Forage, the Preferred Feed

Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature of an Acres U.S.A. published title offering you a glimpse between the pages! Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your inbox! This week’s Book of the Week feature is Homeopathy for the Herd, by C. Edgar Sheaffer.

God did not intend cows to eat grain. Cows do not need to eat soybeans. The cow was not created to eat the things man eats. Ruminants convert forage into milk and meat and hide and things for us to use. A conventional farm is feeding grain to these cows by the shovelfuls and then they have to give drugs in large quantities to combat the acidosis produced by the high levels of grain and the stress of confinement and crowding. By contrast, organic livestock in a grazing system have little indigestion and live a lowstress lifestyle.

Chemical fertilizers were first promoted in Europe and then in North America in the early 20th century. By 1950, chemical fertilizers had replaced composted manures as the most frequently applied soil amendment. Many of the world’s farmers had become convinced that all you need to do for larger yields was to put a little-N-P-K fertilizer on the plants. The nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash compounds on the plants would produce faster growth as well. The farmers of the early 21st century are paying for the sins of the farmers of the 1940s and 1950s. Fortunately, Farmer A and Farmer S are not going that route. As Farmer S would say, “I’m religiously opposed to chemical fertilizers.”

In 1990, our practice serviced one organic dairy in Vermont. Opportunities developed to allow my wife and I to lecture and instruct farmers and veterinarians in the principles of homeopathy for the health needs of their organic farms. At present there is a dramatic increase in the number of organic dairies. In the first nine months of 2000, about 1,300 dairy farms were certified in the United States. It is growing at about the same rate as homeopathy—25 to 35 percent growth per year. Now the consumer is no longer limited to specialty stores but can purchase their organic vegetables, chicken, turkey, yogurt, cheese, milk, eggs and meats directly from the farmer.

Farmer A, Homeopathic Medicines

What homeopathic medicines did Farmer A use his first year? For the bloating symptoms, Carbo veg was dosed frequently. Later, when a new pasture was opened, the drinking water was medicated with Carbo veg and cows were encouraged to eat a little dry hay and take a drink before grazing. A few stubborn cases of bloat were dosed with Nux vomica in alteration with Carbo veg.

The first year of farming Sepia was prescribed for each missed estrus. A dairyman knows that it is too late to breed a cow when he observes blood-tinged mucus on her tail. Ovulation has passed. After Sepia she will again be receptive in 19 or 20 days. Cows in proestrus were given Ovarian before each breeding. This homeopathic nosode prepared from the fluid of a healthy ovary helps to regulate ovulation.

Today, Farmer A employs Arnica in cases of trauma, Phytolacca in painful mastitis, and Aconite for acute fevers. The next most frequently used medication is Lycopodium, which is effective in the prevention and treatment of the metabolic condition known as ketosis.

Farmer S, Homeopathic Medicines

In his first homeopathic year Farmer S found that Calcarea carb and Calcarea phos were strongly therapeutic in maintaining milk production and fertility in the herd. Calcium was likely deficient over the entire farm in those early years. Conventional farming practices and N-P-K fertilizer often produce deficiencies of calcium, carbon, and trace minerals. Applying manure and compost year after year will replenish these soil nutrients.

In addition to Sepia in post-estrus or following ovulation, dosing with Pulsatilla in proestrus and Ovarian in estrus was helpful for the herd during the 1991 breeding season. Regular herd health exams continued for two years with no major episodes. In 1993, Farmer S experienced a rash of illness in livestock. The cause was found to be mold in the corn silage. Afterward, the family began diligently seeking a feeding program that did not rely on corn silage.

Both of these family farms have enjoyed some measure of economic freedom since converting to grass-based organic dairying. Farmer S in 1998 recorded an income of $764 per cow per year. His cull rate was 18 percent. The national conventional average is 40 to 50 percent, and the organic cull rate average is 30 to 33 percent. These two farm families are examples of success in organic dairying. Using homeopathic medicines (and principles) lead to both success and sustainability. If questioned, I am sure that each family member would be enthusiastic about the progress of the past and are making plans for more sustainability in the future.

By contrast, organic livestock in a grazing system have little indigestion and live a lowstress lifestyle.

More Examples from On the Farm

Farmer A began farming in 1991, started using homeopathy in 1994 and initiated intensive grazing management in 1995. His careful rotation schedule and judicious use of the back fence has enabled his adult cattle to remain nearly parasite free. The entire herd, including weanings, yearlings and bred heifers, are treated spring and fall with homeopathically medicated water five days in a row. The homeopathic medications used are Santoninum, Chenopodium, Granatum and Abrotanum.

Farmer A has a very colorful herd of dairy cattle including Brown Swiss, Jersey, Milking Shorthorn, Holstein and crosses of each. Monthly herd health exams from March to December are followed by dosing with the prescribed medication from his homeopathic first-aid farm kit. Each cow is internally examined when necessary, and a specific or constitutional medicine is prescribed. Most frequent prescriptions are Sepia, Phytolacca, Pulsatilla, Graphites, Phosphorus and Silicea. Occasionally, there is a need for Calc phos, Calc carb, Natrum mur and Ovarian.

When the somatic cell count (SCC) began to rise above 250,000 in 1998, milk samples were taken and cultured. A herd nosode was prepared from the milk and the cultures. Dosing the high cows with Calc phos and the nosode or Phytolacca and the nosode lowered the SCC to 220,000 in one month. Percent successful services from 3/98 to 1/99 averaged 71 percent. Lancaster Company DHIA averaged 37 percent for that same period.

As soil fertility, cow health and pasture quality simultaneously improves, Farmer A is reaping health and financial benefits for his family. By 1997, Farmer A had finished the transition period to become certified organic, and the farm was positioned for future success. Remember, he has accomplished this health level without the use of antibiotics, hormones (GRNH, BST, etc.), dry cow treatments or chemical wormers.

Farmer B has been using homeopathic medicines on his livestock for three and a half years. He and his family milk 40 to 44 purebred Holsteins year round. Using a balanced approach in a transition system, he has changed his treatments of the soil, the crops and the animals simultaneously. He was one of the first farmers in his county to use energy medicines to inhibit weeds in his pasture.

Percent successful services for the last 12 months averaged 54 percent. Both herds use a tie-stall barn, Intensive Grazing Management, free choice minerals, and both use a bull and artificial insemination (AI). Farmer A grazes year-round, while Farmer B grazes about ten months of the year.

Farmer A chose homeopathy to improve milk quality and conception rates, but Farmer B changed on the recommendation of his milk inspector. For whatever reasons the change was made, the transition has proven beneficial for the land, the animals and the farm families. Many farmers who become certified organic grazers find that herd health problems decrease in frequency. Free choice minerals are offered year round to balance the livestock as the land and soil are gradually being re-mineralized. Occasionally other nutritional supplements are offered to boost immunity during times of stress.

About the Author:

Dr. Sheaffer was one of the top veterinarians in North America practicing alternative care for ruminants. He lectured widely on innovative, low-cost, natural methods of maintaining herd health. He has consulted with operations small and large, and for many years has conducted herd checks for the Amish and Mennonite farmers of east-central Pennsylvania. He studied in Gettysburg College and Penn State, ultimately graduating from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. His life changed when he attended a seminar by British veterinary homeopath George Macleod, who later became Dr. Sheaffer’s mentor in this specialized branch of veterinary medicine.

Titles of Similar Interest:

Karen Washington, The Queen of Urban Agriculture

By Jill Henderson

Karen readies raised beds in The Garden of Happiness.

It all began in 1985 in the Bronx, when a young physical therapist named Karen Washington, a single mom with two young children, bought her very first home. Right away, she decided to grow a little garden in her yard — something she had never done before. She knew nothing about gardening but decided to do it anyway. She wanted to grow collard greens because she loved them, and eggplant because it was weird, and tomatoes because she hated them. She had heard that homegrown tomatoes were nothing like the pale and tasteless ones from the corner store. And a few months later, when the first dark-red tomato was perfectly ripe, she took a big bite and was hooked.

A few years later, Karen was working in her garden when she saw a man in the empty weed-filled lot across the street digging with a pick-ax and shovel. She went over to see what he was doing and he said, “I’m going to grow a garden,” to which Karen replied, “I want to help!” And before she knew it, the Garden of Happiness sprang from the barren land where once nothing but weeds and rubble had been.

Today, the garden is filled to the brim with raised beds that house a wide array of fresh fruits, flowers and vegetables. There’s also a high-tunnel, a chicken coop and beehives, among many other things. Some of the beds are maintained by individuals, while others are collectively tended by volunteers to produce fresh food for folks in the neighborhood who couldn’t afford to buy it and for the local farmer’s market that Karen would later help establish.

The garden is also a classroom where people of all ages come to learn about healthy food and farming, the history of the black and brown people who live in the Bronx, and social justice issues surrounding racism and food inequality.

“What I try to do is to give people information that is sometimes not disseminated in low-income neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color. When people start using the term food desert, I’m like, wait a second folks, they’re calling where we live a food desert?” she said. “I ask, what’s this term and why aren’t people really looking at the root cause, which is hunger and poverty and racism?”

“It doesn’t get at the heart of the problem, but sort of whitewashes what’s happening behind the scenes. I’ve been really outspoken when people talk about communities of color and don’t live in our community,” she said. “It’s important that we sit down with young people and educate them about how we got here and the contribution that blacks have made to this country. Because these things are not in our history books.”

Jane Hayes-Hodge, Lorrie Clevenger, Michaela Hayes-Hodge & Karen Washington at Rise & Root Farm

Urban Agriculture

A native New Yorker, Washington attended Hunter College and earned a master’s degree in occupational biomechanics and ergonomics at New York University in 1981. She moved to the Bronx from Harlem and by the time The Garden of Happiness was well underway, Karen saw her community’s need for an advocate. She got involved in the NY Botanical Garden’s program, Bronx Green-Up, and joined the Northwest Bronx Community and Clergy Coalition, where she cut her teeth as a public speaker, organizer, and lobbyist for the protection of empty lots being used as community gardens. She was co-founder and president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition, and in 2001, co-founded La Familia Verde Community Garden Coalition, which started the very first fresh, locally produced food market in the Bronx.

Over the last 30 years, Karen has been at the forefront of the urban food and social justice movement and has been involved in dozens of organizations that promote those ideals, many of which she either founded, co-founded, or sat on the board. Some of these include the NY Botanical Gardens, the Mary Mitchell Family and Youth Center, In Our Own Back Yard (IOBY), Women, Food & Agriculture Network, NYC School of Urban Agriculture and the City Farms Market in the Bronx.

Karen’s tireless work has been featured in hundreds of articles, documentaries, interviews and television shows. In 2012, Ebony named her as one of the most influential African Americans and in 2014 she was presented with the James Beard Leadership Award. In April 2021, Washington was featured in the Weather Channel’s Faces of Change series. Her work and words have inspired millions of young people of color to get back to the ancestral farming roots that predated slavery by thousands of years.

As a result of all this, Karen has often been referred to by her peers as the Queen of Urban Ag.

“I’m humbled by that,” she said. “I’m not caught up in titles, I’m just doing the work that needs to be done. I guess I’ve stirred up some pots along the way, but I think when you come from a place of truth and justice you become fearless and unapologetic. Why should you not speak up when you see injustice?”

Her work as a physical therapist taught her that many of the chronic illnesses that her patients suffered from were caused by a lack of nutritious food options in the local grocery stores. And when Karen lost her brother to complications from diabetes in 2010, it motivated her to double down on her efforts to fight for justice and equity in the local food economy.

“You go over to the white neighborhoods and they have all kinds of fresh fruits and vegetables and organic and healthy choices, and then you come to the Bronx and all we get is crappy food that’s high in sugar and fat with little or no fresh produce,” she said. “We are marginalized by the color of our skin.”

Slavery, Farming and Politics

Two of the most wonderful things about Karen Washington are her fiery passion and contagious smile, both of which you might experience while she explains the history of African American slavery, northern migration, land ownership and the loss of almost every right granted to whites, including the right to read or write, practice religion — even to marry or own land. She points to the Black Codes of 1832, which were directed primarily at free slaves prior to emancipation but would continue for many generations. She also points to Jim Crow and segregation laws that, in some southern states, weren’t ended until the mid-1970s.

“After the Emancipation Proclamation, General Sherman was going to sign the 15th Order [Special Field Orders No. 15], which would put over 400,000 acres of land into the hands of newly freed slaves. But after Lincoln was assassinated, Andrew Johnson stepped in and said, ‘Hell, no. That’s not going to happen.’ He rescinded the order and put the land back in the hands of white slave masters. Can you imagine what that would have meant to newly-freed black people to have that much land?” she said. “As a result of those decisions, we lost a lot of our legacy.”

Karen explains, “If you look at the history of how wealth was built in this country you will see that blacks were continuously denied. Even as they tried to move forward they were driven off of the land by unjust laws and into the cities for factory work. Some tried to find a better way, but by leaving the land, they left their wealth and their legacy,” she said.“I’m 67-years old and when I was growing up even the mention of farming was equated to that of a slave mentality. That thinking has trickled down throughout our history and survives to this day.”

Karen admits to feeling that way herself, even after working in Garden of Happiness for several years. It was 2008 and she had been accepted into a 6-month internship at the University of California Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Food Systems, (CASFS). Out of 40 interns, Karen was the only black person. When they came to the 9-acre farm field, Karen suddenly felt fear and apprehension.

“All of the sudden, those things in my head started to surface. I thought, ‘This is slave work. What am I doing here? I don’t belong here.’ But then I said to myself, ‘Look, you have two options. Either you get back on the train, to the plane, and go back home or you gotta face your demons.’ And I remember going up to the edge of the farm field and something just overcame me and compelled me to put both of my hands in the soil,” she said. “There was a quietness. I’ll never forget that sensation; that connection of belonging.”

Farming While Black

Karen’s experience at CASFS challenged her in many other ways during those six months. As part of the program, the group toured several working farms. And everywhere they went, Karen said she kept asking, “Where are the black farmers? Where are the farmers that look like me?” So as part of her end-of-the-season presentation, Karen decided that hers would be based on the 2002 PBS documentary, Homecoming: The Story of African-American Farmers by Charlene Gilbert and Quinn Eli. She called the USDA Census Bureau to find out exactly how many black farmers were in New York and the man on the phone said, “There are 57,000 farmers in the state and 116 of them are black.” Karen said she froze and for a moment, lost her voice. Finally, she said, “Can you say that again?”

As soon as Karen returned to New York she called her friend, Lorrie Clevenger, and they decided right then and there to start a conference specifically for black farmers. When she asked a white man (who she won’t name) that she knew who had experience hosting conferences what he thought about her idea, he said, “Karen, black people don’t want to farm. All they want to do is play music and sports.” Those hurtful words only spurred her on and within a few months, the first Black Farmers & Urban Gardeners Conference (BUGS) was underway. Karen said that everyone, including the speakers, pitched in to help. They paid $200 for the venue at Brooklyn College and worried if anyone would come. But they did – over 500 of them.

“I had been to farming conferences and workshops before and there never were more than a handful of people that looked like me. And this was the first conference where black people saw black farmers, black speakers, black authors, black statisticians, black chefs, black everything,” she said. “And they were telling us about the system, and the southern farmers were telling us stories of pig foot soup and all the things they were up against as black farmers. Those black farmers were passing the torch to us.”

Today, BUGS is going on its 10th year and at 67-years old, Washington says it’s time to pass the leadership torch onto a new generation of black farmers and growers. “It’s time for new voices and a new outlook,” she said. “I will always support BUGS but I want to step down and step back because it needs to go in a new direction and I’m excited to see what the future of BUGS looks like.”

Rise & Root Farm

The spring after Karen returned from California, she and her friends Lorrie Clevenger, and Michaela and Jane Hays-Hodge (who are now married), discussed their shared dream of owning a farm. In 2012, all four women took the Farm Beginning Program at GrowNYC, which helped them define their goals and make a plan. By 2014, they started searching up and down the Hudson Valley for land when Karen met a man on a bus tour who told her about the Chester Agricultural Center (CAC) and gave her a number to call.

“I was hesitant because I didn’t want to be rejected,” Karen said. “But I called anyway and the guy on the other end said come on up. So we did.”

CAC is comprised of 270-acres of fertile black dirt with roughly 40% organic matter. Every farm at CAC must adhere to organic methods and are encouraged to achieve their organic certification. Not only did the land suit their needs, but their principles of the organization mirrored their own and the cooperative nature of the community of small farms was a welcome bonus. Rise & Root leased their first three acres of land and not knowing how to do it any other way, built row upon row of raised beds.

“We took our skills from growing in the city and used it to grow on a large scale,” said Karen. “It was a huge learning curve and it took a lot of work to switch from growing in small spaces to growing in large spaces. But we did it.”

Karen retired from physical therapy work after that and currently spends her weekdays at Rise & Root and weekends at The Garden of Happiness.

“We are going into our sixth year on the farm and have one full-time and two part-time people working for us,” she explained. “And we just leased another three acres of land, so now we have six acres. We’re growing a ton of vegetable starts for community gardens and we sell our produce in markets in Union Square, the Bronx, and Kingston. We believe that everybody, no matter what their income, deserves to eat our food. So we make sure that happens.”

“When we first got the land we wanted to grow everything,” she continued. “And because we are a for-profit farm we have to make money. The first year we were growing three types of collards and kale and a lot of crops that were labor-intensive but brought very little money, so we had to go back to the drawing board and find out what our niches were…what we could make money on. We still grow other things, but our five specialty crops are lisianthus flowers, edible flowers, and medicinal and culinary herbs.”

And in a twist of sweet irony, Karen said that Rise & Root Farm is best known for its vine-ripened heirloom tomatoes.

Comparing Use Characteristics Between Organic Nitrogen Fertilizers

Sponsored by Ferticell®

For organic growers, there are a myriad of organic nitrogen fertilizers in the marketplace. It is important to understand the efficiencies of each source, so that growers can match their chosen fertilizers with their desired results. In this article, we will examine two examples of organic nitrogen fertilizers – soy protein hydrolysates and Chilean nitrate.

Soy Protein Hydrolysates

As an organic fertilizer, soy protein hydrolysates can be found in many concentrations – as low as 2% in some NPK sources and as high as 16% – as a dry soluble powder. To compliment the dry powder, for those not interested in solubilizing in the field, there are a few liquid formulations, the highest being 10% liquid soy protein hydrolysate.

It is hydrolyzed from soybeans and is approved for organic use across the U.S. Plant-derived organic nitrogen from soy produces an immediately available source of organic N that typically lasts for 30 days. Being stable and soluble in all water conditions, with a neutral charge, it provides a valuable source to sink without limitations.

Amino Acids found in Proteins can constitute a significant nitrogen source for plants and there is an interaction between the uptakes of inorganic and organic nitrogen. (JOPN #32, 2009)

Soy protein provides a natural carbon source and that may be the limiting factor for most soils, especially under stress conditions. Unlike other N sources, another benefit is that plant-derived organic nitrogen does not have any burn risks normally associated with foliar applications – it’s safe to remain on leaf surfaces and does not require higher volumes of water for safety in most sources. It is important to inquire about the amino acid content and availability of material, especially in current market conditions.

In addition to this, soy protein provides a few other benefits:

  • Stable for use as an added ingredient in all fertility programs;
  • Actively promotes the biomass of all soils and will ensure proper uptake and assimilation of other fertilizers;
  • Provides predictable release in stable soil temperatures, with a very low risk for leaching in excess water events such as flooding;
  • No limitations from USDA, USDOT and exempt from FMLA.
young plant growing in soil
Learn the use characteristics between organic nitrogen fertilizers. Know the differences, limitations and what sources are right for your farm.

Chilean Nitrate

Chilean nitrate is usually sold as a 16% nitrogen fertilizer, extracted from northern Chilean natural caliche soil deposits. During refinement, crushed ore is dissolved at 35°C to extract nitrates, sulfates, potassium, and iodine. Nitrate precipitates are removed, crystallized, dried, and prilled. The purified grade contains at least 97% NaNO3 (Stoddard and Silberman, 1995). Also known as Nitrate of Soda or Sodium Nitrate, it is a highly soluble organic N making it a distinctive source of nitrate for the organic industry that is highly effective at delivering immediately usable nitrogen to plants.

Looking past the solubility and availability, Chilean nitrate has several roadblocks and concerns for use in farming. It has a standard salt index of 100 and contains ingredients such as sodium chloride, sodium sulfate, and potassium chloride, which are not more than 1% of the total weight. Salinity stress is known as one of the most significant degraders of soil health and modern agricultural productivity. When using Chilean nitrate, the interference with osmotic regulation of water and nutrients should always be considered and calculated prior to application.

Chilean nitrate 16-0-0 does cause significant carbon losses since it has no recognizable C:N profile. Without taking into account the implications of carbon credits, additional carbon may be needed to maintain the proper C:N profile. As sodium tends to accumulate if not flushed or accounted for, this can also change water availability, creating sodic soils that displace other cations. Calculated calcium applications will help leach out sodic soils if this happens.

Chilean nitrate drawbacks include:

  • Raises soil pH;
  • Salt Index of 100;
  • No more than 20% of total N program per USDA;
  • Listed as hazardous material by USDOT.

The nitrites gassed off by Chilean nitrate are also considered an air quality contaminant and may cause the depletion of other minerals in soils with high watering requirements, causing salinity stress. Nitrites are the largest human source from agriculture and was measured above 75% in 2019 and considered 7% of U.S. greenhouse gasses. Nitrites can remain in the atmosphere for over 100 years and are 300x greater in global warming than carbon dioxide.

In addition to the limitations of Chilean nitrate, high dilution rates are required to prevent burns on foliage. You may be required to monitor wells to ensure that groundwater is not contaminated by nitrates, depending on local county and state regulations.

Nitrates as NO3 may decrease chlorophyll and will slow growth. NO3 will limit Potassium in alkaline western soils. NO3 will induce changes in the soil root zone or rhizosphere and its conversion to Ammonia will accumulate in alkaline soils and promote disease risks. (Carrow, Rieke and Waddington 2001)

Under high use of Nitrates, less of carbohydrates are allocated to sugars that can be transported to roots. This action will result in a stimulation of top growth and a depletion of roots.

By understanding some of the limitations of organic nutrients, growers can avoid pitfalls and availability concerns, minimize risk, and rebuild soil health midseason.

Sponsor Message

At Ferticell, we encourage the use of sustainable, low salt content materials that build soil health. Ferticell can help you learn more about incorporating a clean, sustainable organic nitrogen fertilizer like Explorer™ into your program without limiting factors in both sustainable and organic farms. Contact us to learn more, find a store near you, or call today at (480) 361-1300 to get the answers you need.

Tractor Time Episode 57: Jesse Frost on No-Till Farming and Creating Living Soil

On this episode we welcome the No-Till Titan himself, Jesse Frost. Frost owns and operates Rough Draft Farmstead with his wife, Hannah Crabtree. The farm is an organic, no-till market garden based in Lawrenceburg Kentucky. It sells at area farmers’ markets and offers a CSA service. Frost is also the host of the No-Till Market Garden podcast. And for Frost, the show grew out of a sense of service and necessity. He saw that there was a dearth of information on how to make no-till practices work for small-scale vegetable farmers and he decided to do something about it. In the process, he’s built up a thriving community of farmers who are eager to share ideas and best practices. In addition to his essential podcast, Frost also has an incredible new book out from Chelsea Green Publishing called The Living Soil Handbook: The No-Till Grower’s Guide to Ecological Market Gardening.

This episode also features an interview with investigative journalist Carey Gillam on an environmental disaster at an ethanol plant in Nebraska and an ongoing lawsuit over dicamba drift in Texas.

Meet the Guinea Hog

Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature of an Acres U.S.A. published title offering you a glimpse between the pages! Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your inbox! This week’s Book of the Week feature is Saving the Guinea Hogs: The Recovery of the American Homestead Breed, by Cathy R. Payne.

From Chapter 1: Meet the Guinea Hog

I like to refer to the Guinea Hog breed as “hogs with heart.” It is easy to bond with these gentle animals: so full of personality and intelligence. Hogs are, at their core, social creatures. Historically, this hog has meant a lot to Southerners. The hogs provided meat, lard, and sometimes income for the family. Hogs in general are called “mortgage lifters.” The resources of the hog helped cash-strapped farm families find a way to make their mortgage payments. In addition, the old breeders hold fond memories and emotional connections to the hogs. Those who raised a variety of hog breeds made a point of telling me that they strongly favored the Guinea Hog breed.

In the early spring of 2017, I was raising Guinea Hogs in Northeast Georgia. I had spent a couple years seeking out older Guinea Hog breeders so I could pick their brains about the history of the hogs. It was getting increasingly difficult to find first person documentation.

One morning in March, I was a little late getting out to tend the livestock. I was surprised when the house phone rang, as it was only eight o’clock.

“Good morning, this is Cathy,” I answered.

The raspy voice of an older southern gentleman replied, “My phone told me to call you.” I didn’t recall leaving any messages, but I bit my tongue and listened.

“My name is Cohen Archer. Do you have any Guinea Hogs?”

“Yes, I do,” I said.

“Do you have the big-boned or the little-boned?” he inquired.

“Well, I have a nice mix of both, but I think mostly big-boned,” I replied.

As we made arrangements for a visit, Mr. Archer told me that he was seventy-five years old and from Washington County, Georgia. He said he had not seen a Guinea Hog in a long time. He started telling me about the hogs his daddy kept. “They gained weight easily,” he told me. “My family ran them in the woods. They had their babies in pine sapling pasture.”

I told Mr. Archer that I was saving stories like his and would be honored to have him visit the hogs as soon as possible. I requested and received permission to tape record his stories to share with others. Before we hung up, I asked Cohen how he had found me.

“I told my phone to find Guinea Hogs in Georgia or South Carolina,” he answered, “and your name and phone number showed up on my phone.” Siri to the rescue!

On the appointed day, Cohen and I walked the pastures so I could show him my beloved breeding sows and boars. I turned on the recorder as I took him to see a brand-new litter of piglets that my sow, Yokeley’s Summer Thyme, had delivered.

“That is about what we used to have when we used to grow them, when I was a boy,” Mr. Archer reminisced. “That is a typical Guinea Hog, as I remember. They were very gentle. I used to take care of the pigs. If you have them out in the open, [the sows will] make their own bed. It will be a huge pile of straw, and different things like sticks that they pick up. [The sows] put the pigs up under the straw and all. And you won’t even see them until [the sow] calls them out. These were the best hogs I’ve ever seen. We just had them running in the woods, and we would fence off the woods. We grew crops in the upper part of the land, and we would fence them in when we started planting crops. And every day we would call them up and give them a little feed to keep them coming. Just really nice, gentle hogs. We named some of the sows.

“We had more breeds than just the Guinea Hogs, but we liked the Guineas better. They would just make it on their own. Some of the hogs would lay on the pigs, but with the Guineas, we didn’t have that problem.”

“Did you know anyone else who had Guinea Hogs?” I inquired.

“I didn’t. Didn’t really know how important it was to keep in touch with them. But now that I am getting old, I see. They say your hindsight is better than your foresight.”

I took him over to see a young boar that had flopped over to be rubbed on his belly. Cohen bent over and started rubbing the soft, warm hog. It began to grunt appreciatively. Another boar came over and offered himself for a rubdown too. Cohen had one hand on each hog.

“Isn’t that a nice hog?” he exclaimed. “That is just nice, I’ll tell you!” Cohen seemed suddenly transformed in time from an elderly gentleman to a young boy again. His voice was excited and awestruck. “I remember those curly tails. As a child, I loved the Guinea piglets when they were young. They were so pretty and plump. I always re- member that. And I remember when they were expecting; they would be huge! I wish I could remember all about them. I’ve been thinking about my daddy’s hogs for a long time. Just last week I said, ‘Well, I’ll just see if I can find some. And that is what I done.’”

I did a little math in my head. The Archer family had raised hogs for nine years, from 1946 to 1954. Cohen was now seventy-five years old. His father had died when he was about twelve years old. “So, it has been sixty-two years since you have seen or touched a Guinea Hog!” I exclaimed. “You called me out of the blue because you wanted to see one again. And you didn’t even know I was here until you asked your phone to find me.”

“Right.” I think at that point we were both choked up. We each wiped back tears.

“How do you feel, reliving that childhood memory?” I asked quietly. My throat felt thick.

“It feels really good,” he said with a sigh.

Cohen Archer could never forget the Guinea Hogs, but his children and grandchildren never got to meet one. He hoped to get his son over to visit, and a nephew, but it never happened. By preserving the memories of the elders I’ve spoken with, I hope to help readers who have never met the hogs to understand their role in American history. For those readers who do breed the hogs, I want you to know and understand the significance of their history and the important role these hogs hold as genetic resources. It is my hope that your children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren have at least the opportunity to meet a Guinea Hog one day.

Guinea Hogs are an even-tempered homestead hog, suited for small landholders. According to oral records, they were once common in the Southeast. Guinea Hogs are a small, dark-skinned local hog. They have erect ears and a single curl in their tail. Their bristles are typically black and can be long or short, thin or thick, and either straight, wavy, or curly. Hogs with the heaviest dense coats, especially curly types, may shed heavily during the summer. Noses vary from short to medium or long. Eyes usually face forward and have an alert, intelligent expression. The eye color might be dark brown, bright brown, or gray (blue). Their darkly pigmented skin and coat protect them from sunburn during the intense sun of hot southern summers.

Although the outward phenotype can vary widely, the breed overall is friendly, gentle, and easy to manage. Sows often allow trusted caretakers to handle piglets without objection. Homesteaders with children, farmers new to swine, and middle-aged farmers especially appreciate this calm temperament.

Like other swine, Guinea Hogs can be trained to respect electric fences, follow routines, come when called by name, sit on command, and more. They will use their shovel-like noses to dig up pastures, especially after a rainfall, but do far less damage than larger breeds.

Guinea Hogs sleep less and forage more than many other hog breeds. They spend their time gathering pasture grasses, roots, and acorns. Like all swine, they are omnivores. They may hunt for grubs, field mice, or snakes. They thrive on a quarter of the commercial feed required by modern “improved” breeds. Some bloodlines are a bit larger and grow quicker, while others are smaller and slower to finish. The slow growth, strong muscles, and varied diet all serve to enhance the flavor of the Guinea Hog’s meat. They all taste delicious.

The Guinea Hog breed is unique to the continental United States as a local breed. There have been and still may be breeders in Alaska. Guinea Hogs are about half the size of typical hogs and grow more slowly than the commercial type. The Guinea Hog typically reaches 125 to 250 pounds on the hoof in twelve months and will yield 71 to 144 pounds of hanging weight meat. In contrast, other heritage breeds and commercial breeds can weigh 250 pounds on the hoof in half that time and yield 144 pounds of hanging weight meat.

It takes at least twice as long to grow the same amount of meat from a Guinea Hog. For this reason, meat growers cannot earn as much money selling pork from Guinea Hogs if they market and price it similarly to the larger hogs. However, there is a niche market  at farm-to-table restaurants for their delicious slow-growing meat. On a small scale, Guinea Hog pork can command a premium price, and chefs appreciate being able to keep a whole hog in their coolers and cure the hams in just six months. Larger hams take up to a year or longer to cure. Freezer space is at a premium for many customers and homesteaders and some would rather not have so much meat to store.

Watching a herd of Guinea Hogs grazing on lush grass pasture is fascinating and hypnotic. They will snatch up grass as enthusiastically as a cow or sheep and actively engage in the collection of their own food. They will stay active most of the time when weather is cool.

In the heat of the summer, they will spend much of their time resting in the shade or soaking in mud wallows. In autumn, as grasses become dormant, the hogs are more than happy to munch on acorns, glean corncobs, or pick up windfall fruit in the orchard. Guinea Hogs are excellent foragers and leave nothing to waste. Breeders in northern states and the Midwest report that Guinea Hogs are quite hardy in winter climates. In every climate, they still require shelter at all times to protect them from wind, rain, snow, and sun. The hogs may choose to stay outside of the shelter, but the option for protection must be provided.

Learn more about Saving the Guinea Hogs: The Recovery of the American Homestead Breed here.

About the Author:

Cathy R. Payne is a researcher, former farmer and breeder, historian, and author of Saving the Guinea Hogs: The Recovery of an American Homestead Breed, published in 2019. Cathy has been a member of The Livestock Conservancy since 2010.  Cathy has also been a member of the American Guinea Hog Association (AGHA) since 2014, and when her research brought her in contact with rare genetic bloodlines not preserved during the formation of the American Guinea Hog Association (AGHA) in 2006, she worked with a network of women to obtain these genetics and work with the registry to add valuable genetic diversity to the national herd. Currently, she is a “Friends of the AGHA” member, one who does not breed hogs or have voting privileges. She strongly promotes the maintenance of an active breed association and an accurate herd book. She also believes in careful selection and registration of sound representatives of the breed, using a historical perspective to preserve characteristics that have had centuries in the making.

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Nabhan: Food and Farming Crisis Requires Both Science and Faith

Jesus for Farmers and Fishers: Justice for All Those Marginalized by Our Food System is the latest book from author Gary Paul Nabhan.

By Gary Paul Nabhan

Not since the mid-1980s has America faced a food and farm crisis of such epic proportions. In 2020, American farmers lost $20 billion dollars in farmgate income and plunged further into debt. For 2021, the USDA is projecting that net farm income will decrease another $12 billion, cutting farmers’ profits by at least another 10 percent. Livestock producers and packers were particularly hard hit, as the novel coronavirus tragically spread through the slaughterhouse workforce, causing closures of many meatpacking plants. As the U.S. became the country in the world with the highest rates of COVID-19, exports of meat dropped as much as 40% for several months. Meat and other food commodities handled by those exposed to COVID-19 were banned from entry into other countries.

Perhaps the long-term effects of the pandemic on farmworkers are the most tragic for our rural communities. Because a large portion of those who harvest our daily breadstuffs are foreign-born, with English as their second language, COVID prevention recommendations and health care were slow to reach them. Many of their ramshackle rural communities — especially in border states — became COVID hotspots with high death rates. Those who survived being COVID positive may face longer-term debilities that keep them from working at all.

I am not merely concerned with the downward turn in the number of farmworkers and foodservice workers in America’s food supply chain, but with the loss of so many talented professionals who have been willing to skillfully work long hours under daunting conditions. As immigration to the U.S. slowed to a halt in the Trump area, it will be a long time before America recruits workers of equal skill to maintain the supply chains.

On the other side of the food chain, there is hunger in the air. Never since the Great Depression have so many Americans required food relief to keep their families from going hungry. Four of ten Americans claimed that 2020 was the first time their families ever had to turn to food banks and soup kitchens to put meals on the table.

The largest network of food banks in the country, Feeding America, never had to access so much food so fast, as it sought to offer 4.2 billion meals just between March and October of last year. Overall, there has been a 60% increase in the number of Americans turning to over 180 food banks nationwide. Feeding American affiliates have seen a 60% average increase in the lines outside food banks, as more than 50 million people experienced outright hunger or lingering food insecurity, including about 17 million children.

Many Americans thank God for the safety net that food banks have built over the last half century kept them from starvation. Many food banks are now trying to close the hunger gap by looking beyond immediate food relief to helping their clients find jobs with livable wages.

 Behind the scenes, better science has helped food banks keep Americans healthfully fed, by aiding at least a fifth of all food banks that scrambled to avoid running out of supplies. For the last decade, these organizations have drawn upon some of the most scientifically precise food sourcing, transportation planning and distribution tools the world has ever known to keep perishable food out of landfills so that it can reach the mouths of those most in need.

While the science of dealing with food insecurity has advanced greatly since the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, we must not underestimate the compassionate roles of faith-based communities in keeping the most marginalized Americans from starvation. Simply put, churches, synagogues and mosques reach the poor and hungry in ways no government program can equal. Faith organizations have remained the backbone of food relief efforts for the poor at home and abroad for more than a century. While structural racism may infest many other kinds of institutions, I know of no faith-based initiative that restricts its food donations on the basis of color, creed or class anywhere that I have lived in the U.S.

And that is precisely why I feel that if we are to survive this particular food and farming crisis, we will need both better science and stronger acceptance of the roles that faithkeepers play in addressing poverty and hunger. I fear that science-based solutions to the farming and food insecurity will fail if we do not also draw upon the awesome moral and prayerful will of Americans to rescue those most in need. At this critical moment in human history, we cannot ethically afford those who are better-off and double-vaccinated in our country to bubble-wrap themselves in a buffer of complacency and greed.

Two thousand years ago, there was another sort of farming and fishing crisis in a place called Galilee. It flared up as the Roman Empire tried to wring every edible calorie out of that landscape to export to its metropolitan elite and to its military forces. A young, rather contemplative Jew abandoned his trade as a carpenter to venture out into the fields and the harbors to listen to those who had been most marginalized by the commodification of the food they produced. Rather than rallying them for protests that the Romans would inevitably crush, Jesus told them parables of resilience, generosity and abundance that offer them hope. He spoke to them in stories that were rich in the images of agrarian life, rather than in the esoteric rhetoric of bureaucrats and priests.

Jesus offered the poor and hungry fresh ways of seeing the dilemma they faced, and collaborative strategies for dealing with the weight of oppression placed on their shoulders. He did not incite them to violence, but engaged them in deeper reflection and solidarity with one another. In my new book, Jesus for Farmers and Fishers, I show how Jesus welcomed his neighbors of all faiths to imagine a new kin-dom where they could come together to better care for creation and for one another.

Today, we have far better science to deal with both pandemics and the many vagaries in the food supply chains that can force further debt upon farmers and hunger upon eaters. But the science of agriculture and nutrition will not be sufficient to reduce disparities between the haves and have nots in this moment of raging hunger and disease.

At this point in time, we need to deal with the diseases of anger, frustration and depression by rekindling hope. We may do so by heeding the moral and spiritual lessons of the prophets of all faiths who helped their communities survive other crises that brought farmers, fishers and eaters to their knees. Neither logical-positivist science nor prayer alone will be enough to get all Americans now at risk out of harm’s way. We need to embrace both in order to weather the daunting challenges still upon us. Far too many farmers are deal with grinding debt and far to outright hunger in the so-called breadbasket of the world

In this, the so-called breadbasket of the world, far too many farmers are dealing with grinding debt and far too many families are dealing with food insecurity. They need all American’s prayers and innovative problem-solving skills more than ever before.     

Gary Paul Nabhan is an internationally-celebrated nature writer, agrarian activist and ethnobiologist. For more information, visit

Herbal Hedge Rows

Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature offering you a glimpse between the pages of an Acres U.S.A. published title. Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your in box! This week’s Book of the Week feature is Dr. Paul Dettloff’s Complete Guide to Raising Animals Organically, by Dr. Paul Dettloff with Megan Dettloff-Meyer.

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From Chapter 13

When planting hardwood trees, plant them into clover — red or white clover — and you will have better livability without spraying the ground cover to prevent competition. It’s low-growing and provides nitrogen to the hardwood trees. One of my loves of life is planting trees and plants for habitat. I’ve taken four farms that were all “HEL” farms and put them back into trees. HEL stands for “highly erodible land” and should never have been plowed. These slopes were mainly wooded or in the level spots supported by perennial grasses. From observation, here’s what I would consider putting in a line fence or hedge row. Remember to keep it diverse. Biodiversity is normal — that means mix it up!

Lilacs — they stool out (spread), are beautiful, and are a haven for birds. They survive planting and grow fast.

Hazelnut — tremendous livability, no animal eats the plant but everything eats the nuts – turkeys, squirrels, deer. 10 days after ripening, the nuts are totally gone. They seek these out. Hazelnuts stool out and I like to put them in patches. I planted 100 plants on an eroded rocky knob and two years later, I wanted to help them out with some foliar spray and lime, and found 99 of them alive. Another spot I put in 60, and three years later all 60 were doing well and starting to send up new shoots. They are hardy.

A hedge row in Holland.

Any berry — my home tree farm has wild blackberries and wild red raspberries. The leaves of these are a medicinal warehouse; replant the wild or use raspberries. They grow well. For ground cover, put in strawberries or blueberries. If your ground will support berries, get some berry to put in your hedgerow. Goats love berry leaves. When they get sick, tinctured raspberry leaves have high ERGs.

Willow — get like a swamp willow, not a big weeping willow because they get too big. Moose live on willows in Alaska. Willow leaves and small branches are nutritious and contain aspirin.

Comfrey — this plant is a forage in the Balkans in Europe. Comfrey is very high in calcium. My comfrey patch for tincturing gets eaten down every fall by the deer — they love it. In New Zealand, the range chicken (layers). People planted and fed comfrey fresh. Two small operations had their fence line-planted to comfrey, which the chickens would pick at. The bigger leaves they would pick and throw into the yard and the birds would go wild over it. Huge source of calcium and turns the yolk bright orange. Comfrey can be invasive. Cows will readily graze comfrey leaves.

St. John’s Wort — another perennial that is easy to grow. Hardy and animals will munch on it. St. John’s Wort will also spread like comfrey but is a very good medicinal herb.

Yarrow — one of my favorites. In Colorado, the mountains are full of wild yarrow and it is a staple for elk. They graze yarrow. This plant is very high in secondary metabolites and used in humans for high blood pressure, healing wounds, and loaded with trace elements. Will grow almost every place. The combination of raspberry leaves, comfrey, yarrow, and St. Johns wart gives you quite an herbal cafeteria.

Elderberry — bushes fit well into hedges. Feed for birds and humans and are hardy and thick. Goats love elderberries.

Chamomile — this pretty perennial is used in teas and herbal blends as it has a calming effect. The blossoms look like little daisies. They bloom in mid-July and get about 3 to 3 ½ feet tall. Deer and cattle will browse on them.

Bergamot — this colorful blue-lavender perennial is an antipyretic. That means it lowers temperature. It blooms like chamomile in July in Wisconsin. This is also a pollinator — bees will also frequent comfrey flowers, yarrow, and elderberry.

Aronia berry bushes — they are very hardy, the berries in the fall are loaded with antioxidants. Aronia is grown all over Iowa and is good for jams, bird food, and is the most potent plant loaded with antioxidants (vitamin C).

Cedar trees don’t work as the deer eat them up and kill them.

Honeysuckle — stay away from as that is very invasive. A plant that I’ve had problems with that one could try would be horseradish — when I dig my horseradish to process it in the fall, I always replant the tops which I cut two-thirds of it off and replant, trying to expand my row. The deer will come out of the woods and eat the replant — the whole thing. So I end up with no more than I start with. Personal observation is the most reliable source of truth. There must be something the deer need every fall. They don’t touch it in the summer or spring.

Lespedeza is a plant they use as a wormer in New Zealand. The universities of Arkansas and Missouri have extensive research data on its effect as an intestinal wormer. It is very impressive. I planted an acre of lespedeza and birdsfoot trefoil in Wisconsin on an organic farm. Birdsfoot trefoil is also an excellent wormer. I had two plants of lespedeza and one plant of birdsfoot trefoil successfully grow on that entire acre; I surmise the southern seed I ought was not for our northern climate. Someone should test this in southern climes; I feel it has potential.

A hedgerow is a haven for birds. I like gourd birdhouses and put 22 of them up one spring that I grew and dried out. All 22 had nests in them. Putting them up is a challenge as raccoons love to tear them apart. When gourd houses will be full, bluebirds, wren, and a plethora of songbirds I can’t identify love hedgerows. Remember — biodiversity is normal.

About the Authors:

Paul Dettloff, D.V.M. was raised on a farm in Minnesota and graduated from the University of Minnesota School of Veterinary Medicine in 1967. Though he began as a conventional practitioner, he moved into the sustainable and organic/biological treatment of dairy and beef cows, sheep and goats using natural remedies, botanicals, homeopathy and holistic management of the soil and entire farm. He is an international authority on the natural farming and consults and lectures widely.

Megan Dettloff-Meyer, L.Ac., MSOM is a nationally certified acupuncturist, Oriental medicine practitioner and diplomat in Chinese herbology. She operates Dr. Paul’s Lab, a maker of herbal remedies.

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Feeding Honeybees, Your Mini-Livestock

Pussy willow, pollen rich.

By Leah Smith

Management is very important with farm animals. How they are raised effects the end products they produce, as well as the benefits they can provide on the homestead. Honeybees are no different. Here are some aspects to consider with your mini-livestock, the honeybees.

Hive Placement

There are requirements when you set up your beehives or bee yard. It shouldn’t be in a low spot in the landscape, and there should be protection from the winter wind and summer sun. But there are other important things to keep in mind when placing your hives. Though honey bees can easily cover a two-mile radius surrounding their hive (or more) to visit a nectar source, it only makes sense that the closer their food sources and the less time spent in travel, the more time the hive will have for performing other important duties; and though it depends on distance traveled and the sugar concentration of the nectar, easily half the energy obtained from gathering nectar can be expended in its collection. Close forage is therefore important for maintaining a healthy, ever-increasing bee yard. Plus, making use the pollination services of your honey bees means keeping them on the homestead and providing them with as diverse forage as you can. Many healthy bees will be willing to pollinate both what you want them to and what they want to.

Placement in an orchard setting is very advantageous, putting the honey bees right on the spot to provide pollination for you and also to take advantage of some early food sources. It is also helpful to plant common orchard companion plants, such as comfrey (Symphytum spp.), mints (Mentha spp.), chicory (Cichorium intybus), and hyssops (Agastache spp.); not only are they wonderful for the biodynamic/organic management of your orchard due to the benefits they provide (olfactory confusion of pests, soil aeration, weed suppression, mineral mining, and fostering beneficial insects, etc.), but they are another source of food for your honey bees. If you build a full-fledged fruit guild in your orchard, it will both produce more food for you and provide even greater opportunities to include bee-friendly plants, including blackberries (Rubus fruticosus), raspberries (Rubus spp.), currants (Ribes spp.), and gooseberries (Ribes hirtellum). Further, if it is necessary to plant a windbreak (which is beneficial to both orchard and honey bee), why not make it a nectar- or pollen-rich one? Plants such as pussy willow (Salix discolor, S. caprea, and S. cinerea), Nanking cherry (Prunus tomentosa), dogwoods (Cornus spp.), and Siberian pea shrub (Caragana arborescens) will fit the bill nicely.

Another tact to get bees where you want them is to plant flowers they love near flowers you want them to love; in other words, if you want them to pollinate garden crops that may not be their favorite forage, plant flowers nearby that will bring them into the right area. This is one of the many jobs performed by insectary strips (more about them below).

Also, though focusing on what to plant for your honey bees you must also remember that they require water as well as nectar and pollen. Bees will travel far to find the water they require just as they will for flowering plants, so it is important (especially in dry periods with little occurring naturally) to employ waterers to fulfill your bees’ needs.

Season Extension

As with cattle, hone bees want to spend as much time as possible out and eating. But with less and less of the world being wild, whether due to the effects of urban sprawl or destruction of fencerows or diminishing parklands or degraded soils that don’t support plants or land management that dictates removing all manner of “weeds,” it is becoming more challenging for them to find nectar and pollen sources for an extended period of the year. Early spring, when food supplies in the hive are low after surviving the winter, and fall, when humans have taken their harvest off the hives and bees may be out looking for a bit more nectar, are two especially important times of need; be sure to plant accordingly.

Redbud (Cercis spp.), serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.), and pussy willows are valuable for the spring. Redbud and pussy willow are both pollen-rich, and some willows can also produce nectar sugar concentrations as high as 60%. Additionally, redbud and serviceberry are both highly ornamental and suitable for landscaping, while pussy willow, as noted, can serve as a windbreak; so they can each fill a niche in the landscape. Fruit trees such as plums (Prunus spp.), cherries (Prunus spp.), and peaches (Prunus persica) are spring bloomers and prolifically covered with flowers. If you don’t raise an orchard for your own fruit, consider planting native varieties of these fruits, whose blossoms can support the honey bees and fruits can feed song birds and other wildlife. Ornamental landscaping or fencerows can provide appropriate locations for these.

To ensure that your honey bees’ foraging extends into the autumn as long as possible, supply them with goldenrod (Solidago spp.), asters (Symphyotrichum spp.), native thistles (Cirsium spp.), sunflowers (Helianthus spp.), and cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus) to visit. And brambles deserve a re-mention here. Plant black raspberries (R. occidentalis), blackberries, and both summer- and fall-fruiting red raspberries (R. idaeus), and you will have nearly an entire season of favored foraging for the honey bees and fruits for you, as the fall berries will bloom right up to frost.

Dogwood, a useful windbreak.

Diversity and ‘Rotational Grazing’

According to the Xerces Society, an optimum environment for pollinators should have 12 to 20 species of blooming plants with at least three blooming at any one time and spanning as long as possible throughout the year; think of it as rotational grazing with the succession of blooms leading the honey bees to new pastures. Plant diversity is important because it increases the likelihood that your honey bees will get all of the nutrients they require. It is possible for bees to be surrounded by blooms, but if the blooms are of a single variety that lacks complete nutrition (as most do) than they can still starve to death. Diversity is also necessary to keep your farm ecosystem in balance. For example, while clovers (Trifolium spp.) are famous as honey plants, they can also host tarnished plant bugs. Other plants that feed the bees and attract beneficials, like lemon balm (Melissa officinalis) or Shasta daisies (Leucanthemum x superbum), will keep the tarnished plant bugs in check and thereby balance the ecosystem.

How you arrange plantings can affect their ability to attract honeybees. For example, planting into “clumps” occupying at least four foot square is often more attractive than thoroughly mixed plantings with each flower as an individual amongst other individuals, if you will. Plants that are attractive and beneficial to honey bees can serve many other purposes and be used in pastures; as green manures, cover crops, and living mulches; for erosion control, ground cover, or in filter strips; and in hedgerows and insectary strips. If you think of these various environments as distinct, it will naturally lead you to selecting a greater variety of plants, as many plants work better in some settings than others.

Pastures that support cattle and other animals can also provide an occasional treat for your honeybees. Management is key here. No flowering, or partial flowering, of pasture plants is often the preferred stage for grazing; fully flowering plants may be too mature and no longer lush enough to be desired by cattle. However, flowering is what the honeybees want (of course). But, as pastures are periodically left to partially or fully flower in order to allow self-reseeding or be baled for hay, there can be times during the year when this varied management means a pasture can provide something for everyone. Alfalfa (Medicago sativa), red clover (T. pratense), and sweetclover (Melilotus spp.) are a few of the usual suspects when it comes to pastures.

Green manures (when defined as being planted during the summer season instead of cash crops as a source of fertility) will often be buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum), cowpea (Vigna unguiculata), partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata), or any of the many clovers.

Cover crops that protect the ground through the winter can be berseem clover (T. alexandrinum), crimson clover (T. incarnatum), mustards (Brassica spp.), and radish (Raphanus sativus). In place after winter, they will resume growth in the spring and provide spring flowers.

Living mulches provide many of the same benefits as green manures and cover crops (fertility and soil protection, etc.). Instead of being planted to replace a cash crop, however, they are planted with a cash crop and may well be in place over the winter period. Many plants can be used in any of these three situations, but as a living mulch they can be tightly fitted into a system that makes use of their weed suppression and honey bee-attracting qualities. For example, crimson clover is frequently planted between the rows in blueberry fields. White clover (T. repens) is a very short clover and a perennial, ideal for short crops in permanent bed situations. And cowpea is shade tolerant, working with row crops of any height.

Erosion control is a job often given to New Zealand white clover specifically. White clovers develop a fibrous root system once established, making them unexpectedly ideal for erosion control, and New Zealand white clover it is more vigorous and tolerant of differing soil types than other varieties. Heather (Calluna vulgaris), with its mass of small flowers, is great at both keeping soil in place and keeping honeybees happy.

For plants that cling to the ground as well as cover it, many low-growing herbs like lemon thyme (Thymus citriodorus) and mother of thyme (Thymus praecox), and other plants like creeping potentilla (Potentilla neumanianna) are easily managed plantings that provide a flood of flowers.

Filter strips that act to prevent the loss of sediment, nutrients and other materials from the soil need not be simply grass. Planted either along various bodies of water or on extreme slopes, plants like beebalm (Monarda spp.), aster, black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia spp.), milkweed (Asclepias spp.), wingstem (Verbesina spp.), and blue vervain (Verbena hastata) make effective filter strips as well as ornamental and honey bee-friendly ones. As filter strip management allows for properly timed grazing, a planting of sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia), purple prairie clover (Dalea purpurea), and selfheal (Prunella vulgaris) would please both honey bees and cattle (the seasonal potential for runoff is highest from September through March, when plants should be at least three inches high and “fresh fertilizer” should not be deposited in a filter strip; outside this period, the land can be safely grazed and the fertilization will be appreciated).

Hedgerow plantings can make use of shrubs and trees that will not work in most other situations (in addition to their understory plants), and they can also be constructed to provide food sources for an entire season. Examples include flowering currant (Ribes sanguineum), hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), and winter honeysuckle (Lonicera spp.); a variety of small-fruited cherries, hollies (Ilex spp.), and viburnums (Viburnum opulus and V. lantana, for example); common privet (Ligustrum vulgare), panicled hydrangea (Hydrangea paniculata), and hypericum trees and shrubs (Hypericum spp.); and Oregon grape (Mahonia aquifolium) would provide forage from spring through winter, respectively, to create a truly heterogenous hedgerow.

Insectary strips can either edge or enter into plots, and be composed of annual or perennial plants (and thus are temporary or permanent). As well as promoting natural pest control by predator insects, they promote pollination of cash crops (and feed the honey bees). An annual insectary strip is likely to include cosmos, cornflowers (Centaurea cyanus), dill (Anethum graveolens), coriander/cilantro (Coriandrum sativum), marigolds (Tagetes tenuifolia), and dwarf sunflowers. Perennial strips might have goldenrod, penstemon (Penstemon spp.), and lobelia (Lobelia spp.).

And Honey Bee Pastures

And finally, these pastures are plots of land of various sizes constructed with the foraging needs of honeybees foremost in the mind. They can include nectar- and pollen-rich herbaceous plants (including legumes) and wildflowers, and even shrubs and trees depending on the type of pasture. When planting a pasture, you can use a mixture of native and nonnative species, depending on conditions and your requirements. The plants may be perennials, biennials, annuals, or self-seeding annuals. You may create single-year, multi-year, or permanent productive pastures. As always, variety is key. Though any of the many plants previously mentioned would be welcome additions to a honeybee pasture, a few commonly used plants that I have yet to mention are phacelia (Phacelia spp.), purple coneflower (Echinacea spp.), wild lilac (Ceanothus spp.), or any of the native roses (Rosa spp.), such as R. rugosa.

Creating a Buzz

So if all of this care has gone into your honeybee diet, what is going to come out? When you have honeybees that have a rich and diverse diet, you have an exceptional product for sale — and lots of it. Honey is not meant to be a corn syrup stand-in; it can possess endless variations in color and taste. And even when you provide your bees with a variety of plants, a heavy nectar flow and well-timed harvesting can get you a single-source honey of great sellable value (though “blended” honeys are quite nice, too). We harvest white clover honey, which has a light, sweetly mild taste that is very appealing to many customers. Other notable single-source honeys include buckwheat, hyssop, meadowfoam (Limnanthes spp.), wingstem, and sourwood (Oxydendrum arboreum).

Pollen can command high prices even as an “ordinary” product; add a novel aspect to it and you really have something. One morning when I was rhapsodizing about pollen on my breakfast yogurt, a co-vendor at the farmers’ market responded with a confused expression; he had tried pollen before and said it had no flavor, tasting like hay at best. I gave him some of our pollen, which based on the color and time of harvesting was largely from some of our many varieties of German bearded iris (Iris germanica). Though its grey color might not have seemed appetizing, it was sweet like candy. Next week he said he couldn’t believe the difference between the two pollens. In addition to flavor, pollen color can add something special to your product. Many preferred honeybee food source plants offer some unique shades, such as the greens of buckwheat, meadowsweet (Spiraea spp.), and rosebay willow herb (Chamerion angustifolium); the oranges of pussy willow, wild cherry, and asparagus (Asparagus officinalis); the burgundy hues of red and white clover; phacelia’s purple color; and gray borage pollen.

As with grass-fed beef and free-range chicken eggs, the quality of what goes into your honeybee hive is reflected in the products that come out. A homestead beekeeper is well positioned to produce superior products, whether they are cut-comb honey, extracted honey, or pollen, that will be worth the effort of producing and well worth the price they command.

Note: Many of the plant species in this article come in “horticultural hybrid” varieties. They may be pollen-less or lack other rewards for pollinators. Use native, those for naturalizing, or long-established varieties.

Leah Smith is a freelance writer and home and market gardener. She works on her family’s farm in mid-Michigan called Nodding Thistle (certified organic 1984-2009, principally by Organic Growers of Michigan). A graduate of Michigan State University, she can be reached at

Mountain Forage Management: Assessing and Adjusting

Welcome to Book of the Week – a weekly feature of an Acres U.S.A. published title offering you a glimpse between the pages! Get the Book of the Week email newsletter delivered directly to your inbox! This week’s feature is The Art and Science of Shepherding, edited by Michel Meuret and Fred Provenza.

When a herder comes up with a mountain grazing schedule, which involves a succession of circuits to be taken daily, he must evaluate the amount of time the flock will spend in each sector and how many times it can graze each sector, taking into account the type of activity of the flock. For example, in Sector X, the herder knows that the flock will be able to graze intensely for about two hours for five or six days in a row.

FIGURE 3: Simplified presentation of layout and utilization schedule: a mountain area comprising three distinct quarters (shaded area: sectors with one nighttime resting place).

In practice, grazing never goes quite according to plan for various reasons: stormy weather, a broken leg that forces the entire flock back down to the pen, the early drying-up of a stock watering point, etc. The herder must adjust his plan and constantly reassess the available forage resources and number of days of grazing left. He retains a certain amount of flexibility, since he can usually accelerate or slow the flock’s movement, deciding to abandon a standard circuit or instead keep the flock on it a few more days, even if that means grazing the forage to a maximum.

The art of herding lies in the herder’s ability to correctly assess the number of grazing days remaining. Assessing availability of forage and the sheep’s potential consumption of it is difficult and subjective. It requires years of experience on the same mountain, but this is not always available to herders for reasons of professional mobility. In addition to any experience, the herder may rely on many indicators such as the condition of vegetation (stage of development, height, color, extent of grazing by the flock, etc.). Once the flock is on site, the herder looks especially at its behavior, because the way sheep eat provides the most reliable information on what to expect on a given sector.

Rules for Forage Management

André Leroy has provided a number of principles for grazing management. The following rules may be drawn from these principles.

Utilization Schedule

Two rules apply to the order in which the various sectors should be used:

  • The first rule is that the order in which the sectors to graze at the beginning of season (i.e., July) should, to the extent possible, respect differences in vegetation growth. By the same token, the sectors whose vegetation is acceptable for the longest period of time should be set aside for the end of the grazing season.
  • The second rule is related to the uncertainty of weather conditions. Inclement weather makes a number of passages dangerous, greatly reduces visibility, and causes mountain streams to swell and rocks. It is therefore important to have the flock first graze, weather permitting, the sectors that are the most distant, the most difficult to access, and the hardest to negotiate in high winds, rain, or snow, and to save the sectors providing the most shelter and the easiest to access until the end of the grazing season.
FIGURE 4: Organization and utilization schedule for a mountain with only two quarters (no separate September quarter).

Different types of graphical representations make it possible to visualize the layout of a high mountain pasture and grazing schedule for that pasture. Figures 3 and 4 include: a) a symbolic representation of the functional division of the land into quarters and sectors, with details on the combination of the various sectors within successive sets of standard grazing circuits, and b) an analytical diagram based on a grazing schedule. This type of seasonal-schedule diagram is useful in that it includes information at day-scale (Figure 5). Map 7 (see color insert) represents the mountain utilization schedule and is complementary to the previous map; it accounts for spatial aspects, which
are absolutely essential in terms of management. One of the advantages of these two types of representations is that they can be produced quickly based on a simple survey.

Encouraging Intensive Grazing

FIGURE 5: Seasonal utilization schedule described at dayscale. Example of a mountain area in which the August quarter lacks a watering point beginning in mid-August (variant of Figure 3). The flock must come down the mountain every three days to drink in Sector 2 of the July quarter, which requires it to go through Sector 3 and to rest for the night in Sector 1; it follows the same itinerary in reverse order the following day. Changing quarters on September 1.

Intensive grazing (i.e., stationary grazing and grazing-travel) allows the flock to use the sectors with the best resources, qualitatively and quantitatively, in the best conditions. It minimizes travel, wandering, and wastage while favoring forage intake. It is in the herder’s interest to encourage the development of this type of behavior through his actions and forage management. The herder will lead the flock onto only those sectors that he considers the flock is ready to graze intensively. Once there, he will attempt to slow the flock down as much as possible. Finally, as soon as they begin to show disinterest and to move about, he will allow the flock to continue on its route, in order to keep from wasting forage.

Choosing Rationed Grazing

This new rule may be considered a corollary to the last one. It involves herding the flock in such a way as to gradually explore a given area, so that the sheep find “new, tender grass every day.”

For this reason, André Leroy prevents his flock from straightaway traveling across an entire sector (Figure 6). He also rigorously manages the flock’s grazing activity so that it resembles rationed grazing as implemented in some intensive production systems. According to him, rationing is a general principle that economizes forage by minimizing wastage. Left on their own, sheep will quickly travel across the entire area available to them, feeding on only the most palatable vegetation while trampling and dunging on the entire area. Rationed grazing has other advantages, according to André:

Rationing means that sheep get more regular meals from one day to the next. If the herder allows the sheep to roam free, when they get to a new quarter, they splurge the first few days and survive on a meager diet many days after that. Sheep are happy to find new grass. They’ll settle down and calmly start eating. That means that they’re more likely, later on, to graze already-visited areas, because a sheep eats better on a full stomach than on an empty stomach. It maintains their interest—then all the good stuff has been eaten, the sheep want to move about constantly. They know exactly which areas they have already grazed and which areas have fresh grass. That facilitates herding the flock and designing grazing circuits.

Map 8 (see color insert), which was produced using GIS, vividly illustrates the gradual process of exploration of the mountain pasture. The size of the juxtaposed plots of fresh forage, or the new zones that are explored from one day to the next, provide information on the abundance of vegetation: “The less dense the grass, the greater surface area must be provided to the flock, that is, if you want it to stop and graze quietly.” This requires a compromise, taking into account the overall availability of resources. In periods of scarcity, the plots of fresh grass become progressively less numerous and even disappear.

Learn more about The Art and Science of Shepherding here!

About the Editors:

Michel Meuret obtained degrees in agronomy and ecology from Brussels University in 1983. Michel got his PhD in animal ecology sciences in 1989 and was immediately recruited by INRA as permanent researcher to study grazing practices and animal nutrition on rangelands. He has since led several interdisciplinary research projects on the implementation of European policies, in particular the value of livestock grazing for improving wildlife habitat and biodiversity conservation. In 2012 he joined SupAgro agronomy school at Montpellier as consultant professor. Michel is regularly asked by farmers, herders, and nature conservationists to teach and promote debates on herding techniques. On several occasions, Michel has been invited to present his experience in the United States and other countries that are intrigued by the unique French experiences of nature-friendly shepherding. Michel now serves as a director of research at INRA.

Fred Provenza is from Colorado, where he worked on a ranch near Salida, while earning a bachelor of science in wildlife biology from Colorado State University. Upon receiving his degree in 1973, he became ranch manager. He and his wife Sue left the ranch in 1975 so he could work as a research assistant and technician at Utah State University, where he earned MS and PhD degrees. He was a professor in the Department of Wildland Resources at Utah State University from 1982 to 2009. He is now professor emeritus, and he and his wife are living once again in the mountains of Colorado.

Titles of Similar Interest:

Gary Zimmer on 50 Years of Biological, Organic Farming

Roller in cover crop field
A roller lays down covers crops at the author’s farm in Wisconsin.

By Gary F. Zimmer

A little bit about myself before we dig into my 50 years of experience in biological farming: I was born and raised on a dairy farm in northeastern Wisconsin. I worked on the farm for two years after high school, but I wanted to be a veterinarian so I left the farm and went to college. After further evaluation of what a career of life as a veterinarian would be like, I switched my major to dairy nutrition and furthered my education with a master’s degree from the University of Hawaii. I was getting a lot of book learning but not much practical training. I always said I was over educated and under trained when I came out of graduate school. 

When I was in graduate school, I was involved in a project finding a fiber source for the Hawaiian dairy industry that was grown in Hawaii. In the late 1960s, that meant pineapple. Pineapple byproducts consist mainly of leaves, which are high in fiber. Shortly after starting to feed pineapple leaves to the dairy herd, cows began to abort, and some people drinking the milk got sick. The problem turned out to be the insecticide used to grow the pineapples. Milk had to be dumped for six months because the insecticide accumulated in the cow’s fat and it took a long time to clear their system. It was a real eye opener for me. People were eating these pineapples that had made the cows sick.  I started questioning agriculture. Maybe “better living through chemistry” wasn’t the answer.

Along with questioning agricultural practices I had always trusted, in graduate school I began questioning other things as well. Maybe the military doesn’t always take us where we belong.  Maybe all politicians aren’t honest. Maybe the college professors don’t have all the answers. Maybe if I get sick a doctor can’t bail me out. I didn’t want to live my life given all of the answers. When it came to questioning agriculture, the question I began to ask was, “how do I get soils healthy and mineralized?”

My start on my path toward biological farming came from my first job: teaching a farm operations and management class at Winona Technical College in Winona, Minnesota. It was a two year, post-high school course with half the year spent in class and the other half on a farm. It was a real learning experience. My training was in dairy nutrition, and in addition to teaching nutrition I also had to teach soils, agronomy and farm finance. I needed help. I brought in a lot of outside speakers and I also regurgitated a lot of stuff from books. Teaching was a much larger learning experience for me than sitting in class trying to learn from a professor.

One of the outside speakers I brought in to teach about soils was a Brookside Labs consultant. He talked about soil balance, the need for calcium, choosing better fertilizer sources, earthworms, and using a Miller offset disc and a Graham chisel plow for better soil physical structure management. I had never heard of such things.  After the speaker left, the students evaluated what they had heard.  They asked me what I thought of the Brookside speaker’s recommendations, and I said that for me it made perfect sense. 

From the Brookside speaker I learned that soils can be managed similar to how we manage a good dairy cow. Dairy nutrition is a program encompassing all we do for the cow: mineral balance; using a variety and balance of feed stuffs; providing a balance of types of feed for maximizing the biological function of the rumen; and adding the extras like kelp, natural sea salts, probiotics, yeast, chelated trace elements, and natural mined minerals; and feeding highly mineralized home grown forages. Farming soils biologically is similar.

Teaching at Winona Technical College was a learning experience for me.  I have always liked school, and I continue to be a student of farming.  I get about 15 agricultural magazines a month for my reading, and then there’s the internet, meetings, getting out on farms, and going to major farm shows like Acres U.S.A. Eco-Ag and the MOSES conference, to mention my favorites.  There are a lot of great books written a long time ago about farming that most people don’t read any more but that are filled with great knowledge.  Two series’ that have been very influential on me are the LH Bailey series from Cornell and the Albrecht papers and books.  I have read them all.  I also enjoy Newman Turner’s books and have learned a lot from Louis Bromfield’s book, Malabar Farm.  Louis Bromfield held field days at his farm in Ohio in the 1940s and 1950s, and one field day brought in over 8,000 people!  The theme of that field day event was building six inches of topsoil in five years.  Bromfield did this by leaving straw on the fields as a mulch, growing clover and applying manures. He took soil tests and applied not only the phosphorus and potassium that was needed but calcium, sulfur, and traces and all from natural sources.  He had a rotovator for shallow incorporation of residues, and used a chisel plow because root growth was needed as top soil was being built.

I left teaching because these were young students and dad controlled the farm — so trying all the new ideas wasn’t happening. A few students did manage to do on-farm trials. One student tested a product on his hay field called Planters II, which was made from gypsum that had been mined in Colorado with a few extra ingredients added. The feed test from that field changed. The question now was not what to add to your home grown feeds to balance the ration, but how do you grow the ideal feed for a dairy cow? Soluble calcium, sulfur and boron were essential. What started the phrase I often use, “calcium is the trucker of all minerals and boron is the steering wheel,” was observations I made from these initial trials with my students. The farmers were getting higher quality forage with more mineral content and higher digestibility by applying calcium and boron to the soil.

After I left teaching I went to work for Brookside Laboratory. They followed the Albrecht principles of balancing soil minerals, and I had some incredible teachers and farming experience all across the country.  The farmers I was working with taught me a lot, partially through their questions and partially their constraints, be those money, desire, old habits or skepticism. They were skeptical in part because the local educators and fertilizer companies didn’t say good things about Brookside. But I was never good at sales. I don’t like talking someone into buying a product or system by twisting their arm. My method was educating the farmer, and I still certainly had a lot to learn myself. I also lacked confidence as I hadn’t used many of these practices and products on farms. I needed a farm where I could test out for myself what I was recommending, so I packed up the family and moved to southwestern Wisconsin.  We bought a small farm there where I could test and learn about these products and farming methods I was recommending. I also left Brookside and found a job closer to home. 

Shortly after moving to Wisconsin I met a couple of young ambitious people wanting to start a natural farm inputs business. Their project was headed by Ralph Engelken from Greeley, Iowa. He had written a book called The Art of Natural Farming and Gardening and focused on making and selling compost. I was brought in to do the soil testing and consulting with the farmers. Compost alone is not a complete fertility program; minerals need to be added to meet the crop’s fertility needs, and from this Midwestern BioAg was started. This was in the early 1980s and interest rates were sky high. Farmers were going broke every day. Did you ever try going to the bank to borrow money to start a business when 25% of the businesses like yours were going bankrupt? They laughed us out the door!

What made us different from the other ag businesses was that we had different products, different sources of NPK than the industry standard, as well as calcium and trace elements. Instead of recommending anhydrous ammonia, DAP and potassium chloride, we recommended and sold ammonium sulfate, MAP and natural rock phosphate. These products weren’t available anywhere else in the Midwest at the time. We started working with dairy farms because of my background in dairy nutrition, and because the dairy farm gets paid twice for growing high yielding, mineralized crops: once for growing it and once more for feeding it.

Our business goal was to have 10 consultants, each working with 40 dairy farmers. I told the farmers if they let me work with their forage fields and their dry cows, I could change their farm. With the high interest rates and low farm prices, times were tough. Farmers didn’t have money. They needed to get better at what they were doing or lose their farms. Sustainable agriculture got started during this time, and many farmers switched to the principles of organic farming, including tighter rotations, better manure use, and a higher quality of natural fertilizers. 

To get this new company off the ground, I wrote newsletters, went to farm shows, spoke at field days and put on farm meetings during the winter. This was an education company making its living by helping farmers to become biological and selling unique products for the soil and for the cow. I taught farmers about how to choose the right source of calcium to fit their farm, how to minimize tillage, and how to feed more quality forages to the cows and less purchased feeds and supplements. Some farmers started doing intensive rotational grazing. When farmers had no money for fertilizer other than the manure they had on their farms, soil mineral levels would start to go down because they were using up soil reserves of some of the nutrients. By applying a balanced blend of minerals to fit their soil’s deficiencies, crops improved, cows got healthier and my fertilizer business was growing. 

Five years after starting, we’d reached our goal of working with 400 farms. Now what?  Charles Walters, the founder of Acres U.S.A., wanted me to write a book. I had been speaking at his conferences and he said I had a lot of good ideas but talked so fast many people missed a lot of it. So, write a book, he said. 

In addition, after being on many farms, I found that getting farmers to trial new products and practices was hard. I wanted my own research farm. So at one of our annual meetings I announced my future plans to write a book and own a research farm. I didn’t want to lock myself into a box like I had before with my goal of 400 farms, so I said I wanted to change agriculture in the world. To do that, I needed to reach more people and that meant writing a book and owning a farm. 

The farm purchase was relatively easy, and one year later we owned a research farm. Writing a book was a lot harder. It took me 10 years to finish it. Charles Walters kept asking where the book was, and I told him I kept changing my mind every year as I continued to learn more.  He said, “If you keep doing that you will never finish it!” and told me to send me what I had so far. I eventually did, and The Biological Farmer came out in 2000. The release of the book got me invited to speak around the world, and what an education that was! Within two months of the book’s release I was on a tour in Australia, then I was off to South Africa, Europe, New Zealand and China, not to mention all over the U.S. and Canada. Seeing the same biological farming principles applied to different climates, soils and crops — and adopted by different types of farmers — was eye opening. It was like a big jig saw puzzle was starting to come together for me. I could see where some of the pieces fit, but not all.

No matter where in the world I was, the principles of biological farming were the same. Biological farming is all about soil health, promoting root growth and supplying needed minerals. You have to create that ideal home for the biology — they like their food on top and to be mostly left alone. They need to be fed well — not by soluble, high salt fertilizers, but low salt, slower release nutrients tied to carbon to feed the microbial life.

In the beginning, the research farm was trial after trial, as we implemented and tested products and practices. In one plot I grew corn on corn for ten years in a row to see what would happen to soil quality over time, with one part of the field getting manure, a second part getting a biological starter, a third getting soluble nitrogen, and the fourth plot just corn on corn with a starter and nothing else. The whole field had an interseeded mix of rye grass and clover yearly. No herbicides or insecticides were used. I was trying to prove that with manure and a cover crop you could grow corn on corn and keep it healthy and high yielding. In the end what worked best was mineral balance and cover crops.

Another area of the farm was put into a multi-year calcium study comparing three different sources of calcium: high-cal lime, gypsum, and Bio-Cal, which is a fertilizer I designed. These are silt loam, neutral pH, high magnesium soils. I grew corn and beans on the plots. The high calcium lime never did respond, and it wasn’t the right fit for those soils and that cropping system. The gypsum, applied at 1000 lbs/acre, took a while to get a response. The Bio-Cal was instantly off to a great start. I applied 1000 lbs/acre each year and at first saw a big response, but after a while that was overkill and I had to stop because my calcium levels were getting too high.  But it was a great way to compare products and proved to me where these calcium inputs worked best.

In another project, I grew alfalfa on alfalfa, and started by taking a soil test and doing the math, applying whatever nutrients the soil test said were missing. I did that for several years in a row, and proved that while a soil test is a great guide, following it to the letter isn’t going to get you where you need to be.  There’s a lot more to soils than just the numbers on the soil report, and while you need balanced minerals you also need to take care of the biology and do “tillage with a purpose” to control air and water and manage the decay of residues.

We hosted field days on that farm for 25 years so I could share what I’d learned. As time went on, we ran out of places to test things. The whole farm was changing from all of the trials I was doing. We used balanced fertilizers everywhere, dropped the chemicals, and converted the farm to organic production.  We later bought the farm across the road as my son was getting older and wanted to farm. My son and I bought a dairy herd and added more land, and in the end the field days weren’t about plots and testing things, but to show what had been achieved on the farm after 25 years of biological farming.

Developing new fertilizers was at the core of what I wanted to accomplish. At first it was just using other sources than what was commonly sold: MAP instead of DAP, potassium sulfate or KMag instead of potassium chloride. I created blends adding rock phosphate, ammonium sulfate, and sulfate trace minerals. As time went on, I saw a need for creating a homogenized trace mineral blend. So instead of adding one pound of zinc per acre and trying to get it mixed well into a blend, I tried mixing it with other minerals like humates and natural rock minerals and then pelletizing the mix. I wanted each pellet to have the exact same analysis so I could get better distribution across the field. With homogenized blends, we could spread that pound of zinc throughout a 50 pound homogenized blend with other traces added. At the same time I was working to deliver a high-quality fertilizer that was time released.  I was not so concerned about pounds and solubility, but about nutrient delivery. I came up with a fertilizer formula that all of my fertilizers had to have:

  1. A balance of soluble nutrients to timed release.
  2. A balance of all of the nutrients a crop needs, coming primarily from natural, mined sources.
  3. Low pH.  Instead of having the soil on the acidic side in order to release nutrients, why not have the fertilizer low pH so around each pellet there is a microclimate where the pH is lower and nutrient availability is higher all season long?
  4. A low-salt index so the fertilizer is soil life friendly.
  5. A carbon source in the fertilizer blend.

My “five things” requirement for fertilizers led to the development of new fertilizer blends that were carbon-based. I started including humates or composted manures in the pellets. I also had several different calcium sources for different conditions. The question was always: how fast can I change my soils, grow good crops, and stay within a budget? How much, how often, what blend, and what are the expected results? You can take a soil test and see excesses and deficiencies, but that addresses your soil correction — improving the soil condition overall. You also have to have high-quality crop fertilizers that include nutrients specific for that crop in those soil conditions, adding nutrients above and beyond what the soil in its present condition can provide. It’s not a small task.

In order to gauge how the fertilizer is performing you need to test the plants. Tissue tests and sap tests give clues as to what nutrients the crop is able to access.  The downside to these tests is that they give you a picture of how the plant is doing that day, so they need to be taken regularly to get a sense of what’s happening across the growing season. But testing the plants is one of the best ways to see if your fertility program is really performing.

I believe in using dry, blended fertilizers as it is still the most cost effective way of growing healthy, high yielding crops if the soil is managed properly. If you have decent soils, they are rich with balanced minerals, great soil structure and biological life. If your soils are in great shape, do you need to add a crop fertilizer and add biologicals? Not many farmers ever achieve that level of soil health, so crop fertilizers provide what your crop needs each year.

While I am a big advocate for dry fertilizers, liquids also have their place. Applying liquids as a starter or a foliar and adding nitrogen and some minerals seems to be a profitable practice for many farmers given their soil conditions. Seeing that I want carbon in my fertilizers to feed biology, for a time adding humates seemed to be the best choice. Then along came the use of molasses. A sugar source works great with many liquids, but what about adding plant stimulants to the mix as well? Things like kelp, fish meal, or biologicals containing specific organisms that fill a need in the soil. I’m sure many have their place, but you need to know when, how much, and what problems you are trying to solve.  Are you just covering up a problem in your soils that could be addressed by using cover crops, balanced minerals and better soil building practices?

In my career I have come a long way in my understanding of minerals. I now have a much better understanding of mineral use, products that are available, and how and when to apply them to grow bumper crops. I know it can seem confusing, but once you start making positive changes you will be pleased with the results. Of course minerals aren’t the whole story, there are still the physical and biological aspects of soil health.

Soil health has become a much more popular topic of conversation in the farming world. There is a lot more information out there, and a lot of success stories being shared. Regenerative ag, soil health, cover crops, compost, no-till, minimum tillage and strip till are all becoming main stream. For tillage, compaction is still a major problem, maybe even a bigger problem now given our big equipment and wild weather patterns. I’m a real believer in shallow incorporation of residues and subsoiling to build good soil structure. We can’t have a crust on the surface or let the soils get water logged, and we need to grow “roots.”  Fill the soil with both living and decaying roots. For this to happen the soil needs to be well aerated. That’s why I like strip tillage. Not only can you concentrate added nutrients in the root zone, but if they are the right ones you’re planting in a zone that allows roots to really grow. 

The story of soil organisms hasn’t changed — they like a roof over their head, they need to be fed and mostly left alone, and they need to breathe. Keeping the ground covered, having a diversity of plants, creating an ideal home for soil life to flourish is now also better understood and value is being put in the need to do so. I like the minerals I add to my fields to be in the carbon/biological cycle, meaning my plants and then soil life takes up minerals and then releases them in a plant-available form across the growing season. Once the plants take up minerals or they’re tied to carbon in compost or humates, the minerals can’t leach or get away. They are there to be released slowly as the plants need them.

In this country we have created problems that need solutions, but we also have opportunities to fix them. The large farms with lots of livestock and lots of manure are not close to enough land to haul it and effectively spread it all.  I see the future as making energy from the manure on those farms and then taking the concentrated biology and nutrients left over from that process, adding a balanced mineral blend, and using them to make carbon-based biological fertilizers. Now the manure is in a form that can be trucked so it can be moved to where it’s needed. 

And here we are in 2021. We are ready to regenerate the soils. Soil health, human health, cover crops, and biologicals are all topics of conversation and I never thought this would happen in my lifetime. We have no choice but to make changes as our climate is changing. Farmers must adapt. The need for putting more carbon in the soil certainly comes as an opportunity for farmers that are ready. 

We are hosting a field day event at our farm in July, and will be sharing what we are doing now and what we’re planning to do as we look to the future on the farm. I am always experimenting with new things: new types of crops, agroecology, perennial crops, or just the best use of the land for the current climate and soil conditions. I have invited the Savanna Institute to our summer field day to talk about some of the perennial crops I’m putting in, including blueberries and elderberries. They’ll share their plans for infrastructure, market research and training in southern Wisconsin to help farmers successfully incorporate perennial crops as part of a whole farm system.

There have been a lot of changes over the past few years. I still farm with my family, and have also started a consulting business with my daughter, Leilani, who speaks on biological farming and co-authored my last two books with me. Zimmer Ag is just beginning, and our kick-off will be the classes we are doing at the farm this July with the Acres U.S.A. team. We’ve also made a lot of changes on the farm over the past few years and I’m looking forward to sharing what we’ve been up to. We have changed from growing row crops, silage and forages to growing 100% forages for the cattle and one-year corn followed by one-year soil building for the crop acres. If you want to change the soils on your farm, you can take baby steps or you can jump in. We have slowly gotten to where we are today, but you certainly don’t need to go as slowly as we did. We are willing to share our farm, our knowledge and our experiences and look at a new model for land use in our area. Come visit our farm this July and learn and enjoy the beautiful scenery around Spring Green, Wisconsin. I hope you can attend.

Gary F. Zimmer is the author The Biological Farmer.