Trio

What is this trio of eaters eating? Something delectable and delicious?

Eaters

A hearty bowl of grain? Something sweetened with molasses? A savory bowl of fresh-picked dandelions or morning glory? Concentrated alfalfa pellets?

Nope.

Dirt

Dirt.

I’ve noticed over the years that growing lambs on pasture eat quite a bit of dirt. Voraciously so. They find fresh piles kicked up by moles, and go to work tasting, digging, and nibbling, showing much pleasure and enthusiasm in the endeavor. I’ve never found an explanation for this in any US literature; probably because most American lambs are raised indoors where their dirt-eating instincts cannot be observed.

I suspect they are getting some very bio-available minerals from the hearty, broken-down compost that makes up our rich pasture soils. But, I think more importantly, they are ingesting soil microbes which likely kick-start their rumen microbiomes; the basis on which they will develop a several-gallon, living fermentation vat that can turn fiber into digestible proteins, fats and sugars. In a mature animal, one ml of rumen fluid contains 10-50 billion microbes and over 1 million protozoa, plus fungi.

The lambs get started right away in building this biological asset from scratch. Julius Ruechel’s book Grass Fed Cattle has some discussion about the sameness of soil microbes and rumen microbes; and how there is exchange from rumen to soil via manure, at the perfect time when grazers are grinding dead plant material into the dirt, ready to be digested by the microbes. So it makes sense to me that the opposite exchange also happens: ruminants ingest soil microbes to develop and maintain a diverse and healthy gut.

So, if I have lambs that are indoors, like this accidental trio, I be sure to bring them a bowl of fresh dirt to eat. I harvest from a recently-made mole hill, so that it’s dirt from “down below” where the microbes are fresh and active, and also anaerobic. The lambs sure enjoy it!

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