Ever since visiting Dimbangombe Ranch in Zimbabwe, I’ve wanted to use livestock to grow crops.
Cows in the cornfield? What?
The Africa Centre for Holistic Management, our fellow Savory Network Hub near Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe is where Spencer and I first witnessed the positive effects of using animal impact to improve the soil health of crop lands.
Starting a new garden bed
When we moved to Springs Ranch last April, one of our first projects was to establish a garden bed on the ranch. We, as a family, chose a level spot near water and electricity, where an old grainary used to stand in the early days of the ranch. We tested the soil and it was low in nutrients, as expected, as it had lay unused for many years. We cleared the piles of ranch necessities such as wire, fence posts and old gates from the site and broke ground.
The soil was so different from the sandy soil I was used to as a gardener in the Reno, Nevada area. From overrest, the soil was compacted and difficult to work, but we planted it according to our plan and the garden exceeded our expectations for the first year. Spencer installed an automatic sprinkler system and we were officially Surprise Valley gardeners.
Ecological succession and animal impact
Understanding what we do about ecological succession, we braced ourselves for the onslaught of tap-rooted “weeds” that were sure to inhabit the newly broke ground. Sure enough they came like an army setting up camp and occupying any bare ground. My fingers itched and I had to brace myself in order to not fall on my knees and furiously begin pulling weeds. Why not pull weeds? I asked Spencer this many times. The weeds have a role to play. Their tap roots are the only roots that will penetrate the compacted soil. If we pull the weeds and engage in a continual battle with them, we will in essence be managing for that low level of succession. If we allow the weeds to come and do their job, they will make way for more plants, increasing biodiversity and changing the soil environment. Eventually the garden ecosystem will evolve in such a way that it is no longer hospitable to large tap-rooted plants, (a.k.a. weeds).
This year the experiment continues. Will there be more weeds? Less? Will the animal impact we plan improve our soil? Time will tell.
Belle: the animal to impact our garden
After our fall harvest last year, I went to the field and found my daughter Maezy’s cow, Belle. She is as tame as a dog. We lead her with a halter and feed her grain from our hands. She is a small Angus cross cow, that doesn’t weigh much, but has enough weight and those fabulous cloven hooves needed for animal impact. We put up panels around the harvested garden, set up a water trough for Belle and welcomed her to her new home for a few days. She did a great job trampling down the rest of the corn and leafy green crops. She did not touch the summer or winter squash plants. She worked organic matter into the soil and added nutrients to it in the form of dung and urine. After a few days, we put her back with the other cows and scattered winter rye seed over the garden as a cover crop.
As we prepare for this year’s garden, we are debating returning Belle to the garden plot. The standing kale and collard green plants need to be broken down and organic matter should be worked into the soil. I do not want to rotatill because I do not want to invite more tap-rooted plants into the garden. Spencer thinks animal impact at this time of year when the soil is so soft may increase compaction. I disagree. The soil in a garden is always soft because it is watered a lot (at least in our garden). Spencer said that compaction is still significant in the middle of the garden bed. To address this we will use animal impact and plant dikon radishes in that area to help break through the compaction layer and add nutrients to the soil profile.
Why animal impact works
Animal impact increase soil health by breaking the soil cap, adding nutrients to the soil through dung and urine. The Africa Centre for Holistic Management reports that:
“The treatment has more than doubled (five times, in some cases) the yields on community control fields, made abandoned fields usable again, and eliminated the labour required for transporting manure.”
Can our little miss Belle produce those results for us? Stay tuned to find out! If you wish to learn more about animal impact and other tools used to holistically improve land, contact us or join us for a workshop.