Articles

Planting Ramps in our Forest

There is something about the Spring forest that brings me a deep sense of joy and contentment. The days are growing longer. The air is warming. The trees are waking from their slumber. The songbirds are returning.

After the Winter, walking in the Spring woods seems to rejuvenate me as well.

It is in this temperate climate Spring forest that Ramps will grow.

These wild onions with strong garlic and leek undertones are true Spring ephemerals. They only shoot up in the early Spring forest, and they quickly depart as the trees’ canopy fills back in with new leaves to cover the forest floor in shadow.

I have previously written about Ramps in one of my plant articles.

Ramps are now growing on our farm in Tennessee!

When we moved to our farm in East Tennessee, Ramps were one of the plants I was hoping to find. Unfortunately, I have yet to come across a wild patch of them on our property.

I had been contemplating how to bring Ramps to our farm when an opportunity crossed my path.

My family and I recently had to travel to northern Indiana. We try to use our camper as much as possible, and we used it for this trip staying at a few different campgrounds. I spent many early mornings walking through the forests in and near the parks where we were staying, often with one of the kids who woke up early enough to join me.

The ephemeral Spring woodland where the ramps were growing.

There was a small forest bordering the property of one of the campgrounds. I recognized it as a special place as soon as I entered. Overhead were mature maple and beech trees with their young leaves just forming. There was an understory of flowering dogwood and pawpaw trees. Blanketing the moist ground were at least three different Trillium species all in flower, Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum), Mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum), Wild Ginger (Asarum), multiple ferns, and… Ramps! Literally thousands of Ramps covered the floor of this Spring forest! Unfortunately, I didn’t take a photo of the areas with dense Ramp plants, but I did get the photo above where there were a lot more of the other Spring ephemerals.

Fresh Ramps!

I spoke with the owner of the campground, and he told me he owned this forest as well. He was unaware of the plants he had growing there, but he seemed very interested to learn what I had found. He also told me that I could harvest a few Ramps for myself. I did so, but very carefully. Trilliums are sensitive to disturbance, and they will usually die if any part of the plant is picked or damaged. Since many Trilliums are endangered, I chose to harvest Ramps that were not growing near the Trilliums. I carefully dug up the Ramps preserving as much of the roots as possible. I then pushed the soil back in place and replaced the forest detritus.

I decided to eat a few Ramps with breakfast, sauteed in butter with our free-range chicken eggs… amazing! I saved the rest to transplant.

I planted the Ramps (3)  near Mayapples (2) and Pawpaw saplings (1).

We returned to Tennessee a few days later, and I knew exactly where to plant the Ramps. One small valley on our property has relatively moist soil. This is where our largest Pawpaw patch resides nestled under the overstory of hickory and oak. There are Mayapples, False Solomon’s Seal (Maianthemum racemosum), and ferns growing underneath. This environment best matched the location where I harvested the Ramps.

I won’t know until next Spring if the Ramps took to their new home. But I am excited and hopeful. If they do survive the transplant, it will probably be 3-5 years before I will feel comfortable with their establishment before I will harvest any.

Regenerative agriculture is a long game.

It takes patience.

But the rewards are well-worth the wait.

And sometimes they are delicious, too!

Positive Poultry Impact

So amazing to see the positive impact of our chickens on our land!

The only difference between the low quality field in the background and the lush area in the foreground (where my daughter is almost buried!) is that we had our laying chickens’ mobile coop parked in the foreground area for about 3-4 weeks.

We run Salatin-style chicken tractors.

We have seen some marked pasture improvement with our chicken tractors. These are our mobile pens where we raise our broiler chickens. These “tractors” are moved 2-3 times a day.

Swath of green from our chicken tractors.

As you can see, in the wake of the chicken tractors, the pasture really had a positive impact.

The EggMobile – our mobile chicken coop for our layers.

But it was nothing compared to a more intense impact of 3-4 weeks from our mobile chicken coop (a.k.a. the EggMobile). We did no re-seeding. We added no soil amendments. We didn’t water this area. The only difference was that the EggMobile was parked here!

Amazing boom of lush growth from our mobile chicken coop!

We can have healthy domestic animals and quality farm products and profitable farms AND heal the land in the process.

It takes time and intentionality… but it is possible!

 

All photos in this article are ours. If you would like to use one, please let me know!

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Woodland Edge Plant Identification

A few days ago, I was walking through our pastures getting things ready to move our ewes to a new paddock. We have a clump of Eastern Red Cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and American Persimmon (Diospyros virginiana) trees on the edge of this paddock, and I noticed a swath of bright green growing under the trees and spilling over into the pasture. I went over to investigate and noticed a number of plants that I could not identify. I took a few photos and did my best to identify them, but was only partially successful. So I posted them on Facebook and had an almost immediate response from a number of online friends. Within a few hours I was able to confirm all the species in the photos. This is when I love social media!

Here was my initial post:

Plant Identification Photo 1

Plant Identification Photo 2

Plant Identification Photo 3

Looking for some plant identification help.

These plants are all growing on the edge of one of my pastures, on the western border of a clump of Eastern Red Cedar trees. They are in a low point, so they have plenty of moisture, but not sitting water.

1. Pretty positive this is Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum).
2. ? The wispy plant with tiny white flowers
3. Pretty sure this is a type of burdock
4. ?
5. ?
6. ? These plants have gotten quite tall in a few spots in the pasture… maybe up to 6 feet?

Anyone know these plants?
Thanks!

 

As I said, I was quickly able to identify all the plants. And as I was confirming the plant identification, I was able to learn some useful information about these species. I’ll show the photos again with the species and information:

Purple Dead Nettle

The characteristic “square stem” of Purple Dead Nettle

1. Purple Dead Nettle (Lamium purpureum) – Native to Europe but introduced to North America. Considered a weed. Does not sting like its relative Stinging Nettle. It is considered edible and nutritious, but most people blend them into smoothies (I am guessing to mask the flavor?)

 

Hairy Bittercrest

2. Hairy Bittercrest (Cardamine hirsuta) – Native to Eurasia but introduced to North America. Considered a weed. In the Cabbage and Mustard family. The leaves and tiny flowers are edible and have a spicy-hot cress flavor which can be used in small amounts in salads or cooked as a potherb.

 

Burdock

The “burrs” of Burdock. Note the small hooks on the ends of the tips.

3. Greater Burdock (Arctium lappa) – Native to Eurasia. Considered a weed in North America. Used a root vegetable and is reportedly very good (has a neutral flavor that picks up the flavor of whatever is cooked with it)… I’m going to have to try some! Also used in folk and traditional medicine for many purposes.

 

Chickweed

Chickweed

Chickweed’s diagnostic single row of hairs on one edge of the stem.

Chickweed for breakfast! Sauté with butter in a cast iron skillet with over easy duck eggs… delicious!

4. Chickweed (Stellaria media) – Native to Europe but introduced to North America. Often considered a weed. Highly nutritious wild edible; some say when cooked they taste just like spinach. I tried some just this morning for breakfast, and it was excellent. I really mean that. Often time, “wild” foods are bland or very strongly flavored, and you have to force yourself to eat it. But not so with Chickweed. I will be harvesting this for food on a regular basis!

 

Cleavers

5. Cleavers (Galium aparine) – Probably native to North America. Often considered a weed. Tender young shoots, leaves, and stem are edible (before fruits appear). Geese like to eat it (also known as Goosegrass) – I have geese! In the same family as coffee; the fruit can be dried, roasted, ground, and used like coffee!

 

 

Giant Cane/River Cane

6. Giant Cane/River Cane (Arundinaria gigantea) – This is one of our native North American bamboo species in the genus Arundinaria. We only have three native species of bamboo in North America: Giant Cane (Arundinaria gigantea), Hill Cane (Arundinaria appalachiana), and Switch Cane (Arundinaria tecta). Base on the size of the plants on our property, this is Giant Cane (Arundinaria gigantea), also known as River Cane. It has grown well over 6 feet on our property, but can reach heights of over 33 feet (10 meters)!. It has all the uses of other bamboos around the world. I am especially interested in the shoots for cooking! Giant Cane is also an “important habitat for the Swainson’s, hooded, and Kentucky warblers, as well as the white-eyed vireo. The disappearance of the canebrake ecosystem may have contributed to the rarity and possible extinction of the Bachman’s warbler, which was dependent upon it for nesting sites.” (quote from Wikipedia)

 

All photos in this article are ours. If you would like to use one, please let me know!

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Spring Forest Plants!

Spring may be my favorite season.

I love walking in our woods and seeing the Earth wake up from its Winter slumber.

Here are some photos I took this morning…

Cercis canadensis, the Eastern Redbud, is much more pink and magenta than red.
Redbuds are “nitrogen fixers”… that means they pull nitrogen from the air to be used for its growth. It also provides some excess nitrogen to surrounding plants.
The flowers are also edible!

 

Asimina triloba is the Common Paw Paw, the largest native North American fruit!

 

Another photo of Asimina triloba, the Common Paw Paw.
Its scientific species name, “triloba” refers to the flower’s three-lobed calices and doubly three-lobed corollas.

 

Silene virginica is known as Fire Pink.
It attracts and is pollinated by the Ruby Throated Hummingbird.

 

Prunus americana is the American Wild Plum.
Their fruits are edible, and while sweet they are also very tart.

 

Carya ovata, the Shagbark Hickory.
Bud in the foreground and trunk in the background. The trunk is what gives this tree its name!

 

Carya ovata, the Shagbark Hickory.
Now with the bud in focus.

 

Viola sororia, the Common Blue Violet… but considering its purple color, I prefer its other name, the Common Meadow Violet.
Edible flowers and leaves!

 

Oxalis violacea is the Violet Wood-Sorrel.
The flowers, leaves, stems, and bulb are all edible and taste sour (in a good way), similar to a lemon.
Also known as the “Wild Shamrock”.

 

All photos in this article are ours. If you would like to use one, please let me know!

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COURSE: Introduction to Permaculture!

Introduction to Permaculture at the Bauernhof Kitsteiner
17 June 2017 (Saturday)
9:00 am – 4:00 pm
*Limited to 30 participants.

John Kitsteiner will be teaching a 1-day course at their family farm, the Bauernhof Kitsteiner. This course is designed for the person who knows little to nothing about Permaculture. The first half of the course will be lecture based, and the second half of the course will be a guided tour of the Bauernhof where Permaculture design is being put into practice.

CLICK HERE FOR THE FULL COURSE DESCRIPTION!

Grass-Fed Lamb!

So excited to see that the smallest of our lambs still falls within expected weights of conventionally raised Katahdin lambs… and we are producing a healthier, grass-fed animal with no antibiotics, dewormers, or vaccines… and our small section of Earth is being healed in the process!

Looking out over our pastures!

This process is taking a few months longer than conventional, but the only real cost is the time to move paddocks. And this is kinda fun thing do.

Just under a year ago, our ewes had their first lambs on our farm. Today I’m taking the smallest ram lamb to a new butcher to be processed. This Katahdin Hair Sheep lamb weighs 97 lbs. He is 99.9% grass fed on our rotationally-grazed pastures. They get a small bit of fermented grain to help lead them to a new paddock and to keep them friendly. They also have a free-choice, kelp-based mineral supplement.

If the butchering goes well and our tastings pass the test, we will soon be able to start selling USDA-approved, locally-grown, beyond-organic lamb!

 

All photos in this article are ours. If you would like to use one, please let me know!

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Pig Plows and Wildflowers

I don’t own a tractor.

There may come a time when I change my mind, but I actually hope to never own one if I can help it.

But I still could use some earth turned from time to time.

Fortunately I have pigs.

And they can beautifully plow up a field. I have struggled to bury a shovel blade in the same soil that my pigs move through with seemingly no effort.

And they only use their nose!

Pig plow in action.

Pigs who root are happy pigs!

Pigs are amazing animals.

This same plowing efficiency is why some people do not want pigs in their pastures. That’s understandable. Especially if it is a good pasture. The pigs will tear it up.

The key to grazing pigs on pasture… and yes, I do mean grazing… my pigs love fresh grass! …but the key to grazing pigs on pasture is to make sure the soil and pasture are not destroyed by the pigs in their process of tearing it up.

And that’s not a contradiction.

A pasture that is torn up and left with patches of bare soil has the real possibility of being destroyed. A pasture that is torn up and then quickly covered again with grasses and other pasture plants is not destroyed, but is stable or even improved.

And this is the process we are implementing on our farm.

The rolling hills and valleys of our pastures.

Our farm has some areas of pretty good pasture and really bad pasture. Not surprisingly, the worst areas are on the ridges of our many hills. The topsoil is very shallow or even non-existent and has almost no organic matter.

These infertile, poor-soil ridges are the perfect place for our pigs.

This is our “soil” on the ridges… not very good

Between the Broomsedge and erosion already present on the ridges, it was pretty easy to see where we should start working to repair the soil.

Here’s our plan:
We set up a paddock on the ridges. We use poly braid electric fencing with a portable electric solar charger. The paddock will not extend too far on either side of the ridge where the pigs can cause significant erosion. We just want the soil turned over. We add hay to the paddock. The pigs eat some of this, but mainly they nest in it at night. After a few days, and this all depends on the size of the paddock and how much rain we get, the paddock will be sufficiently pig-plowed, and the pigs will be ready to be moved to the next paddock. The day before we move the pigs, we will broadcast seed in the pigs’ paddock. The pigs will trample the seeds into the soft earth. The manure and hay will add a good amount of organic matter to start the soil rebuilding process. The seeds will bring even more biomass and biodiversity to rebuild the soil and pastures.

 

Our pigs have plowed up this paddock and are ready for the next one.

This brings us to the seed.

I have many requirements and desires on pasture species. Therefore my seed list is very diverse.

Here’s the basis of our seed selection:
We desire pasture plants that can feed our animals. We desire plants that produce a lot of biomass (leaves, blades, stems, roots, etc.) to build the soil. We desire plants that can pull nitrogen from the atmosphere and put it into the soil. We desire plants that can break up our clay soil and subsoil compaction. We desire plants that have deep roots that can withstand drought and pull nutrients from deep in the subsoil. We desire plants that increase soil microorganisms and life in general. We desire plants that yield a steady progression of flowers through the season to provide pollen and nectar for pollinators. We desire plants that provide habitat and food sources for beneficial insects.

That is a lot of desires for a seed. No one plant can do all that. There are some species that fulfill many of these requirements, but we also desire to increase the biodiversity of our pastures.

We are going to do this with seeds from two sources, Walnut Creek Seeds and Prairie Moon Nursery.

The bulk of our seeding will be using the Walnut Creek Seed Super Soil Builder Mix. This is a mix of species that will meet the majority of our desires in pasture plants. The seed mix includes:

  1. Field Pea
  2. Cow Pea
  3. Sunn Hemp
  4. Oats
  5. Pearl Millet
  6. Radish
  7. Ethiopian Cabbage
  8. Sunflower

We will also be sprinkling in a small amount of seed from Prairie Moon Nursery every time we seed with the Super Soil Builder. These are seeds from prairie plants native to North America. The majority of these species had original distribution over much of the east, including my home in Tennessee. These plants will fulfill our desire for pollen, nectar, and habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects. They will also greatly increase the biodiversity in our pastures as there are over 100 species in our mix!

The species from Prairie Moon Nursery include:

  1. Wingstem (Actinomeris alternifolia)
  2. Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)
  3. Yellow Giant Hyssop (Agastache neptoides)
  4. Nodding Onion (Allium cernuum)
  5. Prairie Onion (Allium stellatum)
  6. Canada Anemone (Anemone canadensis)
  7. Pasque Flower (Anemone patens var. wolfgangiana)
  8. Tall Thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana)
  9. Rose Milkweed (Asclepias incarnate)
  10. Common Milkweed (Asclepias syriaca)
  11. Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa)
  12. Whorled Milkweed (Asclepias verticallata)
  13. Heath Aster (Aster or Symphyotrichum ericoides)
  14. Smooth Blue Aster (Aster or Symphyotrichum laeve)
  15. Calico Aster (Aster or Symphyotrichum lateriflorus)
  16. New England Aster (Aster or Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
  17. Sky Blue Aster (Aster or Symphyotrichum oolentangiensis)
  18. Canada Milk Vetch (Astragalus canadensis)
  19. White Wild Indigo (Baptisia alba)
  20. Blue Wild Indigo (Baptisia australis)
  21. Decurrent False Aster (Boltonia decurrens)
  22. Pale Indian Plantain (Cacalia or Arnoglossum atriplicifolium)
  23. Great Indian Plantain (Arnoglossum reniforme)
  24. Wild Hyacinth (Camassia scilloides)
  25. Partridge Pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata)
  26. Pasture Thistle (Cirsium discolor)
  27. Lance-Leaf Coreopsis (Coreopsis lanceolata)
  28. White Prairie Clover (Dalea candida)
  29. Leafy Prairie Clover (Dalea foliosa)
  30. Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea purpurea)
  31. Illinois Bundle Flower (Desmanthus illinoensis)
  32. Showy Tick Trefoil (Desmodium canadense)
  33. Illinois Tick Trefoil (Desmodium illinoensis)
  34. Midland Shooting Star (Dodecatheon meadia)
  35. Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea)
  36. Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida)
  37. Bush’s Coneflower (Echinacea paradoxa)
  38. Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium)
  39. Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata)
  40. Biennial Gaura (Gaura biennis)
  41. Cream Gentian (Gentiana flavida)
  42. Wild Licorice (Glycyrrhiza lepidota)
  43. Showy Sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus)
  44. Early/False Sunflower (Heliopsis helianthoides)
  45. Rose Mallow (Hibiscus laevis)
  46. Great St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)
  47. Kankakee Mallow (Iliamna remota)
  48. False Boneset (Brickellia eupatorioides)
  49. Round-headed Bush Clover (Lespedeza capitata)
  50. Meadow Blazing Star (Liatris ligulistylis)
  51. Prairie Blazing Star (Liatris pycnostachya)
  52. Marsh Blazing Star (Liatris spicata)
  53. Indian Tobacco (Lobelia inflata)
  54. Great Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)
  55. Wild Bergamot (Monarda fistulosa)
  56. Glade Mallow (Napaea dioica)
  57. Wild Quinine (Parthenium integrifolium)
  58. Wood Betony (Pedicularis canadensis)
  59. Foxglove Beardtongue (Penstemon digitalis)
  60. Tube Beardtongue (Penstemon tubaeflorus)
  61. Narrow-Leaved Obedient Plant (Physostegia angustifolia)
  62. Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginiana)
  63. Prairie Cinquefoil (Potentilla arguta)
  64. Slender Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium)
  65. Hairy Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum verticillatum var.pilosum)
  66. Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum)
  67. Yellow Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata)
  68. Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
  69. Sweet Black-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia subtomentosa)
  70. Brown-Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba)
  71. Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis)
  72. Late Figwort (Scrophularia marilandica)
  73. Wild Senna (Senna hebecarpa)
  74. Maryland Senna (Senna marilandica)
  75. Royal Catchfly (Silene regia)
  76. Rosin Weed (Silphium integrifolium)
  77. Compass Plant (Silphium laciniatum)
  78. Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum)
  79. Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum)
  80. Stout Blue-Eyed Grass (Sisyrinchium angustifolium)
  81. Grass-Leaved Goldenrod (Solidago graminifolia)
  82. Early Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
  83. Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida)
  84. Showy Goldenrod (Solidago speciosa)
  85. Purple Meadow Rue (Thalictrum dasycarpum)
  86. Ohio Spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis)
  87. Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata)
  88. Hoary Vervain (Verbena stricta)
  89. Yellow Crownbeard (Verbesina helianthoides)
  90. Common Ironweed (Veronia fasciculate)
  91. Missouri Ironweed (Veronia missurica)
  92. Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum)
  93. Heart-Leaf Golden Alexanders (Zizia aptera)
  94. Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea)
  95. Lead Plant (Amorpha canescens)
  96. New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus)
  97. Shrubby St. John’s Wort (Hypericum prolificum)
  98. Early Wild Rose (Rosa blanda)
  99. Big Bluestem PLS (Andropogon gerardii)
  100. Side-Oats Grama PLS (Bouteloua curtipendula)
  101. Bebb’s Oval Sedge (Carex bebbii)
  102. Plains Oval Sedge (Carex brevior)
  103. Brown Fox Sedge (Carex vulpinoidea)
  104. Canada Wild Rye PLS (Elymus canadensis)
  105. Virginia Wild Rye PLS (Elymus virginicus)
  106. Dudley’s Rush (Juncus dudleyi)
  107. June Grass PLS (Koeleria macrantha)
  108. Switch Grass PLS (Panicum virgatum)
  109. Little Bluestem PLS (Schyzachyrium scoparium)
  110. Indian Grass PLS (Sorghastrum nutans)
  111. Rough Dropseed (Sporobolus asper)
  112. Prairie Dropseed PLS (Sporobolus heterolepis)

Note: There are a few of the species listed here that may be toxic to livestock. Then why would I add them to our fields where our sheep and pigs and other animals may eat them? First, none of the species are extremely toxic. Second, toxicity is almost always dose dependent… meaning, a little bit will not cause trouble. If a whole paddock was filled with a mildly toxic plant, then yes, an animal could be harmed. But we are adding so few of each plant, that I am not concerned about this. Third, these are native prairie plants that have been grazed by herbivores on this continent for thousands and thousands of years before modern humans altered the ecosystem… meaning, grazing animals have and can live in harmony with these plants. Fourth, when animals have a choice, and that is key, they will choose the plants their bodies need. Many of these “toxic” plants are likely medicinal to the animals in small quantities. If herbivores have plenty of options for grazing, they will eat what is needed and desired, and not more. Of course, there are exceptions to this, but in light of the other reasons listed above, I believe the benefit from this huge increase in biodiversity is worth the very small risk.

As this system matures, I will add photos!

 

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Patches of Spring Regeneration

It’s not much yet, but I’m still excited to see these bright, Spring green patches of grass coming up in a pasture that was recently covered with Eastern Red Cedar seedlings (Juniperus virginiana) and Broomsedge Bluestem (Andropogon virginicus).

This is the result after only a single rotational grazing period with our sheep followed immediately with my small riding mower to knock down the clumps of Broomsedge.

We did no reseeding, liming, or calcium application… all of which would be helpful and would speed up the recovery/regeneration process.

It’s these little encouragements that confirm we are on the right track.

 

 

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Dealing with Broomsedge Bluestem (Andropogon virginicus)

Andropogon virginicus, also known as Broomsedge Bluestem (or just Broom Sedge), Yellowsedge Bluestem, and Whiskey Grass is a clumping grass that is native to the southeastern United States, and this includes where our farm is located in East Tennessee.

In the photo above, you can see how thick it has grown in the pastures on our farm.

When we first moved to our farm almost 2 years ago, I knew this plant was going to be a great indicator species for me to monitor the health and regeneration of our pastures.

Broomsedge in a pasture tells me that the pastures have been overgrazed or neglected or both. While grazing animals will eat it in Spring and early Summer, it is not preferred. It has less nutrition than other pasture plants, and once it dries out in late Summer and early Autumn, grazing animals will mostly ignore it.

A fun photo of our kids right after we bought the farm… but look at all that broom sedge and red cedar taking over the pastures!

Why is it an indicator of overgrazing?

Well, as many graziers like to say, “herbivores eat dessert first”. They will choose the pasture grasses and plants that have high levels of sugar and/or protein and/or mineral content first. Examples of these plants include clovers, bluegrass, rye, timothy, etc. Ideally, our pastures will have high proportions of these plants.

Herbivores will eat their favorite “dessert” plant first, then wander over and eat another “dessert” plant, and then wander some more and eat yet another “dessert” plant. All the while, they are ignoring the less desirable species of grass or pasture plant.

When the animal eats the leaves of one of these plants, the photosynthetic ability of that plant is suddenly and significantly reduced. The plant now has to rely on the energy reserves in its roots to stay alive. It will use these energy reserves to grow new leaves, or as I like to say, new photosynthetic energy generators. Depending on the season and plant species, this new growth (regrowth) will start in 4-10 days.

If the pasture is small or there is a high stocking density (i.e. a high number of animals per given area of land), the animals may east the less desired plants only after they have eaten all the highly desired “dessert” plants first.

If we leave the animals on the pasture too long during the active growing season then, by the time the animals make their way around the pasture, there has been sufficient time for the “dessert” plants to start to put on new growth.

Now, the only plant an herbivore likes more than a “dessert” plant is a “dessert” plant with tender regrowth!

So the “dessert” plants will be eaten again, just as they are trying to regrow. They have used up a significant amount of their energy reserve in their roots to put out new leaves, and these leaves are now gone again. So the plant has to pull even more stored energy from the roots to try and regrow even more leaves. A plant can only do this so many times before it has no energy reserve left, and then the plant will die.

All the while, the less desirable plant continues to grow. It matures. It develops and drops its seed right next to the “dessert” plant that has been grazed, literally, to death. Now that less desirable plant can move in to the space previously occupied by the “dessert” plant.

This is how, over time, a pasture can become full of less desirable species of grasses and plants.

This is exactly what has happened on my farm. The previous owner let a neighbor open graze his cattle (that means let the cattle have free access to all pastures) for well over 10 years, maybe more.

Fortunately, not all “dessert” species were lost. But the less desirable species, especially the Broomsedge Bluestem, were given an unfair advantage for a long time. Now my pastures are covered with it.

We are rotationally grazing our sheep as one method to improve our pastures.

So what am I going to do about it?

First, we are going to manage our pastures with intensive rotational grazing techniques. This is going to make the biggest long-term impact on the health and improvement of our pastures. I have written about it multiple times in the past on my site:

  1. Sheep paddock rotational grazing
  2. Mob grazing with sheep
  3. More evidence of our farm’s regeneration
  4. Rotational grazing Azores style

Second, since this plant is a native to my area, I am not overly worried about it. But it is not an ideal plant. I would rather have more of the “dessert” species in my pastures. The rotational grazing methods we are using will work to regenerate our pastures. But I think we can speed the regenerative process up a bit.

Third, we will speed the regenerative process up by thinking a bit about how the less desirable species grows (in this case it is Broomsedge Bluestem). It is a clumping grass. It is eaten by our sheep in the Spring and early Summer. By late Summer and early Autumn, it will dry out and form fairly thick standing clumps. These clumps will stay standing all Winter long and well into the next year. By staying standing, it will shade out the growth of other pasture species, thereby maintaining its position in the pasture.

On the left of this photo is the field I am actively mowing… cutting the Broomsedge. A swale is holding water almost a week after the last rain. This moisture has helped “green up” the landscape downhill, but that area was also mowed a few months earlier, and so that pasture was not shaded out by the tall, dense Broomsedge clumps.

Forth, I use this information to develop management plans to encourage other plants’ growth. Specifically, I let the animals eat the Broomsedge in the Spring and early Summer. Then, especially in Winter when we will not interfere with the active growth of other plants, I knock down the dried standing clumps of Broomsedge. I do this by cutting it with my riding mower. Yes, I am sure I get some strange looks by my neighbors when I am riding my small mower in the middle of our pastures. But there is a method to my madness. By cutting those standing clumps in Winter, I am preventing the Broomsedge Bluestem from shading out the other plants come Spring. I am trying to give the unfair advantage back to the desired species.

About a week after mowing the area uphill of the swale, there is already new green growth. This is mostly fescue, a cool-season grass that is getting a jump start due to the recent warmer weather AND my letting in more sunlight by cutting the Broomsedge.

There are a number of other techniques that could be used. We could add seed of desirable plants. We do this a bit right now. I broadcast clover seed in Winter (this is known as frost seeding). Other people my use a tractor and seeder to drill (i.e. plant) seed in the pastures. Some people may plow up a field and reseed, and other people may use chemicals to kill all the grass in a pasture and then reseed with the plants they desire. We do not have a tractor, and I am pretty adamant about avoiding all synthetic chemicals on our property. This is how we came up with the methods we are now using.

 

All photos in this article are mine. Please ask if you would like to use them.

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How a Newt Matters

It is hard to capture in words the exact feelings I have about an amphibian.

We all have something… or maybe we had something, in the past sense.

There were certain things or people or places that captured our passions as children. It may have been a specific toy. It may have been a specific celebrity, an actor, or a band. It may have been an amusement park.

Once we grow up, we often look back with fondness at that thing. We may even have nostalgia about it.

But the magic has been lost.

We’ve become adults, and so “we’ve put childish things behind us”.

Me? Not so much.

I am still enamored with almost the same things as when I was a child.

“When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.” – C.S. Lewis

I was never into celebrities. I’m not a big fan of amusement parks. And while I had a few toys I was fond of, nothing captured my interest like the natural world.

Birds, trees, mammals, rocks, fish, space, coral reefs, insects, caves, reptiles, rivers, amphibians.

That was what mattered to me.

And they still get me excited.

But there are a few select animals that still get me, well, giddy, is probably the best word.  I may hide the external manifestations of those emotions, but on the inside… yeah, it’s giddy.

The Red Eft?

That’s one of those animals. For sure.

Adult form of the Eastern Newt.

I remember reading about the Eastern Newt in my copy of the Reader’s Digest North American Wildlife book given to me by my grandfather. I read through that book countless times, and I still have that book, worn as it is, sitting on my bookshelf.

But there was something about this amphibian that captured my interest. I think it was a combination of the drastic changes this animal undergoes in its life and the absolutely stunning colors it develops.

In general, newts are a type of salamander with, typically, drier and rougher skin. There are a few other ways in which newts differ from the other salamanders, but even the experts don’t have a consensus.

Specifically, the Eastern Newt (Notophthalmus viridescens) lives a life of three phases.

In the first phase, they hatch from an egg in the water and live similar to frog tadpoles.

In the second phase, they lose their gills, change their color, and move to the land; this is the “eft” or terrestrial stage of life, and they live similar to lizards. As an eft, they become bright, almost glowing, reddish-orange, and are one of the most beautiful creatures on earth.

The third and final phase is the adult stage where they turn an olive green and return to the water to live a fully aquatic life once more.

The Red Eft, the terrestrial phase of the Eastern Newt’s life.

As a child, I wanted to find a Red Eft about as bad as a child could want anything.

I spent hours outside whenever I could. Growing up in South Florida, I was surrounded by lush vegetation and wildlife. I found animals of all types.

There were the relatively common Brown and Green Anoles (lizards), large Cane Toads, and Mockingbird chicks found in our yard.

There were the Eastern Mosquitofish, Apple Snails, and baby Muscovy Ducks found in the nearby canal.

Then there were also the less common animals.

For a short time I cared for (with significant help from my mother) a Mangrove Cuckoo with a broken wing, a baby raccoon (which may have actually been an opossum), recently hatched Alligator Snapping Turtles (they went back to the canal pretty quick), a Scarlet King Snake (their bites do not hurt), a Green Water Snake (their bites really hurt), a whole long list of other snakes, a Cuban Tree Frog (it loved to eat cockroaches), and even a Basilisk Lizard (yes… they really can run on water!).

But never did I find a Red Eft.

Fast-forward 25-30 years.

We have now lived on our farm in East Tennessee for about 18 months. We have been slowly repairing an unhealthy landscape that has been overgrazed with cattle and damaged with chemicals. We’ve been seeing a return of life in the soils and pastures. The land has started to heal.

Then a few days ago our current WWOOFer, Jacob, showed me a photo he took of an unknown gecko-type animal.

There it was!

A Red Eft!

The Red Eft found by Jacob, our WWOOFer!

All those exciting emotions I had when flipping over logs and wading in canals came flooding back.

I was giddy.

Unfortunately, the photo was taken hours earlier, and so the animal was already gone. But there was an Eastern Newt on my farm!

In addition to my childhood interests, this Red Eft got me excited for an entirely different reason. It means that our efforts to regenerate the ecosystem on the farm is working.

You see, amphibians are indicators for environmental health. They can be used like canaries in a coal mine. Historically, canaries were brought into coal mines because they are more susceptible to toxic gases, like methane and carbon monoxide, than humans. The canary would die before these gases rose to levels that would kill the coal miners. If the miners noticed the canary was dead, usually because they realized the bird had stopped singing, the miners then had time to get out of the mine before they were killed.

Amphibians breathe and drink through their thin skin, and they are exquisitely sensitive to environmental toxins. As canaries were used to monitor air quality, amphibians can be used to monitor environmental quality. Specifically, the quality of water that runs over and through the forests, soils, pastures, and environments where they live.

In this case, that environment is our farm.

And I now have proof, thanks to Jacob our WWOOFer, that we have newts on our farm.

But I still really… REALLY… want to find one myself!

 

 

For further reading on using amphibians as environmental indicators:

 

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