Valley view. Hillside = blackberries, lower field = dead RCG.

I want to point out a really amazing TED talk that came out recently, about using ruminants to restore the land and offset global warming. But before I link to it, I’d like to set up the topic with my own observations of running ruminants in the microclimate of our farm. My friends were just discussing on Facebook how different our farm looks from when we began (picture above). I believe the video partly explains why.

Blackberry thicket on hillside

Blackberry thicket on hillside

This farm was homesteaded in the 1880’s. For the eighty years or so, it was farmed in a traditional manner- hosting many different animals and crops, in rotation. The Hoem family raised cows, sheep, and poultry; and ran working horses on this place. They also planted corn, peas, potatoes and other vegetable crops; and farmed grass/hay.

Blackberries encroaching on driveway

Blackberries encroaching on driveway

The farm changed hands three times, and the last owner was a dairy farmer. Though he sometimes grazed heifers, dry cows and horses here, the land was mostly used for cutting grass haylage to bring to the milking cows in the barn down the road. They only cut the biggest fields, and they were very productive; yielding many cuttings per year. But the smaller fields and hillside were not hospitable to a big tractor, so they were allowed to go fallow.

Blackberries choking out the trees

Blackberries choking out the trees. They had literally climbed up the tree trunks more than twenty feet tall!

What resulted was a hillside full of blackberry vines, and pasture areas full of reed canarygrass. It turns out, both of these non-native species are bad for the local ecosystem when left to grow unhindered. Blackberry vines grow very tall here- greater than ten feet when mature. But they have a very thin canopy of leaves on the surface, which don’t take up much water. Their root system is limited to a lump of rhizome, which also doesn’t use much water. If you’ve ever cut through a blackberry patch and looked at the dirt, it’s just that: bare dirt with no cover. This opens up the soil to erosion. And, since water uptake is limited, heavy rains pond or wash away, instead of being absorbed by plants. So, blackberries are very undesirable for soil preservation, especially on slopes. The evidence of past erosion on our hillsides is dramatic: trees all pushed sideways with their roots exposed.

Trees once blackberries were removed- bare soil, much erosion

Trees once blackberries were removed- bare soil, much erosion. Re-seeded grass is just starting to emerge.

Reed canarygrass (RCG) also grows very tall, exceeding eight feet in height by season’s end. It is a warmer season grass, awakening late in the spring, bolting up to its full height and going to seed by August, then dying for the winter. If left unharvested, it creates a tremendous amount of biomass which cannot break down in one winter’s season. So, over time, this bulk tends to over-nitrogen itself, and ironically, starts to create a less hospitable environment for grass. Over years, these stands of grass will also develop a lot of bare spots in the soil as the grass fails to thrive. Though RCG in wild stands always looks thick, if you get down and look at the soil, it’s the same thing as the blackberries: one plant with a lot of bare dirt around it. Left in its wild state, RCG does not consume water well, except during its short and aggressive growth spurt in summer.

Same trees, with green grass

Same trees, with green grass, ready to graze.

When we started working with this farm, it was literally non-navigable. It was very difficult to walk through the fields. We got our tractor stuck all the time. Neighbors told us they’d tried to row crop some of these fields, and were unsuccessful- it’s too wet and muddy too late in spring, and too early in fall, to get a big tractor in here for plowing, planting and harvesting.

But what we found is that once we started regularly mowing and grazing the grass, the microclimate has been transformed in a few short years. Now we can drive anywhere, any time of year, and not get stuck. By keeping the grass in stage two growth, its ability to absorb water is tremendously increased (as compared to thin grass, dead grass, or no grass at all). So we no longer have mud, and very little standing water left. And of course, green, lush, deep-rooted grass holds soil in place, preventing erosion.

By mechanically removing the blackberries (with a combo of machete, burning, dragging vines out with the tractor bucket, and mowing) we were able to re-seed the hillsides with pasture grass. Once this is accomplished, continual mowing and grazing eventually kills the blackberries, which waste too much energy trying to re-grow, only to get eaten or cut down again and again.

Pastures in grazing rotation

Pastures in grazing rotation. Blackberries are nearly eradicated.

The role ruminants play in this little drama is huge. Though this farm was once row-cropped successfully decades ago, that was using different methods (literally, horse and plow, and later, very small tractors). And, now there is much more runoff due to development and land-clearing above on the hill. Today, this river bottom soil is too mucky to be good for row cropping with modern tractors, it’s really only suitable for growing grass. And ruminants are the only creatures on earth that can convert grass into high value food for us. Because we have so many non-native, invasive plant species today, letting farm land go fallow is not really “natural.” It’s a waste. This place was turning into an ecological disaster that wasn’t good for the soil or wildlife. The density of blackberries and RCG made navigation impossible, at least for anything bigger than a rodent. The drainage ditches were backed-up and stagnant. The soil started to erode and desertify (you’ll hear more about that term from the TED talk…). It’s hard to imagine our Northwest soils turning into desert, but it’s true: with the wrong plants and constant abuse, this is indeed what happens to any soil.

Rotational grazing on hillside

Rotational grazing on hillside

So, the highest and best use of this land is to graze it. Now, it is productive land that supports our livestock and much wildlife; including deer, coyotes, raptors, waterfowl, songbirds, amphibians, fish, opossums, raccoon, and rodents. It is now ecologically sound land that’s capturing water and carbon, thus stabilizing climate change factors. As the sheep move through their sequestered paddocks, they convert sun-fed grass into food energy for us, they replenish the soil with minerals from their urine, and they add organic material back in the form of manure and trampled grass. The sheep harvest their own food, so no fuel is required to retrieve it and deliver it to them in a barn. Just minimal labor on my part to move their fencing is all that’s needed.

While our neighbors plow away year after year to pant corn, and more corn, we watch their soil rise into the air and leave, for good. They have to procure more and more chemical fertilizer, or obtain manure from other farms which have ruminants or chickens locked in a barn, in order to rebuild the soil they are destroying.

No more blackberries ten feet high!

No more blackberries ten feet high!

Modern plant crops are hard on the earth. Awfully hard. The best natural mitigation for this abuse to the land is what ruminants can offer. And they can best offer it by being grazed as nature originally intended: quickly, on the move, in constant cycles of stress and rest; and fueled by their own walking.

This TED talk introduces the notion that we have one greatest hope for reversing climate change. And it’s not just reducing our use of fossil fuels- that alone won’t do it. We have to dramatically re-populate with ruminants and put much of the earth back into well-managed grassland. The examples in the video are extraordinary. And they match what we’ve seen here on our small acreage.

Have a watch!