Saturday, December 15, 2012

Rotational grazing

One of the things that truly defines what I consider to be sustainable agriculture is the importance of grass and pasture-based farming. 

To put things in perspective, all farming was grass/pasture-based before the 1940's for the previous 15 or 16 thousand years more or less. Its only during the past 70 years that we define 'conventional' as anything other than animals on grass. So the next time you hear someone talking about 'radical' grass farmers, you should raise an eyebrow or two.

What is all the fuss about? That is such a huge question with such important answers, but let me try and break it down into its major points for you:

1. Ruminants are animals with rumens, a very important evolutionary adaption that allows them to ferment large quantities of nutrient-poor grass, to extract the nutrients within.

Why is this so important? So glad you asked!

Firstly, the rumen allows for the literal translation of sunlight, a free natural resource, into a nutrient dense product like meat. So most grass-based farmers, understanding this, will sometimes refer to themselves as 'grass farmers'. In the end, without good grass, we would all suffer.

2. Grass-based meats have been shown to have a beneficial ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids that rival the beneficial ratios seen in fish oils. Omega-3's are good for human health, while the 6's are not.

Interestingly, when you move ruminant animals from a grass-based diet to corn, that beneficial ratio inverts into a predominance of omega-6 fatty acids, which are linked to heart attack, arteriosclerosis, and stroke.

If you're buying fish oils for their health benefits, just start eating grass-fed meats and skip the fish breath.

3. When you feed corn-based diets to ruminants, there a not very subtle change from 'healthy', non-pathogenic bacteria to some of the most dangerous bacteria ever found on this planet like E. coli O157:H7. These bacteria thrive on the 'sugar rush' of high-glycemic feeds like corn and the resulting acidification of the rumen, which is not its normal state.

So, when investigators looked to the origins of an outbreak of E. coli sickness in spinach from California a few years back, they discovered the coliform contaminants had originated in the water-filled ditches used to irrigate the spinach fields. More regulation and harassment of these organic farmers ensued in the name of public health. 

In reality, all these spinach farmers did was have the misfortune of being downstream from a CAFO, the real public health menace. Thanks to the marvels of serotyping and such, we can locate the source of these pathogenic E. coli, and in this case, a CAFO (confinement feedlot operation) right up the road was found to be the source.

CAFO - sad isn't it?

[NB: Interestingly, when you take cattle from these feedlot operations and test their rumens, they are very acidic and full of dangerous, pathogenic bacteria. Remove them from this very unnatural and inhumane environment and put them back on grass, and their colonic bacteria go back to a normal, healthy flora without pathogenic organisms.]

So, my long-winded point is that grass is also a public health issue and people die every year because of these feedlot operations.

4. Permanent pastures sequester huge amounts of CO2, fix large amounts of nitrogen into the soil, build organic matter, and keep sediment and run-off out of our rivers and streams.

Don't take those headlines you hear about gassy ruminants contributing significantly to CO2 emissions. The CO2-fixing properties of permanent pasture, far outweigh any CO2 production produced by farty, belchy ruminants.

5. By switching from a corn-based agricultural system to a pasture-based system, we would keep billions of tons of fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides out of our environment.

We are literally poisoning our environment every year and paying very dearly for it! Chemicals like Roundup have been found to be aerosolized in high concentrations in many farming communities, miles from the farms they are being sprayed on. These chemicals have been associated with end-organ injury and other health issues, and the safety testing used to allow them have been shown to be completely inadequate (check out one of my earlier blog posts)

6. Pasture-based farming is more efficient. 

Instead of:

a. raising corn (think spraying, fertilizing, harvesting, handling, and transporting long distances), 

b. then creating feedlots with all their infrastructure and machinery required to house, feed, clean and transport the animals, 

c. then hauling/handling the by-products - huge amounts of feces and urine in a highly toxic sludge that is stored in huge toxic lagoons and needs to be spread in some fashion onto dry land. 

Often, these lagoons are so concentrated, that their products will 'burn' pasture and kill all living, healthy organisms in the soil. Soil is a living thing and a good soil microbial environment is a very important and fragile system. These lagoons present huge public and environmental health risks.

The alternative is to simply put the animals out onto grass - the animals have legs and can move themselves without assistance, they eat the grass and spread their manure in small amounts evenly over the pasture, where it is broken down gradually and naturally by the effects of sun, wind, rain and soil organisms. 

Easy. simple. healthy.

And who doesn't love the look of cattle and sheep grazing on a grassy, green backdrop? Don't see a lot of people looking to buy land with an appealing view of feedlot operations, do you?.

So tell me more about rotational grazing? Well, since you it is!

By using intensive rotational grazing, what we do is mimic the pattern of natural grazers, like bison, where they would move along as a herd, eating down the grass in huge swathes across the landscape.

By mimicking this pattern, we're working with a pattern of nature that has existed between ruminants and grass for millions of years.

When a grazer eats down the top of a plant, there is a natural die-back of a portion of the root system, which builds organic matter in the soil. This is how the soil of our Great Plains was created, with the deposition of 20 or 30 feet of deep, rich loam over thousands of years.

Once the tops have been 'clipped', the animals move on and the plant regenerates through side-shoots that helps to increase the density of cover plants. This is how the concept of improving your suburban lawn works through repeated mowings to create a lush-thick grass.

This is a dance that has existed for thousands of years and is a miracle unto itself - the sun feeds the grass, which feeds the ruminants, which feeds us. The whole while building organic matter in the soil and fixing nitrogen and absorbing CO2 from the air. Perfection and completely sustainable!

In order to mimic this pattern, we use a very handy set of tools including push-in stakes, polywire on a reel, and a electric charger. Most of our chargers are solar with a small battery attached for keeping the fence electrified at night. 

These tools allow the farmer to create small 'paddocks' for grazing across the property. This technique has been shown to actually increase the volume of forage from a given acreage of land and actually improve the pasture at the same time! Amazing!


  1. how is crowding animals onto a pasture any different than crowding animals onto a feed lot? The only difference I see is that animals on pasture are forced to find their own food where as the feed lot stock are waited on hand and foot.......

  2. The difference is that in a CAFO, the animals are crowded into a paddock and then left there. The grass dies and the environment becomes very unsanitary. With rotational grazing, the process replicates how they move in nature, moving to a new area, eating down that grass, then moving on to the next area. This actually IMPROVES pasture, building organic matter in the soil and increasing the thickness of the grass.

    Also, in a CAFO, the animals are mostly fed concentrated feed like grain, which is not a natural part of their diet and promotes the proliferation of pathogenic bacteria, like hemorrhagic E. coli. It also creates vast amounts of fecal matter and urine that is more than the land can bear. It has to be kept in lagoons and its a major environmental and health concern.

    Did you even read my post? To say that the animals are 'waited on' is a ridiculous thing to say.

  3. I'm so thankful for your blog! Keep up the great work -nik.

  4. Do you have any specific fence chargers that you've liked better than others? We've got about 6 acres of pasture that we want to subdivide and use for rotational grazing.

  5. Hi Peter, We use mostly solar charges from kencove (we like to buy local as much as possible and kencove is close) but generally, plug in chargers are less expensive and give better volatge for your dollar.

    When we have access to a plug, we use the plug-in models preferentially.

    The do tend to break, get shorted out by lightening, etc. I can't tell you how annoyed I get when they just stop working.

    They have no moving parts and should last forever, but most things nowadays are not built to last.

    So in general, we keep an eye out for used chargers (ebay,craigslist) and focus on getting a good price.