Crow’s Nest: Regenerative Grazing

October 4, 2019

By Daniel Barringer, Preserve Manager.

A couple weeks ago I attended a workshop on regenerative grazing that was sponsored by PASA, the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture. As you may know, Natural Lands uses “prescribed grazing” at Crow’s Nest Preserve to manage specific habitats, and employing grazing to improve the soil and habitat is a particular interest of mine. Grazing is one of the oldest and yet also today the trendiest method of land management. We were using pet goats (dearest Seamus and Duffy) to browse invasive plants here long before urban working goat herds became popular. More recently we’ve been using cattle at very low density with good results. The PASA workshop covered both the details of how to make grass-fed cattle practical as well as the science behind the microbial activity which makes this an effective way to build organic matter and sequester carbon in the soil.

Participants traveled from several states to Spring Creek Farm in Wernersville, Berks County, to learn about how they manage their herd of organic grass-fed dairy cows. Farmers who attended added their own perspective about what works for them. Cattle are moved every day, and sometimes even two, three, or four times a day. Does that sound like a lot of work? No, says Spring Creek Farm’s Forrest Strickler. It takes only a few minutes to move a portable fence or open a gate, though he likes to sit and watch them for enjoyment when they move onto fresh grass. The point is, it’s not more work than growing and feeding feedlot grain, though the Stricklers also grow lots of hay for supplemental feed, especially in the winter.

Moving cattle frequently allows a large number of animals to graze at just the right density and duration followed by the field getting a generous “rest”—typically 40 days. The animals are present only long enough to graze thoroughly. Farmers want all the plants to be eaten equally, not just the cattle’s favorite plants (which would encourage only their less-favorite, and less-nutritious plants to thrive). But they don’t want to leave the cattle in so long that the plants are nibbled lower than a height from which will easily recover. It’s an art and a science that requires good observation skills.

With a dairy herd, the milk tests give immediate feedback on what’s working well for the animals. Soil tests report what is happening with the land. Over the last few decades Spring Creek Farm has been able to achieve 6% organic matter on what would otherwise be a “shale nub.” That’s a very desirable high number which was also achieved without the spreading of supplements. And to connect all the dots… carbon is a major component of organic matter.

What the cattle don’t eat gets trampled back into the soil. Much of the grazed plants and supplemental hay gets returned to the soil of the pastures through manure. Even hay which isn’t consumed adds organic matter: cattle will bed down on hay that was the previous day’s food. And all of this manure spreading takes place without a tractor and diesel: the cattle move themselves instead of the farmer moving the feed to them and the manure away from them. And no, it doesn’t smell.

The afternoon session was presentations by Penn State researchers about the role that soil microbes play in all this. When I write it this way it sounds simultaneously bizarre but also obvious: to do their job, the soil microbes that help plants access nutrients not only have to be present, but they have to have developed a relationship with the plants. If there are chemical fertilizers added to the land, the plants won’t bother developing that “relationship” because they don’t need to. And if the land has been tilled, sprayed, and compacted while growing crops used for feeding confined livestock, it may not have the right soil microbes present.

The good news is that land can be returned to high fertility pastures over time if good grass practices are used.

What we’re doing at Crow’s Nest Preserve is only a tiny fraction of a farm like Spring Creek—we’re using our pair of steers to eat competing vegetation in natural areas—but it’s inspiring to see what can be done on larger acreage to restore land while making a living and feeding people.