November 12, 2015
As a manager, I tried to instill in our team the idea that “there is a better way to do everything we do. We just need to find it.” For that reason, I dislike the term “best practices.” There is no such thing and, when we think we are using best practices, I believe we cease to experiment or even think about better ways.
I grew up in a time of inexpensive land, fuel, equipment, feed and labor. That has all changed. The price of our product has not kept pace with the price of many of our inputs. The last three years might be trying to fool us, but this too will pass and low cattle prices will come again. Then who will survive?
Please allow me to challenge a paradigm of many livestock producers. It seems foolish to me to develop a system of livestock production that has a high dependence on fossil fuel and iron (using these as a metaphor for all equipment and inputs that are based on or produced from them). Instead, we should develop systems based on soil, rainfall, sunlight, and our inborn and developed creativity and ingenuity.
Nearly every farmer and rancher would not think of harming their soil. Most will tell you they want to pass it to the next generation in better condition than they received it. However, because of a lack of understanding of the principles of soil health, grazing management and farming techniques, inadvertently many are degrading the soil with deficient practices which have become ingrained habits.
Soil that is blown or washed away by wind and water erosion is not needed in our waterways, lakes and oceans; and it can never return to that land from which it came. Soil lost from our farms and ranches represents opportunity lost to the next generation.
However, we are learning that land is quite resilient and will respond to good management. Soil can be rebuilt faster than we thought. We must learn to keep soils covered and maintain a good variety of green, growing plants for as much of the year as possible. That is the beginning of attracting and feeding soil microbial life, which in turn starts the process of returning carbon and organic matter to the soil.
Unlike most other inputs, there is no charge for the rain that falls on our land. However, rainfall has an incredible value. To let it leave our property, unless the soil is completely saturated, is giving money away. Water infiltration is much better in covered soils than in bare soils. Soils that are biologically active and returning carbon to the soil are developing soil aggregation that will facilitate improved water infiltration.
As the soil and water infiltration improve, water will not only enter the soil faster, but it will also go deeper into the soil and moisture holding capacity will increase. In those few cases where rainfall is truly excessive, good farming and grazing practices will hold soil in place and insure that water leaving your land is clean. It would be nice if some of that excess water could move slowly through the soil to feed springs and even help replenish the aquifer.
No one is yet charging us for the use of sunlight either, but it has tremendous value to us. Think of the plants growing on our land as a giant solar panel. To make that panel as efficient as possible, we need to have a lot of broad, green leaves through as much of the year as possible.
Therefore, plants must be close together with a lot of green leaf material. A wide variety of plants with different types and depths of rooting will draw nutrients and water from different depths of the soil and provide green leaves for as much of the year as possible.
Different times of the year favor active growth of different plants. Some grow early, some grow late and some grow mid-season. Therefore, some of the forbs that we call weeds may cease to be “weeds” because cattle will eat them; they are nutritious and they fill a need for total yearlong productivity and soil health. They may also help feed wildlife, beneficial insects and soil microbial life.
It doesn’t take much careful observation to recognize that nature seldom, if ever, does the same thing in the same way twice, especially in successive years. Nature seems to thrive on chaos. Yet we, as farmers and ranchers, are almost insistent on doing the same thing the same way over and over again.
Sometimes nature makes big changes and sometimes small. We need to learn to cooperate and work in nature’s image. We seem to have forgotten that we work with biological processes buffeted by climate, making them far less predictable than chemical processes in a lab. That’s why many good graziers talk about “adaptive grazing”—continually adapting to the changing conditions.
We have inborn or native creativity that can be enhanced by our life-long learning efforts. Much of our life-long learning is simply honing the skill of observation and then recording what we see to compensate for less-than-perfect memories. In addition, short courses and visits to well managed operations can be very helpful.
It should be obvious that finding a better way and reducing our dependence on fossil fuel and iron will begin with improving our grazing and farming techniques. Accompanying that will be the development of livestock that will fit and work in that type of environment and calving in sync with nature.
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