I was talking about woodland and grassland in my last but one post before I so rudely interrupted myself to have a rant about supermarkets and farm closures. So let’s get back to the subject of grassland.
Since most of us have had little more experience of grass than as somewhere to play in our parents’ gardens it’s not surprising that we often struggle to think of it as a crop. But grass can be extraordinarily productive (worth thinking about before you go and exercise your dog in some poor soul’s silage field), with the additional benefit of providing a zero till, year round, perennial ground cover of the sort that makes permaculture aficionados drool.
The big problem with grass is that unfortunately it’s inedible, at least to us humans, and the only way we can farm it usefully is by taking advantage of ruminant livestock and their gutfuls of friendly bacteria to turn it into meat, milk, fat, wool and hide, thanks to their 40 million year co-evolutionary dance with the grasses. And the problem with that is that it’s quite an inefficient way of getting nourishment into our bodies, as a million tonnes of vegan promotional literature is only too happy to point out. To make matters worse, ruminants belch out a load of methane which adds to the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
In upland areas where it’s not possible to grow anything other than grass there’s a case for farming ruminants. And in lowland areas where the farmer wisely decides to do without factory-made fertility and to create fertility on-farm instead by sowing grass and clover in rotation with arable crops (aka organic farming), there’s also a case for farming ruminants – but in this case the grass has to be temporary and so some of the benefits of perenniality that get permaculturists so excited are lost. Harder to justify on the face of it is keeping lowland farms down to permanent pasture, when the land could be put to more productive uses.
At Vallis Veg, about 25% of our lowland farm is down to permanent pasture – which of course I wouldn’t dream of admitting publicly if I didn’t already have a raft of excuses reasons up my sleeve to justify it. So here they are – please read them and then tell me why I’m wrong.
- The greenhouse gas emissions scenarios involving ruminants are complex – ploughing up permanent pasture or transforming it to low productivity uses such as woodland also create emissions, either directly or indirectly in the case of uses that displace agricultural productivity onto ‘ghost acres’ elsewhere. A case can be made for ruminants when they’re incorporated into a productive, mixed agricultural system. The emissions associated with extensive ruminant systems are easily overstated, obscuring more significant sources such as fossil fuel use. Some people, such as Graham Harvey in his book The Carbon Fields, even suggest that ruminants on permanent grass can be highly productive and even carbon negative through the medium of carbon sequestration in grassland soils. I think this takes the argument a step too far. But a good case can nevertheless be made that there is no simple equation of ruminants with environmental ‘bads’.
- To farm sustainably probably requires that most fertility inputs are produced on the farm itself. So the farm needs both fertility-making and fertility-taking parts, with grass being an ideal example of the former and ruminants an important low-energy vector between the two (in the absence of synthetic fertiliser, permanent grassland can be as productive as fertilised temporary grass leys).
- Pasture is an extensive land use that allows large areas of land to be managed effectively with relatively small inputs of human labour or fossil energy. This contrasts with cultivated ground which is demanding of labour and energy. In the present economic climate, neither land use is financially remunerative so there’s a case for mixing and matching between the two – at Vallis Veg we can’t manage more cultivated land than we already have in cultivation, and no one is queuing up to take on land from us to cultivate. Actually that may not be quite true – I gather there’s a waiting list of around 90 people for allotments in Frome. But suppose we ploughed up all the permanent pasture and rented it out to people wanting allotments. Where would they get the fertility for their veg from? Doubtless by trucking in loads of manure, the fertility in which ultimately derives either from a fertiliser factory or from someone else’s grass, or both. Keep fertility local, I say.
- If well-managed, permanent grassland accumulates fertility over time that can if necessary be ‘cashed in’ through more intensive uses at a future date. Keeping an area of ruminant-stocked permanent grassland on the farm can therefore act as a buffer for future agricultural needs.
- Related to the preceding point, permanent grassland is a ‘neutral’ form of land use, which is relatively easy to maintain in its existing state – it can easily be turned into more intensive (cropping) or less intensive (woodland) land uses, but each of these are more committing and less reversible forms of land use.
- Going back to the permaculture movement, various interpretations of permaculture involve emphasis on perennial over annual crops, maintaining ground cover and valuing traditional local agriculture. Permanent pasture involves a mostly perennial permanent ground cover and is a traditional form of land use in southwest England where Vallis Veg is located, and where grass grows especially well.
- Ruminants furnish a variety of useful products, as mentioned above – meat, milk, fat, hides and wool. Non-ruminant derived substitutes for these are often of more exotic and energy-dependent origin.
A slight flaw in my grand design is that currently we don’t actually have any ruminants on our permanent pasture. But hopefully we soon will. At present we don’t live on our site and to be honest running a market garden from afar is hard enough without having to worry about a bunch of sheep and cows as well. But we’re hoping to get planning permission to live on our holding. If we do, we’re aiming to keep ruminants on the grass as well as run the market garden and create good nutrient linkages between the two. If we don’t then we’ll probably mothball the market garden, giving us the time to bring in some ruminants and look after them. Unless of course you can spot any flaws in my reasoning and tell me why we should do something entirely different with the grass…