Moving From City to Farm

I sit on a covered porch at 8pm on Wednesday evening, watching the sun decline and listening to the cooing Mourning Doves; it’s a peaceful time of day – the time when work is done and I can catch a breath.  My body relaxes. The dog next to me begins to pant heavily and hides, my warning that a thunderstorm is coming; the crickets are chirping, the breeze is talking. This might be the daily solitude of my backyard in Philadelphia, but today I’m writing this from South Dakota.  The dog is not my own but belongs to the Ranch and he’s filling in pretty-well for the one I left at home. I can watch the same nationally-televised newscast or scan the same standardized Dairy Queen menu, but these people are not the people of my melting-pot American experience.  I haven’t traveled overseas, but I might as well have because I’ve stepped into a foreign culture.

Around the dinner table, we don’t talk about the hassle of detouring around the current street closures, the latest movies or Phillies stats.  These Dakotans use words that I know when digested individually, but when used in combination, stretch my mind in new ways. Words like, “regenerative agriculture,” “soil health,” or “carbon sequestration.”  How about a conversation on “Riparian-area recovery?” “High-density stocking?” Or a “right-side-up prairie?” In my head, I transfer knowledge to try and create a twinkling of meaning; inevitably, I need help understanding.

There are a few holistic ideas that I’ve learned in my first weeks here at Rock Hills Ranch that start to help others fold into place.  One thing I learn is that the Great Plains is as endangered a landscape as the Rainforest. Another thing I learn is that agricultural and livestock farming practices don’t need to work in opposition to the health of these softly, rolling landscapes that were shaped millions of years ago by the glaciers.  

One more big idea at Rock Hills Ranch is “legacy.”  Legacy has a multitude of meanings, like a tree with many limbs.  Stewardship of land is a legacy – using it while also restoring the natural prairie, working in rhythm with the landscape, keeping in mind all the wildlife of the region and not just the beef.  Creating happiness within the family through all the hard work is also part of the vision around legacy. Stabilizing a financial future is also part of it. Garnet said to me, “When someone here gets married, they just don’t marry the man, instead they marry the land.”  The Permans are 4th generation farmers and the future two generations are here right now.  So, “The Land” is a full-partner in every aspect of life; as if it has an endowed faculty chair in the fanciest Boardroom in the best college.  

I am the 6th Ranch-Life intern at RHR – a high school teacher from the metropolis.  I read somewhere that South Dakota has 0.2 people occupying an acre; I believe that Philly probably has a thousand.  I am not young, but I am trying to digest and understand a way of life that I’ve never encountered before beyond the latest cowboy movie.  As I feel more confident in my understanding on the nexus of beef-farming practices and prairie sustainability, I will write more about it.  I’ll also write more about the animals of the farm and the feeling that permeates the Ranch of being a modern-day pioneer. But for now, this is a way-of-life that can only be understood by walking through it.

– Felicia Rosen

 

Treating problems, not symptoms

I read an advertisement recently for a herbicide for controlling weeds in a pasture.  It touted the increased grass production to be gained by using the herbicide on your pastures, and presented the data to back it up.

I don’t doubt their findings, but I disagree with the conclusion.

First, no mention was made of any other management changes.  The question needs to be asked, “why were there weeds to begin with?”  Perhaps the management that resulted in the weed invasion ought to be changed first.  Perhaps the product being advertised could be of some temporary assistance, but in the long run a change of management is the only cure.

Second, what are weeds anyway?  Did anyone tell the livestock they are weeds?  Might there be some lemonade potential in them there lemons?  This is something that goes through my mind frequently when I see “less desirable” plants.   Goats and sheep are well-known for having a different diet than cattle – perhaps adding a different type of livestock could turn the weed into an asset.  If that doesn’t sound appealing, Kathy Voth has a training program for teaching your cattle to eat all sorts of stuff.   We’ve given it a try with some success.

We’re not completely against using herbicides around our place.  In fact, we have used the actual product in the advertisement, in specific places and for specific reasons.  However, we understand quite well there are other tools we can use to reduce or eliminate the need to reach for the jug.

Now, if I could just find someone to run a goat enterprise for me….

Grass vs Grain: Does it have to be either/or?

If you eat beef, you no doubt are aware of the growing popularity of grassfed beef in the marketplace.  Some claim it as healthier, more environmentally friendly, etc.  Others say grainfed beef tastes better and uses fewer resources.  I’m not going to debate any of those things.  One-size-fits-all is seldom the answer to anything, I’ll leave it at that.

What I’d like to explain is something I don’t hear much about, that being what a cow was “meant” to eat.  Some say cows were made to eat grass – others say corn is a grass, and the grain is just the seeds.  So what does it all mean?  Why would some say grain is bad for cattle?

Cattle are ruminants.  This means they have a four-chambered stomach, one chamber being the rumen.  The rumen is made to digest fiber – more specifically, the rumen microbes are made to digest fiber.  When the microbes die, they provide energy for the cow to use.   Lots of microbes means lots of energy.  Forages are full of fiber.  With adequate protein, the microbes get busy breaking down the fiber and propagating, keeping the cow supplied with energy.

What about grain then?  It is a seed of grass, this is true.  What makes seeds different from leaves and stems is starch content.  Cattle eat seeds all the time.  I’ve often watched as they wrap their tongues around brome grass in June and strip all the seeds off, moving on to one stem after another, eating as much as they can.  It’s not unnatural – they are selecting the part of the plant that has the most energy.  Starch has a higher energy density than fiber.  See, cattle are really good at figuring out where the best feed is.  It’s like their life depends on it…oh wait, it does.

So what makes grain (starch) different as far as feed goes?  Cattle can handle a certain amount of starch, but beyond a certain point, the pH in the rumen becomes too acidic for the microbes to survive.  The starch in prairie grass seeds is not enough to reach that stage.   We normally supplement our calves during the winter with a small amount of grain to help meet their energy needs.  They might get 2.5 – 3 lb of corn in addition to 15-18 lbs of hay.  This isn’t enough starch to change rumen pH.

What happens once the rumen becomes too acidic and the microbes are gone?  The starch content of their diet must be great enough to make up for the missing microbes.  If it isn’t, the animal will lose weight.

Finishing rations contain a much higher percent of starch than is required to simply maintain weight.  Up to 80% of the diet might be grain.  This provides an abundance of energy to add not just muscle, but also fat – making the meat more flavorful and juicy.  The downside to diets so high in starch is that they can’t be sustained indefinitely.

Abundant energy can be obtained from high-quality forages.  The tricky part with relying on only forages for the finishing phase is they are not available year-around, and they are not as consistent in nutritional value as grains are.  A higher degree of skill and management is needed to properly finish cattle on forages as opposed to grain-based rations.

So, were cows made to eat just grass?  Not really.  They are best at digesting fiber, and can handle certain amounts of starch without any problem whatsoever.  But they are an amazing animal that can adapt to different diets, which makes them a wonderful complement to farming operations.  We can grow many different crops, and with rare exception, the cattle can eat just about all of them – seeds, stems, leaves, even roots sometimes.

Clear as mud?  If you have any other questions about grass or grain-fed beef, let us know and we’d be glad to help answer them.  We are equal-opportunity beef eaters around here, regardless of the critter’s diet!