2010 was our fourth complete year of Holistic High Density Planned Grazing on Judy farms. The last six months on Judy farms have been a real eye opener. We have seen some unique circumstances that have never been witnessed before on our farms. Some of the numbers and sights that we are seeing are going to be hard for you to believe. That is fine, skepticism is good. But………we now have much more hard data that has been collected from permanent transects on our farms. Before we dive into these latest happenings, I want to cover where we started at and the progression we have seen over the last four years. This will give you a time table of where we started at and the length of time that elapsed to the present.
When we took possession of our owned and leased farms, the top soil was pretty much gone. From 1920 to 1972 these farms were plowed and row cropped until there was no soil left. The old timers said that if you gave an old worn out piece of land a little rest (5-7 years) you could still nurse one last meager crop out of the soil without adding any fertilizer. This is pretty much what happened, folks were poor and they mined every spare nutrient out of the land until all the top soil was gone.
Moving along with the history of these farms, from early 1970 until the late 1990’s these farms lay fallow or occasionally they were mowed for hay. Lots of absentee landowners give the hay away every year just so their farm has that pretty neat mowed look. This was further mining of nutrients being removed from the soil with each hay crop. Finally the farms soils were so depleted of nutrients that they could not even grow grass. Much of our farms had a sickly pale green moss covering the soil, interspersed with broomsedge and eastern red cedar. Dewberry vines filled in the rest of the areas. Not real productive land for anything to live on.
When we first started leasing these fallow farms in 1999 we put down some lime, P&K initially. We quickly figured out that we would be bankrupt rather quickly if we added all the soil amendments that the soil tests called for. We also started custom grazing cattle in 1999 simple because we had no money to purchase our own livestock. Looking back, it was the best thing that could have happened.
We started wintering dry bred cows on our bankrupted soil farms. The cattle owner purchased the hay and we fed it on our farms. We unrolled every large round bale that we could get our hands on. I believe Jim Gerrish is right on, hay is worth unrolling even if it is rotten! Cattle will not get any feed value from it, but I promise you they will poop and lay on it. Presto, you now have soil food to start the healing process of your soil bankrupted farm. From 2006 to 2011 we have not put down any purchased soil amendments other than purchased hay in the winter.
The weak link in solely using hay to build your soil fertility is that economically it is tough to cover every inch of your farm with purchased hay. If your soil is so bankrupt that nothing grows there, you will need to bring some form of material in to start the litter bank and soil building process. Brainstorm a list of folks that you can talk with on wintering their cows. What you want preferably are early bred cows that will calve in late spring. Explain to the cattle owner that you will take care of his cows all winter on your farm for an agreed up on price per day per cow. All he has to do is buy the hay and have it hauled to your farm.
Have the bales positioned in all paddocks over your farm before winter begins. Emphasize to the cattle owner that he can take the winter off, heck he can go on vacation if he feels like it. You have his cows care under your control. Also stress the advantage of being able to bring his pregnant cow herd home in the spring too calve on his nice clean, hopefully stockpiled farm. There is nothing better than calving on clean stockpiled pasture in the spring. By using his cows microbes, his purchased hay, you got paid to jump start your farm’s fertility over the winter.
I remember Ian Mitchell Innes asking me how many microbes are dumped out the back of a lime truck. His next question to me was how many lime trucks have baby calves? Ian’s point was to emphasize to me that my fertilizer and lime money would be much better spent investing in more livestock. Our weak link on Judy farms was not having enough microbes in the soil. So we are now focusing on feeding the microbes in the rumen of the cow and letting the cow transfer those microbes into the soil. We could lime and fertilize the soil until we were broke or we could let the livestock fix it for us by using mob grazing. We humans really try to make things complicated; I am living proof of that.
Beginning in 2007 we switched to mob grazing and begin focusing on feeding the soil with all the vegetative matter that we could possibly trample onto the soil surface daily and still maintain animal performance. We immediately started to see a difference in how the plants responded to this extra vegetative material being fed to the soil followed by full plant recovery periods. The remaining moss and broomsedge begin to disappear in our pastures. The woody invasive sprouts are getting pressure put on them from the increased stocking density and our multi-species effect of sheep/cattle grazing exposure.
Our soils now have a sponge-like feel to them when you walk across them. With an adequate recovery period, it still amazes me how a pasture can have such a nice soft pliable surface after getting pounded with 2-300,000 lbs stocking density. The soil surface is very self healing when you have high microbial activity working for you in the soil profile. When you consider that there are 1 billion microbes in one healthy teaspoon of healthy soil, it is actually kind of staggering to think about. One of our favorite activities now is to explore the wildlife under the recovered grass sward. You can literally spend hours observing the various critters crawling, sliding, flying, walking, hopping and burrowing their way around their home.
Our first big discovery that we have now observed in 2010 is that our soil critters are now active 12 months out of the year! Two days after Christmas we had just moved the mob onto a fresh stockpiled pasture that was buried under 10” of snow with temperature around 10 F. We pulled the snow back and dug down to the soil surface and we were shocked at what we found. There were spiders of all sizes crawling around like it was a normal day. Green miniature aphids’ were hopping around, snails were crawling around and beetles were burrowing out of sight.
There were fresh earthworm castings deposited on top of the soil. Fresh castings are shiny looking all most like you waxed them up real good. I like to refer to the shiny castings as blocks of gold! All of this soil life was working for us on a cold bleary wintery snowy day. Why is this important? Heck we now have a unique diversity of soil animals building top soil in our pastures more months out of the year. Normally in cold weather soil life goes dormant to survive. Our energy cycle is much improved; organic material is now breaking down much faster in our soils.
Why is this soil life not going dormant when we enter winter conditions? With closer inspections we could easily tell that the ground surface under the grass sward was insulated with decaying litter. The ground was not frozen; the temperature was warm enough to encourage the small critters to continue with their daily routines of eating and pooping stuff. The thick sward of grass insulated the ground surface from the above cold temperatures which sealed the deal. Once the stockpiled sward is grazed off and the canopy removed, all soil life hibernates or expires. Their micro-climate home is gone.
If we are trying to build top soil on our pastures which will allow us to grow more and higher quality forage, soil life ranks No. 1 in importance. It’s easy to lose the connection with the soil life on a daily basis. Ranchers wear so many different hats that it can be challenging to stay focused on what is most important on our operations. Folks if we don’t have healthy functioning soil life on our farms, we are fighting an uphill battle of building a sustainable operation that can stand on its own without any inputs.
The biggest surprise that we witnessed happened last week, March 31st. I am a little bit hesitant to tell anybody about it simply because most folks will think that I may be stretching the truth a bit. Well I had a witness, so here goes. Justin (our intern) and I were out doing some biological monitoring on pasture that had been grazed this past winter. We were monitoring litter, castings, new grass seedlings, legume content, soil cheese depth and plant spacing’s.
I noticed as we walked over the paddock that all the manure piles looked like something was deflating them from the inside. The outside surface on the manure pats looked very fibrous, the luster was gone. I reached over and gently lifted a manure pat that measured 12” across by 2” thick over on its side to expose the under belly. Justin and I both gasped as we fixed our gaze on the manure pat. The whole area of the manure under belly was completely covered with earthworms positioned in every imaginable direction. It was one of the most exhilarating sights that I have ever witnessed.
I immediately placed the manure pat back exactly like I found it. Justin and I just sit there dumbfounded, looked at each other and busted out laughing. There was some serious worm mob grazing going on under that manure pat. We were both grinning at our new found treasure. I asked Justin to run and get a large pan and shovel to gather the complete manure pat into. We begin very carefully counting the earthworms, taking care not to injure any of our precious delicate guests.
I had a gut feeling that we were in for a huge surprise in the actual worm number count. Each handful of aged manure was literally packed full with earthworms. Once we tallied up the total worm count from each of us, we ended up 462 earthworms from one manure pat! How cool is that? It was not a freak incidence, every manure pat that we turned over was loaded full of worms devouring their precious food source. There was a manure smorgasbord party going on at every manure pat that we checked.
By going back to our grazing chart we were able to determine this particular paddock had been grazed January 3rd. It seems like 12 week old manure pats during the winter are perfect for March worm mob grazing. If we look further at the numbers that are generated by earthworms it gets even more exciting. Once our farms reach 25 worms per square foot, they can generate 100 tons of earthworm castings per acre per year. The ph level on an earthworm casting is 7 and is deposited right at the soil surface where plant roots can readily take up the rich nutrients.
Jerry Brunetti explained to me that an earthworm actually injects a portion of lime into the casting as it leaves his body. In other words, we have 462 miniature lime spreaders in one manure mat, wow with no lime spreading fee or fossil fuel used to get it on our pasture! I don’t believe there is another living thing that we can have on our pastures that will give us the return like an earthworm does.
An earthworm has a life span of 7 years. During their life span a single worm with its offspring involved can produce 1.2 million worms. Now we are talking some very serious soil wealth for our farms future. Now here is where it gets even more exciting. Think about this for a minute. If we can physically count 462 earthworms in one manure pat, how many critters are in that same manure pat that are too small for us to see with the naked eye? I would venture a guess that it is in the billions, especially if one teaspoon of healthy soil has 1 billion microbes.
With proper grazing management, we can focus on building our earthworm numbers in our pastures. Over time our livestock stocking rates will have to be increased on our farms. With this massive influx of soil life, the plants are absolutely exploding with more volume and higher quality leaves. To draw worms onto your farm and have them multiply in large numbers you must have 4 essential items.
The first item is food. When we switched to higher density mob grazing, our litter bank exploded. It is best to get the remaining un-eaten forage trampled on the ground by a cloven hoof. Earthworms do not have stilts to travel around on, looking for food. They must have three square meals a day and the food needs to be at their eye level. The food needs to be bountiful enough to support a large community of worms. A thick grass sward litter blanket is just the ticket. One last comment on effective litter banks: BUILD IT AND THE WORMS WILL COME!
The second item worms need is moisture. If the soil dries out because it is exposed to sunlight, worm activity ceases immediately. The earthworms will burrow deep just to survive. The mucous coat that covers their entire body must stay moist or they are dead. A good litter bank is the best protection you can have for preserving moisture on the surface of your pasture. For every unit of humus you build in your topsoil, moisture preservation is enhanced eight times.
Third item worms need is shelter. This is solved by having a deep litter bank covering the soil and taller forage keeping the intensity of the sunlight from penetrating the roof of their homes. If you can keep the sunlight off the earthworms back, they will happily turn all the dead organic matter in your pasture into priceless earthworm castings. We have seen earthworms under tall forage actually crawling around on top of the ground during the hot part of the summer looking for a meal. There is no sunlight beating on their back, therefore they are perfectly comfortable traveling around cleaning up the last dead vegetative material.
Fourth item worms need is “To be left alone”. How would you like it if someone ran a giant disc blade through the middle of your house while you were eating your dinner at the kitchen table? This is exactly what we are doing to the earthworms and soil microbes when we turn soil. If my dinner table got ripped in two pieces while I was trying to have some dinner, I would move somewhere else. So leave them alone and let the little buggers heal our soils. One other thing that upsets me is to see folks drive their heavy trucks all over their pastures. Their basically treating their precious pastures like it is a worthless concrete parking lot. You are compressing the soil and killing earthworm activity. If you need to drive, use flotation tires with a light ATV. After heavy rains, do your best to keep all vehicles off your pasture.
In wrapping up, we really need to focus on what Mother Nature gives us for free. Ian Mitchell Innes has made the comment to me numerous times, “The ecosystem worked pretty good until white man arrived with the firearm and messed it up.” We can fix it with Holistic High Density Planned Grazing. It is a huge paradigms shift to think of ourselves as a worm rancher instead of a cattle rancher. Worm rancher sure does not sound near as sexy as saying “I’m a cattle rancher”. I know a lot of ex-cattle ranchers that would still be ranching today if they had been worm ranchers first.
Missouri led the nation last year in cow number decline, 107,000 cows were sent to town. This happened with record high cattle prices. In other words the cattleman’s input costs were higher than the price they received for their calves, so they sold their cowherd. All this purchased input stuff that we are told to put on our farms is nonsense. Folks let’s turn our farms around, become a worm rancher. I guarantee that the microbial life that you build in your soil will thank you handsomely with higher profits. Watch our website:greenpasturesfarm.net for more earthworm developments this summer. I think we are going to see hyperinflation in earthworm populations!