Caring for and Healing the Earth


Caretaking Farmland with Domestic Animals

by David Schafer

(David Schafer and Alice Dobbs live on a farm near Jamesport, Missouri.)

"Every acre of land has its own best use." – Aldo Leopold
"Ask the land to tell you what it wants." – Tom Brown Jr.

Caretaking is a path Alice and I have been on these past eighteen years as managers of the 500 acre family farm in northern Missouri. In fact, caretaking led us to the Tracker family. In 1995, at the Kansas City River Market where we sell our naturally raised meats, we met Scott Braley who has attended most of the Tracker classes. He told us of Tom’s books and school, and we were immediately hooked.

The caretaker path led us to grow food in a more conscientious way. That food attracted Scott to us. And now, as the circle completes, through Scott we are learning a new dimension in caretaking as practiced by Tom Brown, Stalking Wolf and prior generations of earth- connected people. As we stand at this threshold, we marvel at the path that brought us here. But the real excitement is in what lies ahead.

In this writing, I would like to share the experiences in caretaking that we have had to this point. We feel we have stumbled onto some very good medicine for healing farm land. Hopefully, this will get you as revved up about living on the land as Alice and I are. In a future issue of The Caretaker I will discuss our plans based on what we learned in the Caretaker class.

Tom was careful to note that all the physical knowledge we can amass regarding an area, its soil, its flora and fauna, and the interactions of those elements within that area, will put us in a better position to caretake. Although there were certainly spiritual forces at work in our early years of caretaking, we didn’t appreciate them or "consult" them. Therefore, this segment of the story primarily involves the physical.

Back in 1980, Alice and I moved from Denver to my grandparents’ farm. We knew next to nothing about farming, just that we loved the country and trusted our instincts to jump in. We never looked back; it turned out to be the opportunity of a lifetime.

Our first four years consisted of getting up to speed with conventional farming. We took agriculture classes and devoured all the university extension guide sheets on the topic. We asked endless stupid questions and no doubt amused our neighbours with some of the stunts we pulled as we ascended the learning curve.

In hindsight, this time might seem to have been wasted as we employ none of that learning now. Not so! I think it contained some of our most valuable lessons. To really appreciate thoughtful caretaking of land and animals requires that we have a keen awareness of what is NOT good for them and then seek out higher choices.

Our one great asset was a complete lack of knowledge and therefore an impartiality to techniques. We were not married to any systems, didn’t have a farmer relative passing on his legacy (Grandpa was a geologist and the farm was an active retirement for him). There were no sheds full of heavy machinery we felt compelled to use.

Growing crops and raising cattle the conventional way, we soon discovered quite a shopping list of NOT good agricultural practices: physically disturbed soil, chemical applications to the soil, livestock giving birth out of sync with Nature’s cycles, unnatural feed rations, pesticide applications to livestock (although we still use wormers when we bring in stock from some other farm), unnatural grazing patterns, artificial insemination, injectable hormone stimulants as well as a whole slew of vaccinations, water and fencing locations which encourage erosion, monoculture crops and monoculture pastures, to name a few.

After many years of learning how not to do it, we adopted the philosophy of taking the path of least resistance to Nature. Whenever a "situation" presented itself we would ask, "Okay, what would happen in a natural system?"

Let’s take flies, for example. Cattle are annoyed by flies, therefore cattlemen hate flies, therefore agribusiness loves flies and a lot of money is made by agribusiness selling cattlemen various forms of fly control to apply to their cattle. The typical American quick-fix.

But hold on. What else happens when we dust, pour, vaccinate, spray and/or dunk our cattle in insecticides? You don’t need to be told that it wreaks havoc on non-selected bugs, gets into ponds, creeks, water tables, rivers (and therefore YOUR drinking water) and, laughably, doesn’t kill ALL the flies, but leaves a few unaffected ones to breed and create a larger population of insecticide-resistant flies. What a perfect scam for the poison peddlers as they’re always creating a new market for themselves!

We know it’s not right, so what are the alternatives? This is the point where we quiet the overexcited logical mind, observe Nature, and let the right answer come. Watching our cattle, we came up with several important observations: 1) Not ALL cows had a lot of flies. 2) The most affected animals were unhealthy in other ways as well. 3) Flies only seemed to be a bad problem when cattle were hanging out in one spot (a shade tree or drinking point) for more than a few days and leaving a large manure and urine accumulation there.

And finally, what happens in Nature? 1) Herbivores move away from their wastes. 2) Sickly animals attract many more pests than healthy ones. 3) Flies play a critical role in the decomposition of wastes.

This may have seemed a long, laborious example when you really didn’t want to know that much about cattle and flies, but we’ve used the same process dozens of times to help make decisions for things like weeding, seeding, designing pasture systems, rotating livestock through pastures, choosing when to calve or lamb and on and on. The thought process is always the same.

The process, to summarize, is: identify the problem, observe (asking Stalking Wolf’s favorite question, "What does this mean?"), then consider what would happen in a natural system.

This simple formula has taken us from heavy chemical use agriculture with its high monetary, environmental and societal costs to an earth-enhancing form of caretaking where we, the farm managers, are like symphony orchestra conductors and the animals are the actual caretakers/players, doing what they are designed, willing and happy to do, all in a beautiful, harmonious concert. Can you hear the music?…..The cows "play" the pruning shears, the tilling hooves, the seed planter/fertilizer spreader (a plopping sort of sound with background cud chewing and a few percussive tail thumps against a full belly). The sheep are a higher pitched version of cows, sort of like a trumpet compared to a tuba but with no tail thumps. Much more efficient and tidy in the manure spreading department. The pigs play the "snout-o-tiller" which produces occasional grunting exhausts, the seeder/manure spreader (a whole lot of plopping sounds), and do much curly tail twirling in time to Nature’s joyous rhythm. The chickens play the peckers and scratchers, stimulating new plant growth and thinning out the cricket population. They leave a very rich nitrogen offering behind.

Because their pasture diet is supplemented with a purchased concentrate ration, both the pigs and chickens leave a lot more behind than they harvest, rapidly enriching the soil.

The total effect of this symphony is to bring worn-out, eroded, diseased and chemically dependent farmland back into a flourishing state with microbial activity in the soil, rich with soil organic matter acting like a sponge to store rain quickly and release it slowly, diminishing the watershed’s susceptibility to both flood and drought. Seedlings are allowed to express themselves and gradually a lush diversity of grasses, forbs and legumes – a perennial polyculture or "modern prairie" – evolves.

What we, the conductors, are doing is asking the animals to mimic, as closely as possible, the natural patterns found in Nature. In the wild, the forage-eating "prey" animals naturally bunch up for protection from predation. This results in fairly severe plant defoliation in a relatively small area. Depending on weather and terrain, it can also mean a lot of hoof impact on the land. To avoid the repugnance of yesterday’s wastes, the animals move on to greener pastures.

These two main forces, bunching and migration, shaped the prairies and built the major topsoils of the world. (Conventional wisdom holds fire as the primary tool for effecting change on the prairie. Surely such a violent and energy inefficient force – occurring only once every three to five years compared to constant grazing/resting pressure – would be Nature’s fallback plan, not her primary mechanism, for biological succession).

Mimicking the two great pressures of bunching and migrating on a small scale like a farm is pretty easy. You can get close with just a mowing machine, but animals were designed by the Creator for this very job, so why not save on the fossil fuel? Fencing accomplishes the bunching. A person opening a gate daily invites the migration.

The livestock love it. They get a fresh, diverse salad bar of forages every day. Their lives are filled with contentment, they thrive on a highly nutritional diet exactly to the specifications their four stomachs were designed to handle, and they have something to look forward to each day of their lives. Providing them with this happiness is just one facet of honoring the animals. More on this in the next issue.

The plants love it. They are pruned once, fertilized and left alone for anywhere from two to ten weeks. During this rest period, they lift carbohydrates from their roots to make new green leaves (solar collectors) which bring more free energy back down to Mother Earth, soon replacing the borrowed carbohydrates and thickening both roots and crown.

At no time during this rest are the livestock around to take a second bite of new grass shoots before carbohydrate root reserves are replaced. This would weaken and eventually kill the plant since it would need most of the remaining root reserve energy just to poke a few new green leaves back up.

If the stock come back to graze a pasture after plenty of leaves have grown back and when root reserves are topped up so the plant is getting the message, "make seed", the pruning back of the plants prevents them from bolting to a reproductive, seed-producing state and keeps them in an energy accumulating, vegetative state.

Nature has these things figured out. A well functioning prairie is highly energy efficient. A small herd on a small farm, or just a backyard with one goat, can be a modern prairie.

A suggested spiritual exercise
An interesting spiritual journey would be to look back at the North American prairie to appreciate the magnitude of the elk and bison herds, to verify the incredible richness of the prairie soils before the plow, and to get a feel for the influence of fire versus grazing pressure in shaping the character of the prairie.

Years ago I wished I could go back in time to pre-1872 and count all the bison because I felt certain that there were many, many more than modern range scientists reckon today. They just can’t conceive of the richness of many lands 150 years ago which, since then, are well along on the path of desertification.

Pre-slaughter bison numbers are calculated based on today’s land’s carrying capacity, assuming that modern managed systems with fertilizers and irrigation, etc., must be more productive than anything Nature could accomplish on her own. To admit that many more bison existed 150 years ago than cattle exist today would be to admit the failure of today’s high technology agriculture.

Any interested travelers?


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