A picture is worth a thousand farms, or maybe a million
From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills
Magnificent stands of clover, like the one in the photo, were common in the eastern cornbelt fifty years ago. My field is remarkable only because the legume is white clover instead of the usual red or alfalfa and because not one bit of soil tillage or chemical fertilizer was used to achieve it. Traditionally farmers thought that such stands could be achieved only by interseeding clover with wheat or oats on tilled soil. This clover is growing on land that has not been tilled at all for the last 12 years, and it will never be plowed again as long as I’m around. Another remarkable fact of the matter is that this field was partly under water a month before the photo was taken in late June. That kind of flooding would have ruined a stand of corn or soybeans. And if you can stomach one more brag, I know from experience that pasture or hay like this will produce steaks just as tasty as any from steers stuffed with corn.
So please take a moment to contemplate the picture. You are looking at a kind of farming that is eminently practical, economical, sustainable and could very well be the salvation of civilization. Only a few farmers so far agree with that assertion. The rest are locked monetarily into the horrible expenses of cash-grain cropping to produce feed for animals locked in cash-bleeding buildings.
What you see in the picture is an improved variety of the common white clover that volunteers everywhere (and is itself a good pasture plant). The name is Alice, available from farm seed suppliers all over. It could just as well be red clover but white clover will reseed itself better. This clover is making its second growth of the year. The sheep grazed the first growth down a month earlier. All that lush green forage you see is one month’s production. The sheep will graze it down again in July and continue to graze it, with normal rainfall, one week out of every five until winter. Or I could save the fall regrowth for winter pasture. Or I could make hay instead since I have a surplus of pasture this year and hay prices are sky high.
The stand did not look so magnificently clean of weeds when I turned the sheep on it for the first grazing in May. Canada thistles, yellow dock, broad-leaved plantain, and several other weeds vied with the clover for dominance. The sheep ate most of them along with the clover— even the tops of the Canada thistle. In fact most of these weeds are quite nutritional, especially the plantain. After I moved the sheep to another paddock, I mowed the field. Then the clover performed its usual miracle. It regrew faster than the weeds, shading many of them out and making the rest rather invisible. When I graze the plot the next time, I know from experience that the sheep will again eat most of the weeds that dared to struggle up against the dominance of the clover. They will even eat the new succulent growth of Canada thistles. Right down to the ground. Honest. I may or may not have to mow after the next grazing, but the clover will perform it’s fast regrowth trick again, and that will be the end of weeds for the rest of this year. Or I could achieve the same result by making hay.
I see no reason why with this regimen, this field could not be grazed and occasionally cut for hay indefinitely, no cultivation necessary, the most efficient way possible to produce meat and dairy products. All I have to do is sow more seed some years if the clover does not naturally reseed itself— which it certainly will do after such a magnificent bloom this year.
Either for broadcasting more seed, or to aid the natural reseeding, the trick is to let the sheep graze the field down to nearly bare ground in the fall and even in winter when in warmish spells the clover will actually grow a little. As the sheep tramp the field on slightly muddy days, looking for a nibble or two, their hooves churn up the soil surface. That light trampling takes the place of mechanical cultivation. Clover seeds from the mature blossoms or from passing through the sheep with the manure, are incorporated just a tiny bit into the soil by the trampling and so germinate better when warm weather arrives. That’s why, back in the pastoral days of medieval Europe, sheep were described as the golden fleece with the golden hooves.
When I have to assist in the reseeding, I do so by walking over the ground, cranking a little broadcast seeder slung over my shoulder. No fossil fuel. I can sow ten acres a day this way or used to when I was younger. I have sown clover seed on snow, on frozen ground, or in early spring after the soil has thawed. In all cases repeated freezing and thawing, along with the churned up soil from the sheep hooves, incorporates the seeds just enough to get a good stand. I don’t know if there is any more pleasant “work” than sowing seed this way on a quiet March morning (St. Joseph’s Day, March 19 used to be the preferred date), cranking the quietly purring broadcast seeder and listening to the cardinals sing.
I worry that the clover is so lush that it might cause bloating but so far so good. There is enough grass in with the clover to prevent that from happening and I make sure that when I turn the animals in on it, they are already full of forage, either hay or pasture.
I have had to deal with only one other problem and it is not a severe one. One year I began to notice the appearance of clumps of some very rough swamp grass or sawgrass that the sheep would not touch. Mowing did not faze it either. I still don’t know its proper name. The name I gave it would hardly be proper in public print either. Had I known the danger, I could easily have hoed out the first plants that appeared, like I do yellow dock and bull thistles (livestock will not touch bull thistles). But by the time I understood that this weed might take over the field in time, it was too late for that. So I sprayed the clumps— only about 20 of them— with Roundup. End of problem.
Science says that clover like this draws between a hundred and two hundred pounds of nitrogen from the air into the soil per acre. With the skyrocketing cost of chemical nitrogen today, this free gift from nature is just awesome to think about. The sheep of course are putting more nitrogen, plus phosphorus and potassium in the soil with their manure. These free fertilizers cause another miracle to occur. You can’t see it in the photo, but bluegrass is establishing itself spontaneously in the clover, invigorated by all that nitrogen. The grass also makes excellent grazing and as I say, above, helps minimize bloat dangers.
The sheep are not this field’s only grazers. You are looking at a honeybee’s and an earthworm’s paradise. We keep only one hive now, but I’m sure that a stand of clover like this would support three per acre anyway. As for earthworms, oh my. In the first warm evenings of April, we see literally thousands of them writhing about on the nearly bare soil surface after the sun goes down. They are mating and grazing the dead plant matter left over from last year’s growth and adding incalculable fertility to the soil as dirt and organic matter pass through their bodies making the plant nutrients in that soil more available.
Nature’s beneficence does not end there either. All the old herbals rate clover as having high medicinal value — a cancer fighter and a sedative among many other things, either as a salad, or a tea brewed from leaves and blossoms. Think of what that must mean for livestock. Juliette de Bairacli Levy in her Herbal Handbook for Farm and Stable, points out that clover is described in old herbals as “God’s greatest herbal blessing to mankind.” Whether you take that in a medicinal sense, or in the large sense of totally sustainable farming, all I can add is: “Amen.”
See also Gene’s Pasture - The Foundation of Garden Farm Success
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author ofThe Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming