I rested my arm a moment while Allan pounded the next stake. We had been setting concrete forms for three days in what was often solid rock, and swinging that 2 pound head continuously with my right arm had my fingers locking in a cramped hammer handle position. My finger bones ached with a dull roar of pain, and the tennis elbow that manifested along with it was affecting each blow of the hammer. Allan had been doing this for many years, and I was a newbie at it. He showed up to help me on my homebuilding project that would finally free us from temporary housing to a real domicile.
Allan was only about 15 years my senior, but his body was showing the effects of a concrete pouring life; his grimacing face often gave away the chronic pain he was in as he worked. Hammer swinging was no exception. Finally, he could stand it no more; he needed a break too. He stood up and looked over at our cowherd on the sprawling pastures beyond our construction site, as the steady autumn wind ruffled his western plaid shirt. He fixed his eyes on the cows at the low end of the distant meadow.
“You got them on alfalfa up there?” He looked at me with his piercing stare. Allan could be overwhelmingly direct; intense. He bent down and pounded another steel stake. Over the ring of steel on steel I heard him continue: “Cause you know what they say about this wind. Kill ’em all, you will, ‘specially this time of year.”
“What the heck are you talking about?” I stared back at him, wondering if this was one of his dry as August wind jokes, but I knew Allan had been raised on a ranch, and even now he usually ran some 2 to 300 yearling cattle. I picked up my next stake, and walked over where I was to drive it in the rocky ground.
“Yeah, they’re on alfalfa. Whatever does the wind have to do with it?”
He stood up, and pointed at me with his hammer. “Listen to me. The old boys I was raised around always said to get them cattle off alfalfa if the wind is blowin,’ ‘cause you’ll find them dead as a doornail in just one day of that. And sure enough, I’ve seen it now enough times to know they were dang right. I have no idea why, but they knew what they were talking about.”
I smiled as I pounded the next one. “Stupid old men’s tales if you ask me. Allan, that doesn’t even make sense!” I grabbed another steel pin. “What the heck could wind have to do with it?”
“You’re the one who’s stupid. I’d get ’em off there.” He bent down and started driving the next concrete stake with abandon, as if he was fresh on the job and 25 years old, working like women were watching.
I went on to my next pin, and as I moved forward, I looked back to Allan. Serious. If he was giving me a hard time he would be grinning by now. I filed the wind story, though unbelievable, in a corner closet file cabinet in my mind, figuring I wouldn’t open that one again…ever.
Five years later, I figured I had alfalfa grazing down pat. I read all I could on the subject, and was a self-proclaimed expert. Scientific publications yielded key management points that I was sure many ranchers would never get, and reading of procedures in Brazil and Argentina gave me enough specific instruction that engendered confidence. I could do this. It was a risky business, especially if you didn’t have a complete grasp on the causes of bovine fatality on the tasty legume. But I did.
It works something like this: Bessie the cow eats the tender tips of alfalfa on a half full or empty rumen, and because it is so digestible, the bacteria in the rumen bloom like crazy on the easily broken down ice-cream-like forage. Their rapid breakdown of the protein-rich forb has a huge byproduct of gas in the form of foam, which builds up to such a degree that Bessie can no longer expel it. It builds up pressure against the diaphragm which then prevents her from inhaling air into her lungs, and the rest is history. She dies of bloat asphyxiation. It can happen fast; in less than 20 minutes, a cow can succumb to alfalfa mortality.
The simplest prevention is to get the beeves full of grass when they come on to a new break of lush alfalfa. They’ll self-regulate by their fullness, and won’t have gut-room to eat too much. So that’s exactly what I did, and it worked without fail. Beeves gained weight with abandon, and were loving life. I just carefully planned my pasture management, and walked tall and proud around my fat looking grass fed cattle when I checked them and gave them a new break of alfalfa.
The check on my proud walk came one night in October where an early winter front came in off the Continental Divide. The beeves had been on this particular break of sweet-looking alfalfa for 3 days now, and had most of it nicely knocked back. Bloat related death was nearly impossible, as the tasty tips (the risky part of the plant) of the legume had been largely grazed off. I rode through them an hour or two before dusk settled over the ranch. A brisk frontal wind had already picked up, and over half of them had bedded down early for the night, and it appeared all was well.
The wind picked up more force soon after I got back to the house, and shook the house through the night. The forecasted front arrived sometime in the wee hours of the next day, and even dropped a light snow. I looked out the window at first light; all was grayish white, and snow was still coming down. The flakes blew horizontal in the harsh late autumn wind as I finished breakfast. I put slicker, hat, scarf and boots on as I mounted up and rode the 2 miles to the beeves on our alfalfa bottoms.
The wind had finally abated on my way over, and patches of azure blue broke the cloud ceiling. Long shafts of sunlight angled down to the valley floor, dotted with trees golden with the autumn colors along the meandering river; beyond, snowcapped peaks reared up from the valley into the broken cloud layer. It was going to be a lovely day to be alive on Alderspring. I looked forward to cresting the break where I could get the overview of our beeves. There was a little over 150 head of our Angus grazers down there in the bottom meadows along the river, and they were the picture postcard of health and perfection of my management on grass. Looking at them and riding through was the culmination of a summer’s hard work, and hanging out with them was always invigorating.
As I came over the hill, I stopped and took in the view. The beeves were all up and grazing through the light and wet snow that frosted the pasture; they were scattered across all of the 100 acres, voraciously getting back to grazing after what had been a tumultuous night. I headed through the golden quaking aspen groves that bordered bubbling springs at the bottom of these Continental Divide foothills, broke out into the meadows with the beeves, and slowly worked my way through them.
At first, all looked well. Some of the beeves still sported a little snow on their backs, and all had their heads down in the lush graze. The first clue that something was drastically wrong was when I sighted a steer a hundred yards away on his side with a hind leg sticking grotesquely in the air. I ran up to his unmoving form to ascertain the damages. I could sense death as I approached, and was right. Dead. Eyes open. I stared at him, stuck, fixated on his body, my subconscious hoping to detect some movement where there was none.
Pulling my horrified eyes away, I frantically scanned the meadow for others down. I immediately sighted another, with a herd mate nonchalantly grazing next to him. Before 10 minutes had passed, I found 3 more; all were already gone from alfalfa bloat. If I had been there at first light, perhaps I could have saved them. I had saved some in the past with the extreme emergency measure of a knife stabbing to the telltale rounded gas bubble of a protruding stomach along their back, thereby releasing the excess pressure that causes asphyxiation.
But it was too late. Five of my charges were gone.
Over the next few days, I ratcheted up my alfalfa awareness to a whole new level. I didn’t even know what went wrong. I had failed in my role of husbandry; and the alfalfa I so managed to perfection had blown up in my face. I felt stupid. The neighbors slowly drove by on the county road and watched me woodenly drag them off to burial. They said nothing when I picked up mail at our local general store, because they had all been there. Everyone had lost cattle on alfalfa, but the siren song of unbeatable gain was too much to resist.
But I was having second thoughts, and started resisting. I obviously had a lot to learn yet, and couldn’t figure out what happened until I went back through the events of those days in my mind. The key realization I had was that the previous afternoon, half of the beeves were already laying down. It was too early to lay down in the day; they couldn’t have been full yet. They usually ate well into dark at this time of year.
Then it hit me like a ton of bricks: they were lying down to get a break from the wind. The tall alfalfa would shield them from it. They just got tired of being buffeted by wind, had laid down, and stopped eating. They just waited the weather out. Deer and elk do the same thing; when a front comes through, they stop grazing. They come out when the weather settles, and their weather caused elongated fast creates a completely empty stomach—and a huge appetite.
Allan’s old timers were right. Alfalfa was dangerous when the wind blew. “Get them off there,” he said. He was right. Little did he know that my windy experience would place in motion a permanent trend to “get them off there”—that is, off alfalfa, forever.
Now, Alderspring’s rich pastures still have a little bit of alfalfa, but in very low quantities. The plant is now a part of a very diverse palate of pastured plants that allow our beeves to make their own nutritional choices. Alfalfa is simply one of many trays in the salad bar that mimics wild landscapes that ancient beeves roamed before we got a hold of them.
Experiences like the loss of those 5 steers have become hard-knocks life lessons on the hard road to husbandry that have made it clear that farm-like monocultures of plants like alfalfa and greenleaf corn, although apparently great for animal production in pounds, are not good tools for bovine wellness. Further understanding has helped us realize that these monocultural practices are disasters for things that complement our beeves: soil biota and other wildlife species from fish to falcons (we have two resident falcons that thrive on Alderspring).
I hate how these painful husbandry lessons often have to come with more humility. But they also come with the side benefit of seeing the world through a different lens. For instance, the “grass fed” world still often finishes on alfalfa monocultures. Beyond the risks I describe above, we’ve now realized that our finishing programs on that protein-rich species 13 years ago led to unmetabolized urea deposition in muscle tissues. That, in turn, led to beef production that occasionally bore flavor markers of livery, or metallic tones that took away from the beefiness of our fare.
Alderspring never has those markers today, and I think our beef is healthier because of it. Most of us have heard of grass fed beef that has these off flavors; we’ve heard reports of other producer’s beef tasting like liver, smelling like fish, or even dirty dish rags. I think it’s more than likely they have succumbed to alfalfa’s unhealthy siren song. Recent scientific research made accessible to the public by author Mark Schatzker implies that if we don’t like flavors or fragrances coming from food, we probably shouldn’t be eating it.
So we’ll never plant the Asian-originating plant again on Alderspring. It’s a good thing, too, because most alfalfa getting drilled into the ground today is GMO alfalfa, engineered by Monsanto. We’ll let the non-organic grass fed guys continue to plant it, but we have learned lessons…and those lessons make us hungry to learn more. I’m just hoping that I don’t have to learn many more lessons like the one on that October morning with a high tuition rate like alfalfa’s.
Thanks for learning with us in this place called wild wellness. I’m glad we have ancient instincts and rhythms in animals and plants to learn from. They are our best teachers (old timers can be pretty good too). And from them, we will relearn the art of wellness for both humankind and beast. Please join us in our quest.
Glenn, Caryl, and Girls on Alderspring Ranch