Three years ago we started running cows and sheep on our large field at Island Lake Farm, using adaptive grazing management(AGM). AGM mimics the habits of migratory herbivores by keeping them in a fairly tight herd, as would have been done by predators, moved often, and then not returned to that piece of ground until it had had a long time to regrow and heal. This particular field had been in continuous row crop production for many years before we bought it, then we abused it for several more years by grazing horses on a limited rotation schedule. Three years ago it was in bad shape, hard, compacted and unproductive.
Recently, late one evening, there was a lot that needed attention and things kept going wrong. It is spring and the farm project list is much longer than usual. Frustration was setting in and then Audra reminded me we needed to move the cows. It had been dry and if we didn’t move them soon the pasture would suffer. I put the three other things I was hoping to get done before dark on hold and went out to the field. Tired and sore, I was ready to “sell the farm”. Until I looked down at a large cow pie on a particularly poor piece of ground. It couldn’t have been more than three days old, because that’s all the longer the cows had been in that paddock, yet it must have had a hundred dung beetle holes in it! Dung beetles are a simple measure of soil health - how fast can your beetles break down a manure pat and incorporate it into the soil? When I saw that pile of crap, a warm feeling of hope, pride and satisfaction came over me.
My understanding that “agriculture, done well, heals” was reinforced once again, when I really needed it. The holes in that cow pie were telling me the soil is healing, that it is breeding life and diversity, and would now be able to hold more water, be more fertile and grow more forage so we can graze more cows. Nature has incredible healing power, and well managed grazing animals fuel the process. It is the same process that built our most diverse and fertile ecosystems.
HDT’s Livestock on the Land program is working with a broad group of partners to promote the concept of livestock as a tool to heal. We are working with farmers and ranches to support them with technical assistance and accessing cost share funding to implement conservation practices in support of AGM. Funded through Sourcewell, we’ve brought on a summer intern, Nicole B, to assist farmers and ranchers on implementing these practices and refining their adaptive grazing management. Nicole is a second year student at South Dakota State University and is excited to be getting hands-on experience and learning from area producers.
We continue to promote peer to peer learning by partnering with the Crow Wing River Basin Forage Council to host field days and workshops. The Forage Council is a twenty year old collaboration with conservation agencies, institutions, and water quality focused organizations to promote stewardship of pastureland in our region. We promote Forage Council activities to consumers and water quality organizations to educate them on the efforts of producers to protect and preserve water quality.
Market driven conservation is a powerful force for change and HDT has been advocating this approach for several years. Recently we worked with Cooperative Development Services (CDS) to assess the market and processing capacity of local meats. One area of opportunity that came to the forefront during this process is around a branded ground beef product that could help improve producer income from cull cows in the fall of the year. Based on this information and advice from the consultant, we plan to market ground beef from multiple producers through local food service or retail outlets, branded to our region and an agreed upon standard of production to assess feasibility of this marketing strategy. The ultimate goal would be to establish a market that can be the base support of a local processing establishment. As suggested by CDS, we will look for opportunities to expand existing processing capacity through building expansion or extra shifts versus a new start up. We also have the timely and unique opportunity of the Central Lakes College meat cutting and slaughter program currently in development and exploring possible ways to collaborate with this program.
Last but not least, we were recently accepted as a learning hub with the Grassland 2.0 program out of the University of Wisconsin. Grassland 2.0 is a collaborative group of farmers, researchers, and public and private sector leaders working to develop pathways for increased farmer profitability, yield stability and nutrient and water efficiency, while improving water quality, soil health, biodiversity, and climate resilience through grassland-based agriculture. While many of the details of this learning hub partnership have yet to be ironed out, we are excited for the potential technical, social and financial resources this program could bring to our region.
There is a lot of negativity around meat products with plant-based meat substitutes capturing more and more of the protein market (*Editor: You can check out our discussion about plant-based meat alternatives here.) And it’s for a good reason. Agriculture is losing the fight to keep our soil healthy and water clean, and much of that is driven by animal agriculture. Livestock on the Land is an effort to put animals front and center in agriculture. They are the driver of biologically fertile soil, restored hydrology, clean water, and healthy, nutrient dense food.
Join us in this effort.
Support a local farmer by buying meat products from them. Here are some questions you can ask about their production methods:
Do they follow grazing principles such as moving herds to new paddocks often, leaving half the plant to save the root, increase plant and animal diversity of pastures, and allowing paddocks a long recovery period?
If they feed grain, is it raised on healthy soil, with cover crop integration and minimal tillage. The science is becoming more and more clear that healthy soils produce food that is more nutrient dense.
Be willing to express your desire as a consumer for these qualities, but also be willing to give grace and meet them where they are at.
Farming is tough work with a lot of stress and unknowns. Policy and markets have gotten us where we’re at, not our local interdependent family farmers. They need our support in transition to a more sustainable food system, for us and them.
If you’re a farmer or rancher and you’re interested in improving the health of your soil, the market value of your animals, or saving dollars spent on fuel, fertilizer and chemicals, contact us and let's see how we can support you in these efforts.