We’ve all heard the old adage ” the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence”, right? While the phrase can have connotations far more nuanced than the literal implications of desire for green grass, I tend to prefer the pining for greener grass over, say, lusting after my neighbors fancy new car, someone else’s spouse, or a sprawling suburban McMansion. I don’t give a hoot about those things. Green grass, however? That’s where it’s at!Green grass grows cows and sheep. Perennial grassland protects our precious soil and if managed intensively with livestock, can sequester more carbon from the atmosphere than anything else. This is where the healing of the planet can come from, if we could just shake this belief that we, as a populace, have to grow more food in the form of annual crop production. And for crying out loud, let us stop growing annual crops for cattle! Let us grow grass. Not only is grass (or harvested and stored as hay for winter consumption) all a ruminant animal needs for its existence, pastures provide habitat and shelter for all sorts of birds, turtles, toads, insects, and small mammals. And one cow eating from one acre produces enough manure to make two acres fertile. But it’s not just a simple math equation, there’s an untangible symbiosis between the ruminant and the grass that is hard to explain. I like to think of it as magic. (I don’t feel the need to have an explanation for all things.) They are called “holy cows” for a reason. My eyes have seen firsthand this very farm that I call home grow verdant and lush under our care.Years ago when Eric and I moved to this farm we were struck with the realization that, indeed, the grass was greener everywhere else we looked. This farm that we so fondly call home had very depleted soils. The pastures, which at some point or another had all been cropland, yielded sparse stands of broom sedge peppered with a few sprigs of fescue. But instead of casting our gaze longingly over the fences, we set to making the grass greener right where we were. And years later, as our herds and flocks have proliferated, so has the grass. Eric has been an incredibly devoted grass steward, moving the livestock in their pasture rotation at least once per day and up to as many as six times per day. The transformation has been remarkable. I know in my heart that what we are doing is right and good.And now we’re rolling. The pastures still have a long ways to go but every day we draw nearer to the tipping point on the scales when the fertility spills over and gushes everywhere. Won’t that be a sight to see? And even when the moon is high and night is upon us and I am snug in my bed, the cows and sheep keep on working their magic and making the grass greener.
At our business meeting last week, the issue of soil fertility was raised, and I think it’s a pretty important and interesting thing to talk about. As usual, we circled around the topic in the midst of a circus of wonderful children and food and other things to think and say, but I’m hoping we can all say a little more.
We all agreed, it can be challenging to get a hold of enough composted manure in one season to really make things sing. I’d like to know what other fertility measures you’ve used, in the short and long term, to keep your very productive gardens afloat. Do you manure in the Spring or Fall? Sheet compost, or side dress, or both?
As for us, having very limited space and very few animals, we have relied heavily on cover cropping. It’s been great, but if we really do it well, we end up sacrificing the early gardens. Thus, you two have started your CSA deliveries a full two weeks before us.
In the past couple years, my Fellow Man has studied the works of Hugh Lovel (Quantum Agriculture) and William Albrecht and taken on the work of deeper soil analysis and mineral balancing. It’s rather expensive, and not without risk, so we’ve gone slow, but even with that, we’ve seen noticeable results. We feel like pest issues have slightly decreased, and soil that has always been HARD has become softer, nicer to work, and more reliably productive.
For shorter term help, we also believe in the value of compost tea, ala Dr. Elaine Ingam (Soil Food Web, Rodale Institute). It involves a contraption to bubble the ‘tea’ for awhile,but the resulting brew smells nice and we feel good about it. When there’s no time for that, we use Neptune’s Harvest and pray for the best.
Tell me about your good dirt, friends!
Robin offers: it seems difficult really to find the balance with fertility, with perfectly aged manure based compost being our first choice, we always run out! our current fertility project is swine based. we have recently reintroduced hogs to the farm and this time around we have them in a larger covered space and are using deep litter in an effort to harvest their manure for compost. in the few months that we have had them, in addition to the challenge of building their housing, we have cleaned their first pen once and have an enormous pile to show for it. right now, we are encouraged by the possibilities and are enjoying them along with our other on farm manure producers: sheep, cows, horses and earl the donkey!we have also been experimenting with nettle teas (both fresh and fermented) as foliar feeds. again seeing positive results, we have had some good success diversifying our on farm options.
Cher adds… Well, thank goodness for neighbors with a crazy number of horses because that’s where all of our off-farm compost comes from. We would love to make all of our own high-quality biodynamic compost from all of our critters here on the farm (and there are starting to be a lot of them) but the scale of our vegetable operation exceeds our ability to keep up with making all of the necessary compost. Plus, our cows, sheep, and chickens are managed on a pretty intense pasture rotation and all of their manure goes to feed the pastures. In the gardens, we do rely on cover-cropping quite a bit. And we use a lot of mulch, which as it decomposes does add fertility to the soil. In the fall, we normally try to prepare a few garden spots specifically for spring planting (no cover crop because of what you said, Coree) and that is when we will add compost to those areas. Because we are growing such a diverse number of crops, it takes quite a juggling act to keep it all straight. Thank goodness for Eric. He can remember things that happened more than one day ago (I’m really trying, I promise) so he has the knack for keeping our garden’s fertility program rolling right along.