Farmland with Domestic Animals
by David Schafer
(David Schafer and Alice Dobbs live on a farm near Jamesport,
"Every acre of land has its own best
"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 Toms books and school, and we were immediately
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
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 didnt 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
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
Our one great asset was a complete lack of
knowledge and therefore an impartiality to techniques. We were not married to any systems,
didnt 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 Natures 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
Lets 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 dont 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, doesnt 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 theyre
always creating a new market for themselves!
We know its 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 didnt want to know that much about cattle and flies, but weve
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 Wolfs 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
Natures 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
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 watersheds 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 yesterdays 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 Natures 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
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 cant conceive of the richness
of many lands 150 years ago which, since then, are well along on the path of
Pre-slaughter bison numbers are calculated
based on todays lands 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 todays high technology agriculture.
Any interested travelers?