Pasture-Raised Farm:

Imitating Bison

December 17, 2018

               The Native Americans that first lived here in the lands that we all call home, hunted and gathered food from the land and they really didn’t farm much of anything. Their ability to sustain this way of life without directly working to propagate the growth of the food supply is testimony to the sustainable systems of nature. It is probably true that the population of people that was eating food from nature was much smaller and thus less food was needed, but the fact that nature could sustain itself without being managed was a feat of brilliance which the modern world has lost faith in. Here at Grass Corp. we believe that nature has more to teach us, and that we cannot grow food better than how nature does it.

        How did nature sustain itself? The fact is that we don’t really know for certain, and we most definitely do not know all the details of how nature works. We look at nature as a holistic system in which symbiotic relationships (connections in which both sides benefit from living/working together) and recycling of nutrients play major roles. Even though we do not know all the details of how the wild things take care of themselves, we have been able to think about and observe some parts of the system and are able to replicate it and see many benefits from it. I will explain some parts we try to replicate here, but it will take many more blog posts to explain the benefits that we are able to see every day.

                In nature, every foot of American soil is crawling with millions of different forms of life. From plants, animals, and insects, the many kinds of molds, fungus, bacteria, and other microbial life forms in the soil. The life in the soil is what allows the plants to grow and sunshine to be made into edible energy. The way in which the plants are managed and harvested is what dictates the health and growth of the soil life. Today, farmers manage plants by grazing livestock, chemicals, and mechanical harvesting (mowing/chopping). Chemicals kill the soil life as well as the plants. Using machines to mow grass is alright if managed correctly, but animals eating plants is how nature managed the health of the ecosystem. How were the animals able to “manage” the ecosystem? There are multiple factors; however, the health of the ecosystem depended greatly on regular movement of the animals.

                The bison was the largest animal in north America and so they ate the most. Early reports from pioneers first seeing the Midwest noted seeing herds of bison in the millions. The size of these herds meant the bison were doing the most eating and therefore the most managing. At a first glance, one might think that because they ate so much, they would need to spread out really far so that each bison had as much grass as possible. The biggest concern of these animals in nature is predators. For the bison, wolves are the primary predators. The bison may be a lot bigger than a wolf, but the wolves hunt in packs and if they want a bison, they will fight hard to get one. The best form of defense against a pack of wolves is to stay in a group. Since the bison have to stay in a group for safety, the only way for them to get enough grass to eat is to move.

                These massive herds of bison would graze millions of acres in a years’ time. This movement works really well with the growth cycle of plants. This grazing movement is what we as grazing managers try to replicate and we try to match the growth of the grass in order to create the healthiest and most lively ecosystem on our farm that we can. As the plants grow up, develop seed, and die. We try to graze the mature plants in order to make them young again so that they keep growing and sustain the soil life. Our animals always move. Pigs, chickens, sheep, and cows are all controlled so that they are eating the old and dying plants in order to create new life. This new life makes new food for the soil microbes and it collects more sunlight which in turn creates more energy for more life. There are so many ways in which this is helpful, but I don’t have room for it all in this post, so look forward to more insights on how imitating nature makes for a healthier farm producing healthier food.

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