Thursday, October 29, 2009

Where the Buffalo roam.

Chad Peterson, Sandhills, North Central Nebraska

Chad Peterson farms some tough land. The sandhills where he farms are pretty much just that - sand. Coupled with the extremes of the praries climate you've gotta be a tough farmer and a tough cow to make your living out here.
Chad used to farm buffalo out here but now he has changed tack and breeds cattle, with the precaution that he needs to have a cow as tough as the buffalo as he can possibly get in order for them to survive on the poor grasses and the harsh weather.
His inspiration for this comes from when he related a story from his grandmother in the 1930's when there was a very tough winter. They had Buffalo and Cows in those days and throughout the winter his grandfather needed to attempt to feed the cows throughout the winter at much cost. In the event a large number of the cows died but the following spring the buffalo were all there - quite accustomed to the natural way of things.
He currently breeds Highland cows crossed with a Hereford bull. The result is a fairly hairy looking Hereford which he hopes the meat trade will accept well. He tells me he is particularly hard on his bulls in the winter - "I get them from a guy in Montana who makes them live quite a tough life and forage for what they can get. And then over the winter I will stick them on some of my grazing pastures and they just hasve to stick it out. If they die, they die. I've got to breed strong enough for this type of system because I don't want the costs of winter feeding etc. The Highlands are particularly well adapted to this system as well as mothering well and being calm enough to corral once or twice a year. He expects his cows to last about 20 years, calving each year.

Chad mob grazes in the summer months to maximise compensatory growth and improve his pastures, in the winter he will stockpile an area for the cattle and leave them roam on this. A mob grazer will say overgrazing in the winter is not a problem as the plant is dormant. He can do this as his landbase is very large.

On the left is Chads water tank. In the summer when mob grazing his 600 strong herd all he has to do is drag this portable tank to the graze area which takes 20 minutes a day and then lift his electric fence. In the height of summer he will graze 600 animals extremely tightly for around 4 hours a day. The resultant hoof impact and manure on the tallgrass prarie is helping build dark brown organic matter where once was pure sand. For comparison we looked at areas that were not mob grazed as intensely and the lack of fertility was clearer. Its all to do with greater intensity of grazing yielding yet greater intensity underneath.

I asked him what his neighbours thought - he said they think its crazy as they're so used to making hay. He tells them "you know whats in hay?" "what?" they reply "Grass!" he said with a big booming laugh. He doesn't want to make hay, he doesn't have to drag anything to them in winter - he can leave if out in the field in standing buffet form for the animals.

Chad doesn't finish any animals yet. He still has a niche buffalo meat enterprise though. He took me in the truck to see them and we chased them in the around in the 4 wheeler. The buffalo actually seemed to enjoy it - its their bit of sport for the day, the adrenalin seemed good for both parties I thought. Chad only has 100 buffalo now but as we shifted them across the dunes and seeing them striding out as a herd I felt I may have got just a minute glimpse of what the power of a 2 million strong herd may have been like 400 years ago - what collective energy!

Chad feels that the potential of grazing has been for too long ignored. Not only are these animals actually building organic matter and therefore carbon in the soils but he thinks they are more efficent than any other method of producing beef.

He gave me this idea to chew on. "It is often estimated there used to be 60 million Buffalo in the US before the Europeans turned up. They reckon there are about 30 million cows in the usa now. If we stocked the same density and system throughout Nebraska as I do here - and this is not the best land - we would be able to stock 20 million cattle in Nebraska alone, and improve our soils better than any feedlot system."

So he put it to me that actually counter to what we are all being told if you want to save the planet - EAT BEEF!

1 comment:

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