A Mile of New Fence: Making an Investment in Healthy Land
Updated: Feb 17
Yesterday was Earth Day. When Earth Day came around this year, it found the skies in many parts of the world cleaner of pollution than they have been in more than a human lifetime. As humanity has changed our activities to slow the spread of coronavirus, we have inadvertantly cut back on doing some of the things that are polluting our air and driving climate change. Earth Day has now passed, and eventually this horrific pandemic will pass too. What lasting improvements can we take with us from this time to help bring about a healthier future?
At the Nanih Waiya Farmstead one answer has been fence: a lot of new fence. Although Ian is still putting in full work weeks remotely, not having to travel has freed up quite a bit of time. We've invested it in completing fencing projects that we have been wanting to get to for the past two years. By this weekend, we will have completed over 1 mile of new fence in the past month.
"Wait. How is can building fence contribute to a healthier future?", well might you ask. Please let me explain. At one point, I used to think that you just put horses or buffalo on a piece of land, let them eat the grass, and that's it. I did not then realize the extent to which God has created a beautifully interconnected web of life, where one part can have complex impacts on all of the others. Horses and buffalo have a big impact on the plants and soil, and also on the invisible microbes that support the processes of life. This means that you can use these animals as a tool to damage the land, or to help restore it back to health.
Our rationale for building the fence was to divide our big pastures into smaller ones. Until recently, we had a 30 acre pasture next to our house. If we had moved our little herd onto it first thing this spring, they would have eaten the best grass first. As long as our animals were in that pasture, they would have kept returning to that favorite patch of grass (think of a family raiding the freezer for ice cream). For a grass plant to regenerate after being grazed, it has to withdraw resources from its roots. If it gets grazed repeatedly before it has time to rebuild its roots, the plant will weaken and eventually die. The damage can begin in less than a week of grazing. If our herd had just been put onto the 30 acre pasture and left there, they would have damaged the most nutritious plants first, moved on to the next-best plants, damaged them, and so on. The result would have been a pasture that got progressively worse. By using the new fence to divide our 30 acre pasture into 6 smaller pastures, we have become able to rotate the animals from one pasture to another. The herd has now been within the confines of the original 30 acre pasture for 19 days, but by rotating them from one pasture to the next, they have never been on the same piece of ground for more than 5 days. The first little pasture that we put the herd on has already had two weeks to rest from being grazed and the grass is growing back lush and green from strong roots. The last little pasture within the original 30 ares won't even start being grazed until 3 days from now.
The recent fence work is helping to finish up our larger grazing plan. When it is complete, we will have divided the farm's 160 acres into 22 grazing pastures (Only 2 are still left to fence in now!). If we rotate the animals from one pasture to the next every 5 days, it will be 110 days before they return to that first little pasture by our house. By that time, the grass will have had substantial time to regrow its roots, and it will be quite tall. What the animals don't eat on the next rotation through the pasture will get trampled, or possibly mowed back down. This dead organic material will create a thatch under the grass. This thatch will hold valuable moisture into our sandy soil, and it will provide food for the soil microbes that help the grass to grow. It will help insulate the soil to keep the temperature cooler. This will help the plants to make more efficient use of water and continue growing through the hot Oklahoma summer. The taller grass with a layer of thatch underneath will slow down falling rain drops and prevent soil and nutrients from washing away in the next big thunderstorm.
Note- Since this post was written, we've learned that the best way to have healthy soil is to foster a community of diverse native plant species. This is done by matching the size of our herd to the carrying capacity of the land, grazing them in a way that leaves tall and short patches, using range fire, and constantly monitoring and changing rest/grazing periods on the landscape. Cross fencing has become just one tool in our strategy. As we've gained experience with prairie restoration, we've learned that some of the ideas presented below are not fully correct. We're leaving everything as we wrote it to show our progression of learning. See posts on 10/31/20 and 1/30/21 for where we are now in our understanding of these issues.
When grass is given enough time to rest between grazing, its roots begin adding organic material to the soil. After maybe a decade, this should functionally replace most of the soil fertility that has been mined out of the soils of this farm through decades of over grazing, while pulling hundreds of tons of CO2 out of the air.
This spring, we have been posting on our experiments to reseed native prairie on the farm. However, the herd of bison and Choctaw ponies, are our most important asset in this work. By grazing each little pasture quickly and then giving it 90 + days to recover, we believe that we will be creating the conditions for a diverse array of native prairie grasses to thrive and to out compete some of the shorter-stature invasive grasses that have been planted here. Right now, our land has too many forbs (think ragweed) and not enough grass as a result of having been over grazed for many years. If, at some point, the native grasses become too dominant, all we have to do is burn a pasture, or graze it heavily and the forbs will reappear.
While there have certainly been some upfront cost in materials and (our own) labor to build the fences, over the long term we will be saving ourselves the costs of fertilizer, spray, and hopefully large scale reseeding. The longer rest period for each pasture will also allow us to graze animals later in the winter, reducing our costs for hay. All of this will be a win for the farm's bottom line and a win for the planet.