I mentioned in my last post that the main goal at Reverse Pioneers homestead is to undo damage on the land; to replace their dry and nutrient-poor ground with fertile & spongy soil, all while providing economic stability and food for themselves. This, in a nutshell, is regenerative agriculture. Using holistic approaches and integrative thinking, regenerative agriculture has the potential to undo many of the wrongs brought about by mankind's recent agricultural practices. Through mono-cropping, contained animal feeding operations, unmanaged grazing, and heavy fertilizer/herbicides/pesticides use, we find that our soil is depleted, our water supply is dwindling, and atmospheric CO2 is climbing. This isn't good news for the future of our food supply - successful organic agriculture requires nutrient-rich soil, water, and steady climate. It's no surprise that the natural world is getting out of whack; from an agriculture perspective, we've done a pretty poor job of working within the natural laws. We impose our own systems that fight the natural processes rather than work with them.
Regenerative agriculture looks to natural laws as guidance for land decisions, and uses management tools to guide ecosystems toward states of fertility. Solutions to arising issues (like pollution, crop failure, or erosion) are found by tweaking the structure of the ecosystem. Humans have a role to play; we facilitate the flow of energy from areas in over-abundance into areas of depletion. The number one way that regenerative farmers accomplish this is by managing the movement of grazing animals across their land, also known as rotational grazing.
Rotational grazing is the practice of systematically moving grazing livestock among various divisions on a piece of land. It disperses nutrients over the land, improves overall soil fertility, controls unwanted plants, enhances water retention, and sequesters carbon dioxide out of the air.
To get an idea of how greater soil fertility is reached, let's first consider how the bodies of grazers work. Animals such as cattle, goats, and sheep are mobile fermentation machines. They eat plants (grass, shrubs, trees) which gets fermented during digestion by microbes in their guts. What comes out on the other end is nutrient-rich poop that gets deposited back into the soil. Yet, the nutrients get spread unevenly- the grazing animals acquire nutrients from a vast area (like a large pasture), but deposit those nutrients into a very small area (like a pile of poop). Of course, given enough time, the poop would eventually break down and the nutrients would get distributed more evenly over the land, but there is an option to speed up this process - chickens! Chickens are oftentimes rotated behind the grazers, as they enjoy scraping apart cow poop (or goats, sheep, etc) in search of little bugs to eat, all the while spreading around that nutrient-dense poop. The soil now has a greater richness in microbial life than before, which means greater fertility.
The physical act of grazing on managed grasslands can retain water and sequester carbon. To get a full perspective, let's consider the average cattle pasture: cows are given a very large area to roam, and they aren't rotated at all or very rarely. The grass, therefore, stays pretty short (usually only a couple of inches tall) since the ground is rarely given rest from grazing. The roots of these grasses are also very shallow, since roots only grow deeper when grasses grow tall. Now let's consider a pasture that is managed within a regenerative practice. A large herd of cattle are rotated intensively through a high number of small pastures. This allows most of the grass to be resting at any given time, so the grass has the opportunity to grow tall. Consequently, the roots grow deeper into the ground. This is of huge importance because plants have the ability to transfer carbon out of the atmosphere and into the ground through their roots. The deeper the roots, the more carbon pumping, the less carbon in our air. If every farm practiced rotational grazing of their cows/sheep/goats, imagine the potential to reverse global climate change. (Now imagine if there were tax incentives for carbon sequestration on your land ... but I won't get too political). Everyone imagines the best way to reverse global warming is to plant a bunch of trees, but grasses actually have a stronger ability to sequester carbon, so why not start with the millions of acres of cow pasture that already exists in the US?
The land needs grazers to move nutrients around. Consider a large hill - nutrients naturally disperse downwards from rainfall and erosion. How would it be possible for the nutrients to get cycled back toward the top of the hill without the movement of animals? The grasses need to be pruned. Without animals occasionally eating the top off the tall grasses, the younger grasses below get blocked off from growth. The grass eventually stagnates, dries, and dies out (which means their roots die back as well). These grasses are evolved to grow a foot-or-so tall, be cut back, and send up fresh growth from below. Without disturbance, they can't flourish. This is simply how they've evolved alongside grazing animals in the wild.
At Reverse Pioneers Homestead, we practice rotational grazing with goats and chickens. Every week we take down the fences and set them back up in a new area, slowly moving across the land in a pre-determined pattern. The chickens follow loosely behind the goats.
The land gets an extra nutritional "boost" because of what we're feeding the animals. The goats get fed hay; they eat off the seed pods & leaves, and then create a bed for themselves by spreading around the remaining hay onto the ground. This acts as a mulch by shading the sun and preventing water loss. Through the goats' stomping action the soil breaks up, and the hay eventually decomposes and contributes to the micro-biome in the soil. Less evaporation means better water retention, which is sorely needed in the arid hill country.
|The goats nibbling on hay...|
|...and distributing the rest on the ground for bedding|
|sunflower sprout scraps thrown into the chicken pen|
|Eventually the nutrition from the sprouts get added into the chickens (and back into the ground through their poop), or directly into the ground through decomposition.|
Once the goats and chickens have done their soil-building jobs on a section of land, we practice "seed and cover". Kayce and Michael use a website that custom-makes seed blends based on your climate, soil, animals, and goals. We cast the seeds out and then cover them with hay for mulch and sun protection.
|cover crop seed mix|
|mulching the seeds with hay|
Ideally, these seeds sprout and the ground becomes covered in greenery. This is all thanks to the goats and chickens who used their bodies to enhance the micro-biome in the soil. They transferred the nutrients from shrubs, trees, some grass, and leftover sprout scraps into the ground. They are actively transforming dry, desolate ground into moist, fertile soil. All the while, providing us delicious eggs and milk!