I wanted to get this entry up pretty quickly, because I don’t want to look like I am poo-pooing organic 🙂 These next few chapters have given me a ton of new books to read.
As a total aside: today my youngest (my daughter) turns 3. I am feeling depressed and old. So ancient am I… now 26 years old, lol. Still, I can’t believe she’s already 3! Time is going by so fast.
Back to the book:
To contrast “Big Organic”, Pollan goes and visits Joel Salatin, a man who calls himself a “grass farmer.”Â His farm is called Polyface, and on it he has an amazing ecosystem where almost no outside inputs are required.Â He and his father took a piece of land that was completely ruined by traditional farming, and now he has turned it into an amazingly efficient and beautiful piece of land.
Grass farmers grow animals–for meat, eggs, milk, and wool– but regard them as part of a food chain in which grass in the keystone species, the nexus between the solar energy that powers every food chain and the animals we eat…Â One of the principles of modern grass farming is that to the greatest extent possible farmers should rely on the contemporary energy of the sun, as captured every day by photosynthesis, instead of the fossilized sun energy contained in petroleum.
Its so simple, but such a revolutionary idea.Â I am currently trying to figure out if there are any farmers like this in Colorado.Â If there are, I’d love to do some kind of work share or something.Â Wouldn’t that be sweet?
Pollan then goes into a fair amount of detail about grass and the “management-intensive grazing” that grass farmers use.Â Basically they use fences and portable structures to move the animals in a way that best imitates nature.Â It is a very precise science.Â For example, after a cow eats grass, the grass goes through a time of very fast growth.Â During this time, it is drawing on all of its energy reserves.Â If it is eaten at this time, it will get weak and eventually die.Â Many traditional ranchers allow cows to stay in the same area, which means that the more delicious grasses (who knew?) and ground covers like clover will die.Â If you wait too long between allowing the cows to eat the grass, then it becomes too woody and less palatable.
One reason that this kind of farming is hard to convince people to try is because it takes a lot of knowledge.Â The farmer must know which animal has been in each area, how long it has been, the time the paddock needs to recover, and all of this depends on rainfall amounts, the available sunlight, temperatures, time of year, and a million other variables.Â It can’t be industrialized because it is a living unit.
The productivity of a pasture is measured by “cow days”: a unit that measures how much a cow can eat in a day.
As destructive as overgrazing can be to a pasture, undergrazing can be almost as damaging, since it leads to woody, senescent grasses and a loss of productivity.Â But getting it right–grazing the optimal number of cattle at the optimal moment to exploit the blaze of growth–yields tremendous amounts of grass, all while improving the quality of the land.Â Joel calls this optimal rhythm “pulsing the pastures” and says that at Polyface it has boosted the number of cow days to as much as four hundred per acre; the county average is seventy.Â “In effect we’ve bought a whole new farm for the price of some portable fencing and a lot of management.”
Isn’t that tremendous?Â The land is so much more efficient, and yet big business CAN’T do it.Â Its not a big business kind of system.
After this discussion of grass, Pollan goes out to help Joel “move the cows” to their new piece of land.Â The idea behind moving the cows is that this is exactly what happens in nature.Â A predator would come after the herd, and the herd would then flee to new land.Â When they got there, they would eat all that they could, and then they’d soon be chased to a new area.
These intense but brief stays completely change the animal’s interaction with the grass and the soil.Â They eat down just about everything in the paddock, and then they move on, giving the grasses a chance to recover.Â Native grasses evolve to thrive under precisely such grazing patterns; indeed, they depend on them for their reproductive success.Â Not only do ruminants spread and fertilize seed with their manure, but their hoof prints create shady little pockets of exposed soil where water collects–ideal conditions for germinating a grass seed.Â And in brittle lands during the driest summer months, when microbial life in the soil all but stops, the rumen of the animals takes over the soil’s nutrient-cycling role, breaking down dry plant matter into basic nutrients and organic matter, which the animals then spread in their urine and manure.
Hmm, I guess God knew what he was doingÂ 😉
The moment arrived.Â Looking more like a maitre d’ than a rancher, Joel opened the gate between the two paddocks, removed his straw hat, and swept it grandly in the direction of the fresh salad bar, and called his cows to dinner.Â After a moment of bovine hesitation, the cows began to move, first singly, then two by two, and then all eighty of them sauntered into the new pasture, brushing past us as they looked about intently for their favorite grasses.Â The animals fanned out in the new paddock and lowered their great heads, and the evening air filled with the muffled sounds of smacking lips, tearing grass, and the low snuffing of contented cows.
The last time I had stood watching a herd of cattle eat their supper I was standing up to my ankles in cow manure in Poky Feeders pen number 43 in Garden City, Kansas.Â The difference between these two bovine dining scenes could not have been starker.Â The single most obvious difference was that these cows were harvesting their own feed instead of waiting for a dump truck to deliver a total mixed ration of corn that had been grown hundreds of miles away and then blended by animal nutritionists with urea, antibiotics, minerals, and the fat of other cattle in a feedlot laboratory.Â Here we’d brought the cattle to the food rather than the other way around, and at the end of their meal there’d be nothing left for us to clean up, since the cattle would spread their waste exactly where it would do the most good.
Isn’t that so cool?Â What a contrast.Â Which cows would you rather eat?Â (Assuming you’re the cow-eating type.)Â 😉
Those blades of grass have spent this long June day turning sunlight into sugars.Â (The reason Joel moves his cattle at the end of the day is because that’s when sugar levels in the grass hit their peak; overnight the plant will gradually use up these reserves.)Â To feed the photosynthetic process the grass’s roots have drawn water and minerals up from deep in the soil (some grasses can sink their roots as much as six feet down), minerals that soon will become part of this cow.Â Chances are Budger has also chosen exactly which grasses to eat first, depending on whatever minerals her body craves that day; some species supply her more magnesium, others more potassium.Â (If she’s feeling ill she might go for the plantain, a forb whose leaves contain antibiotic compounds; grazing cattle instinctively use the diversity of the salad bar to medicate themselves.)Â By contrast 534, who never got to pick and choose his dinner, let alone his medications, depends on animal nutritionists to design his total ration–which of course is only as total as the current state of knowledge in animal science permits.
Its so amazing.Â He goes into a TON more details, but I’m going to jump forward to a few more points so that this doesn’t become another infinitely long post.
…Grassing over the portion fo the world’s cropland now being used to grow grain to feed ruminants would offset fossil fuel emissions appreciably.Â For example, if the sixteen million acres now being used to grow corn to feed cows in the United States became well-managed pasture, that would remove fourteen billion pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year, the equivalent of taking four million cqars off the road.Â We seldom focus on farming’s role in global warming, but as much as a third of all the greenhouse gases that human activity has added to the atmosphere can be attributed to the saw and the plow.
I want to go change the world now…. if only I could convince even my family that the price that they pay for cheap beef and chicken is actually much higher than they realize.Â That 99 cent a pound roaster doesn’t take into account the cost of the fossil fuels that are being used, the pollution being put into our water, air, and soils, the inferior product that is going into our bodies which raises the cost of health care, of the cost of the sheer misery of the animals.Â We are a society that values a low “bottom line”, but we are selling ourselves short.
I’m going to make a new entry for the next chapterÂ 🙂
This is great stuff! There’s so much to discuss, I could leave comments as long as your entries ;0)
The great news is that there are a lot of small farms using principles similar to Polyface. I found one near us that has been using a rotating paddock system for over 15 years. It’s a great story – it was a “traditional” dairy farm facing foreclosure, the cows jumped their fence and started grazing on a field that was uncut and unfertilized, the next day their milk production was significantly higher and the rest is history. Now they operate a small store that is allegedly so packed on the weekend you have to form a line outside. Obviously, there is a demand for real whole foods. We might pay a little more for the milk, but our daughters actually drink less of it because the cream in it is so filling (at least that’s my theory!)
The trick is finding these farms, especially if you move around a lot like we do. By talking to neighbors (and cashiers at Walmart) we have found a mennonite family that raises chickens, a goat farm and the dairy farm I mentioned above. There are also some great websites (eatwild.com and realmilk.com to name two) that have directories – but the directories are not always comprehensive. So it’s always good to ask around (or drive around!)
Thanks Amanda, for going into such detail. I fell in love with Pollan during an interview he did with NPR. He and I share similar theories on the evils of corn. I just haven’t had a chance to read his book yet. (My TBR pile is ENORMOUS, but I think I’ll move this one to the top!)
That’s such a cool story!
I was about to make a new post on eatwild.com and localharvest.com! I love them. I found our first CSA a few years ago through local harvest, and it was a wonderful experience. There are a ton of CSAs plus there are many cattle ranches that offer grassfed beef and rotate the pastures with chickens like Polyface. Although I don’t eat meat, my husband does quite regularly, and my son enjoys chicken, but no other meat. My daughter eats meats only occasionally. I think I may try one of those farms for chicken next summer, but obviously now is not the time to buy chicken 😉
And I hear ya’ about the TBR pile. Mine is ridiculous. I just bought 4 more huge bookshelves and made 2 rooms into libraries at our new house and I still have books in boxes. I think I’m an addict.
Its been great to read everyone’s comments! Usually everyone just lurks around here, lol. I had actually avoided this topic because I thought it might spook people out, but I guess I misjudged everyone. 😉