The last six months on Judy farms have been a real eye opener. We have seen some unique circumstances that have never been witnessed before on our farms. Some of the numbers and sights that we are seeing are going to be hard for you to believe. I want to cover where we started at and the progression we have seen over the years. This will give you a time table of where we started at and the length of time that elapsed to the present.
When we took possession of our owned and leased farms, the top soil was pretty much gone. Moving along with the history of these farms, from early 1970 until the late 1990’s these farms lay fallow or were mowed for hay. This was further mining of nutrients being removed from the soil with each hay crop. Much of our farms had a sickly pale green moss covering the soil, interspersed with broomsedge and eastern red cedar.
When we first started leasing these fallow farms in 1999 we put down some lime, P&K initially. We quickly figured out that we would be bankrupt rather quickly if we added all the soil amendments that the soil tests called for. We started wintering dry bred cows on our bankrupted soil farms. The cattle owner purchased the hay and we fed it on our farms. We unrolled every large round bale that we could get our hands on. Presto, we now had soil food to start the healing process of our soil bankrupted farm.
Our weak link on Judy farms was not having enough microbes in the soil. So we are now focusing on feeding the microbes in the rumen of the cow and letting the cow transfer those microbes into the soil. We could lime and fertilize the soil until we were broke or we could let the livestock fix it for us by using mob grazing. We humans really try to make things complicated.
We begin focusing on feeding the soil with vegetative matter that we could possibly trample onto the soil surface daily and still maintain animal performance. We immediately started to see a difference in how the plants responded to this extra vegetative material being fed to the soil followed by full plant recovery periods. The remaining moss and broomsedge begin to disappear in our pastures. The woody invasive sprouts are getting pressure put on them from the increased stocking density and our multi-species effect of sheep/cattle grazing exposure. Our soils now have a sponge-like feel to them when you walk across them.
One of our first big discoveries that we have observed is that our soil critters are now active 12 months out of the year. By digging back the snow and inspecting the grass sward, there were spiders of all sizes crawling around like it was a normal day. Green miniature aphids’ were hopping around, soil life was everywhere. Why is this soil life not going dormant when we enter winter conditions? With closer inspections we could easily tell that the ground surface under the grass sward was insulated with decaying litter. The ground was not frozen; the temperature was warm enough to encourage the small critters to continue with their daily routines of eating and pooping stuff.
If we are trying to build top soil on our pastures which will allow us to grow more and higher quality forage, soil life ranks No. 1 in importance. It’s easy to lose the connection with the soil life on a daily basis. Ranchers wear so many different hats that it can be challenging to stay focused on what is most important on our operations. Folks if we don’t have healthy functioning soil life on our farms, we are fighting an uphill battle of building a sustainable operation that can stand on its own without any inputs.
The biggest surprise that we witnessed happened in the last week of March several years ago. I noticed as we walked over the paddock that all the manure piles looked like something was deflating them from the inside. I reached over and gently lifted a manure pat that measured 12” across by 2” thick over on its side to expose the under belly. Justin and I both gasped as we fixed our gaze on the manure pat. The whole area of the manure under belly was completely covered with earthworms. It was one of the most exhilarating sights that I have ever witnessed.
I had a gut feeling that we were in for a huge surprise in the actual worm number count. Each handful of aged manure was literally packed full with earthworms. Once we tallied up the total worm count from each of us, we ended up 462 earthworms from one manure pat! How cool is that? It was not a freak incidence, every manure pat that we turned over was loaded full of worms devouring their precious food source. There was a manure smorgasbord party going on at every manure pat that we checked.
Jerry Brunetti explained to me that an earthworm actually injects a portion of lime into the casting as it leaves his body. In other words, we have 462 miniature lime spreaders in one manure pat, wow with no lime spreading fee or fossil fuel used to get it on our pasture! I don’t believe there is another living thing that we can have on our pastures that will give us the return like an earthworm does. An earthworm has a life span of 7 years. During their life span a single worm with its offspring involved can produce 1.2 million worms. Now we are talking some very serious soil wealth for our farms future.
When we switched to higher density mob grazing, our litter bank exploded. It is best to get some of the remaining un-eaten forage trampled on the ground by a cloven hoof. The food needs to be bountiful enough to support a large community of worms. A thick grass sward litter blanket is just the ticket. One last comment on effective litter banks: BUILD IT AND THE WORMS WILL COME!
In wrapping up, we really need to focus on what Mother Nature gives us for free. Ian Mitchell Innes has made the comment to me numerous times, “The ecosystem worked pretty good until white man arrived with the firearm and messed it up.” We can fix it with Holistic High Density Planned Grazing. It is a huge paradigms shift to think of ourselves as a worm rancher instead of a cattle rancher. Worm rancher sure does not sound near as sexy as saying “I’m a cattle rancher”. I know a lot of ex-cattle ranchers that would still be ranching today if they had been worm ranchers first.
All this purchased input stuff that we are told to put on our farms is nonsense. Folks let’s turn our farms around, become a worm rancher. I guarantee that the microbial life that you build in your soil will thank you handsomely with higher profits. I think we are going to see hyperinflation in earthworm populations!
Greg Judy – 7th June 2018