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Pasture, the Heart of the Homestead

In an age when agents of government and corporate agribusiness discuss “acceptable levels” of soil loss in the production of crops, it is incumbent upon anyone with responsibility for a piece of ground to scratch his head and wonder, “Acceptable levels?!” One would assume that soil loss would be one area in which everyone concerned would favor a zero-tolerance policy. Sadly, that is not the case.

It has been estimated that in American agriculture, the average rate of soil loss is six pounds of soil for each pound of food produced. (Food produced “organically” under the National Organic Standards averages five pounds of soil lost per pound of food produced.) Given Will Rogers’ observation about land—“they ain’t making any more of it”—such rates of topsoil loss should be so terrifying to a thinking populace that we would quickly seek out new approaches to agriculture. Again, sadly, that seems not to be the case.

There are many changes we could make in American agriculture to reduce erosion of topsoil, starting with abandoning the witch’s brew of chemicals we dump onto our soils. But perhaps the single most critical change would be: As much as we possibly can, stop plowing! Leave the sod cover in place. Grow and harvest more of our nutrition from the grasses and legumes on a pasture cover, rather than from row crops which require disruptive tillage of the soil twice annually or more.

It is important for the homesteader to realize that soil erosion is his problem as well. We think of erosion as resulting from wind and rain, and might assume that our gardens are not subject to either, given reasonably flat ground and maintenance of sufficient soil moisture. But there is an unseen erosion that begins the moment we break the cover of the soil: the oxidation of its vital humus content.

Of course, for certain horticultural crops it is necessary to break up the natural soil cover—for example, not even the most radical pasture proponent has described a method for growing carrots from seed in a sod cover. For such garden crops, we protect from erosive losses with mulches, tight planting in wide beds, etc. Through additive practices such as cover cropping, compost, etc. we can actually add to the humus content of soil over time, despite our disruption of its natural cover. Such practices are quite labor intensive, however. Mulching an acre of ground is quite a different proposition from mulching 500 square feet of garden, for example.

A concern to avoid oxidative erosion will lead us to the conclusion that we should till the earth as little as possible. Those of us who have any existing pasture cover whatever should think of ways we can “harvest” usable food from that sod cover rather than plowing it to grow row crops.

Poultry benefit from being on pasture. Though we do not think of them as grazing animals, chickens actually eat a fair amount of grasses, clovers, and broadleaf weeds if given the chance. Ducks and geese will use even more green forage—indeed, geese beyond the brooder stage can be fed exclusively on good grass. On pasture, poultry also are able to “rustle their own grub” with the insects and earthworms available, nutrient-dense foods whose quality you will never duplicate with anything you offer them out of a bag. This green forage and live animal component in the diet (with their high enzyme content) boosts digestive efficiency and overall health of the birds. Egg yolks are richer in color and flavor, egg whites are more viscous. Flavor of the cooked fowls is improved. “Harvesting” more of our nutrition from the meat and eggs of pastured poultry offers us a way to avoid disrupting the soil cover and to reduce oxidative erosion.

Of course, poultry are only limited grazers—the preeminent animals for harvesting the bounty from natural sod cover are the ruminant species—sheep, goats, cattle. They too offer an abundance of high-quality meat from renewable, low-maintenance pasture cover. And their milk (even, yes, the milk of sheep) in its raw form is one of the best foods available, beneficial to growth and health at all ages; and capable of transforming as if by magic into a number of nutrient-dense foods rich in enzymes, immune-enhancing factors, and beneficial bacteria. A greater reliance nationally on high-quality dairy foods would not only help to reduce our current appalling loss of topsoil, but would lead to a revolution in our national health.

I plan to add to this topic area in the future. Since my own expertise on pasture plant species, rotational grazing, and related topics is limited, maybe I will get lucky enough to find a more authoritative contributor to post a guest article on these subjects.