It is raining lightly on Alderspring as I write this on this lovely Saturday evening, several days before I’ll send it on to you. I’m back on the ranch, and just-turned-23 crew boss Patchin is running the cowboys several thousand feet up above us in the Salmon River Range, based out of camp Texarkana. Snow is in the forecast for tomorrow night up there, and the crew says they are ready. We’ll see how rough it gets on them. It’s just the luck of the draw that they were scheduled for this stint rotation to be up there when it turns ugly.
Either way, the beeves seem rather impervious to the weather. Although there are extensive forested mountainsides covered with green, some of the open country range grasses have cured with the onset of warmth up there, and a little snow or rain on them will soften things up, making even the cured grasses palatable again. Most of those wild range grasses dry with a lot of protein still intact in the leaves and stems. It’s what sustains wild deer and elk, even in the bleakest of midwinter.
It reminds me of when I first learned about the strength of our mountain grasses. I was pretty wet behind the ears, and new to ranching, and was working for an old boy named Lloyd Clark at the head of the Lemhi Valley. Lloyd was a fossil of sorts. He embodied simple as a way of life. He hated machines. Both Caryl and I worked for him, driving big draft teams that towed mechanically simple mowing machines and rakes as we harvested his 320 acres of grass hay. Internal combustion was represented on the ranch by a derelict 1971 Ford Country Squire four door station wagon that handled everything from groceries and lumber from the distant town of Salmon to calves and yearlings hog tied in the back on a bed of straw and baling twine in need of doctoring by the vet 65 miles away.
After finishing cutting a small field, I brought my team into the shade of the horse barn and forked them some of our recently cut green goodness. The moats of sunlight in the dusty barn air shone in from the cracks in the log walls where the chinking had fallen off, speckling my team as I pulled their bridles for the hour or so break.
I eyed Lloyd as he pulled gear from his massive and intimidating (to me) green Belgian team. Earlier that day they had run away with the hay rake and Lloyd’s son Larry, a fearsome sight of galloping wide-eyed huge horses and a wide-eyed Larry. I had watched Lloyd put collar and harness on the huge and breachy gelding, Jack, as we got started earlier that morning. Lloyd’s 5 foot 6 frame couldn’t reach to buckle any of the gear on Jack’s back, so he slid it over his head already made up, a process I’m still trying to figure out to this day. Lloyd turned to me in the dim light. “How’s the hay look out there?”
I had to be straight with him. “It’s pretty short and light.” I fiddled with my gear, not wanting to make eye contact. “Seems like it would have been better to graze it off.”
“Now Honey (he called us all Honey- me, Caryl, Larry)…I know it doesn’t look like much, but you know that our grasses up here are good hard grasses, and them cattle will do much better on our feed than they would do in the low country.”
He was certainly right about one thing. His ranch was in high country. It could freeze any day of the summer and I remember several July and August mornings when Caryl and I woke up to frost on the grass. June blizzards were not uncommon.
One of the mainstay grasses he had on his ranch was what he called “wire” grass, not unlike the strands that formed barbed wire. In scientific terms, it was Juncus balticus, the Baltic Rush, a tough grass-like plant. Caryl tells me it is “circumboreal,” meaning that it occupies all parts of the globe that are in the northern latitudes.
Hard grass, he called it. And he was right. We see it every year our beeves come home from the high ranges, butterball fat, and likewise at home on our hay and our meadow grass. But there was a hitch we had to be mindful of, and this year’s hay crop made it explicitly clear.
As this Canadian Arctic front settles in over us, I am thankful, because the best first crop hay we have ever grown now rests in the stack, placed there only minutes, literally, before the first drips of rain hit the freshly harvested hay meadows. The count of those strung tight 1 ton packages of summer goodness we call bales was 585, almost the same number we had a few years ago for both first and second cutting, not just first cutting.
Why the increased yield? We are now seeing the yields of investment and learning of the principles of organic production. It has to do with feeding those partners in production: earthworms and the microbiota that feed them. I wish could name them for you, and identify the exact mechanisms that increase soil productivity, but I can’t.
According to Kathy Merrifield, a retired nematologist at Oregon State University. A single teaspoon (1 gram) of rich garden soil can hold up to one billion bacteria, several yards of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes, Most of these creatures are exceedingly small and many are unnamed. Earthworms and millipedes are giants in this secret kingdom.
Moist meadows, like our irrigated pastures, have been shown to have the highest diversity of soil life, likely because of the diversity of plants. But maybe it is also something else. And here’s where we get to our hitch that I mentioned earlier.
It started when I called Rocky, the local manure mover, to come out to the Ranch a several months ago. We had an accumulation of partly composted poop in our corrals that was getting a little unwieldy because we have never cleaned it out in the 8 years we have used them to sort cattle, so there was quite a bit there. It turned out that the thousands of beeves that have passed through those pens over those years deposited some 40 truckloads worth of brown gold. Rocky loaded and hauled it to our 68 acre field across Dowton Lane from the rest of the ranch. He covered the top half of that meadow with manure; it looked awesome.
We were pretty sure we’d see a grass bonanza in the spring. We’d been a little concerned about that pasture because it was hard for us to graze in the winter due to limited water. I was patting myself on the back, confident that I would see a fresh boost of fertility to make up for lack of grazing animals.
But I was wrong. The hay yield off of that field was actually about the same as last year. The added organic matter had no measurable effect on hay yield. What happened? Where we let the cows deposit their own good stuff, we often double the hay and pasture yield the following year.
We’re not sure, but we think it is related to why moist meadows have such a high diversity and abundance of soil life. These areas are usually grazed, either by domestic or native grazers. Somehow, the beeves walking around the field while placing their organic matter, including the live bacteria associated with fresh cow poop, results in a huge productivity effect on the soil. When we removed the living animal, and the living manure bacteria, nothing happened. Even if we do not keep the beeves on a piece of ground for a very long time in the winter (a few days even), the next year almost always brings a marked increase in grass on that meadow. Why?
I have no idea. Caryl, ever the PhD plant ecologist, is intrigued and on the hunt for more information. One study she found postulated that perhaps the earthworms are stimulated by vibrations from hoof activity on the soil surface above. Researchers in another study were scratching their heads because the soil biota was actually higher on overgrazed meadows. The role and interaction of grazing animals, soil organisms, organic matter and global warming are just beginning to be looked at. Initial work suggests that carbon sequestration from grazing animals could be a game changer for global warming.
All that I do know for sure is that there are things going on below ground that have developed over thousands of years, relationships we know nothing about, but yet are critically important for the health of the plants above, and undoubtedly the animals that consume it, and the people that consume those animals. So we’ll take these lessons that nature will teach us, and apply them for the health of our soils, grasses, beeves, and ultimately us. And that “hard” grass will end up nourishing us as much as our beeves.
Thanks for walking with us.
Glenn, Caryl and Girls