Spring on the Farm: Old Dirt, New Ideas

Spring on the Farm: Old Dirt, New Ideas

It’s my favorite time of year here on the farm. Deep in the South, it has been a gray, dreary, wet winter but these warm, sunny days promise Spring is approaching fast. And do you know what that means??? BABIES! Calves, bunnies, chicks, you name it! I love Spring and the new life it brings! But this particular Spring is also proving to be an exciting one due to some new ideas we are wanting to employ. We have spent the winter months in study, researching more efficient, organic ways to improve the overall health of the farm. I’ll give you a little history of our area in order to tell you why I believe these new methods will completely transform our little slice of heaven.

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One of many Black Angus calves here on the farm

Historically, our community’s founding (along with the surrounding townships) was based on agriculture. Farmers planted sugarcane, soybeans, and milo. They also built levees and flooded the fields for rice. These crops did well until the price of rice and grains hit rock bottom and most farms went belly up. Many farmers then turned to cattle and hay as a source of income and a way to put there machinery and acres to good use. While there are still some farmers producing rice, sugarcane, soybeans, and such throughout the state, many in our area have stuck with cattle. One of the many reasons include beef prices reaching an all-time high. But constant tilling, planting, and harvesting of monocrops followed by constant livestock grazing has taken its toll on the soil, even such fertile soil as we have here in the Delta.

Like most things in the natural world, if one thing becomes out of balance, a domino effect occurs. But if you don’t realize that something is unbalanced you can’t really set it right, can you? And I believe that many (including myself until very recently) don’t think that anything is really unbalanced. Spending hours upon hours to plow, seed, fertilize, hay, and burn fields is just part of the deal. That spending thousands annually on tons of seed and thousands more on 18-wheeler loads of fertilizer is how it has always been done and so is how it will always be. No wonder the amount of farms nationally have dropped off and the average age of farmers in American is in the 60s. Who could jump into a career where the startup costs are through the roof and the profits marginally above poverty level? Who would want to? There has to be a smarter way. These questions are what lead us to the philosophies and practices implemented by Joel Salatin of PolyFace Farms. After stumbling upon some videos of Joel and his farm, our curiosity was really piqued and we begin to read anything he wrote that we could get our hands on. This is when we realized that no matter how great our breeding program, no matter how awesome the hay was that we bought and feed our livestock, if we had crappy soil our farm would never be able to perform at its full potential.

***Most of the links go to short YouTube videos, many by Cathy Raymond, where Joel goes into depth about each topic***

Problem area (soil compaction) in one of our pastures

This is when we realized that we had an unbalance. This is when it just clicked. No matter the livestock, no matter the crop, no matter the weather, EVERYTHING boils down to soil quality. Good soil -> better water absorbance/less flooding or runoff -> stronger, healthier, diverse forage -> less days livestock relies on hay -> less mineral supplements need to be provided -> you get the idea.

We need to be in forage business and quality grass fed beef will become a profitable byproduct. So how do you immediately begin to combat poor soil quality with little investment? One of the many answers and the one I’m going to address in this post: Rotational Grazing.

I won’t get too technical but rather give you the Reader’s Digest version. For all details check out “Salad Bar Beef”by Joel Salatin. Essentially you will section your pastures into numerous paddocks, condensing your herd down onto one of said paddocks, sectioned off with easily movable electric fence. Your paddocks need to be big enough for them to forage on for 24 hours. Not too big because you want them to eat all the vegetation down, not just the tender greens, and not too small because you don’t want to them to run out of forage and start losing weight due to stress and their high metabolism. After 24 hours, leap frog a strand of wire over to the adjacent ungrazed section (creating your next paddock), open up an area to allow the cows in (they will be more than willing to go), and let them graze for the next 24 hours. That takes about 20 minutes.

Eggmobile (Image courtesy Wikipedia via PolyFace Farms)

Within 2-4 days, bring in the chickens via mobile coup, roughly one hen per cow. These little honeys are multipurpose work horses. The reason for this time frame is 1.) After a day the cow patties have had time to dry some and attract bugs and 2.) The fly egg hatching cycle is about 4 days and you want to catch the larvae before they sprout wings. The chickens will scatter the cow patties, (evenly distributing your “fertilizer”), while getting to the bugs and flies exposed by the grazing (drastically reducing pest issues), aerate the soil by scratching, and adding their own nitrogen-rich manure/fertilizer to the soil. As an added bonus, you now have all the yard eggs you could want! SCORE!

Multicolored yard eggs. Aren’t they pretty?

By allowing paddocks to rest between grazes you are allowing the now twice fertilized grasses to utilize the nutrients and rebound. You are also allowing the sun to sterilize the ground and organic matter that was added to your soil before you reintroduce the herd again. This method not only builds topsoil but promotes vegetation variety which in turn helps the soil absorb water efficiently and combats soil compaction. Another added bonus of moving your cows everyday is they get accustomed to you and therefore less skittish and easier to work when the time comes. By simply adjusting the way we utilize what we already have before us (cows, chickens, electric fence) we can begin to heal the soil, add diversity, and enrich the livestock; all without pesticides, herbicides, manufactured supplements, or asking the animals to perform outside of their natural instincts. The improvement of the pastures not only benefit the livestock but the wildlife as well. Native wildflowers, songbirds, and bees ushered in by spring will all greatly prosper.

Wild cottontails bunnies found in the yard. It doesn’t get much sweeter than that!

Tell me what you think. Did this get you thinking? While this is only one of many practices we plan on implementing, do you have any sustainable ideas? I would love to hear from you!

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