In Defense of the Cow
The lowly cow is the most powerful tool on our farm. No amount of diesel fueled equipment and no national policy can match the work done by the cow’s rumen matched with a farmer’s intensive management. Last year, Claire and I watched a vet’s necropsy of a cow that unexpectedly died on our farm. For about 45 minutes we combed through about 60 gallons of grass in various phases of digestion in 4 different stomach chambers. Every 48 hours, all year long, the cow takes grasses, that which we can’t digest, and turns them into meat, milk, heat, hide, and manure. Mountains of the latter are available at the end of winter hay feeding. It is a powerful, sadly maligned, and misunderstood mountain.
The Huffington Post recently posted an article about a set of recommendations given by a group tasked by the federal government to advise the department of Health and Human Services and the USDA in the formulation of new dietary guidelines.
Thankfully the report does link sustainability with human health, but they use this link to sing the same sad refrain that we should be “eating a plant-based diet that was low in red and processed meat.” The lowly cow is coming more and more under fire these days because knowledge of and exposure to the cow is almost non-existent for the vast majority of Americans. True, cattle can be one of the most destructive forces on earth, but they can also be the most constructive. The report fails to recognize that an alternative exists. They see modern confined animal feeding operations and categorize all “red meat” as one and the same.
On our farm, the recommendation to eat “plant-based”, to eat less “red meat” makes no sense as an environmental protection measure, because when managed properly, cattle can become the source of the vegetable. For example, we’ve recently made a discovery on how to link the positive traits of the woodland, the grass pastoral, and the vegetable field ecosystems. In nature, the forests and field are separate, occupied by different species. The forests do an excellent job of creating carbon in the form of wood, and mulch in the form of leaves. However, the forest is not an abundant producer of topsoil, rather it is primarily a maintainer of topsoil. The pastoral system, which naturally occurs in areas of lower rainfall, like the Shenandoah Valley and the western US where the buffalo roamed, evolved alongside the ruminant with this animal’s ability to mow, fertilize, and build soil by cycling grass through the grow-prune-grow pattern. In this pastoral system, soil is abundantly built over the course of millions of years, but till that grass and the equation changes. Cows can’t live in the woods, and trees don’t often grow in the prairie, but the human mind can combine the two ecosystems to create a method of soil building that exists nowhere in nature. This ecosystem can create a varied and healthy diet for humans.
In the winter time, when the pasture is dormant, we bring our cattle onto a carbonaceous pad to eat their hay, sleep on dry and comfortable bedding, and poop. They contentedly wait out the green grass and help us to digest and fix woodland carbon in the garden soil. Last year, we used the Bobcat to spread about 50 dump truck loads of wood chips for the hogs and cattle to winter on. At the end of winter, we spread the chips into long windrows. The bacteria from the cow’s rumen, transferred to the chipped wood, creating a bath of living and odorless steam that sometimes rose 20 feet in the air. Temperatures of 145 degrees were present in the pile for about 2 months, a product of the rumen’s bacteria consuming the wood. At the end of this time, the chips, blackened all around with compost, made an excellent mulch for tomatoes, brassica crops such as broccoli, and much more. Nowhere on a forest floor will you be able to find such nutrient rich wood chips waiting to slow release fertilizer and retain rainfall. The cow, in partnership with the farmer, made this ecological leap possible.
This year, the hogs alone are living on wood chips to create the manure chips needed for our mulch system to thrive (about 2.5 acres in this system. At the same time, the cattle are sleeping on a mixture of leaves and straw, all fine materials for composting to a crumbled compost. This crumbled compost will become a part of the tillage gardens on our farm (about half of the garden, or 2.5 acres). The cattle’s manure will aid in the rapid digestion of the leaves, while the carbonaceous straw will bond to all the free nitrogen of the manure, making it stable for use by plants. In a way, the manure of the cow multiplies the cow’s footprint 10 fold. In other words, each cow-pie is like a miniature cow that goes into rapid bacterial digestion mode as soon as oxygen is added through mechanical fluffing. Keeping the animals stocked with an abundant carbonaceous bedding ensures that the nitrogen (stink) is always in a stable bond with carbon. If done right, the smell is rich and inviting, not nauseating and headache inducing.
When a crop is grown, it needs nitrogen, among other things, to grow. That nitrogen is going to come from one of a few sources including synthetically produced anhydrous ammonia and pelletized chicken manure from confined chicken feeding operations. On our farm, we are working towards a system where the miniature cows (cow-pies) innoculate the forestal carbon and slow release nutrients into the vegetable ecosystem. Humans benefit with juicy steaks and oozing, vine ripe tomatoes. Each bite of red meat is a reflection of the ecology created by the cow, the farmer, and consumer, working as a team. 2000 pounds of sweet potatoes from three 150 foot rows was possible this past year due to this partnership. Lets give the cow the thanks it deserves.
Next time you are in a forest, or on a prairie (at least the modern prairie pillaged of its native dweller, the buffalo), notice the lack of things to eat for a human. In these systems, one can find the templates for productivity, but neither alone reaches its full potential. When it comes to sustainability, the act of improving the land, air, and water for future generations, the stakes are too high to oversimplify. Let’s embrace the full potential of the sun’s power, let’s start by working with the cow.