What factors contribute to sustainability? To be sustainable there must be a minimum dependence on off-farm inputs such as oil. Using less oil means staying off those high dollar farm machines as much as possible and finding new ways (or old forgotten ways) to accomplish the same thing. For example, a farmer with livestock needs to have forage for winter feeding. Most people use lots of fossil fuel and make hay for this purpose. Thinking sustainably, a farmer would graze his/hers animals in such a way that there is a stockpile of grass for winter.
Another key to sustainability is the complete avoidance of commercial fertilizers and chemicals that harm the soil. Using these outside inputs is addictive, and expensive. When you put down commercial fertilizer there is an immediate rush of a few key nutrients and the plants usually respond and look great. At the same time, however, you have killed off the microbes in the soil which are the real source of fertility. Consequently, you must apply fertilizer next year and more of it. The chemical companies love it. Sustainable farming, on the other hand, seeks to feed the soil microbes to make them more active. These in turn feed the plants. The more carbon we sequester from the atmosphere by capturing it in the soil, the more we are feeding the soil microbes and the greater the fertility. Higher fertility means more nutritious food for humans as well as animals, domestic or wild.
One way to add more carbon to the soil is using the farm animals themselves. Domestic herds can benefit the soil the same way the great herds of buffalo that once roamed the Midwest benefited the plains. For the buffalo the herds often contained thousands, even hundreds of thousands of animals. They were mobbed up for protection, and constantly moving to fresh pasture. The result was the land experienced short duration high animal impact, followed by long rest periods. The animals were on one piece of ground for only a few hours. They ate what they needed and trampled the rest. Then they moved on and didn’t return for many months. While on a particular parcel the hoofs of the buffalo pressed vegetation into the soil, adding carbon. Additionally, they produced 50 pounds of fertilizer per animal per day. The net effect was to deposit lots of carbon material in or on the soil, giving the microbes and worms something to work on. Over time this produced deep topsoil four or more feet thick. With the proper management a farmer can mimic the mob effect and keep the herd moving to build carbon in the soil.
I recently returned from a grazing school where we learned these techniques. Upon returning home I immediately made a management change for our small herd of two calves and five goats. The change produced more plant litter on the ground. More litter means more carbon in the soil, but also means more cover for earthworms and other critters, as well as a mulching effect to conserve moisture.
The day after starting this practice I saw something very exciting—dung beetles. I had never seen them before so I wasn’t sure what they were at first. What I noticed was a small pile of dirt next to a cow pie. It looked like an ant hill, but the grains of dirt were too course for ants. I carefully poked through the pile and discovered a ¾ inch diameter tunnel underneath and several little black beetles scurrying around. Then I knew these had to be dung beetles based on what I had heard at the grazing school. These little guys are wonderful soil builders. They setup their home next to a cow pie and then carry the manure down into tunnels. This is great for the soil since the organic matter is taken to depths it would not go otherwise. I was so excited I told the family and a friend that dropped by. I was building soil with animals.
Soil conservation is obviously important—look at all the government programs designed to keep soil in place. Not only was I keeping soil I was making more. The increased carbon and litter is going to feed more earthworms which in turn produce castings, making more soil. At the grazing school I had seen rich healthy soils on places that had been barren and brittle only a few years before. I had begun the same process on our farm just by making a management change to the way I grazed my livestock. It didn’t cost me a cent. That is pretty exciting when you can benefit the whole system with no outside inputs.