Pasture Acne…er…Transition, Healing and the Return to Health

Have you ever tried a new shampoo and had your face break out? I have. For Pete’s sake I’m 37 years old. Can I stop having pimples now? Please?

Actually it’s worse than that. Have you ever switched from using shampoo to…to not using shampoo? Have you ever gone pooless? Some people have to go through a period of…adjustment. Your hair may be greasy for a little while. I used to use shampoo almost every day and my body compensated by producing an excess of oil to replace what I was stripping out. It took a while for that to level out. I also had to learn how to use the baking soda and vinegar, in what proportions and how often (not very often). It was both an adjustment of the environment/terrain and an adjustment in management. If I didn’t get all of the baking soda out I had this crazy Zach Morris ’90’s hair almost parted, almost spiked. (If you don’t know who Zach Morris is…go to the Google. The show was cool in its time but is totally unwatchable now.)

Same with food. It is not uncommon for people to try real food for the first time and have …well…a biological response. It’s amazing how well sauerkraut can clean out some people’s pipes…let alone dairy. If your internal biological terrain is engineered exclusively for Twinkies, double cheeseburgers and Coke, it may not know what to do with yogurt. Cut the caffeine and sugar out of your diet and see how your body reacts. If you are normal, your body will DEMAND caffeine and sugar by making your head hurt. The more disciplined of you may find yourselves divorced. Good luck.

If I leave an open area of my farm unmanaged for a length of time what happens? The grasses begin to surrender ground to pioneer species. Raspberry seeds will be carried in by birds and thorny canes will rise up as tall, stale, oxidized grass shades out new grass beneath. Same with honey locust pods. Squirrels will bury acorns and hickory nuts and trees will begin fighting each other for dominance. In a few short decades we’ll see a transition from grassland to forest.

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It really is the same thing in the hay fields. A monoculture won’t last. We have an alfalfa field that is speckled with weeds and grasses. Most folks spray their fields to stop the advance of “evil” but I tend to be pretty chill about it. The first step in recovering health (diversity) in my alfalfa field is the emergence of grasses. Why do I want an alfalfa field anyway? What do those new plants mean? Do they mean my hay will have less value on the market? Why am I selling hay? Do the grasses mean alfalfa weevil will have a hard time? Good. Does the grass mean my cows are less likely to bloat while grazing? Good. Does it mean we are putting roots in a variety of zones in the soil, building organic material and fertility over time? Good.

Our pastures are changing quickly. Plants are emerging that have not had the opportunity in …well, maybe in decades. It’s a mess out there; cow poop, matted, brown grass, muddy areas where the waterer sat for a day, flies. And that’s the good stuff. I have so many acres and so few cattle I’m having trouble grazing everything. Steve says I just need to speed up grazing and clip behind them. Ugh. The open, sunny areas where the cows can’t get shade are on hold until fall. Most of those areas have gotten little manure over the years. One in particular is a compacted mess as it was the travel path to and from the barn for years after it was the breeding pasture for the swine herd. You would not believe the weeds in there. While I see the weeds as a reparative mechanism (not the problem itself) I’m going to mow before those weeds set seed, allowing the biomass to accumulate as mulch for the layers to scratch through. Maybe I shouldn’t (Grandpa Tom said it costs $100 every time you mow) but I just can’t bear to see the mess…even if the mess exists to heal the landscape. I can manage for grass and eliminate thistles. I can manage for legumes and win the battle against ragweed (which makes the milk taste a little sweet, a little…I don’t know…like I remember of the milk that remains at the bottom of your Rice Krispies. Genus Ambrosia…which, as we remember from Greek mythology, makes one immortal).  After cutting the trees I’m going to mow to hit the reset button and allow other forage species an opportunity to grow free from the shade of 7′ tall ragweed plants. I could certainly let it run its course then allow the cows to trample it in the fall but…well…it ain’t pretty. Any way you slice it. So I’ll try to use the brush hog without spending $100 (Update: Fail!).

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In the shady places the cows are eating poison ivy, ragweed and plantain. They are trampling the goldenrod. Those places have looked ugly for decades but things are looking up. The cows are making improvements. They even found a hawthorn grove I didn’t know I had. I had never been able to penetrate the poison ivy to see in there…even in winter.

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The cows are doing great but I don’t have enough of them. Even if I did we would have to go through a transition period. There are huge portions of the farm that may not look that great for a while. I once knew a woman whose 3rd molar roots had grown into her sinuses. She had the wisdom teeth removed and her sinuses drained for the better part of a week. She just sat with her face hanging over a trash can. Sounds gross but she is undoubtedly better off. It just required a few days of ugly adjustment as she returned to health. Do I want pretty pastures or do I want healthy pastures? Healthy microbes lead to healthy worms. Healthy worms, healthy pastures. Healthy pastures, healthy cows. Healthy cows, healthy people.

Pasture acne is part of the return to health. Things are changing for the better…even if it looks worse for a little bit. I could sustain and mask the lack of health with a bottle of chemical but…let’s not. Let’s move forward, away from monoculture. Away from “hay” fields and toward health.

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