Glorious Grasses: Diversified Organic Pasture Management
“Cows were meant to move about and grass was meant to stay in place, and we have a system that does the opposite.”
– Francis Thicke, Real Organic dairy farmer
Dear Real Organic friends,
An acre of properly managed diversified organic pasture yields more nutrition for a cow than an acre of conventional corn.
This should shock you. Not only because we have spent billions of dollars breeding corn for high-yielding genetics, AND because we dump on loads of nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides, but ALSO because we burn 50 gallons of oil just to produce an acre of the stuff. Why in the heck are we creating all kinds of environmental problems to grow all of this corn when cows could be better fed on perennial organic pastures? Happier, healthier cows. Soil building fertility. Absolute insanity!
Nature’s solution to maintaining productivity, where rainfall is too low for forests to develop, is the coevolution of grasses and ruminants. Grasses evolved to grow from the base (instead of the tips) and actually increase productivity when a ruminant grazes. A bite from a cow prevents it from producing seeds and instead causes the grass to grow more leaves.
This natural system is what the best organic livestock farmers attempt to mimic, and some would even say improve on.
It takes observation, intuition, and an intimate knowledge of place. The farmer must time the ruminant's first bite at the proper pasture height, before the grass has begun to lignify (toughen on its way to developing seed), and then move the ruminant to new pasture before it takes a second bite (which would affect the ability of the grass to grow back as quickly).
After the first bite, the long roots of the grass “slough off” (die back), adding carbon captured through photosynthesis to the soil, and the lower lying legumes and forbes in the pasture take advantage of the new light while the grass roots recover. The farmer should then time the second bite (the reintroduction of the herd) perfectly: after the rapid growth that occurs once the grass rebuilds its roots, but before the grass toughens to set seed.
The outcome of this marvelous biological partnership of Diversified Organic Pasture Management is that grassland shared with well-managed livestock will build more fertility than grassland with no animals.
And It will certainly build more fertility than land that is turned over to row crops exported to feed animals elsewhere.
The real art is to match the number of livestock to the number of acres on the farm given the precipitation. When grass is abundant in the spring it might make sense to hay for winter, because the farmer shouldn’t stock more animals than the farm can support in the dry summer.
After too much rain, it might make sense to keep the animals off the land so their hooves don’t compact the soil. Ensuring each section has access to shade will allow animals to graze even on the hottest days. The farmer must also adjust the speed at which the livestock are moved based on the weather, speeding up the rotation during hot, dry spells.
Properly done, Diversified Organic Pasture Management yields more food for a ruminant than corn.
So why would we ever go through all the effort to till, plant, fertilize, cultivate, spray, harvest, and ship corn to cattle in confinement when we could simply let them graze perennial pastures instead?
The answer is politics.
Only humans can get something so simple so wrong. Someone is making a lot of money.
Of course, the money from farming corn instead of grass goes to the “Big 4”, the four largest companies that sell seed and the chemicals that go with them:
BASF. (Recent consolidation in the chemical/seed industry brought the “Big 6” down to the “Big 4).
The other “Big 4” are the meat processors that also profit from and lobby for America’s dependence on corn. They are Cargill, Tyson, JBS, and the National Beef Packing Co.
The answer always comes back to politics. Unless we change the system, we lose.
The corn farmer is paid less for the corn than the cost of production. But the farmer gets a second check, from the government to make up for this loss.
is cheaper for farmers to sell corn into the machine and then buy it back than it is to grow it for their own animals. Our tax dollars might as well go straight into the pockets of the “Big 4” seed/chemical and processing companies. Well, actually, they do.
We must do better. We must be smarter and overcome the irresponsible policies that got us into so many catastrophic environmental calamities.
Eat only what my family calls “happy meat” from intelligent farmers and better yet, educate your friends, and actively work to break one system and build another.
Yours in the dirt,
Real Organic Podcast: Fred Provenza
Fred Provenza is the author of Nourishment, the amazing book that blends years of research on nutritional wisdom in animals with his personal journey through life. Fred is a hero to the regeneration movement. His understanding of the brilliance of a grazing system guides many farmers. You can order his book from a small independent bookstore at bookshop.org here: https://bookshop.org/books/nourishment-what-animals-can-teach-us-about-rediscovering-our-nutritional-wisdom/9781603588027
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