Grain-based livestock farming
Two of the three chapters we
read this week in Folks,
This Ain't Normal
focused on our modern, grain-based, livestock-farming system, so I
thought that would be a good topic for this week's discussion.
Salatin explained that before modern machinery made harvesting and
processing grain a breeze, wheat, rye, barley, and oats required too
much labor to be fed to livestock. This was a good thing because,
in areas where grain production wasn't used sparingly, deserts soon
began to encroach on farmland.
Then tractors and
combines came along, providing cheap tillage and processing, while
chemical fertilizers allowed us to grow massive amounts of grains
without closing the ecosystem loop with enough animals to feed the
soil. Add in cheap fuel to transport those now-copious grains,
and we saw another sea shift in agriculture --- meat and dairy animals
were crammed into CAFOs where they were fed grains and where their
concentrated manure became a waste product instead of a sought-after
source of fertility. Animal cruelty and meat quality aside, the
system is clearly broken from a purely biological perspective.
Salatin asserts that there is
a better way. Herbivorous meat animals (cows, sheep, and goats)
can be raised entirely on pasture, which when managed correctly can
heal soil that is otherwise valueless for agriculture. If we kept
our animals on pasture, we'd only have to grow grains for people, and
there are a couple of very sustainable approaches to grain production
to choose between. Colin Seis, an Australian experimental
farmer, has developed a system of growing grains without tilling within
a traditional pasture, with each plot of land producing grains one year
in five. Meanwhile, Wes Jackson is developing perennial
grains that only require the ground to be tilled and planted once or
twice a decade.
Although Salatin doesn't
mention this, the obvious question is --- can these systems be tweaked
so the food is affordable for folks who aren't wealthy? My answer
to this biological-farming question (which is also raised about
permaculture and organic gardening) is: "Who cares how much ethical
food costs? Grow your own and it's cheaper than the mainstream
stuff in the grocery store, which really costs a lot more than you
think if you add in the environmental side effects." But it is
true that cows are a lot harder to fit into a backyard than
zucchinis. What do you think?
We're skipping next week (since I'll be regaling you with a lunchtime series about trailer dwellers), then we'll discuss chapters
17 through 19 on January 2. If you're just tuning in, you might
want to check out part
1, part 2, and part
3 of the book club
discussion. Thanks for reading along!
Not ready to put a cow in
your yard? The
starts with simple projects that ease you into growing your own food.
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