SO; YOU WANT TO BUILD YOUR FARM'S SOIL?
IT CAN'T BE DONE WITHOUT LIVESTOCK AND COVER-CROPS
"Countries, and their citizens, should look to limit their consumption of intensively farmed meats, both for health and environmental reasons." From the editorial being discussed below
For many of you, today's post is going to be so foreign and counter-intuitive to what you have been taught that you simply won't believe it. That's OK. Stick with me for five minutes, however, so that you can make an educated decision instead of having a knee-jerk reaction. This is because even if you are a vegetarian / vegan, today's post is vital for you to understand in terms of 'saving the planet,' creating sustainable agricultural ecosystems, and improving local farm and ranch lands by building / regenerating soil without expensive and toxic chemical inputs (chemical fertilizers or HERBICIDES & PESTICIDES) --- inputs that instead, kill the soil (dead soil is easy to spot because along with a DERANGED MICROBIOME, it will contain no worms).
The motivation for today's post is a recent article in the Lancet, one of the oldest and formerly most prestigious medical journals on the planet, which increasingly fancies itself a leader in the field of social justice. In fact, it could be argued that in many ways Lancet has stopped functioning as a medical journal. For instance, just last week they pulled a Huffpo / People and inexplicably did a movie review about two women in love with each other (Breaking the Rules). THEY HAVE PUBLICLY TOUTED COMMUNISM (the repeatedly failed political system that was responsible for over 100,000,000 deaths in the 20th century) as the cure for the world's healthcare woes. And a couple days after Thanksgiving they published an editorial titled We Need to Talk About Meat. Well; let's talk.
The gist of the short article was that if you eat meat --- any meat (the author equated red meat with processed meat) --- you are contributing to climate change, destruction of the planet, ruination of our national health, and who-knows-what-else. Today I want to show you that when done properly, not only is none of this accurate, but that there is no real way to build or heal soil on a large scale without ruminants (livestock). In other words, if you truly want to become or remain agriculturally "sustainable," you'll have an extremely difficult time doing it without meat (on the hoof, of course).
In order to create or improve a grassland or ecological grazing system where you can.....
- get rid of last year's (dead) vegetative matter without USING FIRE...
- create large and increasing amounts of organic matter that not only generate oxygen but when trampled into the earth act as a carbon-absorbing "sponge"....
- hold on to precious rainwater without it ALL RUNNING OFF OR EVAPORATING...
- fertilize without chemicals (HERE) ....
- prevent, or better yet, reverse soil erosion, while actually BUILDING SOIL...
- not be forced to use ANTIBIOTICS ON YOUR LIVESTOCK as a matter of course....
- know that what you are doing is not only eco-freindly but sustainable for future generations...
You heard me correctly. It is virtually impossible to truly "build" or restore damaged soil or create new, healthy soil without the purposeful, planned out, and prioritized use of ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats, etc) or in certain cases such as that of my friends, JIM & JUDY-JO PROTIVA, by using pasture-raised poultry.
Thanks to the organic food movement, everyone is already aware that not all farming practices are created equal. For instance, feedlot-raised beef is frequently referred to in the peer-reviewed scientific literature as "OBESE," indicating that there is a difference --- a difference easily seen in the meat's fatty acid profiles (HERE). I grew up on a large family farm in Kansas and know what modern agricultural practices can do to soil. While things frequently look great from the county road --- tall, healthy-looking crops with nary a weed in sight --- farmers and ranchers alike are noticing that greater chemical inputs are required to keep up appearances and yields.
Furthermore, the growing emphasis on no-til farming (a good thing in the right circumstance) has dramatically expanded the use of what amounts to "chemical tilling". What's the solution to all these issues? Regenerative Ranching, also known as Intensive, Holistic, or Mob Grazing. Instead of cutting and storing hay, grass is actually stored or "stockpiled" in the field on the stem, with a number of significant benefits from the process. In other words, the way that farmers / ranchers graze their cattle or other ruminants is the number one secret to healing, preserving, and improving the soil.
As a person who grew up in agriculture (grain --- mostly WHEAT --- and cattle), I understand what it takes to raise beef and turn a profit. Today, however, I want to show you that there may be a better way. The following are interviews with three of my friends who happen to be local ranchers / grazers as well as Christian brothers. First is Terry Turner, whom I have known for over 25 years --- about the same amount of time he's been practicing rotational grazing. Next are my friends from the great state of Texas, Carl and Coldar Cluck, and RH Whitten, all of the massive CLUCK RANCH. Finally, we'll talk with a good friend that I also church with, Joe Frescoln of FRESCOLN RANCH. I've also had a slew of conversations with Peace Valley Poultry owner and founder, Jim Protiva, whose ranch I left a previous link to.
TERRY TURNER: Terry's family and I moved to the area at almost the same time, 27 years ago. With degrees in Animal Science and Ag Engineering from Mizzou, Terry had been running a commerical hog operation in Arkansas for Tyson, while renting cattle ground from them on the cheap and clandestinely building his beef herd in the process. A perfect picture of what can be done through faith, hard work, and the American Dream, Terry was eventually able to build a large enough herd to quit his job and purchase a 440 acre farm near Pinecrest, just above the JACKS FORK RIVER (about a 15 minute drive from me).
One of the first things Terry did was to start cross-fencing his property in order to create smaller paddocks. Although it's taken some time, he has cut up his ranch into about a dozen paddocks, which, with electric fence, he breaks down to about 10 acres. After moving his cattle from one paddock to another his goal is to rest the grass for a minimum of thirty days before rotating the herd back around. Putting his cattle into smaller, grass-rich paddocks for shorter amounts of time forces more and more-intensive TRAMPLING and a more concentrated fertilization from manure and urine (nitrogen). It also prevents the cattle from eating only what they like, while helping his pastures remain clean in the process.
Like most people who make a living in ag, Terry is super handy, living in a beautiful self-built home overlooking the family's ranch. Terry believes that by rotational grazing (he told me that his operation was not really the same as mob grazing), he's been able to average between a quarter to a third better production. Beautiful farm, beautiful family. I thoroughly enjoyed our time together as well as the tour of this amazingly well thought out / laid out ranch (his unique 3-way watering system near his winter pasture should be patented --- I've seen many similar, but nothing quite like it).
CLUCK RANCH: My next stop was at the home of RH and Carissa Whitten. RH grew up in tiny New Home, Texas (pop. 350.... saaaaalute), before attending college at New Mexico Junior College and then West Texas A&M on a rodeo scholarship, while working on an ag degree. He met Carissa Cluck and the rest is history. The Cluck / Whitten family moved from the Texas panhandle area to the Ozarks in 2014 after purchasing a large ranch (the old "Doans Ranch") from Jordan Ruben (founder of Garden of Life nutrition company), who had been unsuccessfully attempting to get a grass-fed, organic dairy up and running.
Part of the problem for the Clucks has been that the ranch had been recently overrun by an invasive grass / legume called SERICEA LESPEDEZA, which was 'brilliantly' introduced by our government as erosion control for roadside ditches decades ago. Thanks to the Sericea choking out the grass, they were having trouble getting their HERD OF RED ANGUS enough to eat without feeding hay. The (painful and scary) solution was selling their cattle and converting the ranch to run sheep and goats --- over 3,000 of them --- in an attempt to "clean up" brushy invasives such as Sericea and MULTIFLORA ROSE so that grass could grow. It's working. A few weeks ago Carl generously gave me the grand tour and what I saw was astounding. The goats are acting like living, breathing, (and composting) BRUSH-HOGS. Where the goats and sheep had been, the Sericea was much thinner (you could actually walk through it), with a foot or more of brand new green grass growing underneath. This, folks, was done with no chemicals being used!
RH shared that their vision for the ranch is to create a multi-species, intensive grazing system modeled off of WHITE OAK PASTURES in Georgia, and SEVEN SONS RANCH in Indiana, growing pasture-raised everything (beef, mutton, goat, pork, poultry / eggs, etc) all on the same land (he also talked about the work of JOEL SALATIN). RH suggested that by not allowing their goats or sheep to return to the same area for 120 days, they don't have the issues with parasites so common (and deadly) to smaller ruminants --- doubly true considering that the tannins in the nutrient-dense Sericea act as a natural de-wormer (STUDY).
Despite too many challenges and setbacks to count, God's been good to them, and the passion for what the Cluck / Whitten family is doing pours out of them like a sieve. RH told me enthusiastically that "health stems from the soil," and that their goal was "to do right by the land." Much of this attitude and excitement was brought about by the adversity created when a family member (Carl's wife Christine) was diagnosed with both MULTIPLE SCLEROSIS and CANCER in the same year. After dealing with the cancer, the MS was put into remission by following the WAHL'S PROTOCOL (essentially a PALEO DIET, created my an MD with MS who made the decision to get out of her wheelchair two and a half decades ago. The entire family got on board with clean, healthy, eating, and the results have been exactly what you might suspect ---- nothing short of miraculous all the way around.
RH's enthusiasm for the future is contagious. I look forward to seeing what the ranch will look like with a few years of the regenerative practices at work. I'm also eagerly awaiting more of the video cooking tutorials that Carissa has been doing for for their website. BTW, RH let me know that 'Soil School' starts today in Mountain Grove (40 miles West of here) with some of the biggest names in Regenerative Ranching supposed to be there, including GABE BROWN of North Dakota, RAY ARCHULETA of Alabama (someone told me he recently moved to the Mountain Grove area), ALLEN WILLIAMS of Mississippi, and Steve Freeman of the Mansfield / Hartville area (Steve's been mob grazing since the early 1980's, and a State-run study of Missouri cattleman showed him to have the #1 ROI / ROA).
JOE FRESCOLN: When it comes to their family's farm, Joe is a true scientist (albeit a mad scientist who will try just about anything to improve the soil on their well over 1,000 acre ranch). Because one of the methods for breaking down old organic matter and working it into the soil is the trampling of the hooves of ruminants (see earlier link), Joe was explaining to me that he had experimented with putting a whopping 1.2 million lbs of cattle into quarter acre paddocks, moving them every fifteen minutes, and doing this 16 times / day. Why? He had an area of his pasture that he was trying to take down rapidly and increase the water infiltration rate in the process. However, when I asked him what was usual as far as moving his cattle were concerned, he said that for the most part he moved them once or twice a day.
Joe's preferred method of describing his ranching methods is "Adaptive Multi-Paddock Grazing" or AMP. Ever the scientist, Joe measures everything, keeps it all on spread sheets, and adjusts / tweaks his cattle's grazing accordingly. Joe described the symbiotic relationship between his grass, cattle, and soil, explaining that depending on the circumstances, he might run a fifteen acre paddock and leave his cattle for 24 hours, or he might run 4 acre paddocks and move them three or four times a day; everything according to the needs of the cattle, the grass, and / or the soil.
With a degree in computer technology, Joe has been ranching with his family since moving back to the area with his wife, Dr. Hillary, in 2012. Getting the rest of the family on board was a challenge at first, but after seeing how dramatically that inputs could be reduced, everyone jumped on board. For instance, instead of needing all kinds of farm equipment for haying, feeding, etc, It's not uncommon to see Joe, Hillary, and some (or even all) of his six kids tooling around the ranch in their modified off-road golf cart. In many cases, Joe can check to see what needs to be done with his drone, which can range over the entire ranch --- around two sections (a "section" or square mile is 640 acres).
Joe described his cattle as "natural composters" that fertilize and trample the soil, both of which are vital for maintaining the balance between good ground cover and working the dead vegetation into the soil where it can decay, hold water, grow good bacteria and fungi (your GUT should contain many of the same organisms found in healthy soil), and actually become new soil in the process. Joe said that this is God's way of building soil. He went on to explain that he is not really focused on saving or feeding the planet, but instead, on being a good steward of the land God has blessed him with, along with feeding as many local folk as his land is capable of feeding. Has this been working out?
Joe showed me that the average number of acres of grass needed to raise one beef in our county is 4, with hay. Frescoln Ranch is at 2.7 acres and no hay. It's this combination of increased production and dramatically diminished inputs that sold his dad, Scott. And here's the kicker; they are doing all of this while selling their beef, for the most part, on the commodity market. In other words, their totally grass-fed / grass-finished beef is being sold right along with beef that may have been fed significant amounts of hay and grain; both large and expensive inputs that eat up profits.
I asked Joe if there have been any drawbacks to what their family is doing and he said that there had been. He explained to me that the biggest problem has been that today's large cattle have been bred for high-energy grain-based diets. The Frescolns have countered by breeding back to smaller and more heat-adapted bulls (HERE). When I brought up to Joe the fact that one of his neighbors pastures looked like a manicured lawn and that for the most part, his did not, his response was telling. After explaining that he was averse to pastures that looked like a golf course, he stated, "Our eyes are calibrated to look at pasture land like we would look at a lawn. This is not the way things occur in nature --- diversity is the rule and the very thing that creates increased productivity." What's the 'mad scientist' doing to take advantage of his land's diversity? Check this out.
There is a common plant here (MILK THISTLE / SILYBUM --- that happens to be one of the top herbs for liver issues), which, along with the MUSK THISTLE, are considered to be one of the areas most invasive and noxious species due to the fact they can rapidly take over a pasture. The typical response, by both government agencies and ranchers continues to be to spray them with TOXIC CHEMICALS that eventually end up in our WORLD-RENOWNED WATER SUPPLY. In fact, a county extension agent for the State of Missouri wrote in her blog (Landowners Have a Responsibility for Thistle Control)....
"As a reminder for all Missouri landowners, section 263.190 of the Revised Statutes of Missouri read: 'It shall be the duty of every owner of lands in this state to control all Canada, musk or Scotch thistles growing thereon so often in each and every year as shall be sufficient to prevent said thistles from going to seed.'"
Just remember that the word "control" means spraying. Joe, however, is solving this problem by (I'm not making this up) teaching his cattle to eat the thistles. It's not that they hate thistles, it's just that they'd just rather eat grass. So Joe started adding thistles to alfalfa cubes (treats) and training their cattle to eat them, while slowly removing the alfalfa. Their cattle are eating the freaking thistles! Allow me to briefly describe another homespun experiment of Joe's.
Because, as he described to me, the enzymatic activity of ruminant saliva, along with the tugging action on the grass's root system when they graze, actually causes grass to grow (in the same way that cutting your lawn causes it to grow), he tested growth rates in an area of his pasture that had been partially brush-hogged next to areas eaten down to the same length by cattle. Although both areas of grass started out the same length, the cattle-eaten grass grew much faster than the mowed grass.
All I can say Joe is that what you guys are doing is amazing, and I have every reason to believe that it will continue to be even more amazing as your kids and then their kids take over the operation (you'll be on the grazing lecture circuit at that point). I'm excited to see what the ranch will look like after 20 more years of doing this. Speaking of doing this, when I asked Joe why everyone isn't getting the fever for Regenerative Ranching, it seemed to be the same story that all of us face in one fashion or another --- change is hard. It's frankly scary to do things dramatically differently from what everyone around you is doing, which is they way it's always been done.
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