The WONDERS of....GRASSES!!
WONDERS OF GRASSES
by Michael Pollan
For something people profess to like so much, grass is peculiarly hard for us to see. Oh, you can see it well enough in a general sense, but how much do you really see when you look at a patch of grass? The color green, of course, perhaps a transitory recording of the breeze: an abstraction. Grass to us is more ground than figure, a backdrop to more legible things in the landscape—trees, animals, buildings. It's less a subject in its own right than a context. Maybe this has to do with the disparity in scale between us and the uncountable tiny beings that make up a pasture. Maybe we're just too big to see what's going on down there in any detail.
Curiously, we seem to like grass less for what it is than for what it isn't—the forest, I mean—and yet we're much more likely to identify with a tree than a blade of grass. When poets liken people to blades of grass it's usually to humble us, to pull the rug out from under our individuality and remind us of our existential puniness. Composed of so many tiny seemingly indistinguishable parts, a patch of grass—which on closer inspection isn't even composed of grasses half the time but of legumes and broad-leafed plants of many kinds—resolves itself in our perception into an undifferentiated mass, a more or less shaggy field of color. This way of looking at, or not looking at, grass must suit us, or why would we work so hard to keep it mowed? Mowing only adds to the abstractness of grass.
This is not at all how grass looks to a cow or for that matter to a grass farmer like Joel Salatin. When one of his cows moves into a new paddock, she doesn't just see the color green; she doesn't even see grass. She sees, out of the corner of her eye, this nice tuft of white clover, the emerald-green one over there with the heart-shaped leaves, or, up ahead, that grassy spray of bluish fescue tightly cinched at ground level. These two entities are as different in her mind as vanilla ice cream is from cauliflower, two dishes you would never conflate just because they both happen to be white. The cow opens her meaty wet lips, curls her sandpaper tongue around the bunched clover like a fat rope, and with the pleasing sound of tearing foliage, rips the mouthful of tender leaves from its crown. She'll get to the fescue eventually, and the orchard grass, and even to quite a few of the weeds, but not before she's eaten all the clover ice cream she can find.
Joel calls his pastures the "salad bar," and to his cows they contain at least as many different things to eat. As well as a few things not to eat. Though we might fail to notice the handful of Carolina nightshades or thisdes lurking in this pasture, when the cows are done grazing it tomorrow, those plants will still be standing, like forlorn florets of cauliflower languishing on a picky child's plate.
What watching this cow eat her supper tells me is that the scale argument doesn't really hold. The reason we don't see very much when we look at grass has less to do with our relative proportions than with our interests. The cow I'm following in Joel Salatin's pasture this evening is a far sight bigger than I am, and in most matters a good deal less perceptive, yet she can pick a clump of timothy out of this illegible green chaos in less time than it would take me to remember that plant's name. I don't eat timothy, or even clover. But if I did I'd probably perceive the order and beauty and delegability of this salad bar as vividly as she does. Legibility, too, is in the eye of the beholder.
Joel doesn't eat grass either—it's one of the few nutritious things in nature the human omnivore, lacking a rumen to break down its cellulose, can't digest—yet he can see the salad bar almost as vividly as his cows. That first day I spent on his farm, when he insisted that before I met any animals I join him down on his belly in a pasture, he introduced me to orchard grass and fescue, to red and white clover, to millet and bluegrass, plantain and timothy and sweet grass, which he pulled a blade of for me to taste (and a very sweet grass it is). Joel wanted me to understand why he calls himself a grass farmer rather than a rancher or a pig farmer or a chicken farmer or a turkey farmer or a rabbit farmer or an egg farmer. The animals come and go, but the grasses, which directly or indirectly feed all the animals, abide, and the well-being of the farm depends more than anything else on the well-being of its grass.
Grass farming is a relatively new term in American agriculture, imported from New Zealand by Allan Nation, the editor of Stockman Grass Farmer, in the 1980s. Stockman is a tabloid monthly, chock-full of ads for portable electric fencing, mineral supplements, and bull semen, that has become the bible for the growing band of livestock producers who practice something called "management-intensive grazing," or as abbreviated in the pages of Nation's magazine, MiG. (It's sometimes also called rotational grazing.) Joel writes a column for the Stockman Grass Farmer called The Pastoralist, and has become close friends with Nation, whom he regards as something of a mentor.
When Allan Nation went to New Zealand in 1984 and heard sheep ranchers there refer to themselves as grass farmers something clicked, he says, and he began to regard the growing of food in a completely fresh light. Nation promptly changed the name of his hole journal from the Stockman to Stockman Grass Farmer and "got pretty evangelical about grass." He gathered around his magazine a group of like-minded grass evangelists, including Joel, Jim Gerrish, an Idaho rancher and teacher (who coined the phrase "management-intensive grazing"), Gerald Fry, a breeding specialist, Jo Robinson, a health writer who studies the health benefits of grass-fed meat, and an Argentine agronomist named Dr. Anibal Pordomingo. Many of these people first encountered the theory of rotational grazing in the work of Andre Voisin, a French agronomist whose 1959 treatise, Grass Productivity, documented that simply by applying the right number of ruminants at the right time pastures could produce far more grass (and, in turn, meat and milk) than anyone had ever thought possible.
Grass farmers grow animals—for meat, eggs, milk, and wool—but regard them as part of a food chain in which grass is the keystone species, the nexus between the solar energy that powers every food chain and the animals we eat. "To be even more accurate," Joel has said, "we should call ourselves sun farmers. The grass is just the way we capture the solar energy." One of the principles of modern grass farming is that to the greatest extent possible farmers should rely on the contemporary energy of the sun, as captured every day by photosynthesis, instead of the fossilized sun energy contained in petroleum.
For Allan Nation, who grew up on a cattle ranch in Mississippi, doing so is as much a matter of sound economics as environmental virtue. "All agriculture is at its heart a business of capturing free solar energy in a food product that can then be turned into high-value human energy," he recently wrote in his column, Al's Obs; here each month he applies the theories of a decidedly eclectic group of thinkers (ranging from business gurus like Peter Drucker and Michael Porter to writers like Arthur Koestler) to the problems of farming. "There are only two efficient ways to do this," he wrote in his column. "One is for you to walk out in your garden, pull a carrot and eat it.This is a direct transfer of solar energy to human energy. The second most efficient way is for you to send an animal out to gather this free solar food and then you eat the animal.
"All other methods of harvest and transfer require higher capital and petroleum energy inputs and these necessarily lower the return to the farmer/rancher. As Florida rancher Bud Adams once told me, 'Ranching is a very simple business. The really hard part is keeping it simple.'"
The simplest way to capture the sun's energy in a form food animals can use is by growing grass: "These blades are our photovoltaic panels," Joel says. And the most efficient—if not the simplest—way to grow vast quantities of solar panels is by management-intensive grazing, a method that as its name implies relies more heavily on the farmer's brain than on capital—or on energy-intensive inputs. All you need, in fact, is some portable electric fencing, a willingness to move your livestock onto fresh pasture every day, and the kind of intimate knowledge of grass that Joel tried to impart to me that early spring afternoon, down on our bellies in his pasture.
"The important thing to know about any grass is that its growth follows a sigmoid, or S, curve," Joel explained. He grabbed my pen and notebook and began drawing a graph, based on one that appears in Voisin's book. "This vertical axis here is the height of our grass plant, okay? And the horizontal axis is time: the number of days since this paddock was last grazed." He started tracing a big S on the page, beginning in the lower left-hand corner where the two axes met. "See, the growth starts out real slow like this, but then after a few days it begins to zoom. That's called 'the blaze of growth,' when the grass has recovered from the first bite, rebuilt its reserves and root mass, and really taken off. But after a while"—the curve leveled out at around day fourteen or so—"it slows down again, as the grass gets ready to flower and seed. It's entering its period of senescence, when the grass begins to lignify [get woody] and becomes less palatable to the cow.
"What you want to do is graze a pasture right at this point here"— he tapped my pad sharply—"at the very top of the blaze of growth. But what you never, ever want to do is violate the law of the second bite. You can't let your cows take a second bite of a grass before it has had a chance to fully recover."
If the law of the second bite were actually on the books, most of the world's ranchers and dairy farmers would be oudaws, since they allow their stock to graze their pastures continuously. By allowing cattle a second or third bite, the most desirable "ice cream" species—clover, orchard grass, sweet grass, bluegrass, timothy—weaken and gradually disappear from the sward, giving way to bald spots and to weedy and brushy species the cows won't touch. Any plant wants to keep its roots and shoots roughly in balance, so grasses kept short by overgrazing lack the deep roots needed to bring water and minerals up from the subsoil. Over time a closely cropped grassland deteriorates, and in a dry or brit-de environment, it will eventually turn into a desert. The reason environmentalists in the western United States take such a dim view of grazing is that most ranchers practice continuous grazing, degrading the land by flouting the law of the second bite.
Joel pulled a single blade of orchard grass, showing me exactiy where a cow had sheared it the week before, and pointing out the finger of fresh green growth that had emerged from the cut in the days since. The blade was a kind of timeline, sharply demarcated between the dark growth predating the bite, and the bright green blade coming after it. "That's the blaze of growth, right there. I'd say this paddock will be ready for the cows to come back in three or four more days."
"Management intensive" it is. Joel is constantly updating the spreadsheet he keeps in his head to track the precise stage of growth of the farm's several dozen paddocks, which range in size from one to five acres, depending on the season and the weather. This particular paddock, a flattish five acres direcdy behind the barn that is bordered to the north by a hedgerow and to the south by the creek and dirt road that links Polyface's various parts and pastures like a crooked tree trunk, now took its place on the mental schedule. The sheer number of local variables involved in making such a determination hurt my head to consider, and help explain the difficulty of fitting intensive grazing into an industrial agriculture founded on standardization and simplicity. The amount of time it takes a paddock to recover is constantly changing, depending on temperature, rainfall, exposure to the sun, and the time of year, as does the amount of forage any given cow requires, depending on its size, age, and stage of life: A lactating cow, for example, eats twice as much grass as a dry one.
The unit in which a grass farmer performs and records all these calculations, deciding exacdy when and where to move the herd, is a "cow day," which is simply the average amount of forage a cow will eat in one day; for his rotations to work, the farmer needs to know just how many cow days each paddock will yield. Though it turns out that, as a unit of measurement a cow day is a good deal more rubbery than, say, the speed of light, since the number of cow days any given paddock can supply rises and falls in response to all the aforementioned variables.
As destructive as overgrazing can be to a pasture, undergrazing can be almost as damaging, since it leads to woody, senescent grasses and a loss of productivity. But getting it just right—grazing the optimal number of cattle at the optimal moment to exploit the blaze of growth— yields tremendous amounts of grass, all the while improving the quahty of the land. Joel calls this optimal grazing rhythm "pulsing the pastures" and says that at Polyface it has boosted the number of cow days to as much as four hundred per acre; the county average is seventy. "In effect we've bought a whole new farm for the price of some portable fencing and a lot of management."
Grass farming done well depends almost entirely on a wealth of nuanced local knowledge at a time when most of the rest of agriculture has come to rely on precisely the opposite: on the off-farm brain, and the one-size-fits-all universal intelligence represented by agrochemicals and machines. Very much on his own in a very particular place, the grass farmer must continually juggle the various elements of his farm in space as well as time, relying on his powers of observation and organization to arrange the appointed daily meeting of animal and grass in such a way as to ensure maximum benefit for both.
So is this sort of low-tech pastoralism simply a throwback to preindustrial agriculture? Salatin adamandy begged to differ: "It might not look that way, but this is all information-age stuff we're doing here. Polyface Farm is a postindustrial enterprise. You'll see."
TO BE CONTINUED
NOW IF WE FORGET ABOUT THE OCEANS AND THE SKY, THE CLOUDS AND AIR, WHAT ARE THE TWO OTHER HUGE THINGS THE EARTH MUST HAVE? YES IT IS TREES OF EVERY KIND AND GRASSES OF DIFFERENT KINDS WITH ALL THE VARIETY OF THINGS WITHIN THEM.
THINK OF ALL THE ANIMALS THAT DEPEND OF GRASSES. IT IS HUGE!
NOW THINK OF ALL THIS DEPENDENT LIFE AS REQUIRED FOR THE TWO [GRASSES AND ANIMALS] TO SURVIVE, AND THEN THINK "HOW ON EARTH COULD THIS ALL JUST EVOLVE AS TAUGHT BY EVOLUTION." BLOWS ME AWAY; CRAZY IDEAS OF EVOLUTION.
ONE STEP FURTHER THAN THE COWS AND GRASSES [A MIRACLE ALL BY ITSELF], BUT AS IN RELATION TO THE HORSE. WOW....ANOTHER MIRACLE! MY HORSE CAN MUNCH AWAY ON GRASSES ALL DAY LONG [WELL THEY GRAISE ABOUT 18 HOURS OUT OF 24, THEY HAVE A SMALL STOMACH FOR THEIR SIZE], AND THE HORSE TURNS THESE GRASSES INTO ENERGY AND MUSCLE. I PUT MY WESTERN 50 POUND SADDLE ON MY HORSE, THEN PUT MY WEIGHT OF 170 POUNDS ON HER, AND SHE CAN STILL RUN LIKE A BULLET WHEN I OPEN HER UP. YOU TALK ABOUT STRENGTH, ALL FROM EATING GRASSES. NOW WHICH CAME FIRST, THE HORSE OR THE GRASSES? WHY DID THE HORSE EVOLVE SO FROM THE EVOLUTION STANCE? AND WHY DOES THE COMBINATION OF GRASSES DO WHAT IT DOES TO HORSES OR ELEPHANTS ETC.
THERE IS JUST SO MUCH TO IT ALL AS YOU ARE READING, IT SHOULD MAKE ANYONE LAUGH AT THE IDEA OF SLOW EVOLUTION. BUT AGAIN PEOPLE WANT TO BELIEVE IN EVOLUTION, BECAUSE TO BELIEVE IN A CREATOR, WOULD MEAN THEY WOULD HAVE TO ADMIT HE COULD INSPIRE THE BIBLE, AND HENCE TELL US HOW TO LIVE. AND PEOPLE JUST DO NOT WANT TO BE TOLD HOW TO LIVE..... WHAT IS RIGHT AND WHAT IS WRONG; WHAT IS RIGHTEOUSNESS AND WHAT IS SIN. PEOPLE WANT TO DECIDE FOR THEMSELVES HOW TO LIVE.
BUT GRASSES AND THE ANIMALS THAT LIVE ON GRASSES PROVE EVOLUTION TO BE A MASSIVE JOKE AND A FALSE IDEOLOGY.