay in a convenient location near the farm center. This means the land directly around the barn and farm center receives a LOT more manure application then the outer reaches of the pasture. Think about it, (Yes, I am asking you to stop and think about cow poop for a moment... just do it.) All the manure generated from the close grazing is deposited where the cows like to hang out--close to the farm. Also, all the manure generated from the grass harvested from the hey fields and fed during the winter is also deposited... close to the farm. And finally, most of the manure generated from the grazing done in the far reaches of the pasture is also deposited several hours later when the cows are back lounging near the farm center. It is in actuality a very small nutrient migration from the outer edges of the farm, in to the center. The roots of the grass pull up nutrients and minerals, are ingested by the cows, moved to the farm center, and deposited back on the ground. We call this a broken nutrient cycle.

We can see this around this farm very clearly. The ground very close to the farm center and specifically the high ground where winter feeding likely took place and where cows like to lounge (who wants to lounge in the soggy lowlands?) has lush growth. It is fairly fertile.

In contrast, the further reaches of the pastures are all scrubby and infertile. They are dominated by low fertility weeds (these weeds spring up when fertility is low and they very slowly start repairing the damage). There are also significant numbers of saplings and brush. This is evidence of long rest periods, or long periods without animal disturbance. If herds of herbivores moved through the area in large numbers and grazed very thoroughly, no sapling would be able to survive and establish itself. The young trees and brush indicate that these portions of the pasture rarely got animal disturbance in past years.

Some of these further reaches of the pasture are in extremely poor condition. When we put our animals back there we have to give them extremely large paddocks to ensure they will be able to find adequate feed. After grazing we have to let the paddocks rest for excessively long periods because whatever regrowth does occur takes much longer then it should to develop. That is because fertility is so low.

As a young farmer this is frustrating. These fields should be able to stock twice as many animals as they currently can. If our animals were on lush grass every day they would gain weight faster with better flavor and marbling. Not only would the livestock thrive, but the ground would absorb far more moisture if it was healthy which would reduce the surface water in the swampy areas and keep things lush even during dry periods. The list of environmental benefits is long. A healthy and fertile field is an incredible asset to the local community and environment. A wasting and exhausted field is not.

It is a shame that so many acres of pasture have been subjected to this kind of lack luster care and boarder-line neglect. But it isn't hopeless. With a few tools and a little knowledge and lots of interaction, we can undo this damage and rejuvenate these fields. We can bring health and fertility and abundance. We can repair broken mineral cycles and broken water cycles.

But that's enough for today. In the next post I will tell you how we do that and how you can participate. Stay tuned.

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