In yesterday’s post we looked at pastured broilers at Polyface Farms. Today, we’ll explore Joel Salatin’s “salad bar beef” and deep bedding. I think I would be correct to assume that the bread and butter of Polyface Farms is the beef cattle operation. Well, that and grass. Without the grass, none of this would be possible. I must say up front that I didn’t catch all of what Joel said while we were seeking shelter from the rain in the barn. My daughter had to use the potty so she added a little more ammonia to the deep bedding further down in the barn. Don’t worry, we shielded her with an umbrella.
Here’s is what I did learn in the barn. Joel runs his cattle on 2.5 acre paddocks and moves them to fresh grass everyday around 4:00 PM. I’m not sure how many cattle there were…here’s a picture:
The cattle are kept in their 2.5 acres by two strands of electric fencing. Two strands. No expensive, hard-to-maintain wooden fences. Two strands of electric fencing. This “portable infrastructure” as Joel calls it allows the cows to be moved easily to the next salad bar. At this point in the tour, it was probably around 2:15 and the cows knew that moving time was on the horizon. As we exited the paddock (after seeing the pigs in the woods) they were getting antsy. I think Joel said that they wanted to get to the candy bar grass…that’s the prime eating in any paddock.
Joel, in his infinite wisdom, has studied the habits of wild herbivores whether they be buffalo, antelope or zebras and learned how they move in their natural habitat. Herbivores follow the three “M”s…mobbing, mowing and moving. Let’s look quickly at what each of these M’s mean.
MOBBING – in nature, herbivores move together in close proximity to each other. This allows protection from predators.
MOWING – while these herbivores are packed tightly together, they mow the grass to a level that the grass can easily rebound from. While the animals are grazing together, they are also pooping…alot. So what do they do?
MOVING – animals are not stupid. They don’t want to stand in their own feces anymore than you do. So they move. They move onto new fresh grass and away from their manure. What they leave behind is fertilizer for the grass.
Doesn’t that make sense? So why does the industrialized food production model pile cattle into CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations)? Beats me too.
The barn that we sought shelter in serves as the winter housing area for the cattle. Polyface Farms practices a method known as deep bedding. In case you don’t know what this is, it’s basically a method that as the bedding is soiled, it’s not removed. Fresh bedding is added on top of the soiled bedding. Polyface can’t settle for just adding a fresh layer of bedding….they’ve made it work even better. Before they add the fresh bedding, they put down a layer of corn. Why you ask? This is where Polyface Farms knocks it out the park. They do this over and over through the winter and then they release the pigs into the bedding in the spring. The pigs then root through the deep bedding in search of the corn that is now fermented. By doing this, the pigs are aerating the bedding and turning it into beautiful compost that is later applied to the fields. Joel calls the pigs his pigaerators. They get to express their pigness by rooting and the farm benefits by having the bedding turned. He believes in having the animals do the work for him and he pays them for their work; in this case, it’s corn.
One more awesome thing that Polyface Farms does: the area outside the barn is a sacrifice area. It’s an area where the grass won’t grow anymore because of the heavy hoof traffic during the winter. Instead of sowing seed to establish new grass (which by the way they have never done since the farm was purchased in 1951) they grow their potatoes here. By the time the soil is warm enough for potato sets, the cows have been turned out into fresh pasture. So Polyface Farms plants their potatoes and covers them with straw. That’s it. Here’s a closer look:
I want to leave you with a video of Joel speaking to us about the role of the herbivore in nature. Please take the time to watch the video…it sums it up so well.
Tomorrow, we’ll look at the pigs and the eggmobile. If you enjoy this type of discussion, please leave me a comment below or e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you enjoy being part of the Mid-Atlantic Gardening community, join our e-mail list, become a fan on Facebook and follow me at Twitter. Happy gardening!