Cows, sheep and goats: the ruminants
Ruminants are nature’s grass and forage harvesters and converters. They take whatever is growing out there and turn it into proteins, sugars, and fats (meat, milk and babies), and probiotic soil conditioners. If you let them eat whatever they like, whenever they think of it, they’ll eat all their favorite foods until there are no more, and let the less appealing – but still nutritious – stuff get overgrown and woody until it’s just not fit to eat. Then the ground will be bare between the bushy stuff so that wind and rain wash away the soil or leach the minerals and nitrogen out of it until it can’t grow anything. This is called ‘overgrazing’ but it might better be called ‘bad grazing’ and it happens over and over again. Probably any farm land you’re thinking of has been overgrazed at one time or another and is missing some inches of topsoil it ought to have as a result. But you can turn this little problem around by bringing the ruminants back and grazing them properly – more about this on the grass page.
On our farm, cows eat grass and weeds and some tree leaves, plus maybe corn stalks in the fall, if the pigs leave them any; and, if we get an ice storm in winter so the cows can’t graze, some hay. We keep Jerseys (some cross-bred) for both milk and meat, breeding them by artificial insemination since dairy bulls have the reputation of being the most dangerous animal in North America. We try to have at least two cows lactating at any given time, more in the summer and fall when we are putting up cheeses. All the extra milk, skim milk, buttermilk, whey, cheese trimmings, whatever, provide the highest possible protein supplements to our poultry and pigs; in fact, milk is such a perfect high-protein food that having it available for other livestock, like hogs and birds, means you can fill out the rest of these animals’ diet with lots of farm-produced forages that are in themselves too low in protein to make a balanced diet: things like fodder beets, turnips, green corn and hay.
A note on grass
Intensive rotational grazing is what makes our farm constantly grow in fertility, even while it is feeding the farm. We plan our grazing cycles so as to allow forages to regrow fully before they are grazed again. Not only does this ensure that the ruminants continue to have something to eat, it lays down a fund of organic matter in and on the soil, increasing its fertility and buffering it against long wet or dry spells.
Three things it’s important to consider when you set out to improve land with grazing:
- Match your ruminant to your present forage (whatever it is) and your topography.
- Use grazing to grow the kind of pasture you want to have.
- Take advantage of the daily solar harvest (milk and manure).
Let’s take those one at a time:
One: Match your ruminant to your forage and your topography. This means find out what’s growing there and get a ruminant that eats that. Cows like grass, sheep like tall broadleaf plants (weeds), goats like bushes, briars and young trees. All will eat some of everything. If the land is very steep or the soil very wet, some breeds of cow may be too heavy, or too clumsy to get up and down, at least at first.
Two: Use grazing to grow the kind of pasture you want to have. How you graze – the degree of impact you select for, and the time between one grazing period and the next – will determine which plant species are encouraged, which discouraged or eliminated. Decide what you are working for and plan accordingly. Goats grazed in short rotations eradicate briars and make room for grass; cows on long rotations encourage grasses and legumes. Things like that.
Three: Take advantage of the daily solar harvest (milk and manure). The manure will happen, just make sure it happens where you want it to – usually on the pasture. And you’re a mug if you skip the lactic harvest, the twice-daily flood of highest-quality proteins, fats and sugars that are yours just for choosing a dairy animal. Imagine: you can have a farm plus a generous source of the best food, daily, from day one, for you and your family, for your young animals, for your hogs and poultry, your guard and pest control species (dogs and cats). Are you going to say, ‘oh, yes, I’d love the land but I’d just as soon skip all the food, thank you’? Not if you’re not crazy.