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The Achilles heel in pasture farming is it’s best foot forward

Hardly any new idea in farming holds up in all circumstances for all time. I have learned the hard way not to make grandiose statements about it. I had just about decided, after years of experimentation, that pasture farming— allowing livestock and chickens to graze for their food rather than penning them up and feeding them grain— would in the end triumph over annual crop cultivation because it is just so much more environmentally and economically practical than all those dinosaur tractors out there tearing up the landscape. I still believe that, but I now realize that pasture farming has an Achilles heel too. Or perhaps more than one.

In the early days of this revolutionary new kind of farming which is also the oldest kind of farming, I spent a lot of time with Bob Evans whom most people know as the sausage king of America because of his restaurants but who was also a leading pioneer in pasture farming. We were both convinced that this was a low cost way for family farmers to get into food production and make a go of it. Then one day, after hearing about a giant-sized pasture farm in Wisconsin, I realized that if the idea was so practical and economical, large scale operations would jump in and take it over. When I mentioned that to Bob, it stumped him especially since he was himself an example of large scale pasture farming. Of course, because this is a much more environmentally advantageous farming method than annual cropping, doing it on a large scale is surely better than not doing it at all. Nevertheless, this was a troubling thought to me, since I was convinced that small farms distributed all over local areas, not large consolidated operations, was the only way to sustainable farming.

Now in more recent years, I’ve discovered the other Achilles heel in pasture farming which actually negates the first one. Grazing animals is not as easy as I thought at first for about the same reason that annual cultivation is not easy. There are nasty weeds out there, and more coming, that grazing animals won’t eat and which can’t be controlled by mowing either. It may be possible to handle a ten thousand acre ranch in Texas (if it rains) as in the days of the wild west, but if you try that in the cornbelt today, you better have a goodly number of cowboys riding the range on spray rigs to keep inedible weeds corralled. Or if you want to be strictly organic on a large scale, also have a bunch of plows and planters around to tear up the sod regularly to kill these weeds and then reseed with clovers and good grazing grasses.

I had the nicest stand of clover and bluegrass ever to grace the earth— you can find a photo of it in one of my past blogs. The grass and legume mixture was self-renewing. Any weeds that came in the sheep ate or I could mow into submission. Then one day I saw a clump of stuff that looked like that saw grass stuff along the Jersey shore backwaters. I still don’t know for sure what it is. The next year there were about 15 clumps of the stuff. The sheep wouldn’t touch it. The mower only made it grow faster. It was obvious that this plant would take over the field because neither pasture grass nor clover would compete with it. I tried hoeing it. That might have worked if I had done it the year before when there were only a few clumps. Hoeing half an acre of this tough turf was even beyond Superman. I got a hand sprayer and walked the field, spot applying Roundup very carefully so as not to kill the clover around what I joked was an alien invader from Monsanto Planet. I could not have done this on a large scale.

Since then I have heard from other pasture farmers beset with weeds like this. The only way to control them organically is to walk the fields and hoe at the very first appearances. That takes time and manpower and some kinds of pernicious weeds are impossible to hoe or mow. The only alternative for the large acreage operation would be to spray the whole pasture, kill everything, and start over.

There are common weeds that spraying will not control either unless you spray the whole pasture. They have to be dealt with by hand and hoe and if you do it every year when there are only a few on a small farm, the job is manageable. Sour dock, or yellow dock, is a good example. The livestock will eat it, but not nearly enough. (In fact, it has medicinal value for humans too, the herbals say.) However it will even outgun hungry sheep and you will end up with a landscape of dead sour dock seedheads, each containing something like 3,692,460 seeds under which nothing else grows. Mowing will not control them unless you mow as frequently as a lawn. You’ve got to hoe them off two inches below the soil surface, haul them away and burn them, much to my grandsons’ dismay.

The moral of the story: if you are in permanent pasture farming to stay, you will almost be forced to have a farm small enough to handle pernicious weeds with economical family help. Otherwise you lose the efficiency that grazing promises and you’ll be spraying and cultivating almost as much as when growing corn.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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