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A Jersey cow on the Bansen farm is ready for serious pasture time

Old McDonald my eye.

Smash it. Grind it up. Flush it down. Your old stereotype of farmer-as-provincial-hick, be gone! Same with your notion that cows on pasture is about as simple-minded as it gets. It’s really a complicated art, and successful pasture-raised dairy farming requires a master steward. Geek-hood, I have learned, is not limited to computer know-how. It has a pasture contingent, too.

Take my friend, Jon Bansen, Organic Valley dairy farmer in Monmouth, Oregon.

I called Jon the other day to get his take on what makes for a good pasture. I caught him in his vegetable garden, where he was—hoe in hand—whacking at a weed invasion around the edges. He immediately started in about his gardening habit, and over the next ten minutes, I heard the most lyrical of siren songs in praise of raising one’s own food—onions, garlic, peas, potatoes (always too many), you name it—ending with a tomato-sauce recipe that had my tummy growling.

Eventually we talked pasture. Or, I should say, pasture and soil.

Here are three things I learned from this IT tech of the pasture:

Bansen's pastures offer a diverse diet—good for cows, good for soil

Bansen’s pastures offer a diverse diet—good for cows, good for soil

1. Soil is microbes, and pasture is much more than grass.
Everything about successful pasture-based farming starts with the life in the soil. In fact, Jon plants a diverse range of grasses and legumes to start a pasture.

Why?

Because, as he says, “When we’re managing the soil, we’re managing the bacteria.”

“When we plant a pasture it should last 12-15 years. We plant all sorts of different plants. That’s the key because of the complex interaction of microbes in the soil. Each variety of plant interacts with microbes differently, so you want a wide variety to balance and widen the health of those interactions. Each plant has a different relationship with different microbes, minerals and cows, too.”

For instance, according to Jon, clover and other legumes, like peas, fix nitrogen in the soil—vital to all plant growth. Rye grass grows well in the wetter climate of the Northwest and is nutritious forage for cows. Etcetera.

“We seek a constant world of living microbial organisms in our soil, and more variety of plants helps this,” Jon said.

Jon also attends to the mineral balance his soil needs. Because he lives in a wet climate, he adds sulfur and boron in spring and calcium in fall. The sulfur is critical for protein in the soil—cows need complete protein, and sulfur allows for its creation at the molecular level. For reasons too sciencey for me to artfully expound on, let’s just say boron and calcium greatly improve the availability of nutrients (like nitrogen) to plants in soil.

Jon said all the microbial life forms really are engaged in a major interplay. He can’t really look in there and see them, “but you know when you’re not treating them right. When your cows are eating well and milking well, you know you’re doing things right.”

2. “Weeds” are only weeds when we believe they are weeds.
Cows can compact the soil as they walk around the pasture, and since soil needs air and water just like animals and people do, a healthy root network is what opens up the soil for air and water to penetrate. Take curly dock, which has taproots of about four feet—really you can’t kill it, says Jon—and it helps keep the soil opened up. Ask any farmer and you’ll learn that curly dock is a “weed.”

He also plants plantain in his pasture, commonly regarded as an undesirable plant. A neighboring farmer recently asked him why he had that weed in his pasture. Jon answered, “It’s not a weed if it’s helping and if the cows learn to eat it. Plantain is not a weed if the cows eat it!”

Jon Bansen carefully watches his cows, to know if he's managing the soil properly

Jon Bansen carefully watches his cows, to know if he’s managing the soil properly

3. Cows are a lot like people.
For one thing, they are constantly eating. The biological end game is that they are also constantly dropping manure, which goes back into the soil structure. “When a cow does this, she’s putting slow-release, long-term fertilizer that’s working for two or three years—not like the synthetic fertilizers that are one-time shots and then gone,” Jon said.

Every day on the Bansen farm, 180 cows graze two 1.25-acre sections of pasture for 12 hours each (moving after each milking), which means each 1.25 acres has to provide the nutrition for one milking of 180 cows. Jon’s job is to make sure there is bountiful plant life and plenty of nutrition there when the cows enter for the 12 hours they will graze it.

The trick is to get the cows to go everywhere on the pasture and poop. This is easier if you section-off the large pastureland into a whole bunch of smaller pastures, or “paddocks.” Trees can create manure-distribution problems. Just like you and I, cows like to lounge in the shade on a sunny day.

“A tree in the pasture is a manure magnet,” Jon said. As a way to outsmart the heat in their tree-less pastures, the Bansens bring the cows into the cool parlor for milking at 2:00 p.m., in order to give them a few hours of shade to stay happy and healthy. The price for this clever work-around is that they also milk at 4:00 a.m., when even the roosters are still dreaming.

Without brilliant stewards like Jon Bansen, pasture-based dairy farming is hardly possible. Farmers—wise, joyful, caring farmers with the hard-earned knowledge of experience—must lead us into the future if we expect to last very long. And there aren’t many left.

But there are some yet.