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Drought proofing your farm

July 10, 2010

We’re working in the hayfield today, but wanted to share this video taken at Salatin’s Virginia farm during a recent  late June tour.

His county is experiencing a drought, but listen to his words and statistics and just look around at his grass – it proves that a change in management techniques can yield wonders.  Most farmers in his area still utilizing continuous grazing techniques are out of grass and are buying hay.

I had read about the grass at Polyface and the difference they saw after implementing MiG, but until I visited the farm 10 years ago, they were just words on a page.  After driving through Augusta County in Virginia during a drought in August 1999 and seeing the endless brown fields and then seeing firsthand that at Polyface that the fields were still green and prosperous those words on the page became memories etched in my mind.  Polyface looked like an oasis compared to the dried up pastures we had just driven by.

It’s a long video but don’t be tempted to skip through it, the carbon sequestration possibilities are astounding!  If there was ever a reason to wean yourself off of continuous, free range grazing this it.  A plant that has deep roots can reach down to available soil moisture, and plant that has short roots cannot.  Remember that roots are a mirror image of the top growth – short grass= short roots, tall grass = deep roots.  It isn’t rain that will save a pasture, it is good management.  And no one says it better the Joel – thanks Joel!

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. July 10, 2010 10:40 am

    I enjoyed his video. My husband’s hat looks like his but he has duct tape holding it together. I had to laugh. I think you can tell a lot about a person from their sun hat.

  2. July 10, 2010 10:41 am

    Fascinating stuff. I’ve read a lot about Joel Salatin and Polyface Farm, and it was nice to hear him talk about something that’s obviously near and dear to his heart.

    And I agree with his philosophy about the Jeffersonian, intellectual agrarian and putting the best and the brightest to work on our food supply.

    But the carbon sequestering quote! Wow! That was some figure!

    • July 10, 2010 9:26 pm

      Paula, if you ever get a chance to hear him speak – do – he is more than a rumpled looking farmer.

  3. July 10, 2010 11:57 am

    Great video. He brings forth some good points. We have been rotating our cows reguraly, it is SO easy with the electic fencing we have. Takes us about 15-20 minutes. The cows love it and so do we. Love having cows, they really complete our farm and now my absolute favorite farm animal. Some day I look forward to having a milk cow too. Can’t wait to show John the video you posted. THANKS!!

    • July 10, 2010 9:30 pm

      Kim, I’m with you on cows being the favorite farm animal, and they are so easy to handle. Good to hear from you – hope you guys are having a great summer!

  4. July 10, 2010 1:03 pm

    I’ve been trying to implement something similar in my gardens, planting deep rooted plants among my others plants. It also adds a nice layer of mulch in the fall when the leaves die back.

    I’ll keep reading & implements more and more permaculture ideas into my garden, even though it’s only a quarter of an acre. I figure by the time I get it just right I’ll move to a bigger plot of land and I should be an expert by then 🙂

    • July 10, 2010 9:32 pm

      Susy, sounds like a plan to me! I am always amazed by how we change just a few things and get great results in our gardens.

  5. July 10, 2010 3:26 pm

    How big would you say that pasture is behind him, and how many cows in it?

    I’m guessing 5 to 7 acres, and 20 cows.

    that’s a lot bigger area and a lot fewer cows than i would have visualized for an MIG system.

    • July 10, 2010 9:57 pm

      Bruce, it is the field right behind the house and sales building, it looks like he has about 3 acres portioned off and maybe 50 – 75 cows on that. You can see to the left, the neighbor’s pasture with horses and cattle in the creek and on short grass. Count the fence posts which are probably 10- 12 feet apart. These may be cows he has left at home to rotate through the broiler pasture or in front of the feathernet, which would require a lower stocking density in order to save some forage for the birds. He is grazing about 400 or more stockers per mob and goes from rental property to rental property with them which takes from spring green-up to early winter. He’s probably getting at least 100 days rest per pasture.

      This video was interesting to me, since I had just seen pictures that a farmer in the same town posted on a message board. Their take on their lack of pasture, and I mean NO pasture, (it was baked to a crisp) is that the lack of rain is the cause. But their animals have access year-round to their pastures. The grass never gets a chance to get out of the ground. Rain may help a little, but rest and timed grazing would yield much more. I didn’t want to compare our pasture with someone’s pasture in Virginia because as you know we definitely aren’t in a drought situation here. The paddock I moved my 20 head to tonight, measured approximately 5800 square feet. When I move to into sparser grass the paddocks will have to be larger.

      Here’s another link showing the Polyface feeder mob last summer:

  6. July 10, 2010 4:53 pm

    We do the same with the horses. We always use electric to switch from one pasture to the other.

  7. July 11, 2010 1:25 am

    I attended a lecture by Joel Salatin earlier this year and listened carefully to what he said. I wrote that up on my blog ( http://ebeyfarm.blogspot.com/2010/04/joel-salatin-speaking-in-seattle.html ), but there were a couple of things he said about his property that apply to this discussion in particular:

    1) when he was a kid there wasn’t enough soil to drive posts for electric fence. that the soil was thin enough on top of the rock that they had to pour concrete in tires and stick the post in there, and that he had many memories of rolling these tires out. Now, later in life, he has 12-18″ of soil in those areas he remembers as bare rock.

    2) that he regularly buys tractor-trailer loads of wood chips and pays tree service guys $10/load to bring wood chips to his farm. He related a story of a wood chip supplier that wouldnt’ sell to him because he disagreed with Joels philosphy. He also uses other inputs from off-farm to improve his soil.

    If you apply hundreds or thousands of tons (my guess here, but within reason) to any acreage you’ll eventually have deeper topsoil and more water retention. People do this all the time in landscaping, bringing in topsoil or mulch.

    What I wondered when he talked about this is what the effect would be if every farm in his area did the same things. There’s only so much organic matter, and there are costs to putting down any material, and the price of that material rises as the demand does.

    Lots of folks seem to assume, looking at his results, that he’s doing it in some sort of contained system. “If only i graze my cattle in the same way, I’ll get the same results”, which isn’t really what happened there. Put down 12 to 18 inches of composted topsoil on top of your existing farm and grow grass on that, and rotantionally graze it, and you’ll get results similar to Joels.

    …and it might take you 40 years to accomplish that, which is a longer timeframe than most people are used to thinking in. Even mortgages are only 30 years.

    I’m doing something similar on my farm, albeit not paying the tree service guys for the chips, just providing a free dump. I get 150-200 yards of wood chips a week which i compost and use as soil amendments and bedding. If every farm in my area did the same thing I wouldn’t get any useful quantities, which is what I think would happen if Joels pasture buildup were widely followed.

    There’s no free lunch. In order to get his results, in my opinion, you’ve got to do the full treatment, not just the grazing component.

    • July 11, 2010 5:45 am

      I think only people who don’t understand the complete symbiotic farm relationship would assume that Joel operates a closed system. I know many people think that he does, they also think that he pastures every species all the time, which is what people always assume, and Joel never says in person, or in writing. His operation is laid bare for everyone to see, what they choose to see is their problem if they don’t look and listen carefully or to their benefit if they pay attention. I have never heard Joel ever say that you will get quick results from biological farming, in fact his mantra is that there are no short cuts.

      As for your assertion that people expect quick results, I am sure that is true, but rarely ever works. Joel can’t touch on the finer points of their composting process in the quick 3 hour talks he gives, but nothing is wasted, and compost or manure is not applied in winter when the soil cannot utilize the nutrients. The livestock in kept in on deep bedding to capture all the available nutrients. Most people can’t be bothered, they fall for the anthropomorphic idea of free range all year round, and it is hard work to manage. Most people go for the convenient. He also is not shy about saying the biggest input they buy in is grain for the poultry which in then in turn becomes eggs or broilers to sell and tons of manure to applied to the pastures where the birds are during the growing season.

      I agree, there is no free lunch, and I would hope no one reading this would think that if they just start rotationally grazing their stock that they would yield Joel’s results – he always says that his father started that 50+ years ago, Joel is just refining what his father and mother started. I was saddened when I saw pictures of the nearby farm suffering from the dry weather, it doesn’t have to be so, but as with farmers I know, they would rather keep doing the same old practices that yield less and less and choose to blame the weather, the market or whatever, than they would actually think about changing what they do in regards to their land. It’s much easier to push succession backwards than it is to go forward. Especially when the land has continuous disturbance and no rest period from livestock. Any farm with livestock and the land base to keep the livestock would see results in one grazing season if they would just practice the pulsing of rotational grazing. But that requires holding the stock back, keeping the stock off the ground at sensitive times, seeing to their needs and that of the land, and thinking a different way. It won’t win them prizes for the biggest story at the coffee house however, misery loves company. I don’t know if you read the Stockman Grass Farmer magazine or not, but Joel penned a great article a few months ago about the local sale barn, and the high school clique mentality that surrounds buying and selling there. They no longer buy from the sale barn…

      I really don’t need to defend the Salatin’s farming practices, they speak for themselves.

  8. July 11, 2010 3:30 am

    When our drought began, I convinced Honey to not continue to mow the “weeds” in our yard, which have now been growing for over 4 weeks. I knew that the top growth was an image of the root growth. As we watched out neighbor cut his grass down to nubbins and as the rain did not come…..the lawn that he paid big $ to have look so gorgeous is now DEAD and brown! Ours is green, although it still has plantain, clover and bluegrass. The cows have eaten all that is available in the fenced area and it’s time for me to tether Joy in the green stuff and allow her to mow it for us. We got about an inch of sweet rain yesterday, but it’s still very dry and brittle. I wish I had more land to rotate longer. But I don’t so I make due.

    • July 11, 2010 5:54 am

      Diane, it takes a while to match the land to the stocking rate, especially when most people have a fixed stocking rate to some extent. The forage just doesn’t grow in that manner. We used to run out of pasture too when we let the cows graze at will. Parts get eaten into the ground and others just get left. At least with the rotational grazing, we are able to get some fertilizer on every bit of pasture.

      Glad you got some rain – I bet it was a relief.

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