Let’s talk about grass and soil

If you aren’t a farming, grazing, soil building dirt nerd, probably better check out now. If you want to know how we put the sustainable in sustainable farming, this is a post for you.

Back in 2013, we identified some major problems in our operation. We had poor grass coverage, nearly non-existent top soil, and poor animal performance on our forage. We also had some serious erosion issues which were the result of over grazing and over stocking.

Eroded ditch in pasture
The worst of the eroded area, near the pond.

Above you can see a ditch that has formed over 30 years from water flowing across our pasture. Having water on your farm in awesome. The more the merrier. However having it create what amounted to the Grand Canyon across the middle of our pasture wasn’t so welcome.

Erosion ditch in pasture
I’d actually had to call Progress Energy to have them redo their backstay on this power pole because so much of it had been exposed from erosion I was worried the pole would topple over.

We contacted the Wake County Soil and Water Conservation group and they began working with us on a plan to repair this erosion. But just fixing the erosion wasn’t enough. We needed to keep it from happening again.

Eroded area in pasture with big tree
The tree in the middle of our pasture, with erosion all around.

To keep the erosion from coming back, we had to fix the drainage, but we also had to improve our grass coverage, which at that time was about 40%.

Repaired areas, with dirt spread by bull dozer
55 dump truck loads of dirt later. In the distance you can just see the tree that marks the previous pictures. 

We adopted new management techniques, mainly changing the way we graze our cows, and also composting directly onto the fields with produce, chips, or whatever else we could get with as little effort/cost as possible.

We did seed the area above just after this picture was taken, but mainly the seed didn’t take. The fill dirt was basically useless and wouldn’t grow weeds, much less grass. After 2013, we began spot treating the worst areas with compost to help control erosion and also to improve the soil.

Produce spread out on the fields
Produce spread out on the fields

Here is an example of how we’d treat an area. You can see some red in the lower left. All the area covered with beans was exposed, red dirt. No topsoil, no organic matter, no grass. By controlling our grazing, and treating the problem areas over the following years, we’ve taken these problem areas from what you see above to this.

Area of thick vegetation
The ditch as it looks now in 2016.

This is basically the same view as the fourth picture. All this growth is not from seeds we planted. It’s also not been left fallow. It has been grazed every single rotation of the cattle since 2013. We now stock at a very dense level, less than one acre per cow (the standard is 3 acres per cow). This was after destocking in 2013 to about 12 cows total on our farm. We now have about 50 to put that in perspective.

Grass four feet high, in front of John Deere Gator
The latest area to recover with grass

Here you can see our heavily traveled critical area. We put boards down to create a more solid footing. We also limit our movements to crossing in this area on the boards

. The grass you see here that is so tall was bare dirt this spring. I believe it’s actually the area covered in beans I showed you two pictures back. Again, we planted no seeds. We applied no chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, etc. All we did was manage our cows, and manage the organic matter in the soil. Easy right? So why doesn’t everyone do it? What’s the catch?

It took us three years to get this spot to this growth. That’s three years of an area not producing grass for our animals. In our modern world of quarterly returns and high production, this is simply too long to be acceptable. Better to apply fertilizers, seeds, and get grass to growing. Then spray for weeds when they come up, because they will. For me, I’ll move on to the next area and leave this area alone. It won’t generate weeds because it’s rich in organic matter and the grass is now dominant. I’ll just graze it and mow it like I do everywhere else and the soil will continue to improve. As the soil improves, so will the grass. That’s what sustainable is, making things better as you go through your normal system, not applying band-aids to the problems instead of fixing the root cause.

 

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Dan is a dad, a husband, a business owner, a pilot, a sailor, a scuba diver, a machinist, a gunsmith, a welder, a woodworker, a day laborer, a teacher, a mentor and a writer. The short form of all the previous is he's a farmer.

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