Renewable energy is a huge topic in almost any area of life these days and it is no less so on the farm. For a grass-fed operation, going green means a lot more than paying for less electricity every month. The cost of solar systems compared to how efficient they are is just now becoming worth the money to install them. Because they are cost effective now, governments are pushing to go toward solar and other energy sources. Farming has always made money by collecting solar energy through plants and either harvest seeds or feeding the plants to animals for meat. In nature, the animals help to manage the plants so that they stay productive. On the farm, we try to manage in the same way so that our green solar panels (grass) stays as productive as possible.
A plant only grows when there is enough warmth and sunlight to efficiently photosynthesize and make enough energy to keep growing. In Southern Indiana, the kind of warmth needed usually arrives in mid-April and it gets too cold to grow in early November. This gives us seven months of growing time to collect as much sunlight as possible and grow as much animal food as we can.
When the spring time arrives, the plants start to grow new shoots that will grow into stems with green leaves. Depending on the age and the size of the plant, it may grow dozens of new shoots or it may only produce one. Each shoot starts growing one leaf and then a stem develops as it grows a second leaf. The stem continues to grow as the plant pushes out a third and fourth leaf. This is when the management of the plant begins, and we must think about when to graze it.
Grass plants will only put on so much green leaf space on a stem before the old leaves start to die and they make new leaves to take their place. Most grass plants start this process of losing leaves after the fourth leaf has finished growing. At this point, the plant has as much solar collecting power as it will ever have. When the plant reaches this stage, it will also start to grow stems on which to produce seeds. Once the seed stem has grown and the seeds are ready to pollinate, the plant has had time to grow a sixth or seventh leaf. This means that there are two or three dead leaves that aren’t making any energy for the plant. At this point, we start to lose productivity from the plant.
Once the plant has had the opportunity to make seeds, they have fulfilled their purpose in life and they stop growing. Their leaves sit stagnant and they all start to get stale and unproductive because the plant is fully mature and they no longer need to make energy for the plant. These mature plants do not taste very good to the animals and they aren’t making more feed for the animals either. If a plant gets to this maturity it means that we have let it grow too long and we did not graze it soon enough.
In order to keep it from getting too mature, we need to graze it. When the animals graze and eat plant material, each stem loses about half of its leaf space and so it feels the need to replace the leaf that has been lost. In this way, the plant keeps growing new leaves and the animals stay fed on young leaves that they like to eat. We will manage our grazing for the seven months of growing time so that the plants keep getting to the full grown and healthy size that they like, but we don’t let them get too mature.
This management also affects the plants roots and its level of health and energy, but I will go into that in more depth in another blog post. Hopefully from this post you will see how managing our animals correctly is the best way to make lots of healthy food for our animals. The plants need the energy form the sun in order to grow and the animals use that energy to grow themselves. This system makes an all-natural system of collecting energy that takes no large amounts of metal and glass. We can make food without using fuel or electricity. That is as green as it gets.