The web of life illustrates a community in perfect balance

When we began farming cattle I used to wonder about the best ways to make them grow quickly. This seemed natural as this is what we’re selling.

A bit of research from agriculture departments and research bodies showed that there are plenty of ways around to help with growth. These include products such as growth hormones, supplements, chemicals to improve gut bacteria, antibiotics and management techniques like carefully controlled feed rations, addition of grain to the diet and strict worm control.

These options are expensive and largely based on chemicals and given that I was going to be eating these animals, somewhat dangerous I thought. I also find it difficult to believe that meat grown using all these chemical would taste as good as naturally grown meat; my experience with growing my own vegetables was that they taste far superior to those which are grown under intensive, chemically fed conditions. It’s also well known that meat from animals which are grain fed, is higher in fat, (particularly trans fats) and much lower in omega 3 fatty acids than grass fed meat.

So I started thinking, “cows eat grass; if I look after the grass, the cows will look after themselves.”

Some more research seemed in order. So I began researching (again through the standard channels) grass and how best to make it grow. The story wasn’t much different. Chemical fertilisers, special types of “high performance” grass, ploughing each year for winter cereals and summer grasses and clovers, spraying everything that wasn’t the “right” type of plant, draining wetlands to grow more palatable grasses, poisoning rabbits and shooting kangaroos who might “steal” some of my grass, killing the ducks who like to nibble crops, killing foxes who can no longer eat the rabbits and might start eating lambs. Again, this all seemed very expensive, unpleasant (I actually like having kangaroos and birds around) and, in the case of chemical fertilisers, addictive.

Chemical fertilisers have three problems: they’re made from fossil fuels; they change the soil chemistry too rapidly, killing all the micro-organisms which are required for healthy plant growth; and they weaken the cell walls of the plant, reducing it’s own defenses against insects and fungi, so now I also need to use insecticides and fungicides.

So more thinking, more research. “If cows eat grass, what does grass eat?” Soil. Grass consumes soil and everything in it in order to grow. While plants get their carbon from the air, all the other elements come from soil.

So, “if I look after the soil, the grass will look after itself.”

This took me into the realm of organic farming; lime, dolomite and gypsum (the so called organic fertilisers), contour ploughing for water retention and pasture cropping. This was starting to sound much better, but I still didn’t feel comfortable about it. It still seemed expensive and still involved external inputs.

If I want this farm to be sustainable, I can’t keep bringing in resources from outside, ie, extracting from somewhere else to improve here.

I was however, getting some ideas.

Reading about soil, I kept coming across phrases like “soil is not dirt, it’s an entire community of tiny creatures, all working together to create life on the ground.” So why not extend this concept one step further and include the grasses in this community, after all, the soil can’t exist without the grass to protect it and feed it.

Extending still further, the shallow rooted grasses need the deep rooted plants to draw up nutrients into the soil which they require. Then the animals need the plants and the plants need the animals (grass won’t survive is it’s not grazed, it grows rank and smothers itself) and the soil needs and the animals, who feed it by pooing and by the decomposing of their bodies when they die.

We often talk about the food chain, but that doesn’t make sense to me. A chain has a beginning and an end (or a top and a bottom in this case). A circle is better fit, although each point is still only connected to two other points.

I think we should be thinking more about a food web, where everything eats everything else. This is what I see when look at the natural world.

Psychologists are always telling us that the reason for the disconnectedness and alienation we feel is related to the loss of community. I think our farming practices reflect this. The scientific principle of reductionism (the reducing of complex systems to their constituent parts in order to study them better) leads us to forget that we are part of an enormous human community and that we are dependent for our very lives upon the non-human community of which we are also a part.

In our farms when we think about the cows, or the grass or the soil, we forget the community of which they are a part. In order to understand better the needs of this community, I think we need to remind ourselves that we are also a part of it.

I don’t think this means I have to “go native” and live in the bush wearing a loin cloth, (at least I hope so, for all our sakes) but I do think I need to listen closely to what the land (ie the natural community) is telling me.

Indigenous people all around the world have been trying to tell us this for centuries, but we’ve never understood (or never listened). We assume it’s superstition and ignore it, knowing our science has better answers; but when it comes to land management, science has failed us. Our soils are being depleted around the world; we are using more and more chemicals but getting less and less production.

I should reassure you that I’m not planning to lie down with my ear to the ground and expect the ground to start talking. Nor do I plan to start having conversations with my cows (or the kangaroos and birds for that matter). But I do plan to keep my eyes and ears open and listen closely to my own intuition as I come to better understand the community I live in.

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