How many cows do you have?

The first Maasai warrior I ever encountered was on a market day in Mtito Andei, Kenya.  He was not really interested in chit chat.  He was there to buy and sell cattle.  He also had a fierce glare and a brusque manner.  He reminded me a little of a bull elephant I encountered later on that trip and cattle farmers you encounter everywhere in rural America.

1588Most cattle farmers aren’t exactly beloved in our Meadow Creek Valley.  Many of the ridges around Meadowcreek are being bulldozed, planted in fescue, and overstocked with cattle.  The rain washes the cattle waste down the hillsides and into the creeks and rivers.  Most of the year we don’t notice, but when water levels get low, we start to get algae growing in the swimming hole upstream of the main Spring.  That spring and all of other seeps down the valley keep the rest of the swimming holes clean, but we sure hate to see even one polluted.

I grew up raising cattle.  I remember calculating how rich I was going to be when all my cattle had cattle.  We didn’t exactly calculate anyone’s worth based on how many cattle he owned (like the Maasai do), but it was a factor.  If someone didn’t have any cattle, he just was not someone you’d want to associate much with.  Cattle was what you talked about when you got together with friends.

Cattle accompanied our ancestors when they left Africa and then spread across Europe after the Ice Ages ended.  Those ancestors selected animals for delicious meat and were in turn genetically changed to be able to process milk as adults.  The semi-wild auroch was gradually transformed into the various breeds we have today: Holsteins, Jerseys and Guernseys for milk; Angus and Hereford for meat.

Most contend the Angus is the best quality meat, but they’ve never tasted Galloway beef.   On the family farm in Missouri, Galloway/Angus crosses produce even better meat for direct market customers.

I left the cattle production to my brother and sisters long ago.  Somehow I came to love spring wildflowers and noticed that our woods had noticeably fewer wildflowers than the woods across the fence where no cattle grazed.  It wouldn’t be hard to keep the cattle out of the woods in the spring, but I’d be outvoted.

Our family farm is one of the pioneers in one ecologically sound practice involving cattle: bale grazing.  We used to call it terrafarming (from the science fiction idea of terraforming Mars to create farmland) but that esoteric term never caught on.  However, as “bale grazing,” the idea has caught fire.

In terrafarming or bale grazing the farmer places large round bales in paddocks for winter grazing.  The cattle are let into the paddock when they finish the hay in a previous paddock.  They tromp left over hay into the soil along with their manure.  Once the hay in a paddock is finished, that paddock is closed to cattle to reduce compaction.  This process increases organic matter, soil quality and the productivity of the paddock the next year.  A farmer can place bales on any part of the farm where he wants to improve the soil.  Some farmers put out enough bales for the entire winter and use electric fence to contain the cattle.

The process mimics the natural process which led to some of the richest farmland in the world.  Wolves and other predators kept wild cattle and deer concentrated in herds which moved only when they had consumed all the grass in one area.  This meant manure and uneaten organic matter was incorporated into the soil.  Over untold generations, the wolves and wild grass eaters created the deep rich soils of the Illinois-Iowa (mollisols) and Ukraine (chernozem).

Electric fence and the farmer have replaced the wolves and cattle have replaced the wild grass-eaters, but the process is the same.  And intensified, so good soil is created much more quickly.

The only difference comes when the farmer tries to keep too many animals.  Stocking too many animals on too little land causes overgrazing.  Overgrazing results in soil erosion and eventually degradation of the land so no grazing is possible.  When drought hits, degradation is intensified.  Natural systems deal with this through the weakening of the herd with less food available and wolves and predators picking off the weak.

Ecologically sound farmers reduce their herds in times of drought to match the grazing capacity of their land.  Unfortunately, many Arkansas farmers are like the Maasai and like to keep their numbers up.  So they overgraze and buy hay in the drought and don’t sell as many as they should.

Nature cares not about the individual.  For the system to be resilient, some cows have to be sacrificed.  Cattle farmers seldom want to sell as many as they need to.  So we have too many cows on too little land, degrading the land and polluting our streams.

Some in Meadow Creek valley would like to just get rid of cattle totally.  Most of us like beef too much.


One thought on “How many cows do you have?

  1. Pingback: Dirt, soil and chernozem | Resilience

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