Healthy, Organic Pasture Soil
While the Bible verse that says, “All flesh is grass,” was not referring to farmers, it has a broad application to farming, and specifically to cattle farming. Every product that you get from a cow, whether meat or milk, is wholly dependent on the quality of forage that the cow consumes. However, the food chain goes back even further than that. The quality of the forage available for your cows is directly dependent on the soil in which it grows. Therefore, paying close attention to the health and quality of your soil will pay off.
One of our Jersey cows grazes organic grass growing in organic soil.
Soil Health, Microorganisms, and Toxins
The very first link in the food chain consists of the millions of microorganisms that are working around the clock to convert manure and dead plant and animal materials into usable organic material. When these microorganisms are healthy and well nourished, your fields and pastures will contain soil that promotes plant growth. However, if toxins, like herbicides and pesticides are in the soil, the soil will not be as healthy. As a result, the grasses grown in the soil and whatever animals consume them will not be as healthy. The health of the soil has a direct impact on the quality of crops grown upon them, whether they are grass, corn, wheat, or vegetables.
For cattle farming, that link is just as important. When farmers practice good grazing management, the land continues to be a sustainable part of their business. This means that farmers who care for their soil produce high quality grasses for their cattle, and in return, their cows produce high quality milk and beef. Because healthy soils depend on organic material rather than chemical fertilizers, there is a vast difference between milk that is farmed organically and milk that is not. Organic farms build soil rather than simply adding petroleum-based fertilizers, and they avoid poisoning the water and soil with residues like Round-Up, 24D, and other harsh, chemical pesticides. They harness natural processes to improve their bottom line.
Tools for Improving Soil
When scientists discovered the three main nutrients in soil, nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, they figured that simply dumping these chemicals in the soil would increase crop yields. And, it actually worked. However, it has come at a high price. Soils that are chemically fertilized often become acidic over the years. Additionally, nearby water and ponds can become contaminated from fertilizer run-off. Last, chemical fertilizers kill microorganisms that are vital to the health of the soil.
Adding chemicals alone does nothing for building the soil. Building the soil naturally with organic materials actually adds carbon to the soil. The soil will have less compaction and will hold more water. Microorganisms in the soil will be well fed and those organisms in turn help plants grow healthier and stronger.
As you can see, soil health is not about adding chemicals. It is about meeting the physical needs of the organisms that reside in the soil. When this occurs, nature balances itself out, and healthy soil, like healthy humans rarely become sick. You can have excellent yields on your property by using natural, organic soil-building methods.
Cover Crops and Pasture Management
The active depth of most grazing land is about six inches deep. A crop cover is like the skin on our bodies. It helps to keep moisture in and bad things out. When pasture land is grazed to a barren state, the soil loses moisture and many of the beneficial organisms in the soil die, or they burrow deeper. When the plants come back in the spring, there are not as many nutrients left in the soil because the microorganisms were not there to do their jobs. This is why rotational grazing and matching the number of animals to your pastures is important.
To improve soil organically, you should harness natural processes. Using grazing animals, you can restore what is taken from the land. Cattle will return nutrients to the soil in their manure and urine. Alternately, you can also spread surplus compost on the property. Both procedures will feed the microbes that live in the dirt.
Ecosystem Health: Grasslands
Healthy grassland provides for both soil and plant health. Healthy, natural grasslands are mixtures of grasses. In their fields, farmers often sow a single type of grass. A better method of pasture management is to grow a mixture of perennial grasses. While one grass is dormant, another is thriving. Therefore, there is always something for the cattle to eat. As the cattle graze, they tend to gravitate toward their favorite, tastiest grasses.
Our organic grass pastures need no help from us, the cows do all the work.
Practicing mob grazing or rotational grazing or intensive grazing will keep them from overgrazing their favorites and allows the pastures time to recover before they are bitten down again. Additionally, rotating pastures spreads manure and urine more evenly across your land.
What is Quality?
Michael Pollan in his book Cooked points out that there is a relationship that extends all the way down the food chain. It starts with the soil and it ends with the milk and dairy products that are created using organic milk.
As a farmer, it is a mistake to focus on only the product that you produce and to measure your productivity in pounds of beef per acre or gallons of milk per cow. To an organic family farmer, quality involves so much more. Embracing each link in the food chain allows your farm to remain sustainable and still able to produce the highest grade, healthiest products. When you take the time to care for the land, the bounty that you harvest will be substantial. Additionally, you will be able to take pride in leaving the world a tiny piece of land that was improved from your stewardship.