State of the Farm

This is the time of year when we know whether everything got into sync with Mother Nature. Are the winter pastures up and growing, providing a salad bar of oats, rye, clover and standing hay for our grateful and very much appreciated momma cows and their offspring, piggies, chickens at Jolly Farms and egg hens at Coyote Creek? If so — and it is so this year — then we ease into Christmas with family and friends, nearly overwhelmed by a grateful heart. This will be a splendid Christmas, so good that it is almost eery. Dancing with Mother Nature can be grand when fickleness abates and her stars align over our little patch of Earth.

Best wishes for a grateful Christmas in your home too, but let us remember those for whom life after Harvey, a lost job, or the loss of a loved one finds them less than grateful. Reach out wherever you find them. ‘tis the season of giving back as well.

State of the Farm

Ridiculous! The only way to state this banner year for grass (“it’s what we do”) is truly “ridiculous”. We have never seen such abundance in our primary crop as we have this year. Makes us sort of keep looking over our shoulder wondering if some calamity is on the way to offset the largesse we find sitting in our lap, a lap of grass luxury. So how did this happen and is it repeatable?

First, how did it happen? It started with a decision to under-graze our seven pastures and eight pig paddocks in the spring. The goal was to maximize our chance of having good ground cover when we reached the hotter, dryer periods of the summer. This wasn’t a new goal - we are always taking steps toward that goal. The difference this year is that we took it to the extreme. We were leaving ungrazed grass behind on our rotations to new pastures, and that was the extension of our normal process. So instead of “no cow gets her second bite”, it became “no cow gets her first bite every time”. That meant leaving grass behind that had not been touched. And that meant more protection of the soil, which in turn resulted in more growth. How’s that? Soil protection from heat and the preservation of moisture therein results in healthier, ever-growing grasses. Even as the rain was drying up, we could feel that softness in the soil that tells us that moisture is being stored.

Is it repeatable? Well, longer term predictions in the agriculture business is a risky thing. Each year brings differing issues, especially in a climate that is more volatile than any we have known over 28 years of taking a shot at predictions. But the theory is sound, so we will stay with it so long as there is a chance that we call it correctly.

For this year, it has been heaven-sent. We literally have grasses that are reaching chest-high in September and so thick that I have had to slow the tractor down by 2 gears and increase RPMs by 300 revs just to do mowing in the pastures that are set aside for winter planting. And the tractor still bogs down at times trying to get through the abundance.

Besides benefitting the harvesters (cows and pigs), this abundance has even more value to the payers (Honi and Glen). If the fall weather holds up, warm weather grasses will feed the eaters well into the end of the year. That translates into less planting of winter pasture, saving us tractor time and seed cost. We might even make a profit this year!

We’re living large here, folks!

In the pastures

What we miss in peaches we gain in happy animals. An extra 6 weeks of mild weather grazing is a tonic for the cattle and pigs. More grasses as the winter pastures are sporting the early warm weather grasses and a wide variety of clovers as well. Clovers we have not seen before this year include yellow bud clover and purple vetch, adding to our existing crimson, white, ball and medic clovers. So what do the yellow buds and vetch tell is about nature? She is NOT fragile like some would call her, she is resilient! We have seen this evidence too many times in our nearly 28 years of stewards at JVF. She’s strong! Yes, she will go into hiding when we abuse her resources. But cut out the “fragile” talk. It’s an insult to her.

Clovers are not only great forage for the creatures but life-giving to the soil and its subterranean inhabitants. So there is palpable excitement as we move our creatures from one fresh pasture to another. The creatures know there are good things happening above and below the ground.

The long spring is good for another reason — we have plenty of green stuff to turn under as our winter graaes start to change. We do that by attaching our disks and setting the blades so that thereis just a shallow turn of the soil. We attach the drag behind the disks to accomplish 2 things: the drag breaks up any clots and helps press the grasses into good contact with the turned dirt. Why do this? Because it prevents the surface from getting crusted – a crusted surface sheds water rather than allowing it to be absorbed. Secondly, both the disk and the drag assure that the grass is laid down into the newly turned soil, improving the process of adding to the organic matter in the soil. Good soil is all about organic content and keeping artificials out. We’re making food for the big soil guys – the worms and the beetles – and for the little guys – the ones you can only see with a microscope. That together is what a living soil is all about.

What’s the result? High value food from happy creatures in a holistically sustainable environment. And that’s also what it’s all about!

Salad Bar Beef

Jolie Vue Farms – A salad bar of weeds.

Jolie Vue Farms – A salad bar of weeds.

Joel Salatin invented the description “Salad Bar Beef” to describe the menu of the wide diversity of grasses and flora found in native pastures and upon which our cattle make “grass-fat” beef. We have now raised our count to 16 of those native grasses at JVF. But you must understand that the salad bar that Salatin refers to includes more than grass. It includes what many of us would generically call “weeds”. But here’s the story on weeds – our soil protectors.

Weeds have a number of beneficial functions. This year has been alternating between very wet and cool to very hot and dry. The latter cycle causes weed-pop. Why is that? Weeds shade the soil to keep the surface from getting too hot; grass will not grow at surface temperatures of 95 and above. Drop the air temperature from 95 to 85 and it encourages grass, and that’s one beneficial function. Grass grows under the shade of the weed canopy. The second benefit relates to the “how” of weed-pop. Weeds in dry weather have an ability to reach deeper for moisture in the sub-soil than grass does. In the deeper soil the weeds also intersect more minerals and when they do, they bring those minerals up to the grass roots level, enriching the soil and adding fresh stores of minerals to the grasses. Third benefit? Weeds can be palatable to cattle and pigs, high in protein and minerals. Not all, but many. So weeds are forage despite the effort of conventional farmers to spray them to death. When you spray them with herbicides, you are killing a friend and poisoning your soil.

Long live the weeds in the salad bar of a native pasture! 

Little Bluestem to the Rescue

The Bluestem grass family – Little, Big, Silver, KR, and others – are our native grass cousins that provide forage when all of the other grasses are wilting. At JVF, Little Bluestem is most prominent and is doing its duty once again as the above-described heat descends upon us. We count on these guys every year at this time and they have never failed us. Bring it on, LB!

It’s More Than Food for the Critters

Grass feeds more than just our beeves and pigs. Don’t forget the birds, raccoons, deer and microbial subterranean life. What is not generally recognized is how grass nourishes the planet’s atmosphere. That virtue is now gaining recognition with the widespread effort to encourage landowners to embrace their grasslands as carbon traps which would then be “sold” to those industries that add greenhouse gasses to the atmosphere.

So it feeds our creatures, saves and builds our topsoil, and cleanses our air and water.

GRASS. IT’S WHAT WE DO. It’s a good thing.

Embrace Our Planet!

The Flush reminds us of the importance of saving our grasslands, perhaps the most effective yet overlooked tool for cleansing carbon emissions in our air. Grass is an amazing gift, acting as Earth’s washateria to remove carbon from the air, taking it down into the soil where it is used to grow the next cycle of grass and repeat the atmospheric cleansing. Contrast that with row farming where the carbon in the soil is actually exposed to and escapes into the atmosphere.

Instead, we have incentivized the plowing of the earth with the methane misadventure. More ground is plowed up than ever before for the growing of grains, mainly corn, to make gasoline or for feed for the nation’s feed yards and other CAFOs (confined animal feeding operation). Any reduction in plowing would be beneficial but turning even half of the corn grown for livestock or gasoline and returning that ground to grasslands would have a significant, measurable and positive impact. If that conversion also included well managed rotational grazing of cattle, pigs and chickens, we would have an environmental policy that worked with instead of against Mother Nature. And nobody protects and builds the planet better than her. She only awaits our invitation.

Is my hope simply pie in the sky idealism? Well, the same thing was said in the early days of organic farming which began in Austin, Texas with the advent of what we now know as Whole Foods. Today you cannot enter a conventional grocery store without finding organic fruits and vegetables, organic broth, organic this and organic that. The elimination of herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilizers that would otherwise have been polluting our air, water, soil and bodies with the advent of organic farming techniques is monumental and ever-expanding. Grass should be the next frontier.

Let’s make it happen!