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This week’s Book of the Week feature is Grass, the Forgiveness of Natureby Charles Walters.

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From Chapter 12: The Pasture on a Diversified Farm

One thing all consultants learn soon enough is that they have make the scene. Installing fence lines according to diagrams conjured up on a drawing board is helpful only when the ground has been walked, analyzed on-scene, each break, tree line, open land and forest land. Questions that rate attention in Virginia might not even surface in western Kansas.

Joel Salatin, a diversified farmer in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, has refined forage paddocks in terms of multiple grazing. Willow leaves are excellent forage because of their medicinal qualities, for which reason a creeping crop just off a watering area might be tolerated, whereas less palatable species at the edge of the woods ask for regular trimming. Decision and indecision attend the workaday business of stringing fence wire. Salatin runs his electric fence wires along all the naturally defined edges to protect the riparian and forest zones at typical break points. Fields and forests, slopes and ridges as defined by direction in effect construct a map of the farm. The objective is to create homogeneity in the paddock. There is a reason for this special attention to terrain. A south slope may tend to be dry, but it greens up earliest in spring. A north slope holds its moisture more deliberately, but it lags in furnishing green forage as winter fades away. Obviously, a north and south slope in the same paddock might lead to over­grazing, under-grazing, premature grazing, even late grazing, all in the same poorly designed paddock.

The key word is flexibility. A swamp area might be generally off-limits, and its forage might be demanded when a dry cycle arrives perhaps once or twice a decade. Such an area suggests use only as needed.

The purpose for holding woodland off-limits in the Salatin scheme is to grow wood chips and carbon when grazing is not acceptable. When the soil is dormant and grazing is not accept­able, carbon comes to the fore. It’s in demand for poultry in the hoop houses, cows in the hay shed, for pigs in vacated rooting areas.

Other farmers in other climes graze the forest. But this Vir­ginia farmer draws sunlight via the agency of photosynthesis for his animals just the same, this by transporting carbon into the open land.

Woods have a unique function. Mycorrhizae thrive in the shade, and a carbon-rich soil builds and holds in escrow the very carbon that open swards demand. Some cattle growers tap forest-floor soil for direct feeding to cattle. Cows yearn for this carbon, and some root for it. As a compost starter, a live forest floor is nonparallel.

Forage obeys the rhythm of the season. As a consequence, bulk production seasonably outpaces nutritional needs of the herd or grazing animal population. Salatin calls hay “deferred grazing” — “We’re taking that growth spike in May and deferring it to the dormant season.”

A basic objective of the Salatin handling equation is to keep urine and animal manures off the soil when it is freezing. “The soil is the earth’s stomach,” the Shenandoah Valley farmer says. “It is alive and well.” In fact, the soil microorganisms go dormant when frost penetrates the soil. Composters know this and all but the most skilled defer composting chores when the temperature drops below 50 F. In process, compost heat will sustain a windrow or pile. But a compost procedure traded off a below freezing temperature will likely flicker and go out, if such a metaphor can be allowed.

The art of building in suspension the 50-pound mother lode of manure with tree carbon pending the arrival of spring is as much a part of forage management as regulating the grazing term of the grass itself.

That forage management is no armchair job became evident to Salatin some two decades ago. Observation told him that feeding in the open was counterproductive. Not only were feedstuffs wasted, the stomping and urine mixed feeds are often eaten, with resultant infection being passed along replete with a full measure of debilitation. Fed in the hay shed, manure mixed with carbon, a measure of pre-digestion of manure takes place. Pests get their comeuppance in the wintery pile, this from the cold of a January spread. The identical manure fix is spread around at the beginning of March. By April the first spreading has disappeared. The March spreading atop the earlier distribution produces a lush stand of forage, dark green and loaded with minerals. Of all plants on planet Earth, grass is the grand champion in uptake of minerals.

The key to sanitation is feeding hay from a bulk feeder and maintaining a carbon-nitrogen ratio of 30 to 1. Over 30 to 1 destroys the compost, under 30 to 1 means smells take over because there is not enough carbon to suck up the nutrients. As manure is deposited by the animal, the ratio is 18 to 1. Sawdust clocks in at 500 to 1, wood chips are about 20 to 1, straw is about 60 to 1, and junk hay is about 35 to 1.

There is more art than science to forage management. When cows are out in the field in January and February, they do a lot of foraging damage. This takes five or six years to correct.

Cowmen scoff at the Salatin system and only a few deign to try it. Once the cows leave their winter feeding quarters, Salatin brings on his “pigaerators.” The pigaerators go through the compost “like big eggbeaters,” in effect oxygenating the anaerobic material, converting it from anaerobic to aerobic. Pigs love this chore at least as much as they enjoy rooting in a damp forest floor.

This preservation of the economic value of manure is seldom computed by bean counters, but the values are real just the same. Instead of expensive machines doing the work, pigs earn the value of their keep. Is it realistic to compute a value of 50 cents a day for the value of each cow’s manure? Bookkeepers with an eco-farming background would say so.

The business of using pigs to aerate carbon-laced manure led Salatin to the realization that pigs like cleanliness, especially the cleanliness that attends grazing. This back-to-basics fellow views turning machines, windrows and picture-book refinement as Neanderthal stuff, especially when animals are fairly aching to go on breaking records delivering value to the bottom line.

It’s all a point of view. An animal compost-turner might well be considered an appreciating rather than a depreciating piece of equipment. In terms of accounting, the profit potential becomes size-neutral simply because it is no longer a requirement for grow­ers to capitalize all the green or orange equipment the clanging mart has to offer, all of it to be depreciated. Even a small farm can survive if it buys its “tractor” for $30 and sells it for $400 after its work is done.

Pigs make short work of their composting chore. This leaves some four months of work-free tractor-growing time.

Grazing pigs is an art for which the time has come. Salatin explains, “The pigs have a low center of gravity. They avoid the electric fence and enter their specially prepared converted forest. The trees have been chipped. Branches have been converted to chips. Firewood has been saved. Saw logs have been milled. Pig pastures have been divided into quarter-acre lots.”

Each species inspects the land as they graze it. The long-term goal is a sustainable savannah. Merely cutting the timber won’t produce pasture. The succeeding growth on the Virginia land­scape would be brambles, brush, blueberries, not forage. Pigs impact soil the way they close up the lack in a farm. This is a negative for long-term gain. It has been reckoned that some 40 species of seeds per square yard shower down on this future pas­ture, origin the environment. Here art comes into play. Left too long, the soil becomes so compacted that nothing will grow, and erosion will be the legacy. Not left long enough, brambles and briars reclaim the area. In quarter-acre paddocks, a single ton of supplemental grain works perfectly as a measuring stick for the paddock moving to forage.

Pigs are omnivores — they can eat shrubs, forage, grain, even alfalfa hay.

Free-range swine do not comply with the much-advertised “other white meat” of TV fame. Grazier and all-around diversified farmer Joel Salatin hoots at the slogan. “They ought to say the other white, slovenly, lack-of-nutrition, no-taste, cardboard junk meat!”

When pork is raised in fresh air and sunshine with green for­age, the meat has a deep rose color and has a greater density. The texture is different, and the taste is out of this world.

These rocky Appalachian pastures are rotated only three times a year, Salatin said. A six or seven time rotation, as with cattle, and the land goes backwards. Used as directed, the three pig pastures described above net $13,000 an acre. The count: three pig pastures, two acres each, eight quarter-acre paddocks in between, two strands of electric fence, one 4 inches off the ground, a second 12 inches off the ground, the electricity supplied by solar fence chargers.

Feeding supplemental grain seemingly does not affect the desired omega-3/omega-6 ratio. The reason is forage.

All animals, even dogs, eat forage. Even carnivores like a salad now and then. There is an aside to this comment on the vegetable question: Once vegetarians learn that the landscape can be healed with animals, it helps remove the guilt from eating animals.

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About the Author:

Charles Walters founded Acres U.S.A. and completed more than a dozen books as he edited the Acres U.S.A. magazine, while co-authoring several more. A tireless traveler, Walters journeyed around the world to research sustainable agriculture, and his trip to China in 1976 inspired others. By the time of his death in 2009, Charles Walters could honestly say he changed the world for the better.

More By Charles Walters:

Browse the Charles Walters Collection for all of his titles and works.

Similar Books of Interest:

Salad Bar Beef, by Joel Salatin

Kick the Hay Habitby Jim Gerrish

Comeback Farmsby Greg Judy

Managing Pasture: A Complete Guide to Building Healthy Pasture for Grass-Based Meat & Dairy Animalsby Dale Strickler