Weeds. Yes. Weeds. People love to hate 'em. They're, to most, unsightly, unnecessary, and...did I mention unsightly? And they were to me, too.... until very recently. I find it funny that it took me so long to realize it; I understand there is a deeper experience at play when it comes to Mother Nature and, yet, something right in front of my face -- weeds -- were elusive to me on a deeper level: I just wanted to take them down and get them out of our way to successful grassfed beef production.
I had my "Aha Moment" when Mike was out of town and I, to anyone who may have seen me, was manicly driving on the four-wheeler around and around and around in one part of one of our our fields (we have 13 by-the-way and that's just one farm) trying to push down the thistles, burdocks, and wing stem. The border collies running circles around me most definitely confused and likely wondering where on Earth we were going. "Ugh! Why are they here?? This is crazy! Look at ALL of them! Out of control! Why?? What are we doing wrong? What are we not seeing?". Farming does that to you. Often. It can be the ultimate soul fulfillment and the ultimate heart breaker and the ultimate questioning of sanity - often all in the same day.
I went home and then it hit me the second I walked in the door. It hit me so hard and the weight on my chest got so light that I couldn't absorb the information faster. Like the answer rained down from above in brightly colored sprinkles of amazingness (yes, I just said that). I quickly gathered some of our grazing books (we have...lots), Google, and a book I recently picked up about Weeds with a Biodynamic approach. (Biodynamics is a thread of farming consciousness that resonates with the both of us but more on that another day). I was up until 2am reading and typing and reading and typing and gathering all that I could recall about the fields we have walked upon for nearly 5 years and that pattern of these weeds growing in the pastures. I sent Mike a huge brain dump of my findings but I'll shorten it for you here as best I can.
Everything in Mother Nature has a purpose. A. PURPOSE. Including weeds. What weeds do we have prominent in the fields? Which fields? How are these fields grazed?
My realization was this, "If we have these weeds, there is a reason. A very important reason. So look for the root cause instead of trying to treat the symptom." And the answer was in the question. The roots. The roots of these weeds play a very important role in our soil's ecosystem.
The grazing approach we have taken on the farm has been carefully planned and is fairly intensive utilizing a multi-species approach - each animal species playing a role. It is calculated by grass growth, rain fall, breeding season, etc, etc, etc to promote healthy animals and soils, higher diversity and density of grasses, strong grass root structure, and higher water retention rate. And we do this all the while knowing full well that at any moment our carefully planned human-based approach could be knocked off base by any number of variables: weather is often the first culprit.
Over the years it has been exciting to see the diversity in grasses grow with each year, the fertility of the soil increase (soil samples have been taken to verify), water retention of the soil capacity increasing (in years of drought we've had less and less trouble), healthy bugs eating through the cow poop swiftly upon elimination (signifies healthy soil/healthy bugs), healthier animals (we RARELY need a vet or meds) and, as we are in the grassfed & grass-finished meat business: our customers feedback that our meat is continually improving. What does that mean to me? That means we're on the right track. We're doing something right. The hours and hours of blood, sweat, tears, and, ahem...money, are doing good things for the Earth, the animals, and our customers.
So, the weeds: if all of this is going well then why do we have weeds and, in some cases, a seemingly abundance of weeds. Surely that could mean we're doing something wrong but I feel that that line of thought is counter-productive. And here's why.
The main weeds living on our farm are thistle, burdock, wing stem, pigweed, pokeweed. Each of them show up certain areas of certain fields and some more densely populated than others. To summarize what I found is that most of the weeds we have thrive in FERTILE/RICH soil. Yes. Fertile soil. That's the good news, that's great news! These weeds also thrive in COMPACTED soils. Compaction can arise from a variety of reasons: tractor driving on the fields, hay feeding, heavy congregation of cattle (under shade or near water, for example), nature life cycle of soil, etc. If I took each field as an individual I could usually find the pattern - which was incredibly exciting to see. Sure, I wish I had 5 years of calculated photographs and tests like a scientist would perform but I don't - at some point, though, I need to also rely on intuition and memory recall. I once heard someone say, "If it feels light, it is right. If it feels heavy, it is a lie." So, intuition it is - that is what our ancestors had well before Google and they managed to survive.
Ok - so we have fertile and compacted soils. Why the weeds? The taproots of these weeds grow deep and spread to reduce compaction and aerate the soil. They also draw much needed minerals from lower soils to the surface. There are natural life cycles to soils and weeds and we, as humans, I feel, only have a basic understanding of them. The soil will always do what it has to to remain viable. In our case these weeds are helping us to reduce compaction; sure, while doing so it is unsightly. And who is to say this problem began this year or 10 years ago or even 20 years ago. Soil is alive and in constant change - just like us. That's the beautiful mystery of life: the only constant is change, right?
What We Know About Weeds:
· Their job is to heal the soil
· Many roots/runners/tubers of weeds loosen soil by growing deeply – to counteract compaction
· Weeds can bring useful minerals to the surface
· Weeds can often indicate fluctuation in soil acidity and/or mineral deficiency or abundance
· Can prevent erosion by covering bare soil
· Nature’s way of correcting a problem
· Can attract beneficial insects (which they most certainly do!)
Here's a human example to help with a visual:
Acne, Eczema, Rashes: they show up on our skin but they are only a symptom of something deeper often in the digestive system. If one goes through detox or works on healing the INSIDE then the OUTSIDE clears up often with the "will look/feel worse before it's better" approach.
This is a very very good thing! This is exciting! We talk about working WITH nature, well, this would be a prime example.
So how do we work with these weeds? We can let them run their course, sure, but we don't know how long they need - do I think they'll take over the entire farm if we allow it while we still maintain the same grazing? No, I don't. But being in the awareness of them and the willingness to work with them can get us somewhere. We can assist the soil by being even more aware of our tractor usage/hay feeding, we can realize that some compaction will happen and some weeds will happen and that is just a part of life on the farm, we can utilize our pigs as tilling/aerating tools to help loosen up the topsoil (they're pretty darn good at it and that would lessen the use of a tractor to do the same job), and we can keep grazing the way we have been because everything involved is working together to heal the soil. Stagnation isn't good for anyone or anything: everything needs a purpose.
Our job as stewards of the land is to listen to it and help find that harmony. There will be cycles that we cannot control and may or may not necessarily be “fault” of human work. Since we don’t feel chemical intervention is right for our farm plan, we need to find other ways. By allowing weeds to do the work they are here to do, we are working in calculated harmony with the soil and the earth. Signs of weeds aren’t a bad thing at all; in fact, I have a new-found and immense sense of gratitude and hope for the future of those fields. Mother Nature is speaking and now I can hear what She is saying.
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