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It takes a village - to feed the soil.

October 1, 2021

"It takes a village." Often, we hear that in regard to raising children. But have you ever thought about it in terms of....caring for the soil?

Consider one of our everyday chores -- moving our cows. It is actually one of the few chores that happens everyday throughout the course of the year, winter or summer.

When Joe moves the cows, he lifts up the reel that divides yesterday's paddock from today's new one. If you're just watching that (and you can do so here!) then you might start to envision the community that makes just that action possible. There's the people moving the cows -- Joe and the boys -- and the cows themselves. There's the people who make and ship and deliver the reels.

But what about the village within the soil - both above and below the surface? Who and what is participating there?

When a cow steps onto their fresh paddock, they are doing two new things: taking a bite of the grass, which stimulates its regrowth, and spreading their manure as they walk. But they are also leaving behind yesterday's paddock. This doesn't mean that the paddock is abandoned, however. Rather, the cows' departure allows the other participants in the soil to do their work.

When a cow deposits their organic matter, or manure, on the ground, it trickles down underneath to both the roots of the plants and the microorganisms that live underneath the soil. These roots and microorganisms are part of a soil food web, in which the microbes and arthropods feed on the organic matter, in turn feeding the plants above them.

What rotational grazing promotes is a healthier partnership among these organisms and roots beneath the soil. Because the pasture rests, the grass grows higher. Because the grass grows taller, the roots extend further beneath the soil. Not only does this extend the activity beneath the soil, but it also creates less disturbance on the organic matter stored within the soil, resulting in the "carbon sequestration" you may have heard about.

From here, there is an explosion of participation. Seeds from a variety of diverse and native plants take root and grow, creating greater complexity in the pasture. The plants that cows choose not to graze, such as goldenrod, bloom and invite pollinators such as butterflies and bees into the pasture.

Humans, then, are just one small part of this cycle. We're the facilitators. We create paddocks for the cattle, and then we get out of the way. Our job is not to do the heavy work, but to create a space in which it can happen and flourish.

This is yet another reason why it's important to think about human beings as participants in nature, not as apart from it, as I've written before. It's also a good reminder as we get closer to the barrenness of winter. Even when it feels cold and dead above the soil, there's still much going on beneath it.

Michelle Sroka

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