Muddy Reflections

We have a saying Up the Lane about this time of year, when the long hard winter begins to soften and you can smell spring in the air.  Frozen mud is high ground.  I never studied Soil Mechanics the way engineering students do.  But you don’t need to design a twenty-story building or a freeway ramp to be reminded that, however solid our earth might seem, in another sense we are lucky to be in suspension on its surface, by an arrangement that is provisional and—out in the country, anyway—somewhat seasonal.

 Farming in the Midwest, you learn to take such things in stride.  The gravel on our lane disappears about every three years, sucked down into the muck.  We call the gravel guy to have another forty tons put down.  He advises larger-sized stone.  Specifies quarried limestone for its angularity.  It’ll last you a little longer, he says.  And sure enough it does.  But that gravel sinks too.  It’s still down there, under where it was—now part of the road’s foundation.  Meanwhile, out in the pasture, the heaving of the soil keeps spitting up to the surface rocks as big as softballs (and bigger).

 The soil in Central Ohio is not so much loamy or sandy as it is heavy with clay.  Clay is dense and holds onto water rather than letting it drain downward.  It gets slick and greasy.  If you till it when it is too wet, it will harden up afterwards like a piece of pottery.  With clay ground, you have no trouble establishing a pond—just make an indentation in the land and let it fill with water. 

 You can’t tell, driving along the freeway between fields of corn and soy beans, but farmers who can afford to have spent a lot of money installing underground drainage systems beneath those crops—grids of flexible plastic piping that feed into main lines and carry sitting water out to lower lying areas such as ravines or passing creeks.  It can cost five-hundred dollars an acre to install such tile (so-named because earlier versions were done with red ceramic tiles bedded in gravel).  But with the clay soil’s drainage thus improved, crops are happier and more productive, in theory rewarding the farmer’s investment. 

 Our pastures have old tile in them.  We know this because of a couple places where the tile have collapsed, creating sinkholes.  We have one hole that, when we first purchased the land, was big enough that you could bury an economy car in it.  Now it is closed in, only a couple feet deep.  The cattle like to wallow in it when it is dusty in the summer.  But who knows, next year it could suddenly open up again.  

 Walk in wet clay and you have pounds of it clinging to your boots.  Churn wet clay with tractor tires (or with the split hooves of animals weighing half a ton) and you have mud.  Lots and lots of mud.  Heavy and thick and more than a foot deep.   On the six o’clock news, sometimes they show dramatic footage of mud slides, usually in Southern California.  Seems like everything is exciting in California, or makes good TV—even their mud.  In Central Ohio we don’t have mud slides.  Our mud just lies there.  It figures you will be along soon enough. 

 If you are using the internet as a resource for learning to farm, Google often showers you with euphemisms.  For example if you want to learn about making hay, you get a lot of personal finance sites about  making hay while the sun shines, learning to recognize your hay day.  You can imagine what comes up if you Google the word ruts.  I can tell you—having sunk a tractor clear up to its axles, so that the only way to release it was to clear by hand the muddy ground between the ruts it was in—getting stuck in a muddy rut is like…well, like failing to override your brain defaults and remaining settled in monotonous routines.

 When the first really nice spring days come, in early March or so, I notice in town everyone is all smiles and optimism.  What a beautiful day, they exclaim.  I keep quiet.  Who am I to detract from town folks’ relief (as soon as they can find it) from another drab overcast winter we have just endured in Central Ohio?  But my heart sinks when those first thaws come.  I know what is waiting for me back at the farm.  It will be late May, really, before I can rely on getting around with the tractor and pickup truck without tearing things up.

 This leads me to mention the agricultural term sacrifice area.  This would be a part of the farm, typically around the barn, where you cannot hope to have healthy pasture.  You need to keep the cattle somewhere for a prolonged period during the winter, when they are on hay, and that area becomes overwhelmed with too much manure and too much persistence of traffic.  In the spring, when the herd heads out to pasture again (like a ship leaving harbor, heading out to sea), the abused ground of the sacrifice area dries up into a kind of almost lunar-looking landscape, sprouting little more than occasional big ugly weeds that could be featured in science-fiction movies. 

 We are working Up the Lane to contain the wintering-with-hay phase of our operation to as few as sixty days.  And we are offering a larger area for wintering, to mitigate somewhat the damage done to the ground.  But it gets sloppy in there, let me tell you.

 Tractors have split brake pedals.  You can brake the left rear tire only or the right rear tire only.  This is because if you are in slippery mud on a two-wheel-drive tractor, you sometimes cannot turn by steering the front tires.  Let’s say you need to turn left or you will hit a tree.  You turn the front tires to the left, but the tractor keeps going straight, now pushing the left-facing front tires forward through the mud.  It is a really big tree.  So what you do is, you step on the left brake pedal.  The left rear wheel stops and the right keeps turning, swinging you to the left.  This manner of driving in mud takes some getting used to.  After a while it becomes second nature.  You learn to combine turning the front tires (slightly, not too sharply) with small touches of the brake pedal, scooting around gracefully in the slop.  Coming up hills you learn to tack in mud the way a sailor tacks in wind.

 Early spring, when the ground is so soft, is the perfect time to pull up fence posts.  I back the tractor up to a fence post, wrap a chain around the post connected to the hydraulic lift arms on the tractor, then I lift the arms and up comes the post.  At the very last, as the bottom of the post comes out of the ground, there is a popping sound—the suction of the mud letting go.  You can look in the hole and see it filling with water.

 Here’s a sensory memory: you are walking through deep mud in tall rubber boots.  The mud sucks at your every step, holding your foot before releasing it.  You aren’t paying quite enough attention and, before you know it, you have lifted your right foot clean out of its boot.  So now you are standing precariously on your left foot, twisting around, trying to keep your balance.  Your right foot (in a perfectly clean white sock) is suspended inches above the mud.  You can see the empty boot, planted back there, but you cannot get to it.  You have no choice.  You have to put that poor naked foot of yours down into the mud—and soon, before you lose your balance.  So down your foot goes, into the cold slimy muck, wet clinging sock and all.  Nearly everyone I know out in the country has had this happen once.  Nobody ever lets it happen twice.

 Well, I’ve gotten you down into the mud with me a little.  I suppose I am glad for the company.  The hard part, as always, is getting out.  I think I will simply finish by saying abruptly (as Central Ohio folks will when they are done complaining about something), and that’s all I got to say about that.

 Wipe your feet!

 John Wiley

 Up the Lane Farm

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Deciding Stocking Rates for Pastured Cattle

 

Tracking Your Herd’s Forage Footprint

Nothing impacts a cattle grazing farm more profoundly than the decision of how many animals to keep.  Too many head and you run out of pasture.  Too few and you are letting perfectly good forage go to waste.  The unpredictability of weather complicates things.  And the carrying capacity of a farm’s pasture is a moving target anyway–for example as it benefits from a program of rotational grazing.

 Sizing your herd’s forage footprint to match the productivity of your pasture is the kind of complex challenge that keeps farming interesting.  The key, as with most of farming, is accurate observation and good record-keeping.      

  Keeping a Pasture Log

The best tool for deciding stocking rates is a good pasture log.  This is a simple document, recording for longer term review those daily bits of personal observation that tend otherwise (if not written down) to get forgotten.  The discipline of keeping a daily log is a learned habit, well-rewarded once you have the hang of it, much like learning to not leave gates open.

The surest way to keep a pasture log is to carry it with you when you are working with the cattle.  I have farmer friends who keep tiny notebooks zipped into chest pockets of their Carhartt bibs.  They have been tracking daily bits of information about their farm this way for forty years or more.  I use a Polaris Ranger to get out to the cattle, so I have the luxury of using the Ranger’s glove compartment to store my pocket calendar and ball point pen.  While I wait for the water tanks to fill, I get the calendar out and update it.  The point I am making is: you will do better if you can write stuff down out in the field rather than relying on making a note later, when you are back in the house. 

Monthly or so, I will carry this little calendar into the house and sit down in my farm office and ‘download’ its information onto summary sheets I keep on file.  I think everyone will have their own instinct about how to track daily pasturing detail.  Some might prefer computers and could design spreadsheets for the purpose.  Others–like me–will just copy information onto handmade ledger pages.

A pasture log can provide you an accurate picture of how productive your pasture is.  The basic elements you need to record in order to be able to figure out your pasture’s productivity are:

1) Clear identification of each paddock or portion of your pasture.

2) A count of how many animals are grazing each day.

3)  Measurement of the amount of time your animals are on each paddock

4) A record of any supplemental feed given to the animals while they are on the paddock (i.e. hay).

When you have recorded these elements, you can calculate the productivity of a paddock in terms of the Cow Days of feed it has provided your animals.

Cow Days
If a paddock is grazed by ten animals for seven days, it has provided 70 Cow Days of forage.  Thirty animals for two days = 60 Cow Days.  One animal for twenty days = 20 cow days. The equation for Cow Days is simply:

          [number of animals] x [number of days] = COW DAYS. 

By using this unit of measurement, you do not really need to worry about the various sizes of paddocks (unless that interests you for some other reason).  It is the productivity of paddocks that you are recording.

[Number of Animals]

A lot of agricultural literature and research is done using the measurement unit AU (animal unit).  The standard for 1 AU is a cow weighing 1000 pounds.  A calf weighing 500 pounds would be 0.5 AU.  A bull weighing 2000 pounds would be 2 AU.  This measure is also used for other grazing species.  The idea is that you measure pasture productivity by estimating consumption of its forage, and that, for example, two 500 pound calves will eat about as much as one cow weighing 1000 pounds.  

 Referencing total AU (instead of a simple head count) turns out to be ideally suited for purposes such as keeping a pasture log.  Instead of needing to juggle, in our clumsy minds, so many particulars about herd history (the year we introduced those many young heifers, the year we kept that crazy bull…), we can record  the herd’s foraging footprint in terms of total AU, thus simplifying comparisons we will be making for years to come.

You can count your animals any way that suits you.  The main thing is that the unit of measurement you use must allow you an accurate comparative from one year to the next.  Otherwise what is the point?

[Number of Days]
Cattle like it if you move them at about the same time each day.  I tend to move my animals in the late afternoon, when the full heat of the day is starting to back off a little.  My animals like to graze in the evening, before settling down for the night, and they like to get after it again early in the morning (earlier than when I am likely to show up).  In this way it is easy for me to note that I moved my animals into a paddock Tuesday evening, then moved them out Wednesday evening–one day. 

Sometimes, when I am watering the herd in the morning, I will see they have already exhausted the paddock I had hoped could serve them through the day.  I will move them again right then and there.  In my Pasture Log, I will credit the prior evening’s paddock with only half a day’s graze.   

I have never found it necessary to record anything other than whole or half days.  This may be because I tend to strip-feed portions of a paddock without bothering to record each movement of the strip line.  If a paddock is one acre, and if I serve it up to the herd in four strip-fed portions, and if they finish that paddock in four days and then move along to another paddock, I will make only one entry: [30 Animal Units] x [4 days] = 120 Cow Days.  This is about as detailed as I feel I need to be in order to understand the productivity of my pasture.

Recording Supplemental Feed

If you offer the cattle supplemental hay during their time on a particular paddock, you need to record this in your log.  At some point (in the depth of winter, when your animals are relying exclusively on hay for sustenance) you should be able to establish how many Cow Days of feed you are getting from each bale of hay.  Your best bet is to work as much as possible with uniform bales, so you can get good and familiar with how many Cow Days of feed they provide. 

 Hay is a different topic altogether—one I don’t mean to get into here.  Suffice it to say: there are times when it makes sense to supplement the forage your cattle are grazing.  And when you do this, it is important to record the supplement in your log.  On my farm, I know that a single round bale provides 30 Cow Days of feed, and if I feed a round bale to the cattle while they are in a paddock, I deduct 30 Cow Days from that paddock’s productivity total.

 Some farmers might scoff at the notion of feeding hay to animals while they are out on pasture during the grazing season.  And certainly in principle they could be right.  On the other hand, reality has a way of confounding rigid systems and I think it is important to know when to bend.  As a hectic farmer also working a full-time job in town, my most common reason for offering hay to the herd while they are grazing is simply that I will not be home to move them in the evening (because I need to be out of town that night on a business trip).  By feeding them a bale, I can leave them in a paddock (though they have eaten it down) for an additional day.  This is not ideal, but it is one way I am able to farm while honoring my obligations to the company I work for.

 Another random example: in June, having just made his first cut of hay, a farmer proposes to sell me some bales.  I go over to his farm and he shows me the bales.  “What do you think?” he says.  “They look pretty good, don’t they?”  “I’m not the one who will be eating them,” I say.  I buy one bale, load it up on the truck and take it home.  I feed it to the cattle that evening.  If they like it, I will call the farmer and offer to buy loads of the hay.  If the cattle do not like the bale, I will give the farmer that bad news.  “Sorry,” I tell him.  “My hay experts advise me against buying any more.”  Here again, I remember to deduct the number of Cow Days of feed the herd got from the hay (if they eat it!), so I do not over-credit the paddock they happen to be in that day.

 Case Study

Let’s say you have twenty acres of pasture.  Year one, on April 1st,  you put six animals on the pasture and leave them wandering all over, continuously grazing.  The pasture gives out at the end of November.  So, figuring you got 8 months’ forage for 6 animals, this would mean:

            [240 days] x [6 animals] = 1440 Cow Days

Year Two, you intend to do better than this.  You divide the pasture into ten paddocks and graze them in rotation.  You start on April 1st, this time with eight animals.  You design a strategy of rotation you think can maximize forage production (this is another subject altogether…).  This year the pasture is exhausted at the end of December.  You got 9 months’ forage for 8 animals, a solid improvement:

            [270 days] x [8 animals] = 2160 Cow Days

Year Three, you set out with an improved strategy, based on lessons learned during Year Two.  Your sense of when and why to move the herd becomes more sophisticated, more connected to the rhythm and habit of the forage plants.  You re-read several intensive grazing books and this time you understand stuff that went over your head the first time.  You decide to subdivide each paddock into two pieces, giving you a total of twenty paddocks.  Confident, you put 10 animals on the pasture April 1st.  You take the animals off the pasture in mid-January, with enough stockpiled paddocks left to provide for all of March the following Spring.  Now you are up to 10.5 months’ forage (or, more to the point, you are down to only 1.5 months’ hay).  And the pasture is radically more productive than when you started:

            [315 days] x [10 animals] = 3150 Cow Days

By now you see the pattern.  During the darkness and bitter cold of January through early March, you go to farming conferences, you read books, you reflect, and, when it comes time to start another grazing year, you set forth anew, with fresh hope and Big Ideas.  It helps to consider much of what you do experimental, meaning that failure is just as legitimate and useful as success.  It helps if you have a bit of the crack pot inventor in you.  Your many circumstances—the particular piece of ground you are farming, the climate you’re in, your personal budgetary and time constraints, the resources available to you through cooperating with neighbors, your skills (or lack of skills) when it comes to repairing equipment or building fence or keeping books, your physical health and stamina, your age, and on and on—mean your farm’s plan is necessarily unique.  As we say in the Midwest, “It’s hard to know the other fellah’s situation.”  You are the one in charge. 

Conclusion

Cow Days is a handy reference you can use over time to track the progress of your rotational grazing system.  Having an accurate record of how productive your pasture has been (as measured by your herd’s consumption) is critical when it comes to making decisions about stocking rates.  If you are doing things right, your soil and forage plants should be steadily improving.  And you yourself should be improving—becoming smarter.  Having a record of these improvements is gratifying to say the least.  I still remember hearing Greg Judy say, “In one year we doubled the productivity of our pasture.  Why that’s like getting a second farm for free!”

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Farm’s Annual Report: 2009

Introduction:

This Annual Report on our farm’s status–financial and otherwise–goes out with much respect to all our fellow small farmers and those contemplating getting into farming.  This is an honest communiqué from the front lines of our struggle to establish a self-sustaining farm.   

This has been a good year for Up the Lane Farm.  An important year.  Not profitable–not nearly.  Actual real dollars-in-hand profit can seem like  the unicorn of farm finances.  Easier to spot in farming ledgers is the common asterisk:  the year we replaced the tractor; the year we put a roof on the barn; the year we built fence or trenched water lines to the shed or put tires (or brakes!) on the truck

(Did you hear the one about the farmer who won the lottery?  He won three million dollars!  The TV reporter asked him what he was going to do with all that money.  The farmer answered, “I’m just gonna keep farming till it’s all gone…”) 

We believe this year marks our arrival at the threshold of profitability.  But getting here has been a decade of massive investment including purchasing a 70 acre farm, a tractor, a pick up truck and livestock trailer, a cattle chute, and many thousands of dollars of other basic essentials.  In 2010, and in subsequent years, if we are fortunate, we will be able to show some profits farming.   However, making money, while useful, can hardly be considered the real point of what we are doing.  

To quote the inaugural essay on our farm’s web page, upthelanefarm.com: “…our farm’s business plan is based on the model of an independent Caribbean nation.  We may struggle, even possibly forever (or so it seems), but we are free.  And we are rather proud!”

The importance of 2009 is that it has proven to be a year of consolidation and growth for our farm.  Our methods and philosophy have been improved; our marketing and sell-through has been strengthened; the scale of our operation has nearly doubled.  Even as momentum is building for us, we are coming into focus.  Things are coming together.  We are learning and growing in our exploration of what we love to do.  Put that in the ledger!

 Part One: Farmer’s Market Success!

Our farm’s primary source of income–retailing beef at the Worthington Farmers Market–was up a solid 34% over 2008.  This extends a trend we have experienced since we started at Worthington in 2006.  We are now doing twelve times the business we did that first season.  The Worthington Farmers Market is our home.  Our customers there are like family.  Their trust and cheerful goodwill is a bracing input for our farm.

One goal for 2010 is to grow Worthington Market sales another 20%.  This would bring us to about the limit of how much beef we can produce  using current stocking rates.    It would mean taking fourteen or fifteen animals to slaughter.  Any additional growth will need to come from increased stocking rates, which would mean that, happily, our ground is truly benefiting from mob grazing.  Mob grazing gurus say we should be able to double stocking rates in just a few years doing what we are doing.  (Why, that’s like getting another farm for free! they are fond of saying.)  If this is true, all the more better.  But even then we feel like we will be selling all we can produce to the public at the Worthington market–doing our best to keep the availability of various cuts steady and solid so as to match the quality and good value we are providing with an improved reliability of supply.

We seriously consolidated our position in the Worthington Market this year.  In the winter–when the economy first shocked people into a kind of wariness–we introduced one pound packages of cubed stew meat as a cheaper alternative to roasts (typically three pounds each).  We made the decision to not raise our prices in 2009.  Both of these decisions were received enthusiastically.  When we started the outdoor season in May 2009, we unveiled the new logo we had developed with Baltimore Ohio graphic artist Nathaniel Stitzlein, as part of announcing ourselves officially for the first time as 100% Grass-Fed.  This new look is so strong and sharp.  We expect it will serve us well for many years to come.

Now we are 100% Grass Fed, at prices considerably lower than competing grass-fed beef vendors.  We agree with Joel Salatin, who says that, since grass feeding is the least expensive way of raising beef, it should be possible to price it so that it is competitive in the broader marketplace (with commercial beef that is both more expensive to produce and inferior in quality and healthfulness).  He makes this issue into a form of proselytizing, for a better kind of meat and a better rural landscape.  We are selling close enough to the cost of production that we feel we are well-positioned regarding potential changes in the marketplace around us.  You never know when Wal-Mart will show up in the grass-fed beef arena!  Or when someone like Kroger will try to set up booths at Farmer’s Markets–demanding entry!

In support of our retailing, we have launched a new farm web page, upthelanefarm.com.  We get so busy at market sometimes, we have limited ability to fully explain ourselves to customers, especially newer ones with Big Questions about farming methods or grass-fed beef in general.  It is handy to be able to offer them a business card and refer them to the web page, where we are posting all the kinds of information we can think of that customers seem in search of.  We do not just want to sell meat, we want to strengthen in every way we can the farmer-consumer bond. 

During the summer of 2009 we started experimenting with having farm tours.  We did this on a small and personal scale, single families at a time.  This was gratifying for all concerned.  We will pursue this again when weather permits in 2010.  Our aim will be to set aside certain tour dates and sign folks up for limited attendance.  We do not want to disturb the cattle with too large a group, but neither can we make ourselves available for spur of the moment individual visits from any of a hundred families…

Part Two: Heavy Spending…

Behind our announcement that we are 100% grass-fed, is an enormous change in our farming methods and philosophy that has been underway for nearly two years.  We stopped graining well ahead of May 2009, so that we knew all meat sold as of May would be grass-fed only.  But in February 2009, at the PASA Conference in State College PA, I took a three-day course in mob grazing that gave our farm the template it needed to begin to make the most of grass feeding–both for the cattle and for the ground.  We do not have very good role models in our part of Ohio when it comes to grass-fed beef, so traveling afar and returning with so much exciting information (and a reading list I have yet to finish getting through), was just what was needed at this point in our farm’s history.

Between May 2009 and November 2009 we fenced forty-acres of open grass fields into approximately five-acre paddocks.  This was done all by hand, using our own invented electric fencing–a total of 10,000′ of fence line and 17 gates for only $5000.  The way we fenced will be a separate post one day soon.  We are rather proud about it and eager to share.  Suffice it to say we are reliant upon the magical synergy of electricity and the contentment of our cattle. 

To be able to roam this landscape alongside our cattle, moving them daily into fresh paddocks and hauling water to them, we purchased a Polaris Ranger which I admit, as a longtime dog lover, could be the best friend I have ever had. 

We spent nearly $15,000 purchasing new animals this year, an increase of nearly 50% over the year prior.  This represents a considerable expansion of our herd rather than merely replacing animals as they go to slaughter.  We entered 2009 with eighteen animals, we now enter 2010 with thirty-one.  We have made the aquaintance of new farmers who will sell us animals for years to come, including a source of the calmest Angus calves we have ever seen.  They are actually as easy to handle and live with as Herefords.  

We purchased and installed a household generator this year at considerable expense.  This means we have power backup for the freezers, for the well pump, and for the electric fence.  This cost us money, but the sense of well-being heading into January weather is priceless.  As just one example, our cattle drink about 300 gallons of water each day.  Without a well pump we would be hauling that water every day from somewhere in Columbus?!

Licking County has changed the rules about how we transport and handle meat at the Farmer’s Market.  They want the meat in mechanical refrigeration units at all times, even at the point of sale.  So we (and some other farmers we know) have had to decide whether to invest in making this possible or drop out of retailing meat.  We purchased a step van and fixed its brakes and decorated it with our terrific new graphics and got freezers installed in it–another big investment.

We did not make any hay in 2009.  (We were too busy fencing!)  This is a big part of how we cut fuel costs to a third of what they were in 2008, saving nearly $1500.  It would be nice to say we lowered our dependence on fossil fuels, but this year anyway that is not true because we purchased every bit as much hay as we used to make ourselves, meaning someone else used up the same fuel we did the year before.  As we evolve with mob grazing, we should be trimming down the cost of purchasing hay radically.  Then we will begin to be able to point to a serious decline in our dependence on fossil fuel.

Part Three: Forecast for 2010: Profit?!

Could this be the year we realize a profit?    There is a chance the answer is yes.  No fencing, no vehicle or equipment purchases, no growing the herd as we did in 2009.  We will be able to cut back by as much as 50% on hay purchases.  Also, we will be able to sell off some equipment we no longer need–hay-making gear, manure spreader, bale elevator.  If the momentum we are experiencing at market persists, we could be celebrating our farm’s first year of profits.  We feel pretty good about how smart and proactive our spending has been in 2009, however we cannot afford to continue being so smart forever, with spending being nearly twice as much as income.  This is the year for us to hunker down and reap the benefits of all the improved methods and reinvestment put into play during 2009.

 

 

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Rotational Grazing: past, present, future…

Winter is here.  This year the pasture lasted through December 20th–an improvement over last year, when we were feeding nothing but hay two weeks before Thanksgiving.  Our ambition is to have the cattle on pasture again by the first of March 2010, a full two months earlier than we started this year.  We look to keep progressively chipping away at the duration of feeding only hay until we are grazing absolutely year-round, with hay as a backup in case of severe weather or unusually heavy snow cover.  Most of our neighbors who run cattle here in Central Ohio feed hay from Thanksgiving through the end of April–four to five months of the year.  Of course this means they spend nearly all of June and August making the hay.

 My radicalization on year-round grazing came when an instructor at the mob grazing seminar I attended last February in State College PA, said, “I’m driving over here from the airport this morning, it’s a winter landscape, all snow-covered, and I see farmland, barns, fencing.  But something seemed wrong.  Finally I realized–there are no animals.  Where are all the animals?  They must be penned in somewhere, in barns and barnyards.  Back home my cattle are still out on pasture, eating through the snow.  Folks, you have got to believe me, this is wasteful and kind of nuts.  Cattle are built to graze year-round and to face head-on all but the most extreme elements.  I would love to fly in here ten years from now and see herds of healthy animals out and about no matter what time of year…”

 I am reading a book by Andre Voisin, Grass Productivity, originally published in 1959, the year I was born.  Voisin was experimenting with and documenting with incredible detail the “science” of what he called “rational grazing.”  He was a real pioneer.  Once again today, there are people pioneering mob grazing techniques (I am their student).  Once again this is largely to the consternation and bewilderment of the mainstream ag community.  I take it as a badge of honor that I am starting to freak out some of my neighbors (What is he doing now?!).  It seems odd to me that I can find, in Voisin’s writings, half a century old, a cogent and persuasive presentation of the very same methods and principles that are considered “new” and “strange” today.  It must have seemed just as odd to Voisin, who presents examples of texts in his book from as early as the eighteenth century, including this passage published in Scotland in 1777:

“To obtain this constant supply of fresh grass, let us suppose that a farmer who has any extent of pasture ground, should have it divided into fifteen or twenty divisions, nearly of equal value; and that, instead of allowing his beasts to roam indiscriminately through the whole at once, he collects the whole number of beasts that he intends to feed into one flock, and turns them all at once into one of these divisions; which, being quite fresh, and of a sufficient length for a full bite, would please their palate so much as to induce them to eat of it greedily, and fill their bellies before they thought of roaming about, and thus destroying it with their feet.  And if the number of beasts were so great as to consume the best part of the grass of one of these enclosures in one day, they might be allowed to remain there no longer;–giving them a fresh park every morning, so as that the same delicious repast might be again repeated.  And if there were just so many parks as there required days to make the grass of these fields advance to a proper length after being eaten bare down, the first field would be ready to receive them by the time they had gone over all the others; so that they might thus be carried round in a constant rotation.”

This excerpt, written 233 years ago, is an outstanding encapsulation of exactly what we are striving to accomplish Up the Lane.  I am grateful to be anchored and guided by such tradition.  And by the way, my theory is that, no matter how sound and sensible a practice rotational grazing is, it is likely to be “discovered” many more times in the centuries ahead.  Why?  For the simple fact that it requires the farmer to calm down and simply hang out with the cattle.  To settle down into the role of shepherd.  That is hardly a role that is in step with the modern and post-modern world we live in.  Mostly folks seem to conclude, within a year or two, “OK, so now what?”

For all the romanticizing of the cowboy life as a macho action-adventure kind of thing (as if riding bulls were somehow a part of daily chores!), the truth is that being with cattle is much more akin to day care.  Hardly glamorous, in other words.  And for most people not something that can sustain their attention.  I believe many folks who are into sustainable farming, livestock and vegetables either one, might not be in it for the long haul.  It could be a kind of sabbatical for them, an interlude (still-life with pitch fork).  I am all in myself.  Hopefully I’ll get smarter as I weaken with age so I can do this for a long time.  But I do so fully expecting to be forgotten and overlooked one day, so that someone else can “discover” the same things I have.  Maybe these electronically posted words can be found then, like fossils, and interpreted.

Keep warm this winter.

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