Editor’s Note: We’ve gone on a search-and-rescue mission to find amazing stories and essays published in earlier print editions of Rootstock. Today’s throwback, “Why We Love to Pasture Our Cows,” was written by Ohio Organic Valley dairy farmer, Ernest Martin for the Spring 2012 edition of Rootstock.
As I was giving the cows a fresh patch of grass at noon today, I stopped as usual to check on the numerous bird houses my son, Randall, has built and placed on fence posts around the pasture. One had a late brood of tree swallows, and a few of the others already had their second round of bluebird nests. It always is a pleasure to see these and other grassland-loving birds when working in the pasture. Since we have taken over this farm and converted about one half of it into pasture, we have seen an impressive increase in the number of songbirds.
In addition to the previously mentioned species, we see meadowlarks, bobolinks, eastern kingbirds, and a host of others. We also see many species of wildlife rarely seen when large acres of monocultures are planted: fox, opossum, mink, deer, raccoon, and coyote, to name a few.
While I feel these are all benefits of grazing our livestock, they are more like the icing on the cake, or the cherry on that ice cream sundae!
The pasture portion of our farm is divided up into many small pastures called paddocks. These paddocks contain many species of plants, some of them planted by us, some of them come up on their own from nature’s seed bank, having lain in the soil for years, waiting for the right time and environment to start growing.
We rotate our herd across these paddocks many times throughout the summer. After the cows have eaten most of the palatable grass in the given area, we give them a fresh paddock of grass—every twelve hours or so. This somewhat mimics the migration that the free-roaming bison used to have before white man set foot in this country. By doing this, the cows are always offered a fresh, clean pasture after every milking. This will greatly reduce the cows’ exposure to internal parasites, nurturing healthier bovine digestive tracts.
In addition, by including grass in our animals’ rations, our cows are eating what cows have been eating for centuries. This fresh green vegetation is much higher in vitamins than feed that has been stored for long periods. Whenever we reduce stress to dairy cows, our animals will have a longer and more productive life. While the cows of indoor confinement herds spend most of their lives on concrete, the cows of Organic Valley’s herds get to spend most of spring, summer and fall on pasture. Any person who has spent much time working on concrete knows how tiring it can be. It feels the same to cows, and they communicate their discomfort to us. Given the choice, cows will almost always choose to lie down or stand in a pasture instead of on concrete. When we allow them to have this choice, most everything about the quality of their lives is better—including the quality of the milk they give.
Pasturing of our dairy cows also helps the environment. When we grow and utilize as much pasture as possible, we use less fossil fuel to harvest and transport food to the cows. They do all of that for themselves by simply grazing. And since most pasture flora is rooted to bind and hold nutrients and moisture, on our land we have almost zero soil lost to erosion.”
So, in conclusion, by utilizing intensively managed pastures, we win in many categories. For the animals, it improves the quality and health of their lives, it is better and more sustainable for the environment, and we get the pleasure of watching the increased number of birds and wildlife.