Why do farms need animals?

In Conversation with Martin - February 2015

Wed, Feb 25th, 2015

We believe at Mapleton's that using animal manure is one of the best ways to add nutrients back into the soil and improve its structure.

Martin with the cows.

You can't ignore soil!

It may not look that exciting but soil is key to growing food. If you constantly take nutrients out of the soil you deplete it so that it can no longer produce.

We also strive to be a closed cycle, sustainable farm. Everything we need, as much as possible, comes from the farm. We purchase very few items from off the farm.

In using manure from the cows, rotating our pasture space every four years and using crop rotation our need for off farm inputs to grow our crops is minimized.

What about green manures?

Green manures refers to the practice of growing crops then plowing these crops under and/or cutting them and allowing them to compost back into the soil. And yes, we do use these practices on our farm.

However, in our experience we find that animal manure – cow manure in particular - is a faster route to adding nutrients back to the soil including phosphorous, pot ash, calcium and nitrogen. The manure also improves soil life by adding bacteria, fungus and rhizomes.

When I do talks I often refer to the example of the soils in the Midwest and on the prairies. There, the soils were built up by bison, who are ruminants, eating grasses and other perennials.

How do cows create manure?

Cows are ruminants and have a unique digestive system that includes a system of four stomachs.

As the roughage they eat moves through the stomachs, it is constantly being churned. In each stomach a large number of bacteria help break down the sugars, proteins, starches, fibers and other items within the roughage.

Eventually the cow absorbs into its blood the key elements of the roughage that it needs. Any roughage not digested ... they lift their tail and it exits the cow.

At our farm the cows make their deposits into the compost pack. There it is mixed in with sawdust and then twice a year is spread onto the fields. With the compost pack we do not lose any nutrients to run off, and greenhouse gases are minimized because they are captured within the compost pack.

Why not use pig or chicken manure?

Martin visiting the pigs on pasture.

We do - but on our farm the ladies are the single largest source of manure. The cows, because they are ruminants, are able to at eat forage based foods such as grasses, alfalfa and clover.

These perennial crops not only make great feed, they are real soil builders and sinks for carbon. (In an organic farm system such as ours, the cows rely on forage based foods – not grain - for the majority of their diet.)

It is our experience that pigs and chickens, even if they are pasture fed, need large amounts of grain versus cows. Grains are annuals that do not build the soil but deplete it.

Pigs and chickens can be raised in a pasture fed organic system, but for us with 600 acres of fields to fertilize, relying on manure from our cows is the most effective way to do it.

Why keep other animals on the farm then?

Although our focus is being a dairy farm, we also consider ourselves to be a mixed farm.

The other animals including pigs, chickens, turkeys and sheep play a practical role in providing us with organic pastured meat for our family and customers.

They also have an important education role. During the warmer months, visitors to the farm can see a variety of different animals in our demonstration barn. It's important to us that people re-connect with agriculture and how their food is produced.

But as usual, our ladies who provide the milk for our ice cream, yogurt and other products will continue to be the main celebrities at the farm!

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Drop by for a visit!

There is lots to see and do on the farm.  We are within a one hour drive of Kitchener-Waterloo, Guelph, Stratford, Orangeville, Hanover and Walkerton.

See you soon!

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