Today on Rootstock Radio, host Theresa Marquez speaks to Sarah Flack. Sarah is an author and nationally recognized consultant on grazing and livestock. Her latest book, The Art and Science of Grazing, was published in 2016.
Although she was born in Wisconsin, Sarah’s family lived in New Zealand when she was a young girl before settling on a farm in Vermont in the 1970s. It was on this farm, where Sarah’s family practiced management intensive grazing, that Sarah really began to see and understand the value of grazing. “To me as an 8 year old, it was kind of magic—watching the animals eat the weeds and then have those weeds replaced by high quality pasture plants,” she says of the transformation she witnessed on her family’s farm.
Describing this ‘magic’ of grass-based agriculture today, Sarah says “good grazing management is win-win in so many different ways: carbon sequestration, keeping the soil in place, and also creating this amazing solar panel of green, high-density, photosynthetically-active leaves in the pastures.”
But how does Sarah respond to claims that vegan and vegetarian diets are the only truly responsible way to eat? “When it [eating animal products] is done correctly, it’s a really healthy food choice for the people and the ecosystem,” she says. “That’s what I always find myself wishing was being discussed when people talk about making a shift to a vegetarian or a vegan diet—what is the farming practice going on with the animals? Let’s not just lump all of the animal agriculture in together.”
Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Sarah Flack
April 3, 2017
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Sarah Flack. Sarah is the author of The Art and Science of Grazing and a nationally known consultant on grazing and organic livestock, a workshop leader, and a passionate advocate for perennial agriculture. Welcome, Sarah.
SARAH FLACK: Thank you, it’s great to be here.
TM: Sarah, I know that you, or I’ve read, that you actually were raised on a farm in Vermont, but actually spent part of your childhood in New Zealand?
SF: Yeah, that’s right. I was actually born in Wisconsin, closer to you, and then my family ended up in New Zealand, and we lived there for five or six years when I was quite young. And that was where I first got exposed to the idea of grass-based livestock production, because all of our neighbors were either grass-based dairy farmers or grass-based sheep farmers, or fishermen. And so, yeah, we learned about fencing and grazing systems before we moved back to Vermont.
And yeah, we settled here on the family farm in the mid-1970s. And I wasn’t very tall yet, but my childhood memory of the farm was that there wasn’t any pasture. It was all really rough and brush, with little trees. It was very overgrown, abandoned farmland. And so the first thing I actually got to see my parents doing was something which, back then in the 1970s and early ’80s, was called “mob stocking.” I think most people call it “mob grazing” these days. But mob stocking was the system that they learned in New Zealand, where you do this very high-density grazing, and in their case they were using sheep and goats and sometimes some beef animals. And they would use the high-density grazing and defoliate all of the weeds and brush in these overgrown, abandoned pastures. And that’s how they converted the farm over to being a really productive grass farm that’s now full of grasses and legumes.
TM: So they took that rough brush and then—did they do this with cows or did they have sheep and goats and everything?
SF: They were lots of sheep and goats in the mix but there were also some beef animals. You know, you can’t do that sort of high-density grazing in weedy, brushy pasture with really high-performance animals. And so a lot of the animals being used to do that frequent high-density defoliation of the brush were dry ewes and dry goats and heifers or beef animals that didn’t have very high nutritional needs. And that way you can really push those animals to defoliate and eat all of the leaves off of the non-grazing-adapted species of young trees and weeds and stuff like that. And those plants don’t like to be grazed down and then allowed to grow back a little bit, and repeatedly defoliated through grazing. And so they die out, and then they’re naturally replaced by the more desirable, grazing-adapted pasture species, which around here, and same in Wisconsin, are the cool-season grasses and the clovers.
And so a lot of cases, including on my family farm, those grass and clover seeds were, for the most part, just naturally sitting there in the soil and just waiting for the opportunity to germinate once the weedy, brushy stuff was removed. And so, to me, as an eight-year-old, it was kind of magic, watching the animals eat the weeds and then have those weeds replaced by high-quality pasture plants, you know, without spending a lot of money and work on plowing and brush-hogging and reseeding and all of that—which is certainly another way to convert pastures to higher quality. But this was the way that we were able to do it on the family farm at very low cost.
TM: That is such an excellent description of how you could convert something that is rough and brush and not really useful for agriculture, and then using animals. Blessed be the goats! They do eat everything, don’t they?
SF: Yes! Yeah, they do. Though you can get the sheep and the larger cattle to eat everything too, if you go with a high enough stock density, but the goats—yeah, they really are particularly well adapted for that sort of browsing and eating the leaves off of the brush.
TM: Well, you certainly have informed us very well on how you became passionate about pasture, in watching this as a little girl. And when I saw that you had spent time in New Zealand, I thought, well, how appropriate that you would also really be involved in the art and science of grazing, since so many of our grazers have learned so much about this intensive grazing practices from New Zealand—which by now, I’m assuming, have evolved, haven’t they, to being a little bit more sophisticated and so on? Am I correct on that?
SF: Yeah, I would say—you know, my experience with grazing in all of the different countries where I’ve either just been visiting farms, just because I’m always visiting farms everywhere I travel, or where I’ve been consulting, is there’s always a broad range of styles of grazers and systems of grazing. And so New Zealand, much like the U.S., there’s some folks who are doing really good grazing management with one of the intensive grazing systems, and then there’s definitely folks who are doing continuous or extensive grazing. And some of my memories from New Zealand are not only of high-quality pastures but also of seeing soil erosion caused by overgrazing damage. And I find every country I’ve been to, that’s the full range that I see. I see really good grazing management, I see mediocre grazing management, and then I also see some grazing that’s being done which is actually damaging to our farm ecosystems.
TM: Well, I’m really, really happy that you brought that up, because actually I’m from Oregon and have spent a lot of my time in eastern Oregon, where I’ve seen the result of some very, very bad grazing. So it’s really important to know that not all grazing is the same and that there is sustainable grazing. And so as I look at your book, The Art and Science of Grazing, I’m now seeing that sustainable grazing component is probably what you consider the “art” of grazing. And I wondered if you might talk a little about what is the art of grazing to you?
SF: Yeah, so the reason the book got named The Art and Science is each of the chapters, I really tried to dive in deep to the science behind grazing management. So there’s chapters on soils, there’s chapters on plants, there’s chapters on ruminant nutrition, there’s chapters on things like fencing and energizers and waterlines and stuff like that. And I really, I tried to be very scientific and accurate and actually spent a lot of time kind of doing research, basically doing literature reviews on the science of grazing as I had been teaching it my whole life. Which was really helpful—it helped me kind of firm up what the accurate way is to describe this information and teach it.
But as I was writing each of those chapters about the science of grazing, I wanted to have very practical examples of how farmers were applying those scientific concepts on their own farm in real life, and on farms that are all very different from each other. And so after each one of the science chapters is a chapter which is a practical example of a real farm and their grazing system. And so that’s where I really think the art comes in. The art is when the farmer figures out how to apply these principles and concepts to their own farm. Each farm has different soils and different landscapes, and some are steep and some are flat, and some are wet and some are dry. Some have cows or goats or sheep. And that was the art piece. It’s like, how do you take this science and then apply it to each of these totally different farms? And the examples from the farmers are really fun because there are lots of different creative ways that they’re applying this, the information.
TM: For our listeners, Sarah has a bachelor of science in environmental agriculture and biology and a master’s in science and plant and soil science. Tell us more about how soil, what soil has to do with a good grazing system.
SF: Yeah, so the soil in organic agriculture, but really in all agriculture, soil is kind of the foundation of everything in the farm. But the neat thing about grazing management is that when you’re doing good grazing management, it really becomes win-win for the plants and the soil. So just doing good grazing management, even if that’s all you do, where you allow plants plenty of time, after they’re grazed each time, to regrow so that they’re able to grow really deep, healthy, vigorous root systems and store lots of energy in their roots and the lower parts of the plant, so that they’re ready to regrow so that they can be grazed again—that sort of cyclical process of growing and being grazed and growing and being grazed allows that plant to actually build a really healthy soil around their root system. That plant-soil interaction builds a lot of soil health.
TM: Well, I think it would be really wonderful if you could give us a little bit of insight in what the difference is between a poor grazing practice and a good grazing practice.
SF: So, it’s funny, when I do my PowerPoint presentations in the winter for farm conferences on good grazing management, I have this one slide and I show it over and over and over, and I joke that it’s the most important slide, and all you have to do is memorize that slide and then you can take a nap after that during my presentation. And the slide basically says the two principles shared by all good grazing systems are short periods of occupation and variable recovery periods. So that’s the quick sound-bite answer to what makes a good grazing system good.
And so what that means in practicality is that each time you put a group of animals in the pasture or in the paddock, the short period of occupation means you’re not leaving them in there for too long. And so in our northern temperate zone of Vermont and Wisconsin and that region, that’s going to be about three days for a lot of the grazing season, when the plants are growing pretty rapidly. And by having them in the paddock for a half a day, no more than three days, that means that they’re not going to be grazing those plants down too short, and they’re also not going to be grazing plants that are already beginning their regrowth cycle. So they’re not growing new leaves and being grazed for a second time during that short period of occupation. So that’s principle number one.
And then principle number two is variable recovery periods. And so that means that the farmer needs to constantly be observing how fast the plants are growing in the pastures, and making sure that those plants are always getting enough time to fully regrow after each grazing. And so again, if we’re talking about Vermont and Wisconsin climates, that’s going to be about three or four weeks in the spring, when plants are growing really fast, but it’s going to be four or six weeks or even longer if it’s dry in the midsummer. And so that variable recovery period means you’re not on a fixed rotation, where you’re always coming back to the paddock every 20 days or every 30 days or something like that. It means that sometimes you’re rotating rapidly through the paddocks when plant growth is fast, and sometimes you’re rotating more slowly through those paddocks when plant growth is slow.
And that’s what makes it challenging, is we’ve got to figure out how do you slow that plant rotation down when plant growth slows down, so that you’re not letting the animals back into a paddock and letting them graze plants that are still in some stage of recovery and really not ready to be grazed again.
TM: So really, the art of grazing is really the art of observation, isn’t it? And paying attention and being a very observant manager.
SF: Yes, it definitely is. It’s observing, not just the plants—so the farmers and managers need to be observing the plants and looking at growth rates and plant health and things like that—but also observing the livestock for things like rumen fill and body condition. And if it’s dairy animals you’re observing milk production. We even do manure scoring, so that we’re observing, what do the cow pies look like, and what’s that telling us about the digestibility and nutrients in the pasture and how our cows are doing? And then it’s observing the soil, not just through soil tests—we also do soil compaction measurements and other measurements of soil health. So it’s this constant monitoring of the system.
And there’s actually whole workshops on pasture ecosystem monitoring and farm ecosystem monitoring, some of them done by Allan Savory’s organizations, the Savory Institute or Holistic Management International, that he originally started. They have a whole system of pasture ecosystem monitoring that can be really helpful.
But then also NRCS has pasture ecosystem monitoring worksheets. And I ended up putting a very short version of a pasture monitoring worksheet in the back of my book because I found that a lot of farmers wouldn’t do the really complicated, multi-page, multi-step pasture ecosystem monitoring, but it is so important to do. So I just came up with, I think my worksheet has just five questions and it’s just one page. And I encourage the farmers I’m working with to go walk around their pastures at least once a week, but even if it’s a few times a year, and make some records of how things look. And hopefully then over time they can have the gratifying process of seeing their pastures improve in quality and plant density and growth rates and things like that, and they can track that through some sort of monitoring.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m here today talking with Sarah Flack, who is an author, a trainer, a teacher, and the author of The Art and Science of Grazing. And we’re talking about livestock and much more.
Well, I just want to back up just a little bit, and can you tell our listeners who NRCS is?
SF: Yes, NRCS is the Natural Resources Conservation Service, and they are a federal program that’s available in every single state. And they have all sorts of very helpful resources for farmers interested in grass-based farming. They actually have programs that help cover some of the costs of fencing, in some cases soil testing and nutrient management planning, also for improving lanes to get livestock back and forth to pasture, and stream crossings to decrease erosion, and even piped water system out to paddocks. So they’re a great resource for farmers to work with.
TM: Well, I would say that’s an excellent use of my taxes! You know, I had a discussion with a farmer one time who, I just said that, “You’re a livestock farmer, and how is that?” And he said, “No, I’m not a livestock farmer—I’m a grass farmer,” and was very clear.
You know, there’s a couple of things that just happened in the last couple of weeks that I’d love for you to comment on. The first thing is an announcement from the government of Germany that they are no longer going to serve meat at any of their government events, as a way of mitigating climate change. What was your thought when you read that?
SF: So my immediate thought is that, every time I read something about that—and I have a lot of friends who over the years chose to be vegetarian or even vegan out of ecological, environmental reasons, and I even had a short go at that when I was in undergraduate school because I was so disturbed by kind of the industrial agricultural source of much of the meat that was served in the cafeteria at the university where I was studying. But I quickly, through studying a lot of Allan Savory’s work, but also Jim Gerrish’s work and some of the other researchers, is I realized that a lot of the data coming out about the negative ecological impacts of livestock agriculture was not differentiating grass farming from grain-fed industrial feedlot confinement operations. And then, even now, some of the research coming out on grazing, they’re not differentiating as researchers between what I consider to be good grazing management, which builds healthy soil and sequesters carbon from the air into the soil, and poor grazing management that actually degrades our ecosystem. And so whenever I see these announcements of either organizations, or in this case a whole country, saying let’s not eat meat—
TM: A whole country—that was amazing!
SF: Yeah! I think, wow, I wish that people would get better at asking the right questions. Because the question is, what is it about a lot of our livestock farming practices that is bad for our ecosystem, and let’s see if there are ways to do it correctly.
Because for places like Vermont, for example, where I live, a great deal of our state is not suited for annual crops. It’s best suited either for forest or for other perennial crops, like grazing in perennial plant pastures. And when done correctly, that actually is really beneficial to our, not just the local environment right around me, but it can actually help sequester atmospheric carbon in our soils. And it also produces really healthy milk and meat from these animals. And so when it’s done correctly, it’s a really healthy food choice for the people and for the ecosystem.
And so that’s what I always find myself wishing was being discussed, when people talk about making a shift to a vegetarian or vegan diet, is what is the farming practice going on with the animals? Let’s not just lump all of the animal agriculture in together.
TM: You mentioned about how Vermont isn’t exactly suited for row crops. You’re not going to see monocropping of corn too much in Vermont because it’s kind of hilly, and it actually seems very, very suited to both forest and perennial grasses and pasture. Which kind of brings up this idea of the pasture helping to sequester carbon. And that certainly is a huge topic today, as we have passed the 350 parts per million that we were hoping to keep at, and now we’re over 400. And I wanted to point out another, this week from the Sierra Club. And the very cover has two cows on it and grass, and it says, “Cows Will Save the Planet . . . or Not.” And then it has a lot about—Allan Savory is actually in it. And I’d love to hear your thoughts on what we need to do to look at how, potentially, good sustainable pasture could potentially sequester carbon, and what you’ve experienced and what you know about that topic.
SF: Yes, so one thing I would say about it is, it’s very clear that you can get plants to take carbon out of the air and store it in their plant material and the roots and the soil, and we’ve known that for a long time. But what’s happening now is there’s a whole lot of researchers who are studying how much carbon is actually getting put in the soil in these perennial grazing systems. And how is it different depending on how you’re grazing and the types of species of plants that you’re using, and what’s the management of that? And it’s definitely not my area of expertise, but I’m constantly reading the research and it’s quite fascinating.
But I would say the other thing is, you know, we all get very excited about carbon because we’re talking about climate change a lot, but I always like to emphasize all of the other ecological benefits of good grazing management. And one of them that is directly tied to this idea of healthy soils and keeping the carbon in the soil is actually keeping the soil in the pasture, and that’s soil erosion. Because under the same good grazing practices that increase the carbon sequestration in the plants and in the soils, also increases the plant density in the pasture. So if you’re walking out into a well-managed pasture and you stand there and you look down at the plants below your feet, in a well-managed pasture you’re not going to be able to see any soil at all. It’s just going to be this constant, beautiful green canopy of plants, and then there’s going to be some plant material from the previous couple of grazings sitting on the soil surface too. So you really shouldn’t be able to see any soil.
And so that means when raindrops land on that pasture, the raindrops aren’t going to hit the soil. It’s going to hit plant material, either living or dead plant material, and that protects the soil and allows the rain to very slowly infiltrate through that plant material into that really healthy soil, and then either be held there, so that the plants have water to drink later on when they start regrowing, or it can slowly and responsibly kind of run off the pasture or through the pasture without carrying that soil away. Whereas in the annual crop, where you’re tearing up the soil and leaving bare soil, or also in a poorly managed grazing system, when that rainfall event happens in the field, the raindrops hit the bare soil, and then that in itself can cause damage to the soil and actual compaction just from the force of those raindrops hitting the soil. But then that rain, as it accumulates into little rivers of water and is running off the field, if there’s bare soil, that’s going to start carrying the soil with it, into the ditches, into the streams and rivers, and eventually carrying it to our lakes and oceans. And that’s actually one of the big challenges with kind of our industrial agriculture, both livestock and annual crops, is that not only are we not doing the good grazing management that would do the carbon sequestration, but a lot of our farming practices are letting the soil actually wash off our farms.
And so the good grazing management is kind of win-win in so many different ways. The carbon sequestration, keeping the soil in place, and also just creating this amazing solar panel of green, high-density, photosynthetically active leaves in the pastures that are capturing all of that sunlight and turning it into really high-quality forage that’s both capturing carbon and sequestering it, but it’s also providing feed for livestock.
TM: As I said, a lot of our listeners here aren’t necessarily farmers, but they’re eaters. And certainly the Germany thing jogged me, and that is, should we be recommending to folks to eat less meat?
SF: It’s an interesting question. I guess my approach of that is that what we should be recommending is that if you’re going to eat meat, then it’s going to be beneficial both for the health of the planet and your own personal health if you’re able to get meat that comes from grass-based animals. Because we’ve talked a little bit about the ecological benefits of the well-done grazing management for our ecosystem. But the other thing is the animal products—the milk and the meat of the animals that are grazed on these well-managed, lush, vegetative pastures—are also really high in nutrients that are good for human health. And those are things like conjugated linoleic acid, or CLA, and omega-3 fatty acids, and a whole lot of other nutrients that are frequently lacking in sort of a typical American diet. And they’re found in much higher concentrations.
And so that’s really—the answer to that question in my mind is, let’s figure out how we can eat more meat and dairy that’s really healthy for us, and probably in that process we’ll end up with less overall kind of quantity or volume of that meat in our diet, for example, but it’s going to be more nutrient dense with the really healthy nutrients to help us not have as much cancer and not have as much heart disease.
TM: Thank you so much for being our guest today, and thanks so much for all the good work you’re doing.
SF: Thank you so much for having me on the show.