Livestock as Pasture Nutritionists
Cafeteria-Style Minerals and Natural Instincts
This article was originally co-published by The Permaculture Research Institute and The Stockman Grassfarmer in 2018. We are going to release an updated commentary concerning this article for paid subscribers about the five year’s of emergence that occurred following its writing soon. For now, we wanted to provide this article as a reference.
A ruminant’s tongue is the most dynamic and comprehensive nutritional laboratory in the world. For animals to survive, this must be so.
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Albrecht argued that an animal’s natural wisdom honours its relationship to all other “biotic strata on which it either is dependent or with which it is competitive.” In other words, wild animals must be adroitly capable of complete and comprehensive analysis of the foods they consume. More importantly, as the quality of their foods depend upon the quality of soil in which they are grown, animals, to survive, require the “refined ability as a connoisseur of soil fertility,” wrote Albrecht. The logical next step is that animals are master nutritionists.
Baptism By Fire
Our farm’s intense dedication to animal nutrition began the third day after our cattle arrived. We spent the previous weeks preparing their paddocks, running water lines, cleaning up fences, and sourcing minerals (salt, a balanced mineral mix, and kelp). We were hyper-dedicated to where and what our cattle would eat but we were about to discover that we had entirely neglected their nourishment.
Three days after they arrived, one of our heifers calved. For a short moment, Morgan and I were overcome with joy—this was the first calf born on the farm and we named her Nelly (we live in Nelson County, Virginia). Cattle eat their placentas after birth and we spent the day eagerly watching in anticipation. But the placenta never dropped; it just hung there, suspended from the heifer’s back end.
Although a “retained placenta” is nothing in itself to worry about, the real problem was that, in retaining her placenta, our heifer’s confused hormones stayed her colostrum and milk supply. For two days, Nelly lacked the vital nourishment her young body so desperately needed.
We were advised to phone the vet and they recommended confinement and then three doses of antibiotics, to fight any bacterial infection that may or may not present itself. Morgan and I felt paralyzed. We were only three days into cattle farming and the vet was already on the phone threatening antibiotics. Moreover, they were scolding me for not purchasing a head gate before we purchased the cattle. How can anyone raise natural animals without the ability to confine them against their will?
We were lost, tired, and desperate but we were about to stumble on something truly magical. Perhaps emotional depletion is the prerequisite for truly humble observation; perhaps, exhaustion-based humility is the best place to truly witness the true magic of our natural world.
Antibiotics have their place in animal husbandry—albeit an extremely and incredibly minute place—, but we believed this was not one of them. Antibiotics are used in extreme situations to rid the body of harmful bacteria. The issue of a retained placenta, however, is an issue of native body function and not a foreign body causing disfunction.
After exhaustive research, we decided that, with our backs up against a wall and Nelly struggling in the field for simple nourishment, we were going to offer our heifer free-choice Sulphur. We reasoned that a “retained placenta” externally exemplified internal imbalance and we narrowed the disparity down to Sulphur. Morgan drove a couple of hours to our “local” feed store and purchased the only bag they were willing to sell to us. The magic came next.
Carrying the bag out to the field, I was “attacked” by the heifer and had to put it down to ward her off of me. She was not malicious; she seemed excited. I barely could still the situation and pour the mineral into a rubber tub before she pushed me away and eagerly consumed the pure Sulphur. Not 30 seconds later, she looked up, her nose covered in yellow dust, and happily trotted away. Two days of work, research, pain, and heartache was vanquished in 30 seconds.
A couple of hours later, Morgan and I returned to the herd and found Nelly nursing, the Sulphur nearly empty, and the placenta gone. Leaning against a green metal gate, we were speechless. The magic of a properly organized and functioning natural world glazed our eyes and changed us forever. It was a baptism by fire and we were blessed to burn.
Basic Soil Science and Animal Husbandry
This baptism impressed upon us the humble conviction that, as regenerative permaculture farmers, our job is to organize and direct into symbiotic systems of abundance the intrinsic instincts and patterns of our natural world, not to dominate and dwarf them.
We believe that wild animals balanced their diets long before man came along. One of my favorite authors is Dr. William Albrecht. Although a focus on the soil and its complex food-web and minerals are mainstream today, Albrecht pioneered this effort nearly a century ago. Born in 1888, he lived through the great explosion of the industrial revolution and witnessed firsthand the supreme ecological degradation of its wake. Through it all, he argued for a return to biological agriculture based on sustainability, soil health, and a purposeful and systematic interaction between man and beast.
In his book, Soil Fertility & Human and Animal Health, Albrecht argued that it takes healthy soils to make healthy forages to make healthy animals to make healthy humans. Break any part of that equation and all health will suffer.
He argued, “Study books and observe nature; if they do not agree, throw away the books.” What he found was that animals were healthier if they were fed nutrient-dense forages grown on “high-organic-matter” soils. In other words, an animal can only be as healthy as the land it is on. If the land is sick, biologically depleted, or lacking nutrients and diversity, so its animals will also be.
In other words, health begins and ends with the soil. Our journey of ecological stewardship, regeneration, and restoration begins and ends with this understanding.
Animals as Master Nutritionists
On our farm, we like to think that a ruminant’s tongue is the most dynamic and comprehensive nutritional laboratory in the world. For animals to survive, this must be so.
Albrecht argued that an animal’s natural wisdom honors its relationship to all other “biotic strata on which it either is dependent or with which it is competitive.” In other words, wild animals must be adroitly capable of complete and comprehensive analysis of the foods they consume. More importantly, as the quality of their foods depend upon the quality of soil in which they are grown, animals, to survive, intrinsically require the “refined ability as a connoisseur of soil fertility,” wrote Albrecht.
Animals were the first soil scientists and master nutritionists. They can “discriminate among compounds” and select their forages accordingly, wrote Albrecht. They understand that, when their bodies require more protein, for example, reaching their head outside of their paddock fence to consume fresh Timothy or orchard grasses satisfies that alarm.
Calcium, a mineral contained in these fresh forages, is highly important in the process of synthesizing proteins (to be precise: calcium plays the fundamental role in the synthesis of amino acids that compose proteins). Perhaps, animals understand their calcium deficiency. Perhaps, their internal alarms are a beacon for a needed synthesis of proteins. Perhaps, they are just hungry. Either way, it is clear that they understand the connection between consuming fresh Timothy and orchard grasses and the satisfaction of their internal needs.
The logical syllogism from need, to alarm, to satisfaction seems omnipresent in all animal life, humans included. Let me be clear, however, I am not arguing that animals can mathematically assay the “calcium” content of their forages. They cannot determine what parts per million (ppm) this forage contains of Calcium as opposed to that forage. They are much wiser than that. I am arguing that they can efficiently determine, analyze, and classify the effects of such calcium in their forage on their body and its internal operation. This is the key; their life depends on it.
People who doubt that an animal can properly demonstrate wise nutritional choices only have to watch a cow graze a paddock. The first thing that defies “traditional” understanding is that cattle are not lawn-mowers; they are picky eaters. As they walk the field, they will select their forages based on composition, current physical need, time of day, temperature, weather patterns, existence of drought, etc. If given the opportunity, cattle will sift through the grasses in the morning to find the dew-covered clover and then come back in the afternoon to consume the grasses.
I’ve watched a herd of cattle navigate through a patch of poison hemlock to find the white clover hidden underneath. After their duration in this paddock, the white clover was completely clipped, whereas the poison hemlock was left nearly untouched, although quite trampled. I’ve even witnessed cattle selectively graze a just-fallen black cherry tree, wherein they consumed the still vibrant green leaves and entirely left the ones that were beginning to wilt. This is natural animal instinct; and this is magic.
Why Minerals Are Important
Since Nelly, we have built feedback systems on our farm that give our animals that daily ability to tell us what they need – to self-medicate and self-regulate. Our designed systems attempt to “re-wild” our house-trained livestock and allow them to be the master nutritionists they were born to be. In a sense, we get out of their way and let them be the cow.
First, let’s tackle why we provide minerals before we get into why we provide café-style minerals. About 90-95 percent of a plant’s makeup comes from the air and water. These elements are combined together by sunlight to generate the chemical marvel of photosynthesis. Minerals are nature’s tool that enable this miraculous process. They provide the fundamental enzymes that help catalyze the sun’s energy into storable glucose. Any deficiency in available minerals will result in an equal deficiency in product and quality of the plant’s crop – its nutrient-density.
Interestingly, just as minerals were the essential function for the creation of energy, they are also required to break down the digested material’s chemical bonds to release such energy. Again, any deficiency in minerals within the animal’s diet will accompany and equal deficiency in total digestible nutrients.
To put it simply: mineral deficiency negatively effects both growth within plants and nutrient absorption within animals. As no soil contains perfectly balanced minerals, we provide free-choice minerals to our animals so that they can correct what centuries of misapplied human activity has destroyed.
Why Café-Style Free Choice Minerals?
Providing Café-Style Free Choice Minerals is not a widely accepted animal husbandry practice. To be honest, we have been harangued many a time by “cattle experts” when they see that we provide 11 different trace minerals to our animals. They baulk, “Oh, you must be raising cows with PhDs, huh?” To their surprise, we always retort, “Yes, you got it! That is exactly right!”
The commercial norm that these experts argue for is to provide a one-bag-fits-all mineral program. Contained within this mineral mix is a perfectly balanced cocktail of all the trace elements needed for healthy animals.
We believe that this perfectly balanced protocol has two fundamental problems:
1) It Lacks A Trust In The Wisdom of the Wild
If an animal can discern its nutritional needs (hopefully we have showed this in the above portion of the article), then cannot we trust that animal to make nutritional decisions for itself? Or, otherwise put, who is a better cow? Me? Or, the cow?
The standard protocol of a single but balanced mineral mix is fundamentally girded by the assumption that there were no healthy animals before humans domesticated them. That, without mankind’s white laboratory, nature cannot exist, or at least exist abundantly. Perhaps, rather, the assumption is that, now that we have domesticated them, there is no going back to healthy animals without direct human oversight or intervention.
We believe rather that the first step in regenerative agriculture should be a step of caution and child-like humility. Humans need be organizers, not tyrants. We must begin our regenerative process by first understanding that animals are also a marvelous creation.
2) It Lacks an Understanding of Actual Science
In man’s earnest desire to master the discipline of science he seemingly has, at least in this arena, missed the point. Providing a perfectly mixed and balanced mineral ration to animals consuming plants grown in soil whose minerals are perfectly deficient and unbalanced is not good science.
Take for example – calcium and magnesium.
A cow consumes forage that is deficient in magnesium: we call this phenomenon “grass tetany”. It is when spring temperatures and heavy rains so boost cool-season grasses’ growth that their nutrients are diluted by their own moisture content, leaving the lush and green pasture deficient in magnesium.
Over time, the cow understands its deficiency and walks over to the one-bag-mineral-program to consume its needed mineral. The perfectly mixed mineral ration contains the proper ratios of calcium and magnesium, but the cow is deficient in magnesium and not calcium. Either way, the cow licks the mineral mix and consumes both calcium and magnesium and walks away. Over time, the cow is even more deficient in magnesium and so it walks over to the mix and again licks the mineral and again receives the proper ratios of calcium and magnesium. This cycle continues until the cow is so deficient that the vet is called.
Why? Too much calcium prevents magnesium from being absorbed. The cow started its journey deficient in magnesium and not in calcium. Every time it licked the perfectly balanced mineral mix its deficiency in magnesium was heightened and exaggerated because it also received the same levels of calcium. Every lick of the mineral mix made this cow more deficient in minerals…ironic?
To put it simply, you cannot provide a perfectly balanced mineral mix to animals eating forages grown in soils that are not perfectly balanced. You can, however, craft a custom mineral mix that meets the exact deficiencies of your paddocks. But how smart is this really? If your land’s typography varies by even a foot; if its soil’s organic matter differs even by a tenth of a percent; if its slope or orientation varies by as single degree, then the mineral balances or ratios from paddock to paddock will also vary. One paddock, due to its orientation, lack of sun exposure, and tendency toward erosion, may be deficient in iron, whereas the next day’s paddock may have excess iron.
Mathematically, if you move your cattle daily between April and December and you only graze a given paddock twice during the year, then your 122 different paddocks will need 122 different mineral mixes to properly meet the needs of your herd. That is a lot of soil testing and mineral mixing. Or, you can let the master nutritionists decide for themselves what they need…
Our Café-Style Free Choice Mineral Program
Our farm offers what we call a Café-Style Free Choice Mineral Program. That is, we offer 11 different “minerals” to our cattle on top of offering free choice organic kelp and rock salt. This program allows our animals to exhibit their natural wisdom and medicate as they need. If they need magnesium, they take it. It’s that simple.
The minerals we provide are – Calcium, Copper, Potassium, Magnesium, Phosphorus, Sulfur, Zinc, Iodine, Selenium, Vitamin A, and Vitamin B.
This system is also our soil-testing methods. Some days the Copper bin will be empty, other days it will go untouched. Our master nutritionists and lab technicians take what they need and guide our soil testing methods. Our pastures then directly benefit, as around 80% of all the minerals our animals consume are deposited directly back to the pastures in the form of excrement. Our animals tell us what our pastures need and where it needs it and then they put it there for us. No diesel fuel required.
They have been in the soil consulting business for thousands of years … and they do a wonderful job.
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