Where Cow Pies Really Matter
Grass fed livestock works better for the land because plants need animals as much as animals need plants.
NOTE: This post initially appeared on SAExpressNews.com on June 11, 2016
Proponents of grass-fed cattle, such as the ones here on Doug Havemann’s Mesquite Field Farm, say their cattle don’t suffer from bloat and gas like cattle fed grain do.
NIXON — “Watch your step,” Doug Havemann tells visitors in danger of stepping into a gooey splatter of cow pie while touching one of his 12 head of lolling cattle. “That is gold to us… That’s what turns this into grass for them.”
Havemann’s become an expert in things like nematodes and microbes and nitrogen and fungi in the two short years since he left his corporate job in computer systems to become a cattle rancher. Those are all the things he uses to raise his grass-fed cattle without the need for herbicides or fertilizer.
He devotes 16 acres of his 20-acre parcel in Nixon, about 60 miles east of San Antonio, to a farming operation that includes grass-fed cattle, rabbits, chickens and produce.
A more typical ranching operation might involve running 5,000 head on 10,000 acres, then sending cattle to a feed lot where they are fed a high-energy grain diet for about three to six months up until slaughter.
But like other grass-fed beef farmers, Havemann believes cattle are meant only to eat grass.
“Cows are herbivores,” he said. “They’re supposed to eat grass, not seeds, which is corn, grain milo, all those things they feed in the feed lot. It causes bloat in cows because they’re not supposed to eat that. But that’s what our industrialized food processors say they should be fed because it’s cheap and subsidized.”
Havemann has divided his pasture into 54 paddocks, with cows spending about two days grazing in each to provide an 108-day recovery period for each area.
He lets his cattle trample on the hay bales; it spreads it on the ground and keeps the soil from baking in the Texas sun, killing off the biota.
The bovines, meanwhile, agitate the soil just by walking around, which keeps weeds at bay.
The way Havemann sees it, spraying weed killer also kills things like fungus, which necessitates adding nitrogen back to soil. The little mushrooms around his pasture are signs of healthy soil.
Native grasses have come in, such as Virginia wildrye, which Havemann said is the No. 1 supplier of plant soluble calcium in Texas.
When the cows move out, the chickens come in. The chickens eat the larvae out of the dung piles and spread nutrients around while keeping the fly population down.
After the chickens come the rabbits, which finish off the grasses the cows and chickens leave behind; after them he plants crops like watermelons and honeydew.
The cattle returning to the paddock chomp the leftovers from the harvest, providing the “green manure” that is another form of fertilizer.
Here is how we use cattle to stimulate pasture grasses at Circle Ranch, which is located in the high-desert mountains of far-West Texas.