THE WONDERS OF ..... GRASSES #2
WONDERS OF GRASSES #2
by Michael Pollen
As I neared the blessed, longed-for end of my first day as a Polyface farmhand, I must say I didn't feel at all the way I normally do after a day spent laboring in the information economy. And there was still one more daunting chore before dinner: moving the cows, an operation that, Joel wanted me to understand, is a whole lot easier than it sounds. I certainly hoped so. Throwing and stacking fifty-pound bales of hay all afternoon had left me bone tired, sore, and itchy all over from pricks of the chaff, so I was mightily relieved when Joel proposed we ride the four-wheeler to the upper pasture where the cows had spent their day. (It's axiomatic that the more weary you feel the more kindly you look on fossil fuel.) We stopped by the toolshed for a freshly charged car battery to power the electrified paddock fence, and sped up the rutted dirt road, Joel behind the wheel, me hanging on behind him, trying to keep my rear end planted on the little wooden deck he'd rigged up for hauling stuff around the farm.
"My neighbors think I'm insane, moving my cows as often as I do. That's because when most people hear the words 'moving the catde' they picture a long miserable day, featuring a couple of pickup trucks, a bunch of barking dogs, several cans of Skoal, and a whole lot of hollering," Joel said, hollering himself to be heard over the ATV's engine. "But honesdy, it's not like that at all."
Like most grass farmers who practice rotational grazing, Joel moves his cattle onto fresh grass every day. The basic principle is "mob and move," he explained, as we bumped to a halt at the gate to the upper pasture. Eighty or so cattle were milling or lying around what looked like relatively tight quarters in a fenced-off section of a much larger pasture that sloped to the south.
"What we're trying to do here is mimic on a domestic scale what herbivore populations do all over the world. Whether it is wildebeests on the Serengeti, caribou in Alaska, or bison on the American plains, multistomached herds are always moving onto fresh ground, following the cycles of the grass. Predators forced the buffalo to move frequently, and stay mobbed-up together for safety."
These intense but brief stays completely change the animals' interaction with the grass and the soil. They eat down just about everything in the paddock, and then they move on, giving the grasses a chance to recover. Native grasses evolved to thrive under precisely such grazing patterns; indeed, they depend on them for their reproductive success. Not only do ruminants spread and fertilize seed with their manure, but their hoofprints create shady litde pockets of exposed soil where water collects—ideal conditions for germinating a grass seed. And in britde lands during the driest summer months, when microbial life in the soil all but stops, the rumen of the animals takes over the soil's nutrient-cycling role, breaking down dry plant matter into basic nutrients and organic matter, which the animals then spread in their urine and manure.
The mob-and-move routine also helps to keep the ruminants healthy. "Short-duration stays allow the animals to follow their instinct to seek fresh ground that hasn't been fouled by their own droppings, which are incubators for parasites."
Joel disconnected the electric fence from its battery and held down the wire with his boot to let me into the paddock. "We achieve the same objective domestically with our portable electric fences. The fence plays the role of predator in our system, keeping the animals mobbed up and making it possible for us to move them every day." The technology for this light, inexpensive electric fencing (elements of which Joel's father invented in the 1960s) was the breakthrough that made management-intensive grazing practical. (Though much earlier, dogs allowed shepherds to practice a rough approximation of rotational grazing.)
Clearly Joel's cattle knew the drill; I could feel their anticipation. Cows that had been lying around roused themselves, and the bolder ones slowly lumbered over in our direction, one of them—"That's Budger"—stepping right up to nuzzle us like a big cat. Joel's herd is an exceptionally amiable if somewhat modey crew of black, brown, and yellowish animals, crosses of Brahman, Angus, and shorthorn bloodlines. He doesn't believe in artificial insemination or put much stock in fancy genetics. Instead he picks a new bull from his crop of calves every couple of years, naming him for a celebrated Lothario: Slick Willie had the job for much of the Clinton administration. You wouldn't mistake Slick's progeny for show cattle, yet their coats were sleek, their tails were clean, and for cows on a steamy afternoon in June, they had remarkably few flies on them.
It took the two of us working together no more than fifteen minutes to fence a new paddock next to the old one, drag the watering tub into it, and set up the water line. (The farm's irrigation system is gravity-fed from a series of ponds Joel's dug on the hillside.) The grasses in the new paddock were thigh-high and lush, and the catde plainly couldn't wait to get at them.
The moment arrived. Looking more like a maitre d' than a rancher, Joel opened the gate between the two paddocks, removed his straw hat and swept it grandly in the direction of the fresh salad bar, and called his cows to their dinner. After a moment of bovine hesitation, the cows began to move, first singly, then two by two, and then all eighty of them sauntered into the new pasture, brushing past us as they looked about intently for their favorite grasses. The animals fanned out in the new paddock and lowered their great heads, and the evening air filled with the muffled sounds of smacking lips, tearing grass, and the low snuffling of contented cows.
The last time I had stood watching a herd of cattle eat their supper I was standing up to my ankles in cow manure in Poky Feeders pen number 43 in Garden City, Kansas. The difference between these two bovine dining scenes could not have been starker. The single most obvious difference was that these cows were harvesting their own feed instead of waiting for a dump truck to deliver a total mixed ration of corn that had been grown hundreds of miles away and then blended by animal nutritionists with urea, antibiotics, minerals, and the fat of other catde in a feedlot laboratory. Here we'd brought the cattle to the food rather than the other way around, and at the end of their meal there'd be nothing left for us to clean up, since the cattle would spread their waste exacdy where it would do the most good.
Cows eating grasses that had themselves eaten the sun: The food chain at work in this pasture could not be any shorter or simpler. Especially when I compared it to the food chain passing through the feed-lot, with its transcontinental tentacles reaching all the way back to cornfields in Iowa, from there to the hypoxic zone in the Gulf of Mexico, and farther still, to the oil fields of the Persian Gulf that had supplied much of the energy to grow the corn. The flaked number 2 corn in steer 534's feed bunk linked him to an industrial (not to mention military) complex that reached halfway around the world.
And yet if I could actually see everything that was going on right here in this pasture, could trace all the ecological connections involved, the scene unfolding directly before me was not nearly as simple as it looked. In fact, there was easily as much complexity present in a single square foot of this pasture as there is in the whole industrial complex into which 534 was plugged; what makes this pasture's complexity so much harder for us to comprehend is that it is not a complexity of our making.
But try anyway. Focus in for a moment on just the relationship between Budger and the tuft of fescue she's tearing from its crown. Those blades of grass have spent this long June day turning sunlight into sugars. (The reason Joel moves his cattle at the end of the day is because that's when sugar levels in the grass hit their peak; overnight the plant will gradually use up these reserves.) To feed the photosynthetic process the grass's roots have drawn water and minerals up from deep in the soil (some grasses can sink their roots as much as six feet down), minerals that soon will become part of this cow. Chances are Budger has also chosen exactly which grasses to eat first, depending on whatever minerals her body craves that day; some species supply her more magnesium, others more potassium. (If she's feeling ill she might go for the plantain, a forb whose leaves contain antibiotic compounds; grazing cattle instinctively use the diversity of the salad bar to medicate themselves.) By contrast 534, who never got to pick and choose his dinner, let alone his medications, depends on animal nutritionists to design his total ration—which of course is only as total as the current state of knowledge in animal science permits.
So far the relationship between Budger and this square foot of pasture might seem a little one-sided, since viewed at least from where I stood, Budger's bite appears to have diminished the pasture. But if I could view the same event from underground and over time, I would see that that bite is not a zero-sum transaction between cow and grass plant. The moment Budger shears the clump of grass, she sets into motion a sequence of events that will confer a measurable benefit on this square foot of pasture. The shorn grass plant, endeavoring to restore the rough balance between its roots and leaves, will proceed to shed as much root mass as it's just lost in leaf mass. When the discarded roots die, the soil's resident population of bacteria, fungi, and earthworms will get to work breaking them down into rich brown humus. What had been the grass plant's root runs will become channels through which worms, air, and rainwater will move through the earth, stimulating the process by which new topsoil is formed.
It is in this manner that the grazing of ruminants, when managed properly, actually builds new soil from the bottom up. Organic matter in a pasture also builds from the top down, as leaf litter and animal wastes break down on the surface, much as it does on a forest floor. But in a grassland decaying roots are the biggest source of new organic matter, and in the absence of grazers the soil-building process would be nowhere near as swift or productive.
Back up to the surface now. Over the next few days, Budger's shearing of this grass plant will stimulate new growth, as the crown redirects reserves of carbohydrate energy from the roots upward to form new shoots. This is the critical moment when a second bite would derail the grass's recovery, since the plant has to live on these reserves until it has grown new leaves and resumed photosynthesis. As the plant adds leaves it adds new roots too, reaching deeper into the soil, making good use of the humus the first bite helped sponsor, and bringing nutrients up to the surface. Over the course of the season this one grass plant will convert more sunlight into more biomass, both above and below the surface of the pasture, than it ever would have had it never encountered a cow.
Yet it's misleading to speak about any grass plant in isolation, since many different plant species, performing many different functions, occupy even this one square foot of pasture, and Budger's bite subtly alters the composition of this community. The shearing of the tallest grasses exposes the pasture's shorter plants to sunlight, stimulating their growth. This is why a well-grazed pasture will see its population of ground-hugging clovers increase, a boon to grasses and grazers alike. These legumes fix nitrogen in the soil, fertilizing the neighboring grasses from below while supplying nitrogen to the grazers above; the bacteria living in the animal's rumen will use the nitrogen in these clover leaves to construct new molecules of protein.
Side-by-side comparisons of intensive and continuously grazed pastures have demonstrated that intensive grazing increases the diversity of species in pastures. That's because rotated cattle don't eliminate favored species by overgrazing them and their equal-opportunity shearing ensures that no one species of grass ever dominates by rising to hog all the sunlight. This biodiversity confers a great many benefits on all parties. At the most fundamental level, it allows the farm's land to capture the maximum amount of solar energy, since one kind of photosynthesizer or another is occupying every conceivable niche—niches in space as well as time. For example, when the early season grasses slow down in June, the late season grasses step in, and when drought hits, the deep-rooted species will take over from the shallower ones. A diverse enough poly-culture of grasses can withstand virtually any shock and in some places will produce in a year nearly as much total biomass as a forest receiving the same amount of rainfall.
This productivity means Joel's pastures will, like his woodlots, remove thousands of pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year; instead of sequestering all that carbon in trees, however, grasslands store most of it underground, in the form of soil humus. In fact, grassing over that portion of the world's cropland now being used to grow grain to feed ruminants would offset fossil fuel emissions appreciably. For example, if the sixteen million acres now being used to grow corn to feed cows in the United States became well-managed pasture, that would remove fourteen billion pounds of carbon from the atmosphere each year, the equivalent of taking four million cars off the road. We seldom focus on farming's role in global warming, but as much as a third of all the greenhouse gases that human activity has added to the atmosphere can be attributed to the saw and the plow....... It's true that prodigious amounts of food energy are wasted every time an animal eats another animal—nine calories for every one we consume. But if all that energy has been drawn from the boundless storehouse of the sun, as in the case of eating meat off this pasture, that meal comes as close to a free lunch as we can hope to get. Instead of mining the soil, such a meal builds more of it. Instead of diminishing the world, it has added to it.
All of which begs a rather large question: Why did we ever turn away from this free lunch in favor of a biologically ruinous meal based on corn? Why in the world did Americans ever take ruminants off the grass? And how could it come to pass that a fast-food burger produced from corn and fossil fuel actually costs less than a burger produced from grass and sunlight?
I asked myself these questions standing there in Joel's pasture that evening, and in the months since I've thought of several answers. The most obvious answer turns but not to be true. I had thought that the victory of corn over grass might owe to the fact that a field of corn simply produces more total food energy than an acre of grass; it certainly looks that way. But researchers at the Land Institute have studied this question and calculated that in fact more nutrients are produced— protein and carbohydrate—in an acre of well-managed pasture than in an acre of field corn. How can this be? Because a polyculture of grass, with its wide diversity of photosynthesizers exploiting every inch of land as well as every moment of growing season, captures more solar energy and therefore produces more biomass than a cornfield; also, only the kernels are harvested from a cornfield, whereas virtually all the grass grown in a pasture finds its way into the rumen.
Even so, the temptations of cheap corn are powerful, as irresistible try or big oil. A surplus of grass does nothing for a nation's power or its balance of payments. Grass is not a commodity. What grass farmers grow can't easily be accumulated, traded, transported, or stored, at least for very long. Its quality is highly variable, different from region to region, season to season, even farm to farm; there is no number 2 hay. Unlike grain, grass can't be broken down into its constituent molecules and reassembled as value-added processed foods; meat, milk, and fiber is about all you can make out of grass, and the only way to do that is with a living organism, not a machine. Grass farming with skill involves so many variables, and so much local knowledge, that it is difficult to systematize. As faithful to the logic of biology as a carefully grazed pasture is, it meshes poorly with the logic of industry, which has no use for anything it cannot bend to its wheels and bottom line. And, at least for the time being, it is the logic of industry that rules........
SO WE SEE THE MODERN WORLD HAS TURNED AWAY FROM THE WAY IT WAS MEANT TO BE FROM THE CREATOR OF IT ALL. HENCE AS PEOPLES IN THE WHOLE, WE ARE A PEOPLES LESS HEALTHY THAN IN TIMES GONE BY. WE ARE LIVING LONGER, BUT FOR WHAT? GO WALK THROUGH A RETIREMENT HOME, OR A 24/7 CARE FACILITY. YES TAKE A LOOK AT ALL THOSE 65 AND OLDER CLUBS, RETIREMENT PLACES.....AND SEE HOW MANY PEOPLE LOOK REAL HEALTHY, LOOK FIT, LOOK BRIGHT IN THE FACE AND IN THE MIND. SORRY TO SAY VERY FEW, LOOK YOUNGER THAN 65, AND MOST LOOK WAY OLDER THAN THEIR BIRTH CERTIFICATE AGE. THERE ARE MANY REASONS FOR THIS [HEALTH AND STRENGTH IS MULTI-FACTED] BUT THE WAY OUR FOOD IS GROWN AND PRODUCED IS PART OF THE REASON FOR LOOKING AND FEELING OLDER THAN YOUR BIRTH DATE.
THE OLD FAMOUS HEALTH AND STRENGTH MAN.....CHARLES ATLAS [HIS COURSE IS STILL AVAILABLE ON THE INTERNET FOR ABOUT $50] SAID IN HIS COURSE, "YOU ARE WHAT YOU EAT" ...... BECAUSE OUR FOOD IS PRODUCED IN AN UN-NATURAL WAY, WE HAVE IN PART CREATED HEALTH PROBLEMS, AND WE AGE IN BODY AND MIND FASTER THAN WE SHOULD.
THERE ARE MANY PARTS TO HEALTH AND STRENGTH; THEY'VE BEEN COVERED ON MY BLOG AND ON MY WEBSITE.