I need more customers. But not for the obvious reason. I need more customers because something remarkable is happening on the land and in the soil here at Wrong Direction Farm. Our farm is waving its leafy appendages at us, asking for more cattle.
Before we moved here in 2011, all the ground that wasn’t swampy or tree-covered had been cut for hay year after year. Making hay just involves mowing the grass, drying it in the sun, and baling it up. Haymaking as a practice is fine in itself, but when all that vegetative growth is exported off the farm year after year, it tends to create soil fertility problems. Removing tons of hay displaces the embedded stores of carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, and all the other important minerals.
As we began farming, we wanted to do things differently to begin the process of regeneration, so we started by keeping all the grass on the farm, and then added cattle to graze the fields. At first, the forage wasn’t great because of the depleted soil fertility. We’d graze 25 head of cattle and that reached the limit of the farm’s grass resources.
Fast forward to today, and we have a herd of about 50 cattle and we encounter the situation that our farm is growing far more grass than we have cattle to eat it. Hence my need for more customers so I can raise more cattle to eat all this leafy abundance. Properly managed, cattle improve soil fertility and create more plant growth, which in turn supports more cattle. This isn’t magic — it’s all real and measurable — but it seems hard to believe that the soil fertility resources within one farm can be so extendable.
Let’s talk about soil fertility, and then talk about cows.
Soils Aren’t Born, They’re Made
Dig down in your yard below the topsoil and you’ll arrive at a subsoil level which will be the raw clay, sand, or gravelly substrate naturally present in your area. On our farm this is a dense clay or, in some places, a clay-gravel mixture. Plants can’t do much with this subsoil because it has very little carbon, the building block for sugar (remember CHO from high school bio?), which is the fundamental resource for plant growth. Subsoil also lacks the microbial community life of the topsoil. Over recent years plant science has begun to understand just how critical fungal networks and bacterial activity are to proper nutrient cycling, carbon sequestration, and water absorption.
Plants on their own can slowly transform subsoil into topsoil as they capture atmospheric carbon and store it in their stems, leaves, and roots. When one generation of plants dies and decomposes, that captured carbon becomes the basis for soil organic matter to support future generations of plants. Over a process of many years, organic matter accumulates and the topsoil layer grows.
The important flow to understand is that atmospheric carbon becomes plant material which then becomes soil organic matter which then supports the biological activity belowground which then supports the biological activity aboveground. There’s endless opportunity to further study the complexities of each aspect, but bearing this cycle in mind should give us sufficient background to understand the next big thing: adding an animal.
How Cattle Make Soil
Adding a cow to a grassy field shifts the curve of soil building dramatically (and this has been true for ecosystems over time whether we’re talking about a deer, a bison, a wooly mammoth, or a brontosaurus). But I should preface everything here by saying that adding cattle only helps the soil insofar as we do it in a responsible way that mimics their natural role in grazing. In wild grasslands, herbivores never remain in one place for long. Pressure from predators and changing seasonal conditions keep them on the move. We replicate this with daily moves as we rotate the cattle through small paddocks. Keeping cattle in the same field all the time leads to a bunch of negative outcomes, so we should be careful to note that cattle can be a biological tool, capable of being used for good or for ill.
By practicing this movement-based grazing on our farm we’ve seen grass fed cattle stimulate soil fertility in three important ways:
1. Trampling. This likely isn’t the first thing to come to mind, but I believe it is the most important part large animals play in creating soil fertility. The cattle step on plants, and with their hooves they crush plant material into contact with the soil. The trampled leaves and stems rot, increasing the amount of organic matter (carbon) in the soil. In a heavy ice and snow environment like ours, all the grasses are eventually flattened each winter, but by grazing cattle through a field three to five times each year we can increase the amount of carbon that gets cycled back into the ground. In effect we double or triple the amount of carbonaceous material going into the soil compared to an ungrazed field just by trampling.
2. Grazing. Unlike mowing, which cuts off all plants close to the ground, animals are selective grazers when given the chance. If we were to lock cattle in a field for a long time, they’d eventually eat everything, but when we rotate them, they tend to just select the most nutritious parts of the plants, usually the youngest leaves and leaf tips. The next day we move them to another pasture and the grasses have a month or two to recover. Because we don’t cut the plants off at the base, they still have plenty of leaf area to continue photosynthesis. Pasture plants have ancient adaptations to this kind of selective grazing, so they are stimulated by grazing and actually grow better with occasional grazing. With periodic grazing we can actually grow more plant material tonnage per acre and do more photosynthesis than if we left those plants to grow for a whole year without animal access.
3. Pooping. Of course! The manure doesn’t create any extra carbon besides what the cattle ingested from the grasses, but what is special about manure is that it is biologically enhanced plant matter. It lands on the ground finely digested, fermented, and mixed with enzymes and bacterial inoculants. It sounds unappealing to us, but a plant sees this as a delicious smoothie! In our pastures during the summer most of the manure pats disappear within a couple of weeks. Between combined activities of plants, bacteria, fungi, insects, earthworms, and birds, large cow pies quickly are crumbled into tiny bits of organic matter that are then incorporated into the soil.
More Cows Needed
So, after a decade of practicing regenerative agriculture, we’re seeing the results in the grass under our feet. It is growing so fast that the cattle can’t keep up with it. I estimate that we could support 40% more cattle on our farm. If we could grow our customer base enough, we would gladly add the extra cattle. It has been harder to grow the sales side of the farm than it has to grow the soil fertility. But if we ever get there, I’ll be interested to find out what will happen when we are fully stocked. My guess is that we’ll find that fertility will make another jump. We won’t be able to add cattle indefinitely, but I believe that we’re just beginning to tap into the capacities of our soils as we rebuild them into a healthier, more biologically active state.
What’s not to love about a regeneratively grown grass fed beef burgers? It checks all of the boxes that are important to me. It provides essential nutrition. It is food locally grown. It supports a farming family. It improves soil and water resources. And, of course, it tastes great.