Location: Polyface Farm in Swoope, VA
Everything in Joel Salatin’s hand grows plentifully in this field. In fact, he picked this entire bouquet at his feet. Grasses include fall panicum, pigweed, chickory, timothy, fescue, redtop, orchard grass, narrow leaf plantain, wide leaf plantain, and red clover.
Cows are herbivores, and they just love to graze on Joel’s bouquet. Just like every other grazing herd in the world, these cows are followed through their grazing fields by birds. They scratch through dung and peck parasites off herbivores.
The birds in Joel’s field are chickens. These omnivores are a biological pasture sanitizer. As the electric fence moves down the field, placing the cows on fresh grazing land, the chickens follow behind, preparing the paddock for the next grazing cycle.
Location: Polyface Farm, Swoope, VA
Featuring: Joel Salatin
Egg mobiles, or portable hen houses, are moved every one to two days, preferably behind herbivores, like cows. This allows chickens to have access to unimpeded pasturage.
Chickens are biological pasture sanitizers. They scratch through cow patties and spread them out, reducing the overload of nutrients in one spot and destroying the incubation environment conducive to parasite development. By eating fly larvae out of cow patties, chickens reduce irritation to the herd, increasing their comfort, health and performance. Chickens eat newly exposed grasshoppers, crickets and other herbivorous critters which compete with the cows for available forage. The chickens scratching pulls up duff and moldy leaves, aerating the soil surface and freshening the plant structure.
Pastures don’t just happen. They are like all biological systems, always in a state of flux between degeneration or regeneration. Chickens are extremely hard on forage and dump hot manure with a carbon/nitrogen ratio of 7 to 1. As a result, stationary henhouses soon develop bare spots where the forage is tilled out and killed. The soil is overloaded with nitrogen toxicity which leaches into the groundwater and over stimulates grass clumps with bitter forage repugnant to the chickens. If you want a regenerating pasture, you have to manage it for that successional improvement or it will deteriorate.
Location: Polyface Farms, Swoope, Virginia
Featuring: Joel Salatin
Location: Polyface Farms, Swoope, Virginia
The herd is an organism, a mob, rather than a group of individuals. In nature, the herd is created by predation pressure. Here, Joel uses an electric fence, which he moves daily, in a process called mob stocking. Joel places the cows in a specific place for a specific time. These herbivore are catalyst of this solar collection biomass system. Their eating and defecating stimulate plants to grow.
Where does the energy come from? Well, the field runs on real time sun energy, not stored carbon like petroleum. The best solar collector ever invented is still photosynthesis. It converts solar energy into vegetative, decomposable biomass.
Lignin is the glue that holds plant cellulose together; as a plant matures, lignification leads to a stronger cellulosic structure. Nature doesn’t do green manuring, letting biomass drop to the soil surface until it’s brown-lignified. That happens when cow meets grass. Consuming and processing the grass, burns energy, its waste product serving to fertilize the soil, driving the soil food web.
The soil food web gets even more complex. You see, plants create bilateral symmetry at the soil horizon. When they are grazed upon, they voluntarily prune off an equivalent amount of root biomass to maintain symmetry. This “pulsing” occurs exponentially as plants achieve their juvenile growth spurt. This root biomass leaves carbon in the soil rather than exhausting it into the atmosphere. This routine dumping of organic matter into the soil feeds the soil biota (earthworms, for example).
Egg mobiles in the rotational grazing dance
Joel Salatin raises chickens and cows at Polyface Farm near Swoope, Virginia, but if you ask what he does, he’ll tell you he’s a GRASS FARMER. Our day starts before sunrise. We walk in silence up a long, sloping field, passing a cluster of mildly curious cows as we approach two metal sheds. On closer inspection, I notice that the sheds have wheels, like on a school bus. Then come the chickens. Thousands of them. The chickens live on this pasture, and lay their eggs in these EGG MOBILES that Salatin moves each day.
Sustainable agriculture has no single figurehead—nor does this defiant, disparate movement have a center—but if it wants an able spokesperson, Salatin would be a safe bet. He’s a professional contrarian, a knowledgeable agricultural apostate who not only practices what he preaches but has the rare capacity to explain it to others. While his summers are devoted to farming, his winters are spent literally barnstorming the country—from grange hall to farm to classroom—as he expounds on the joys of grass farming. The science of it is simple enough. Grass is a solar collector. It uses photosynthesis to transform the sun’s rays into chlorophyll. When cows eat grass, they convert this energy into protein and fat. Field grass grows in three phases. The first, which Salatin refers to as the “diaper phase,” is typified by slow development. This is followed by a massive growth spurt, what he calls a “virulent, vibrant teenage phase,” as grass converts solar energy into chlorophyll. From there grass goes into senescence, or in Salatin’s words, “the nursing home phase.” If the grass can be kept in that highly productive middle stage, where it continually captures solar energy and turns that into biomass, it will produce in abundance, but how would you maintain this herbaceous fountain of youth in a perpetual state of production, or what Salatin calls the “BIOMASS ACCUMULATION ACCELERATION PHASE”? Salatin does it with steel rods and wire. He places them in a line that bisects the field, with each rod twenty feet apart. Then he attaches a length of wire from rod to rod. When he gets to the end, he wraps the wire around a battery cell that is continuously charged by a small solar panel. By flipping a switch he suddenly has a portable electric fence. When Salatin removes the fence closest to the cows, they cross into fresh new pasture and graze. Their manure is left behind to fertilize the soil, a process hastened by the aforementioned chickens. Salatin rolls their egg mobiles into pasture previously occupied by cows. By spreading the manure as they walk, these chickens accelerate the growth of new grass. This daily cycle, one of moving fence posts and opening up new pasture, follows a formula based on observation. The size of new pasture is determined by knowing how much the cows need to eat. With the proper allotments set, this ROTATIONAL GRAZING continues until Salatin reaches the end of the field. Then he simply brings the cows and egg mobiles back to the top of hill and the process repeats.
Peek Inside an egg mobile at Polyface Farm
The Eggmobile, at Polyface Farms in Virginia.
Polyface Farms were one of the original farms to implement the eggmobiles into the management and rhythm of their operation. Here we have a close-up look inside the "eggmobile," where hens roost and lay. This hen house is moved around the pastures on a schedule synched with the cattle who graze.
Joel Salatin responds to New York Times’ ‘Myth of Sustainable Meat’
An opinion piece published by the New York Times called The Myth of Sustainable Meat warranted a response by Joel Salatin. He believes that the article was filled with factual errors and assumptions based on no actual merit. His post goes point by point and provides examples of how his farm, Polyface, operates in a purposeful, sustainable manner.
Capturing Solar Energy through Pasture Management
An Interview with Joel Salatin
Joel Salatin and his family own Polyface Farm in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley. They produce salad bar beef, pastured poultry (eggs, turkeys, broilers), pigaerator pigs, forage-based rabbits, and forestry products, serving about 5,000 families, 50 restaurants, and 10 retail stores. Author of eight books on how-to and broad cultural themes, offers lecture performances around the world. Polyface Farm may be the only farm in the world committed to 365/24/7 unannounced visitors from anywhere to see anything at any time.
By using effective pasture management techniques, farmers are able to capture solar energy above and beyond what nature can do in a static state. Joel Salatin, who refers to himself as a “grass farmer”, explains the ways in which choreographing the movement of his cattle and farm animals allows for a healthy and productive farm.
Douglas Gayeton: What does the term “pasture management” mean?
Joel Salatin: The basic concept of pasture management is that grass grows in a sigmoid curve in three pieces. It has the slow beginning growth called “the blaze of growth.” Then you have the top curve where it slows and goes in the senescence. The biomass then decomposes, feeds the soil life and builds the soil. What you want is that virulent, vibrant teenage phase in the middle. The whole goal of pasture management is to maximize the amount of time that the biomass is a chlorophyllic solar converter of solar energy.
If this is done with precision — which we can accomplish now with electric fencing, water pipe and modern infrastructure — we can do this unlike anything we've ever been able to do in the history of civilization. We can go above the capturing of solar energy and sequestering of that energy in carbon and in soil development. We can do that much more aggressively than nature could in static state.
Douglas Gayeton: Help us visualize what it looks like to be a grass farmer. What do you do and see on a daily basis?
Joel Salatin: We are using portable electric fencing to allot one days' plateful of grass for the herd. The herd will change from day to day, but essentially we look at a herd and plug in the constants. Because we're in cow, we convert the whole herd to cow equivalents. Seven little calves may equal one cow. You take the whole herd and you make a cow equivalent cost in bushels or inches.
Then we make constants. Say, a herd is “x” number. We then allocate based on the forage and what they’re eating. We allocate one day’s amount for that herd and every day at roughly 4 o'clock we move them from one plate to tomorrow’s plate to the next day’s plate. We then make adjustments as needed. For example, if we short them a bit, we give them a little bit more the next day. If we gave them a little too much, then we tighten up a little bit.
This is very much choreography. We walk through the pasture to touch the plants, to prune the plants back and to restart this very rapid regrowth cycle. If you didn't graze or prune them back, the grass will simply go to senescence and stop collecting solar energy. It's essentially a biomass restart button. We’re operating with the choreography of a ballet in the pasture between herding and moving animals.
Douglas Gayeton: Is that less work than simply tipping hay bales at the back of the truck?
Joel Salatin: The cows move themselves, feed themselves and fertilize behind themselves. Every time you have to harvest with petroleum and machinery and use your own time to harvest, move, store and then feed it back out, there's a tremendous amount of labor and extra cost. With my system, the entire infrastructure consists of some electric fence that you put in a wheelbarrow and some plastic pipe to run the water. That's the entire deal. You don't even need a machine; it's all run on real time, solar energy and solar dollars.
Douglas Gayeton: Where lays the resistance among ranchers and cattlemen to use your principles with their own animals?
Joel Salatin: Why do so few people embrace the truth? That’s the question of the ages. It happens because grandpas do it that way, because the USDA doesn't promote it, and because USDA research is financed by large corporations who make their income by making sure farmers spend a lot of money. The agriculture press, the agriculture research and the agriculture media is literally immersed in an anti-ecology mindset.
It takes a lot of personal savvy to walk away from all that. You have to understand this. If people really begin to embrace what we do, it would completely invert the profit, power, position and prestige of the entire food and farming system, and that is a tremendous amount of inertia to flip over.
Joel Salatin: Seasonal Eating Supports Local Farmers
Joel Salatin shares his thoughts on meat seasonality on Mother Earth News. As one of the leaders in sustainable farming, he has some opinion about almost every aspect of the food system, especially regarding meat. For Salatin, spending a lot of money and effort to maintain quality and production of meat in off-seasons is a waste. Meat has seasons, just like produce. At certain times of year, cattle "beef" up and increase their forage intake. In spring, chickens lay more eggs than any other time of the year. These are examples of why it is crucial to manage your crop – weather it be tomatoes or chickens or cattle – depending on their seasonal behaviors.