Animals and soil

Toby Hemenway hemenway at
Fri Mar 16 13:52:47 EST 2001

Since we've strayed into this territory, let me add one other observation on
the relationship between animals and soil: I've heard many forward-thinking
ranchers and farmers say variants of "The soil here didn't really start to
improve until we got animals on it." I've noticed this often on farms that
have well-managed livestock, that the animals seem to play a role in
soil-building that improves soil at least as fast as farms without
livestock. I 'm not sure of the reason for this, but can offer what my
friend Marvin Hegge says.

Marvin has used Yeomans' keyline system on ranches in Oregon and South
Dakota. He'll run a hundred or more cow/calves in a portable-fenced 1-2 acre
paddock of, say, alfalfa, moving them each day (or twice a day if he's
feeling energetic). The benefits are multiple. He says they eat only the
nutrient-rich tops of the alfalfa, not enough to slow the plants' growth but
putting meat onto the animals very fast. The cattle hooves just slightly
bust up the crowns of the alfalfa, encouraging the plants to tiller and put
out new growth. And the manure gets scattered by the densely packed cattle
hooves, so it doesn't foul the alfalfa and gets into the soil quickly. His
pastures stay green far later into the summer than his neighbors', and the
soil is rich and loose.

Dense, oft-moving herds may be the key here. This mimics their natural
pattern, as most wild ungulates and other grazers stay in tight herds for
protection, and have co-evolved with grasslands under these conditions. When
we spread  cattle out in large pastures without predators or fences to
encourage tight bunching, they eat only the prime grass species, don't break
up their manure, compact the soil by milling in favorite spots, etc, etc,
and the land suffers. So here's another example of how animals can be
integrated using thoughtful design to improve soil and other conditions.


More information about the permaculture mailing list