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Hagen Explains Farming Methods

 

August 10, 2017



Dear Editor,

Let’s consider some new trends in farming and what it portends for the future of agriculture in our area. To examine this question we need to compare the disadvantages and advantages of the old and the leading edge practices that are starting to take root.

The old industrial model referred to as “CAFO’s” (concentrated animal feeding operations) are currently the predominant system. This system has a number of inherent shortcomings. It directly produces large quantities of every category of pollutants and consumes huge amounts of energy. Indirectly it is the principal driver for diminishing soil fertility, erosion, and water contamination. These negative impacts originate from its heavy reliance on conventionally grown grain and the large numbers of animals concentrated in a small area. This system is also a huge drain on the public treasury since its viability relies upon taxpayer funded subsidies. The public relations line of big agribusiness is that we need to accept these problems because it is needed to fend off world starvation (at the present time world food production is at 140%, it’s a distribution problem).

Let’s take a closer look at the new system. The system that is most popular in this area was developed by a man named Salatin and is a variation of a method called intensive rotational grazing. Intensive rotational grazing works by mimicking the way herds of herbivores interact with the environment under natural conditions. Salatin expanded and improved this system by integrating poultry. The fundamental aspect of this method is based upon the growth characteristics of pasture plants. Several important things take place when pasture plants are eaten down within several inches of the ground. When the top of the plant is reduced in size by being eaten, the roots become too large relative to the top. The plant corrects this imbalance by dying off part of its roots, which decays and produces humus. Increasing humus produces lots of benefits, it increases soil fertility and also sequesters carbon in the soil since it contains around 60% carbon. The pastures being used in this area are comprised of eighteen perennial plants (at the farms I visited). Once a pasture is installed it is permanent, the carbon stays in place underground and no chemicals or further cultivation are required. It also eliminates erosion since a dense carpet of plants cover the ground. This is important because at the present time in the U.S. around 1 mm (about 1/25”) of earth is being lost each year. This may seem like a small amount but it takes 500 years for mother nature to produce one inch of soil. Let’s consider the performance of the Salatin farm. It was acquired in 1960 and had been eroded to such an extent that bed rock was exposed. He reported that after only 50 years, 8” (400 mm) of humus top soil covered these areas, an astounding 80 times faster than natural soil formation! Using these values, this amount of humus accretion is sequestering around five tons of carbon each year per acre, WOW! It also has the further benefit of eliminating almost all of the fossil fuel derived energy used in the conventional CAFO system. According to a study done by Pimental it requires 284 gallons of oil to produce a steer using the conventional method. The combustion of 284 gallons of oil produces around another nine tons of carbon dioxide. So each steer being produced using the Salatin method reduces our oil consumption by about the same amount as taking a car off the road for a year, and this doesn’t include the sequestered carbon from the plant roots. This system provides further benefits by grazing poultry after the pastures are vacated by the large animals. During the grazing season a 30% reduction in chicken feed and 70% for turkeys has been observed according to Riemer, a local farmer. This occurs because chickens do eat plants but they prefer eating insects and their larva. Thus, this system provides the additional benefit of reducing insect pests.

Let’s consider how this method actually operates; the farmers that I have visited using this system are a lot like dance choreographers but their “dancers” are various types of animals and birds moving from paddock to paddock. These farms grazed a number of different animals; cattle, sheep, pigs, chickens, and turkeys. The predominant mix of animals used in this area were cattle and chickens. Let’s look at how this actually works at a real farm I visited. At the Marty farm, the first wave of animals are let loose in a fully grown fresh pasture, these are steers. They remain in the paddock till late morning partially eating down the plants and then moved to fresh one. The steers are followed by cows and calves who also stay for half a day. This style of cattle rotation is used because the taller plants provide the best nutritional requirements for steers and the lower partially eaten down forage is best for cows and calves. A few days later the food available for the chickens is optimum and they are moved in. Since the system operates in a balanced manner with mother nature it avoids producing pollutants since no chemicals are being used and exactly the right amount of droppings and guano are deposited for robust plant growth. It also has the further benefits of not stressing the animals or producing erosion.

Intensive rotational grazing is also inexpensive to start up and operate. This is the case since it uses less land and avoids the huge investments in equipment used for conventional farming. For example, in this area the fodder to grow a steer is 1 1/3 acres of land, the CAFO system requires 5.1 acres, a huge differential. The equipment needed is simple, some electric fencing, a charger and movable chicken coops.

Because the Salatin system offers so many advantages it has attracted aspiring young farmers who see this system as a means to start their own farming operations.

How can we help foster this new green revolution? Simple, just use food produced this way.

John Hagen,

Monroe

 
 

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