Monday, November 2, 2009

Organic farming and Holistic Management

Tom German, Holstein, NW Iowa

Tom German is an organic farmer but also just about to finish his training as a Holistic managment certified educator. I found that Tom was a particularly articulate in the way he explained things. He farms predominantly cattle and also sells in other niche markets.

He gave me his story. When he started his farming career he was pretty much the same as all his neighbours - mainly cropping, mainly corn and soybeans. All the livestock had left long before, in his grandparents days. That said he had always had an interest in grazing and one day picked up a copy of the Rodale Institute's magazine NEWFARM which was dedicated to organic farming. This also led him on to another publication called STOCKMAN AND GRASS FARMER, which was dedicated to promoting grazing animals. And from an advert in this publication he became introduced to the Holistic Management International organisation. Pretty much all of what philosophies these three introductions have given Tom have stayed with him today as he has developed his own organic grass fed enterprise serving niche and sometimes commodity markets.

"We started using some of the Holistic Management concepts in around '96" Tom told me "but it was quite difficult to implement some of the ideas as there was not so much backup. So I would say I'd been using HM since '96, but not well."

Tom said he had been drawn to this system for a number of reasons, firstly was that he had highly erodable land and he wasn't particularly willing to see it head down stream. He also didn't like the amount of chemicals he was using on the land. "Cows are my kind of no till, but better" he told me.

Tom was definitely one of the most articulate thinkers on HM that I've met so far and I couldn't help but feel that anyone asking the questions was always going to get a complete and considered reply from him.

He said when looking at HM first of all you need to define your holistic goal. Everything else you want to do is a finer point within the context of the goal. He had his written up in A4 format stuck on his fridge door. There was a pencil by it as well, to allow any members of the family to alter it. The holistic goal was basically what you want and how you plan to get there - (it deserves greater explanation than that but for the sake of the blog!)

So therefore Tom drummed into me that all the other stuff I have been getting excited about like mob grazing, or soil building, or top quality no till etc. are not just a means in themselves but tools to allow someone to achieve the holistic goal.

Tom explained his enthusiasm for organic grass fed and he said that he felt it was the most sustainable system for livestock farming. "The problem with the feedlot system is that it not only is it heavily subsidised but also it only works because we are cost shifting a lot of our environmental problems from it elsewhere" said Tom "such as the erosion from the rowcrops, the manure being confined and redistibuted from one central place and that the health of the animals and the consumers of the systems products are not particularly healthy." Tom felt that if we were in free market where those environmental costs were not shifted away, and if there was not so much subsidy surrounding the corn/soybean/ feedlot system then his grassfed system would easily compete better, if it doesn't already.

But there are potential difficulties with a mob grazing system and grazing tall. The advantages of the short grazing duration followed by a long rest means that Tom feels in the long term he has greater harvest efficiency of his grass. "But you can see some slippage" says Tom "don't expect miracles it can take a little while for cattle to adapt to being in herd and sometimes they will go little backwards first, maybe two years for it to be fully acclimitised."

Tom doesn't rotate his sheep at the moment they tend to roam around under the single strand that keeps the cattle in. In the summer he will move his cows once a day, and in the winter for 100 days he will strip graze a stockpile of grass. Last year he fed 50% hay and 50% from the stockpile. He plans to continue tipping this balance in favour of the stockpile.

These are some of the key things on grazing and HM I picked up from Tom:

  • A lot of people don't necessarily understand what HM is about. A lot of the time they have a perception of what is means before really looking at it.
  • HM is essentially a very thorough management system. So thorough that it is hard to implement fully and completely. Just think of it as an evolving process.
  • "We are what we eat" - Consumers are willing to take information to a grocery store on decisions on health for diet etc. but not always back to the farm to the animals and soil.
  • Economic cycles are short sighted. HM asks you to plan not just what you want now, but what do you want to see in three generations, therefore it drives ideas of sustainability.
  • The key when grazing is the rest. Rest benefits plant communities hugely - it lets a plant fully express itself. And consequently allows it to contribute more to the soil health and fertility.
  • When mob grazing aim to uniformly impact all plants and give sufficent recovery time for the slowest recovering plant. This is the only way to keep diversity in the system.
  • This very plant diversity creates more stability and resilience. Not every year is the same, some plants do better than others. This is why we rotate.
  • The more species you have, the more you get back. So if you slot in more animals into a grazing system they don't necessarily take away from the other ones, but

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