Imagine the sun shining on a wide expanse of grass, clover, wildflowers and a few scattered shade trees, dotted with cows and calves quietly grazing. Later, the animals lay in the shade and ruminate. A pasture – classically pastoral. If you are lucky, you’ll see a calf newly born and hiding in the tall grass. The cow, finishing her grazing, moos her own particular “moo,” and the calf responds to his mom’s call, jumps up and gambols over to her. He hungrily head butts her udder, then nurses away with his tail wildly twitching, maybe with a few drops of milk dripping from his chin, while the cow contentedly swishes her tail and chews her cud.
The cow births her calf on the pasture, and the cow and her calf graze daily as the calf grows to maturity on nothing but what is eaten from that pasture. Ultimately they provide nutritious, delicious food for humans in a food production system that relies on natural processes and requires no petroleum or chemical inputs.
From the consumption end, the health benefits of grass fed beef are well documented. I also believe the beef tastes better and is better for you from an animal that is personally known and cared for by the farmer who raised it. Although not everyone eats beef, for those who do, pasture-raised beef can be part of a healthy diet. On land suitable for tillage, other farming systems can produce a lot more food from an area of land, but require more labor and external inputs and embody less potential resilience to changes in weather or climate.
The grazed pasture can be a sustainable ecosystem, becoming more productive over time, building – creating – soil by the nearly magical process of photosynthesis: the sun shining on the plants, the plants growing, using the minerals in the soil and the carbon, nitrogen, oxygen and hydrogen in the air above them. The diversity of perennial plants harbors a multitude of animal species – microorganisms, invertebrates, insects, reptiles, birds, mammals – vibrant and resilient. This is an idealized vision to be sure – perhaps the ultimate in sustainable food production. It is exciting to participate in and beautiful to watch unfold.
In most places, lots of careful management and a few compromises are needed to come close to this ideal. We need fences to carefully manage where the cows are, and more importantly where they are not – recovery between grazings is one key to the whole picture. We need the inputs of some salt and minerals from somewhere “out there.” We may also need some grass and clover seeds.
Around here, we need hay for the winter. Producing it uses some petroleum and big machines that take a lot of energy to manufacture and operate. With careful grazing management, we can graze tall standing grass through much of most winters, but we will always need hay for backup. One advantage of hay feeding is that the hay can be fed in a spot where the winter manure, with all its nutrients, can be captured, composted, and used to produce lots of vegetables.
The biggest input to pasture grazing farming may be the farmers’ time. Good grazing management takes time and attention. I am not sure whether this is a cost of a benefit. It is deeply fulfilling work for some of us.