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.