I’ve spoken with people who prioritize purchasing American grass fed beef specifically to avoid some of the terrible problems associated with Brazilian deforestation: all the illegal cutting, burning, and depopulation involved in adding cattle grazing acreage in the Amazon. By purchasing USA-sourced grass fed beef, they want to find an alternative to this destruction. And this approach seems like it should work. But it doesn’t always pan out that way.
Chances are good, if you’ve eaten grass fed beef from a restaurant or from a grocery store, that you’ve bought Grass Run Farms beef. Most of their beef is sold to food service businesses and grocery distribution. They also market their products online for direct-to-home delivery, making them one of the better known brands in the American grass fed marketplace. Their slogan is “Grass Fed Beef, Born, Pasture-Raised, and Harvested in the USA”. I’m all for grass fed beef, and I’m all for domestic production.
But, the catch… I believe there’s a significant tie-in between Grass Run Farms beef and illegal deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.
Like other brands, Grass Run Farms labels itself with the word “farm” in the name. But they are not a farm in any true sense of the word. They are actually a subsidiary of the world’s largest meat processor, JBS. JBS started out as a small Brazilian butcher business, but it has morphed into a world-dominating superpower, buying up companies around the world with dizzying speed. In the United States, they’ve acquired giants such as Swift Foods, Smithfield’s beef division, Cargill’s pork division, and they own controlling shares in other companies like Pilgrim’s Pride. And, to cover all the bases, they own plant-based alt-meat company Planterra Foods, makers of Ozo products.
And herein lies the problem: JBS has a well-documented pattern of political corruption, shameless food tampering, and persistent environmental destruction.
An Ugly History
Let’s discuss a few of the most egregious items associated with JBS from the past fifteen years. I’ll supply links to reporting for each item, so you can be assured I’m not just making this up.
In 2017 the owners admitted they bribed 1,800 Brazilian officials in exchange for government backed loans. Flush with funding from the illegally-obtained loans, they bought their way into their US-based business holdings.
JBS is also notorious for a scheme to blend rotten meat with additives, passing it off as wholesome and then exporting it around the world.
This year they’ve settled two US lawsuits, one for chicken price fixing and another for doing the same with pork. Then this summer the Justice Department landed another antitrust lawsuit on them again.
Never squeamish, they have been accused of buying their cattle from ranches that use slave labor. And buying cattle from ranchers that massacred squatters. And selling contaminated container loads of chicken to Europe (and when European regulators rejected some of the loads, shipping the condemned chicken back home and selling it to Brazilians).
Stripping the Amazon
The latest outrage for JBS is a new report demonstrating that they are increasing the number of cattle they purchase from illegally cleared Amazon lands. In 2020, 301,000 cattle came from “irregular” ranches in the Amazon. These are ranches operating on land that is not set aside for clearcutting and burning. These ranches are often built on land seized from indigenous inhabitants who are ejected without recourse.
Despite talk about their commitment to clean up their act, they are doubling down on duplicity. The number of cattle puchased from these sources last year is a significant increase from previous years. Investigations shows that JBS buys these illegal cattle through schemes that amount to cattle laundering. “Dirty” cows get sold to an intermediary with a legitimate feedlot, and then those cows are passed on as “clean” into the JBS slaughterhouses.
As past audits have flagged irregularities, JBS made commitments to change its ways. But this rapid rise in illegal cattle tells us more about what they are really doing. They are buying whatever makes them the most money.
I found it especially telling that in response to criticism, they committed the equivalent of $908,265 to clean up their supply chain. But that amounts to $3 per beefer. How much change are they going to make for $3? That works out to a cost of a half penny per pound of carcass weight as restitution. That’s absurd. And insulting.
The Sins of the Father
In its defense, one might note that Grass Run Farms is a subsidiary of JBS, and that as such it can’t be accused of the parent company’s sins. Perhaps, if we wish to extend generosity, we could imagine that there exists a moral firewall between the two companies, that Grass Run Farms is incorruptible, and that the dirty dealing at JBS never diffuses across the membrane boundary between the two businesses.
For the sake of argument, let’s stipulate that Grass Run Farms is not responsible for JBS’ litany of misdeeds. In fact, let’s go so far as to say that they are the most upright folks imaginable. We still should consider the issue of the complicity of sales dollars. High-value sales of grass fed beef in the US allow JBS to continue its worst behaviors back in the Amazon. This is not a company that has stumbled here and there. This is a company that consistently chooses profit over any kind of integrity. Our purchases of their 100% domestically produced beef today bankroll the environmental and social destruction in Brazil tomorrow. This is uncomfortable, but incontrovertible. Profits from Grass Run Farms serve to enrich JBS, and JBS has a consistent history of bad acting.
If Somali pirates started a side-line brand producing exquisite artisanal goat cheeses while keeping the piracy gig going, or if my neighborhood fentanyl dealer also spent Saturdays at the craft fair making hand-knitted sweaters with local wool, I’d still have a moral problem in doing business with criminals. I don’t see much difference in analogy there to what is happening with domestic “clean” beef sales providing cover for dirty deeds, done dirt cheap.
The underlying message in all this is that by blindly purchasing products based on cleverly-worded marketing campaigns, we can unwittingly contribute to suffering and destruction. To the extent that we are ignorant about our purchases, we must realize that we trade convenience for complicity. But we don’t need to keep doing that. We can do better.
By buying our food from farmers within our own local food production regions, we can ensure that the effects of our purchases are contained to the area in which we live. For instance, if our local farmers are either polluting our water or purifying our water, that’s the water we’ll be drinking. We might feel more inclined to be careful about it. We aren’t externalizing the problem on people in other continents. This kind of regionalism makes us responsible for the circumstances around us.
Local purchases are traceable, knowable. My customers can visit my farm or look at the candid shots on our farm’s Instagram account. They can call and talk directly to me. It is easy to verify whether or not I’m being real about what is happening here at Wrong Direction Farm. And that isn’t unique to my farm. It is a built-in protection for anyone buying directly from a farmer. This holds true for beef, broccoli, or blueberries.
Find your farmer. Learn about their work, what they produce, why they produce it, what struggles they have, what they’ve learned. Our family would love to be your farmer, but we’re just one small farm. There are lots of farmers out there. Find the farmers that work well with you, and then participate in building up your local agriculture. We can do better if we work together.
Tom turkeys are utterly confident in their ability to impress the world. With no regard to subtlety, they are incurable preeners. Have a look at our turkeys out on the pasture as they do their best to impress each other.
Hey this is Dave from Wrong Direction Farm, just hanging out here with the turkeys. There they are. They’re all proud and puffed up and getting blue in the face, just trying to show off. Look at this guy. Now he is really impressed with himself. He wants us to be impressed with him too. His face has gone really nice blue. His snood is dangling all the way down. He’s got all the skin on his neck – it’s all engorged, all red. He’s in full mating display. He thinks he’s something.
Let me stop and ask the hen what she thinks.
What do you think?
Impressed? Seen it before? Seen it all before? Yeah, that’s what I thought.
Just not that impressive, man.
I wanted to show you something about turkeys. Maybe you don’t know, but they have what we call a beard. Yeah, tom turkeys have a beard. Let’s take a look. You see that clump of dark feathering on the breast? That’s the beard.
Looks like a brush actually.
Unlike chicken roosters, whose mating displays are limited to feather puffing and a few dance moves, turkeys make much of on gaudy displays. Body feathers puff up, tail feathers fan out, wings are held off the body with the tips of the flight feathers dragging along the ground. The black wiry beard becomes prominent. All along the neck, the caruncles are engorged and red. The face turns blue. The snood extends and extends, transforming from a tiny nub to a six inch long dangler across the face. Then the turkeys begin vocalizing with aggressive exhalations.
To me, they just look ridiculous. But they take themselves completely seriously.
It is easy to make the instinctive assumption, as a sighted human, that the animals on the farm interact with the world in the same way I do. The more I consider that, the less plausible the idea seems. My perceptions of place and setting are predominantly visually determined. Sound, scent, and taste each also inform me, but these are less significant in degree compared to sight.
It is fascinating to study cattle grazing. As I observe them eating, I get the impression that their noses are at least of equal importance as their eyes.
I found some discussion in a research paper stating that humans have 387 functional olfaction genes and dogs, with their amazing sense of smell, have 811 genes. Knowing what we know of dogs and their ability to track scents and even to detect diseases by smell, it isn’t surprising that they are so well equipped. But cattle have 970 genes just for olfaction, more than dogs have! Imagine your police department replacing canines with bovines for search and rescue. And drug sniffing cows at the airport!
We inhale air through two mostly downward-facing nostrils to detect odors, but cattle have scent detection on the large exterior surface of their noses as well as inside their nostrils. Their sinus cavity is longer and wider, providing more surface area for olfaction. Because their nostrils are larger, forward facing, and flexible, they possess the ability to directionally detect odors. Essentially their noses are a grass-driven targeting system.
When cattle are grazing in tall grass, their visual field is truncated by the dense foliage. We know from cattle behavior that they have relatively poor depth perception and that they experience difficulty processing visually complicated, high contrast novel environments. But despite these challenges with eyesight, when given the opportunity to choose between higher quality and lower quality forage, cattle use their noses to inform their other senses to select the most nutritious grasses.
As they move through the world, cattle are constantly judging grasses and leaves with the assured swagger of connoisseurs. And this isn’t strictly about flavor or basic nutrients like sugars and proteins. There is evidence that cattle will choose specific plants for their mineral content or medicinal properties. It seems that they develop a scent-memory. I learn to identify a dandelion leaf by its scalloped edge, but my cows probably know it more by smell. They know things about their world that I will never know because I can’t discern the same spectrum of odors.
By rotating the cattle through diverse pastures, hedgerows, woods, even clearing brush, we can give them access to a variety of grasses and leafy plants. Instead of feeding our cattle a premixed grain and hay ration at a feed bunk, we allow them to prioritize their dietary needs based on the plants they choose to eat. This is just another way that well-managed grazing and grass fed beef are superior to grain feeding cattle in feedlots. We allow them to use their noses to find what they need in their next bite. Let the cattle be cattle. They know best what to do with grasses.
With regret I revved the chainsaw and began removing branches from the old apple tree. A minor heartache always accompanies the elimination of tree, especially one that carries the story of long-gone farmers in its body. I am sad to see the wizened old apple tree reduced to firewood and wood chips for the garden paths.
Somewhere about 1910 our side yard was planted in an orchard. Judging by stumps and the remaining trees, the orchard contained either 12 or 24 apple trees. All the remaining trees have rotted cores, implausibly remaining standing year after year. They each attempt to set fruit, but in their exhausted condition they never manage to bring the apples to maturity. The orchard is worn out. But I delay cutting these trees down; they have earned their senescence.
This particular apple tree lost a main limb during a wind storm in August. It was beyond hope, cracked through the core and collapsing everywhere. It was time to go.
What set this tree apart from the others was the grafting work of some forgotten farm hand. Members of the family that used to own this farm told me stories that had been passed on to them that about this tree. They were able to tell me that the farm laborer had been known as a green thumb, but his name and story are lost. Everyone admired the three varieties of apples that were grafted as separate leaders on the tree. Even after all these years the irregular scars remained visible from that man’s knife cutting in those grafts.
With this apple tree gone, we make room for new food bearing plants. I cleared the brush and vines, graded out the dirt, and started planning for the next cycle in creating an edible landscape. This area will get a row of hazelnuts near the road, with a row of blueberries next to it.
I wish I could know more of the history of all the people and work on this place, of all the choices and decisions of people who stood in this spot. Our knowledge of its history only becomes detailed around 1900, with a few scattered records from 1850. But people have been farming and hunting in this spot for many hundreds or thousands of years in one way or other. I wish for a time machine to create a meeting of all the people over all the generations who have lived and worked and intimately known this small area of land with its exposed glacial drumlin ridgeline and its narrow slotted valley. I would be fascinated to hear how they lived and how this place provided for them.
In my place, I can only know a little. A little of the people who have come before. A little of what I’m doing now. Perhaps I’ll pass on a hint to the person who comes next. The trees I cut down and the trees I plant leave witness marks of the work our family did here at this time.
This is a good place. It can provide for the needs of its inhabitants if we can match our conception of abundance to the plants and animals that thrive here, and if we can contour our lives to the patterns this land demands demands of us. I sincerely hope the work I do now can contribute to the life of the next person to stand in this spot, and the person after that.
I’ve been working an experiment at home with my youngest son, Harry. We’ve been studying propaganda. I’d like him to learn to find his way through complicated issues, being able to see the factors that influence the way agendas influence the spread of information and disinformation. He needs to learn more about the ways in which facts, hunches, misunderstandings, and lies are blended together to concoct a winning narrative.
I don’t want to make him agnostic toward ideas, but I’d like to help him develop discernment. I want him to be able to hold knowledge and opinions with the gentle grasp of someone comfortable in complexity, not with the clenched claws of reductive, binary thinking.
To that end, we’ve launched into a project of watching a series of videos and documentaries opposing meat and animal agriculture, along with other films that promote meat-based farming and diets. It is a jarring, clashing experience with earnest voices on each side. Facts and statistics flash across the screen. Dire warnings, black and white footage of disasters cut into the videos at bleak moments. Studies cited, check. PhD-credentialed interviewees, check. Emotional appeals, check. Hollywood actors, check (at least for the big budget documentaries).
What We’re Finding
I chose the topic of meat and veganism for a few reasons. First, and obviously, because it is a topic that I’ve been immersed in. Second, because Harry, even at 12 years old, knows more about both animal farming and plant farming than many of the talking heads presenting from either side of the argument. It is something to behold when a middle schooler casually throws out a line of thinking that undermines the credibility of published scholarship… Third, because farming remains one of the highest-stake issues for our thriving as a species.
In this plant vs meat genre, it seems that heated factionalism is rife. We should emphasize that both positions share significant common goals and obstacles. Perhaps the strongest indication that we’re encountering propaganda reveals itself when we notice the narrative intentionally avoiding opportunities to explore that common ground. Common ground opens up opportunities for empathy, and nothing ruins a good rant like empathy.
Overlooked Common Ground
Regardless of the position on the vegetable vs animal argument one arrives at, both factions should recognize that the current system of food production is failing us profoundly even while it feeds us more food, and cheaper food, than ever before.
On the supply side, we all know that things are ruinously flawed, with the galloping hoofbeats all around us of the four horsemen of the agripocalypse: Commodification, Chemicals, Confinement, and Concentration. So vegans and regenerative ranchers can both place the blame on market manipulation, counterproductive and captured regulatory apparatus, and dysfunctional incentive structures. And they both do mention these problems frequently. But interestingly, they often paint their adversaries as conspiring with the enemies. So vegans present grass fed beef farmers as shills for the larger beef feedlot systems. And the grass fed cattlemen point out the ways in which veganism further entrenches monoculture farming. More honesty would be appropriate, but this might not play as well to the camera.
On the demand side, it is curious to note that most documentaries are hesitant to place blame on another big C-word: Consumerism. It would be an easier message to convey if we would at least pretend that consumers aren’t to blame. Or if they are blameworthy, the problems exist only because they don’t know better. I believe that consumers are completely culpable because we are all, as a society, complicit in creating this world. All of our choices, even the ones in which we have the least freedom to choose, collectively render the outcomes that exist. This kind of responsibility becomes diffuse and difficult to reckon. But I think it matters to acknowledge it. I create the problem. Harry creates the problem. You, reader, create the problem. Vegans create the problem. Carnivores create the problem. If we wish to solve an enormous shared problem, we cannot do it by alienating a large portion of ourselves.
So Who Is Right?
Someone wrote to me recently about righteousness in activism. I think that is an important topic. As an advocate for my style of farming, it is easy to fall into habits of proclaiming the rightness of what I’m doing. I know that I slip over that edge. It is probably inevitable for any person with deep feelings for something.
But righteousness always stains us the more we try to handle it. When we are most convinced of the rightness of our cause, we consistently allow ourselves to do unjust things in defense of a just cause. Human history is replete with examples of unethical actions taken in the name of higher ethics. So when we straw-man our opponents because the YouTube algorithms reward vehemence over verity or because streaming services rank engagement over entente, we inadvertently reveal the flawed foundations of our precious positions.
I’m eager to see where this project takes Harry and me. For it to be successful, we don’t need to abandon our ideas or preferences. But I want to be us to be better observers, to notice the places where propaganda creeps into narratives, both the narratives we support and the ones we oppose.
I produced a video showing how we move our turkeys on pasture. Yes, our turkeys are certified organic. And while that is important, it only tells you that their feed is free of pesticides, herbicides, GMOs, hormones, and antibiotics. The other critical piece is that our turkeys are moving to fresh grass on pasture. This is what makes pasture-raised a giant improvement over supposedly “free range” poultry.
This video shows how we make those pasture movements happen for our turkeys.
Hi, I’m Dave, your farmer from Wrong Direction Farm.
I’d like to show you today how we move our turkeys on pasture. (I think this video will actually use footage from a few different days because I’ve had some technical difficulties filming so you might see a few outfit changes and a few weather changes.)
On our farm we move our turkeys on pasture and we constantly keep them on the move. You know, if you look at a farm that’s labeled as free range, that’s a marketing term and that really describes raising turkeys or chickens in a barn. They’re barn raised birds and they have some outdoor access. Now in practical terms what outdoor access usually turns into very quickly actually is a dirt patch that then when it rains it becomes a mud patch. You know turkeys and chickens, they like to graze, they like to scratch. They’re digging in the ground for bugs. When they do that they’ll disrupt the grass layer and if we allow them to stay on one patch of ground too long they’ll just totally tear it up.
So we don’t want to you know let them destroy the soil by stripping all the plants off the surface. What we want to do is to kind of stimulate the soil by having the plants be disrupted temporarily (one, two, three days), and then the birds are gone. They’re on to the next patch of grass and they won’t be back on this pasture again for another year.
Now that level of disturbance is something we find that can actually stimulate the plant growth. It allows the turkeys to scratch in some of the thatch layer that builds up on top. And it allows the plants to grow up more vigorously in the future. So when we talk about regenerative farming, you know, this kind of pasture management is an important aspect of that. So let’s get the turkeys on the move.
The first thing we’ll do is to move the fences, and then we’ll move their shelter. That has a water trailer tagged on behind it so that’ll drag along with it. And then we’ll move the feeders and set up the fences again and maybe spend a little time with the turkeys. Hey there! You want to get in on, yeah, you want to get in on the shot? All right, let’s get at it.
So when we move the turkeys we actually have to move these net fences. We have these set up all over the edge of the field and these are portable fences. They’re plastic twine but they’ve got little stainless steel filaments in here to conduct the electricity. So once the turkeys learn about these fences, they get shocked on it a few times, they pretty much stay away from them. It keeps the turkeys in a contained area for a little while and then we can move the fence to the next spot. These fences are also really effective at keeping predators like coyotes out. Once the coyotes touch their noses to this they don’t want to come back and touch it again.
And yeah, if you’re wondering, we get shocked on these things all the time. I’ve got it turned off right now; obviously I’m touching the fence. But yeah, somehow I always manage to forget when I’ve got it shut off and I get blasted. It just hurts for a split second and then it goes away it’s a very short — I forget what fraction of a millisecond it is — but it’s a high voltage, very short duration pulse. So it’s just enough to let you know, “OK, let’s not do that again”. Apparently, it teaches the turkeys but not me.
So to keep the turkeys mobile we make sure that all their infrastructure is also portable. And so you can see behind me is their roosting shelter the turkeys don’t need as much protection as chickens from the outdoors. They’re much hardier birds and so they just have this: basically it’s a shade and it keeps a little bit of the rain off of them. It gives them a place to roost at night. They like to perch up on top of something. So this is an old trailer that we’ve converted to just have a slotted floor in it so the turkeys can roost along the slats.
And then over here we have some of the range feeders. These get filled up with about 800 pounds of feed and I can move them back to the grain bin when it’s time to refill them. And then when we’re moving the turkeys we just hook the tractor up and scoot them along to the new patch of grass. So that’s what we’ll be doing today
So here we are the turkeys are on fresh grass. I think they’re doing pretty well. Thanks for watching.
Movement through our pastures makes all the difference: for our turkeys, for our pastures, and for all of us eating turkey. If we left the turkeys in what would qualify for free range, or those brands selling kinda-sorta pasture raised in supermarkets and from meat delivery companies, we’d find that instead of pasture, our turkeys would be out on bare dirt. Turkeys are intense grazers, pecking and eating leaves. They also hunt for bugs and scratch up the litter layer at the soil surface.
If we were to allow the turkeys to park in an area for any length of time, we’d find a mess of bare dirt. In dry climates this results in dusty, cracked soil with a few inedible weeks. In our high rainfall climate we would find ourselves in a muddy swamp. In either case, free range permits a destructive kind of mismanagement that mistreats the soil and mistreats the plants. This cascades into water problems, both from runoff and from poor percolation due to compaction. And of course, the turkeys get little benefit. I suppose free range dirt paddocks are better than keeping turkeys stuck inside a barn, but they aren’t getting the healthy benefits of eating nutritious grass and bugs.
It shouldn’t be surprising that turkeys raised on lush grass with a cycle of pasture rotations and recovery periods for the plants turn out to make superior food for us. These turkeys are healthier and stronger.
Now, I’ll admit, we do trade off some growth rates to raise turkeys this way. But I don’t see that as a bad thing. Barn raised turkeys can grow faster, but pasture raised turkeys are actually getting exercise, so they are spending some of their calories on building functional muscles, bones, and tendons.
When you are eating our certified organic, pasture raised turkey, you’ll know the difference immediately. Whether it is a weekday meal with ground turkey or a Thanksgiving whole roast turkey, the taste is rich and pleasing. This is how turkeys should taste. The flavor tells the story of all the daily work we put in moving turkeys to the best grass throughout the farm.
This week I was able to make a contribution to a reporting piece regarding the supply-chain side of Thanksgiving turkey sales, published over at allrecipes.com.
Check it out here.
It was fun to have a part in the discussion from the small farmer perspective, since all the other voices were from much larger organizations.
I provided a little background about how we do our forecasting and the factors that go into the production cycle for turkeys. Since we focus on pasture raised turkeys, we can’t just grow out huge numbers of turkeys year-round. Our farming schedule is more seasonally influenced to ensure that our turkeys are on grass.
We start planning for the next season’s Thanksgiving turkeys in the winter, so we have to make some guesses on the number of turkeys to raise. In 2020 we kept our turkey numbers flat year over year and planned for smaller turkeys due to quarantine restrictions. For 2021 we bumped up the number of turkeys by about 10% and aimed for a slightly larger bird, anticipating more Thanksgiving gatherings and bigger groups of people compared to the previous year. Hopefully I guessed correctly. Ask me about it at the end of November…
And yes, if you are looking for a Thanksgiving turkey, we have them! Our certified organic, pasture raised turkeys are available for home delivery to folks living in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and all of New England.
Early fall is the time of year when our cattle wear crowns of burdock. Great big gaudy gobs of it. As I mentioned recently, grass fed beef is a bit of misnomer, since we’re actually aiming for a more diverse diet consisting grasses and a wide variety of leafy pasture plants that aren’t technically grasses. Burdock is a plant found on disturbed ground and along the margins of our fields. At this time of year it is evident when the cattle have found a patch of burdock because pieces of it are stuck all over them.
Burdock in the Pasture
Burdock is a highly nutritious pasture plant. It’s main stalk becomes coarse and inedible as the summer progresses, but the leaves remain palatable all season long. With its deep tap root the plant is able to extract minerals from deep in the soil profile. I have removed thick burdock roots more than two feet long.
In several cultures, spanning from Japan all the way to our local Amish herbalists, burdock roots, leaves, and seeds all find use in human foods, medicines, and salves. I hesitate to use the language of hype and call anything a superfood, but I’ll at least state that burdock is a desirable plant for humans and for the livestock and wildlife on our farm.
Our chickens nibble at it on pasture, but turkeys are especially fond of the leaves and methodically peck away until the plant is stripped down to the bare stalk. Wild turkeys also eat the seeds during the winter. Our farm turkeys don’t eat the seeds, but I think that is because the seeds require a lot of work, so the turkeys turn to it only after they’ve eaten all the easy food. We’ve noticed that our cattle love burdock and will graze it from early spring through the fall.
But all is not peace and love with burdock. They spread their seeds with burrs. As much as I try to appreciate the plant, the omnipresent burrs test the limits of my enthusiasm.
According to the official company history, burdock inspired the invention of Velcro. Upon close inspection, this makes sense. Each of the seed pods is covered in a dense spherical array of fine spines with hooked ends. Once the seeds reach maturity, the plants wall off the connection to the burr, priming it to be ready to detach. The slightest contact with a hairy beast or a clothed human allows the barbs to hook on and hitch a ride.
Starting in September and especially during October and November, the burrs are just itching to snag the unwary passer by. Our cattle wear crowns of burdock on their heads, often with a few extra baubles stuck to their ears. The switch end of their tails can become knotted clubs of burrs. They graze serenely, apparently unaware or unconcerned that they are carrying clusters of seed pods.
I don’t actually hate the burrs. Perhaps if I had a flock of wool sheep I would, since it doesn’t take much to ruin the value of a fleece. But I can’t find enough generosity in my heart to love them either.
The burrs are just pesky. When I wander into a patch of tall grass and brush, no matter how careful I am, I leave with burrs attached to my clothes. They are most adept at clinging tightly to my wool flannel work jacket or any knit garment. And then there’s the delayed aggravation when some of them make their way through a load of laundry. The seed head falls apart and the spines are dispersed among all the clothing. It seems that socks and the elastic waistbands of underwear are the ideal places for a few errant spines to hide out, creating a slowly building annoyance of abrasion.
Burdock and Invasion
Burdock is one of many plants that cause me to reflect on the messy realities of living and farming in a complicated world. Burdock is certainly an invasive species in the Western Hemisphere. It arrived very early with Europeans, either in hay for livestock feed or entangled in the hair of a cow or the wool of a sheep. Those clever little burrs allowed it to opportunistically jump an ocean and then to spread through a new continent.
Ag colleges and farming publications dutifully publish information on controlling burdock. They’ll tell farmers when and how often to mow it and whether it should be sprayed with certain types of herbicides. Their advice is to kill, kill, kill.
At this point, there is no chance of extirpating burdock. It is firmly ensconced throughout North America. For that matter, we’ll never roll back clover, kudzu, earthworms, honeybees (OK, well it seems we just might manage to kill off the honeybees), or all the other invasive plants and animals. Some invasives we universally love (clover), some we universally hate (kudzu). But they’ve settled here and made it their home. If we were to remove them now, after they’ve achieved an equilibrium in the environment, we’d surely create new ripples of imbalance and cascade unintended consequences. They have become the native state, whether we like it or not. At some future point there may be another invasive that threatens the place burdock occupies in the ecosystem.
When I hear people talk about fighting invasive plants, there’s always an implicit understanding that invasives are bad and natives are good. The lines are clearly drawn, and it is our job as good farmers or as good citizens to battle the invaders.
I wonder at the persistence of talk about invasives while the circumstances seem to indicate that any effort will have a low probability of success. And I question the appropriateness of the effort. Sure, I support work to prevent the careless introduction of novel species. But once they are established? I’m not so sure.
Once when selling at a farmers market I met an earnest group of volunteers from a major corporation. They had been recruited to remove invasive weeds from a public space. The weeds were dutifully pulled and stuffed into paper bags to be hauled to the town’s composting center. A few months later, of course, the weeds were back. The weeding effort provided good PR for the corporate sponsor and for the non-profit group organizing the work, and everyone went home with a T-shirt emblazoned with logos and slogans, but nothing changed. It seems improbable that any amount of weekend volunteers could pull enough weeds, and do it often enough, to defeat a plant invader, except in the most limited areas.
If You’ve Got ‘Em, Graze ‘Em
Accepting and finding the best use for the plants that grow seems to be the only appropriate long-term strategy at the landscape level. Sure, in our backyard gardens we can continue to fight weeds mano a mano. But extensive landscapes are different.
A better approach involves identifying the appropriate partner, whether it be humans, cattle, sheep, goats, pigs, turkeys, chickens, pollinators, songbirds, etc., then looking for ways in which the invasive plant functions as a resource. This is a challenge requiring creativity, but it allows us to focus on pragmatic solutions that maximize benefits in the midst of an ever changing world. Can we eat it? Can a farm animal eat it? Can it provide habitat diversity?
Fighting invasives is a task for Sisyphus. The gods have given us enough futility to deal with in our lives. We don’t need to take on his punishment of rolling that particular boulder endlessly up the hill. An undisturbed ecosystem never has existed. There is no golden age to which we can return any patch of ground. But we can make this age a better one by making wise use of the plants around us.
The “regeneration” we speak about in regenerative farming is all about regrowing after something has been severed or broken. But regrowth is not the same as video game respawning. We never return to an identical previous state. Regeneration always carries forward elements of the circumstances in which the regrowth is taking place. If we want to be truly regenerative farmers, we must appreciate the ways in which changing external circumstances will necessarily influence, challenge, harm, and improve our farming.
On our farm, that approach takes burdock and makes it into burdock root tea, grass fed beef, and pasture raised turkey. One invasive and prickly plant can become multiple valuable resources.
Good news! We now have our whole turkeys listed for sale. Certified organic and pasture raised, these are the turkeys you are looking for.
We have a wide variety of sizes available for you. Every year we start our turkey planning for the next year just a few weeks after Thanksgiving. Or rather I like to think of it as planning, but it probably is just complicated guessing. I assumed that for Thanksgiving 2021 we’ll see a rebound in Thanksgiving celebrations compared to last year. So we raised more turkeys and we targeted a slightly larger size. Hopefully I guessed correctly!
I took a few minutes with the chickens out in the pasture to highlight some of the design features and considerations we incorporated into our custom made shelters.
Full Video Transcript
Hi, this is Dave, your farmer from Wrong Direction Farm. Today I’d like to give you a quick tour of our chicken shelters.
We use these shelters on pastures so our chickens always have access to fresh grass. The basic thing we’re trying to accomplish with our chicken shelters is to give the chickens grass underfoot. We need them to be able to move to fresh grass so the whole structure needs to be mobile as we tow it around the pastures on a daily basis.
So we built these shelters – actually we’ve built five of these shelters – that we have here. Over the years we’ve built many types of chicken coops and shelters from very small ones up to the current size we have now.
It’s important to note that chickens are originally an Asian jungle bird and so their ideal environment is not to be out in the direct sunlight out on a totally exposed pasture. They do like to shelter under things and that’s why we’ve given them this covering. It also protects them from predators. You know owls are actually the biggest predator threat we have on our farm. We have hawks and we have eagles and they all will attack a chicken given the chance but owls are kind of the super avian predator around here.
Although they need to be protected from predators we do want them to experience as much of the outdoor goodness as they can get. So we’ve got ventilated sides you can see on here. All the sides of the coops are ventilated. There are actually flaps that we can roll down if there’s a big storm coming in, but almost all the time we just leave them wide open. Maybe in the fall when the weather gets a little cooler we sometimes have to roll them down.
But chickens are out in the sun and you can see (interjection – there’s some little squabble) there you can see there’s some other chickens here resting in the shade. So that’s a pretty good balance.
So let’s take a look at the grain feeders that the chickens use. These are their feeders. These are 50 pound hanging feeders and they are tied through this cable up to a bunch of pulleys on the ceiling that all run down to the other side of the building to a winch mounted up near the hoop.
We’ve also got waterers down here. And these are just little nipples that hang down and the chickens can drink from them. It prevents them from making too much of a mess on the ground. If any water drips down you can see the chicken can catch it out of these cups
They have to tilt their head up to swallow so you see after every drink, head goes up, water goes down.
So our shelters are framed on these 6×6 beams. These are actually old New York State Thruway guard rail box beams. We found a contractor that removes them from Thruway sites after there have been crashes and snow plow damage and things like that. And he saves the better sections and sells them. They’re still, they’re still relatively expensive but they’re cheaper than buying new steel and they’re they’re nicely galvanized. So these come in 36 foot lengths and that kind of sets the length for our chicken shelters.
The frames for the shelter are old greenhouse frames that we’ve bought either on Craigslist or by knocking on doors at abandoned old greenhouses and offering to buy the greenhouse frames from the land owner.
So those are our chicken shelters. Let me know if you have any questions. I’d be interested in hearing from you. Thanks!
At Wrong Direction Farm we’ve always been driven by both personal preference and economic necessity to be do-it-yourselfers. About six years ago we realized we needed to upgrade our chicken shelters, so we started down a path of designing and building durable, portable pasture coops. While I’m certain that we haven’t arrived at a perfect design, our current setup really suits the chickens well and it allows us to go about our daily chores in an efficient manner.
Galvanized steel box beams frame the shelter bases. These are salvaged steel from New York Thruway projects. We found a contractor that replaces miles and miles of these guardrails, and they save the best ones for resale for use in parking lots and places where older guardrails can have a second life. Using these recycled resources helps with farm infrastructure. We now have several chicken feeding trailers and a corral built with various types of recycled guardrail.
The box beams are heavy enough. Weighing in at one ton they ballast the shelters in high winds. They also provide a smooth, strong base suitable for dragging across irregularities in the terrain. For more on how we move our pasture shelters for chickens, see this post. To prevent the box beams from digging into the dirt, we weld short “ski tips” on the ends, little sections where the beam slopes up at a 45 degree angle.
For ribbing, we use old greenhouse frames. They take some effort to find, but we have been able to purchase unused greenhouses from Craigslist ads and also from knocking on doors. Last year we disassembled a very nice frame that yielded enough hoops to make three chicken shelters. We’ve looked at buying brand new frames, but some of these older greenhouses use much thicker steel than any of the kits we’ve been able to find. Given the choice, I’ll take strong over shiny!
Billboard tarp material works well as a covering. Originally we were able to buy used billboards. But lately we’ve had a harder time sourcing them in the right sizes, so we pay a billboard company to send us custom-sized unprinted billboards. One important lesson learned along the way relates to the color of tarps. Having white on the outside and some color on the inside is ideal. Dark exterior colors absorb too much heat, but pure white tarps transmit and reflect too much sun inside the shelters. We started painting all our new white-on-white tarps with a layer of grey paint on the inside. This creates the perfect level of shade.
So the chickens can enjoy all the benefits of fresh air and sunshine as their shelters move across the pasture, we installed wire mesh along all side of the shelter. This permits a cross breeze. It also gives the chickens sunny spots when they want them, and plenty of shady spots when those are preferable. If the weather becomes particularly challenging (this is mainly when we have a combination of wet and cold) we roll down flaps over the wire mesh. But for most of the season we’ve got the sides all wide open.
Our chickens eat pasture plants and bugs, but we also give them certified organic grain. We use hanging feeders. All the feeders interconnect by a series of pulleys and cables tied back to a battery powered winch. We maintain the charge with a simple solar cell positioned above the roof. The winch raises the feeders every time we move the chickens. This makes it easier to herd all the birds when we’re moving them. It also allows us to quickly adjust the feeder heights as the chickens grow.
The last major feature to list is the watering system. All our pasture shelters have nipple drinkers for the chickens. These feature a series of needle-like nipples all down the length of a water pipe. As the chickens peck at a metal pin, a drop of water releases. These waterers allow the chickens to remain hydrated while preventing the messes associated with open-trough waterers.
Each of these shelters represents a significant investment. Between the guardrails, greenhouse hoops, doors, tarps, feeders, waterers, and all the supporting equipment and hardware, we spend about $5,000 on each of these shelters. In order to pay for themselves, we need them to perform well for chickens throughout the grazing season, year after year. Thus far, they haven’t let us down.
But am I “settled” on this particular housing design for pasture raised chickens? Not hardly. I’ve got a bunch of ideas cooking. Each new build gives me a chance to think about improving the next one. If I can change one thing, it will probably be the feeders. At present we have a feeder system that works if I modify the parts the manufacturer supplies, but I think with some creative fabrication I can come up with something much better. The possibilities for tinkering and improvement keeps farming both challenging and enjoyable.