AUGUSTA, Ohio — Joel Salatin thinks in terms of multiples: multiple uses for land, multiple uses for equipment, multiple uses for animals. In fact, he’s christened his home in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley Polyface Farm, or “the farm of many faces.”
He embraces so many ventures and crosses so many philosophical lines that it’s hard to categorize him in just one. In fact, he calls himself a “Christian, Libertarian, environmentalist capitalist.” Others call him a “bioneer.”
No matter what you call it, his agricultural practices are working and he’s developed a huge following of like-minded farmers and would-be farmers, including those who packed the main tent at the Agriculture, Natural Resources and Conservation Expo Sept. 13 in Carroll County to hear the agri-preneur speak.
Approximately 500 people visited the annual expo on Kenwood Farm near Augusta.
Challenge status quo
Salatin questions conventional wisdom and invents unique composting, pasturing, grazing, and marketing practices for his diverse operation.
The goal, he says, should be ecological innovation that pays the bills, instead of capital-intensive infrastructure that limits options. The innovation can happen when a farmer appreciates animals instead of depreciating equipment, Salatin said.
“The next generation is enslaved in the paradigm of the previous generation,” Salatin said of the typical, conventional farm operation.
“The weakest link is always between our ears.”
Salatin peppered his presentation with examples of “biomimicry,” or ways he mimics nature’s processes in his farming operation.
Pointing to a top photograph on the screen behind him, Salatin said it was taken in the habitat of the Cape buffalo in Botswana. A prairie of thigh-high grasses filled an open expanse that was lined by trees. A second photograph on the screen was taken on Polyface Farm.
They looked identical.
Salatin rejects conventional grazing wisdom and develops paddocks of mature grasses, seedhead hay and “blown-out junk” most would consider past any stage of palatability or feed value. He also uses a high stocking rate of 100 head of beef cattle on a quarter-acre lot per day.
It’s his “three Ms” theory — movement, mob and mowing — that Salatin says mirrors the natural grazing tendencies of wild herds.
His herd, like the wild herds, is constantly on the move; is grouped in large numbers; and ultimately grazes less selectively, clearing each paddock like a mower. They’re moved every day into a new stand, and the grazed paddocks regenerate quickly, Salatin said.
The bottom line, he added, is that he’s averaging 400 cow-days per acre, in a county where the average farm gets 80 cow-days.
The grazing practice is not without expense, he cautioned, explaining his infrastructure costs are $30/acre for portable electric fencing and an underground water pipe system. The labor expense of moving cattle daily is also substantial.
And just like the oxpecker birds that perch on the Cape buffalo to eat parasites from the animal’s skin, an “eggmobile” follows Salatin’s cattle through the pasture rotation. The 12-by-20 movable trailer, with its slatted floor covered with poultry netting, serves as pasture sanitation, he explains, as the chickens eat the fly larva as they move across the paddock.
“It’s complete biomimicry,” Salatin said.
The added bonus are the eggs, gathered daily and worth $100,000 last year.
A separate pastured poultry (meat chicken) enterprise also follows some of the cattle grazing rotations, and Salatin also produces pasture-raised turkeys. In season, many of the farm’s meat rabbits are also finished in portable, slatted-floor shelters that are also moved daily.
Salatin has been able to develop his operation to the point that today he is using no off-farm inputs. Key to that program is his composting system, which he calls “the heartbeat of our farm.”
He uses a small winter cattle shelter, with feeders that can be raised as the bedding pack gets higher, sometimes as deep as 3 or 4 feet. Come spring, when the cows move out to pasture rotations, the “pigaerators” move in, rooting through the bedding pack for undigested kernels of corn and effectively turning and breaking up the compost bedding.
“All pigs have a sign on their foreheads ‘will work for corn,’” Salatin said. “They love to do this. This is hog heaven for them.”
when the compost is done, the shed is cleaned out and Salatin adds trace minerals, green sand and wood ashes, then spreads it onto his fields.
In the summer and fall, the pigs are rotated through pastures, and then finished in acorn glens in the woods. He’s now fencing off 4- and 5-acre finishing glens in his woodlands.
In his presentation, Salatin also quickly described his woodland management system that produces firewood and lumber, cut from logs in an onfarm bandsaw mill. When he realized the potential for income — and value — from the farm’s 450-acre woodlot, he also realized the need for better stewardship of that resource.
“We don’t take care of what we don’t value,” Salatin said.
Salatin — who calls the USDA, the “U.S. Duh” — said his operation follows an ethical and moral foundation missing from current traditional agriculture where the mantra is “grow it bigger, faster, cheaper.”
“That’s not a noble goal,” he declared.
“We have so industrialized agriculture that we don’t people involved.”
He cited the end of the 4-H pledge as part of the mission that drives his family’s farm. They farm the way they do, he said, “for my community, my country and my world.”