From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills
The past summer tested my resolve as a small pasture farmer as never before. From May to the middle of August we received almost no rain, and then were hit by a windstorm that knocked down the sweet corn, a neighbor’s barn, and many trees. That was followed by a ten inch downpour in one day causing the worst flooding in our county ever. I was up in the middle of the night, frantically shoveling dirt from the lawn against the back door to keep the water from coming in. Many acres of corn and soybeans were ruined by flood water. Homes and downtown businesses were devastated.
Looking back now as autumn comes in, I realize that I was one of the luckier ones. My impromptu dam saved the house. In the fields, pasture farming with rotational grazing proved its resiliency. Instead of having annual cultivated crops to worry about, I had only pastures which are not much susceptible to flood, wind, or even hail damage. My creek bottom pastures were under three feet of water but the water receded fast and the grasses and clovers were unhurt. In fact, after all that dry weather, they grew better than ever. Corn or soybeans on that ground would have been destroyed.
The three months of drought meant of course that there was grave stress on the pastures. Only by moving the sheep regularly from one paddock to another, and using what would normally have been hay paddocks for emergency pasture, did I get through until it rained again. You can bet that the lambs did not gain weight like they normally would, but due to help from an unexpected quarter, I never even had to feed any hay to make up for lost pasture. And I learned something that might make the drought almost worth the worry it caused.
The weeds came to the rescue! One paddock, where I have not yet gotten a good thick sod established, became overgrown with Canadian thistles which were shading out the clovers in the dry weather. When their flower buds started to form, I turned the sheep in because I know from previous experience that sheep like to eat those buds off the tops of the thistles. Then after the sheep had grazed down the paddock, I mowed it to knock the thistles back even more. When they regrew to a lush stand of about six inches tall despite the drought, I turned the sheep in again and they ate the thistles right to the ground. They actually seemed to relish the cursed weed. By the time of the next grazing rotation the thistles had grown back only weakly and the sheep ate them off again. When the rains came, the clovers grew back in force.
In another paddock, the drought all but killed the young clover. Ragweed, which must love drought, took over, threatening to shade out the clover. So I mowed the ragweed. When it grew back rather lushly, the sheep ate it too! When it rained, the clover, without weed competition, grew back fairly well.
In normally dry August, barnyard or Japanese millet always comes on strong in my pastures. I consider it nearly worthless for grazing because the sheep won’t eat it much after it goes to seed, which it does rapidly. This year there was no other food on the table in early August, and the sheep ate the millet very well when it was only a few inches tall.
In yet another paddock, which I thought was completely lost to drought because the clover I had sown there did not germinate, a nice stand of narrow-leaf plantain took over. I knew, from reading, that traditional English pasture farmers deliberately planted this weed in their pastures because they believed it to be very palatable and healthful for sheep. It is always present in my pastures because it grows wild everywhere in America especially in lawns and along roadsides. Usually in pastures it goes unnoticed because the clover dominates it. Sure enough the sheep ate it with gusto and so a paddock I thought lost to drought gave me pasture in midsummer when I desperately needed some.
What is most amusing about this, pathetically so, is that when I was a boy, my grandfather and my father tried to keep this plantain (which we called buckhorn — its scientific name is Plantago lanceolata) out of the clover hay fields. Why? Seed cleaners could not separate out the plaintain seed from the clover seed, and so the latter, which we harvested in the fall as a cash crop, would be docked at the elevator if it had plantain seed in it. Plantain is hated by Americans as the worst lawn weed of all. I remember a year when we crawled through the hayfield, digging out buckhorn plants by hand. All this agony because we were ignorant of the benefits of this “weed.” Not only do grazing animals like it, but in herbal folklore, it has been valued medicinally at least as far back as the 6th century B. C. It was used in ancient China and then all through the Middle Ages in England, as a poultice for wounds of all kinds, and as a general blood cleanser, whatever that is.
There is a lesson here for all of us, I think. We have been brainwashed by the kind of modern science that looks down its nose at traditional knowledge. I had to pay for this ignorance — had to crawl across hayfields digging out a plant that I would learn sixty five years later was perhaps as beneficial as the clover we were bent on (and bent over) “protecting” from it. And of course, we are all paying still. Americans pour millions upon millions of dollars of herbicides on their lawns to get rid of a weed that might, in a more enlightened age, be used as a beneficial medicine.
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises of Pasture Farming
The Lords of Folly (novel)
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land)
Image Credits: Sheep Grazing in a Meadow, Rosa Bonheur (French, 1822-1899)
Flooding, Wyandot County, Ohio, 2007
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