To write to you, I must imagine you are here and experiencing this very moment on the farm to appreciate the scene. Just a moment ago I turned over a rusty old bucket to sit among our beloved herd of cows and draw inspiration from the balance I witness before me. To help you visualise, I will describe what I see.
I’m surrounded by our herd of cows, as they quietly graze on about an acre of pasture (their present daily ration) on our family farm ‘Taranaki’, situated in Central Victoria, just west of the small township of Woodend. We’re at the top of a primary ridge of gentle undulating country, overlooking a broad valley formed over millennia by a tributary of the Campaspe river, and edged by a eucalyptus forest.
The sun provides gentle warmth with a moderate breeze regulating the temperature beautifully. You can practically smell the pasture growing! After moving to new pasture this morning, the cows are very content, chewing cud or nursing the farm’s newest occupants—the adorable little calves born in the last few weeks, full of life and epitomising the season. Nearest to me, an affectionate new mother—number 22—dotes over her newborn calf, licking his ears, while he leans into her attentiveness with clear enthusiasm.
On this farm, dear reader, cattle form the backbone of our soil fertility program—they are magical in their ability to regenerate land through the stimulation of soil life. They boast carrying capacity, while increasing biomass and sequestering atmospheric-carbon-building top soil. Their rich organic manure composts the earth while miraculously returning more nutrient than they harvested. A social species if there ever was one.
On Taranaki Farm, animals are managed to mimic nature. We employ light portable electric fence systems to keep cattle in high density while moving them daily to new pasture. This approach simulates natural herbivorous herd dynamics where predators ‘mob’ grazing animals into large populous clusters for protection as the herd (the super-organism) sweeps its way across the landscape. This high-density clustering effect works to stimulate grasslands and accelerate species succession through high impact disturbance (short duration) and heavy manuring (nutrient exchange). The net result—provided the herd moves away for a minimum period of time—is pasture regeneration and ecosystem balance.
Once a day our cows are given new pasture, and moved away from yesterday’s manure. Cows love routine, and we reward them daily. They happily flow into today’s regenerated pasture and begin converting solar-harvesting grasses, legumes and forb plants into nutrient-dense protein, either in the form of milk (to nurture the next generation) or meat for our own sustenance. They will only return to today’s spot when the land has recovered.
Indeed, because of their special relationship to grasslands, and because of our management choices, this parcel of land will regenerate even more by the time the herd returns. This is nature’s way of encouraging our environmental choices—more forage diversity and more nutrient exchange and more biological activity beneath the soil surface. So thank you, herbivorous grazing animal, for the special place you occupy in this grassland ecology.
After all, the soil is far more than a medium for holding up plants. It is an infinity complex ecosystem analogous (though arguably more sustainable!) to the economics and social activities of a city like New York, with all its busy banter, exchange and hyper-activity. This stands in contrast to the soil equivalent of a remote desert town, where nothing much happens and the economy revolves around the local pub with its mere handful of characters.
The more diverse and complex the ecosystem, the more life and nutrient availability—and, in turn, the greater the carrying capacity. Life then regenerates in the ectropic sense (in thermodynamics, ectropy is a measure of the tendency of a dynamical system to do useful work and grow more organised), vastly more appealing than the inverse concept of entropy, which suits better those with a tendency to decompose! On Taranaki Farm we consider ourselves ectropic stewards of the land we are responsible for.
Dear reader, please ask yourself a question. What would the content of Australia readily—and naturally—supply for your occupancy?’ Ask honestly. I have pondered this question and, after much consideration, realised that protein was the answer. If we were not farming cattle, Australia would readily multiple other forms of protein such as kangaroo (tasty!), pork (quite tasty!), wild camel (don’t know about that!), horse (exotic!), or witchery grubs (please spare me!) and so forth. In contrast, I cannot imagine the Australian continent providing a naturally occurring harvest of annual cereals (wheat, oats, rye) or the market vegetables salivated over by our predominantly European and Asian forebears.
Sure, we can live in denial and continue our industrial production of ancestral taste preferences over ecosystem health, but aren’t we well enough aware that mechanical synthetic/chemical approach is the very definition on unsustainable farming? In the words of UK agronomist Sir Albert Howard (1873–1947), ‘Artificial manures lead inevitably to artificial nutrition, artificial food, artificial animals, and finally, to artificial men and women’.
To be fair, in Europe, which is blessed with meters of productive top soil, complex carbohydrate-based culinary artworks like ratatouille evolved without the immediate negative efforts of soil tillage and erosion. (For those unfamiliar, ratatouille consists of tomatoes—the key ingredient—with garlic, onions, zucchini, eggplant, bell peppers, carrot, marjoram and basil, or bay leaf and thyme, or a mix of green herbs like herbes de Provence. Ooh la la.) But can something point me to a place in Australia where such an indulgence could be harvested naturally from the wild?
On account of Australia’s lack of recent volcanic activity and its recently memorable status as the ‘world’s driest continent’, we must challenge ourselves to consider what our land can honestly provide—without swimming upstream. It seems to me that Australia will comfortably support both grasslands and forests, both of which are stable ecosystems that sustain and regenerate themselves. They are also suitable habitats for animals not dissimilar to cattle—animals that efficiently convert solar-harvesting grasslands into biomass and reciprocate by returning nutrients to the soil ecosystem. Broad-acre ecosystems are well suited to balancing the relationship between herbivorous animals and their predators.
It has been my experience that if we are clever with our animal management, we can have our cake and eat it too. This means that by leveraging the fertile [re]generation by our protein production, we can subsequently grow our carbohydrates requirements and satisfy our exotic diets. But we must also overcome the stereotypes and dogmatic misinformation campaigns leveraged against cattle in this country. Cattle in Australia have been ‘systematically scapegoated and demonised’ (to misappropriate W. S. Burroughs’s words), blamed for all kinds of ecological and environmental crimes. And yet it is not the animal, but always the management of the animal.
Australia’s native bovine equivalent, the Diprotodon (or giant wombat), only became extinct less than 50,000 years ago. On an ecological timeframe this is only a fraction of a second, so to the conservationists who argue that cattle have no place in our landscape, consider that it’s no environmental crime to property-manage and balance ecosystems with a view to supporting more life. Abundant environments benefits both people and wildlife.
Furthermore, when asked when were the glory days of the Australian continent from a productivity and ecosystem-health standpoint, noted mammalogist and palaeontologist Tim Flannery argued that during the residency of the Diprotodon Australia could ‘support more biomass, more kilograms of life sustainably than any other time’. That’s with the cow-equivalent diprotodon eating grass and forty-eight hours later putting that grass back onto the paddock as a lovely big Diprotodon pat, and dung beetles and the like returning the nutrients to the soil. That’s like an ecosystem where a dollar changes hands every minute. Whereas without Diprotodons, on the other hand, the grass grows up and eventually burns, and all the nutrients are lost to the atmosphere: an ecosystem where a dollar spent once a year and half of it is lost from the system.
Anyway, the wind is picking up and I’m told a change is forecast for this evening, so I must get back to work. The first of our spring internship applications, for a program educating the next generation of young farmers, has just arrived via email. And it’s time to check the water troughs and finish work on our new ‘turkey’s nest’ dam, a plumbing system that will effortlessly supply gravity-pressurised clean water to all our daily moving animals’ systems—our pigs, chickens and, of course, cows. So thank you for reading and please reconsider any prejudice you might have against the cow, for as I frequently say, ‘Anyone who doesn’t like a cow never knew one’.
Ben Falloon manages Taranaki Farm <www.taranakifarm.com> with his partner, Nina Grundner. Taranaki is a multi-generational small family farm north of Melbourne, specialising in ‘beyond organic’ salad bar beef, pigerator pork, pastured eggs and pastured meat chickens for local consumption. Taranaki Farm features the Australian Polyface Project, which aims to establish a fully operational integrated open Australian farm modelled on the Polyface Farm in Virginia, United States.