Pasture advances farm resilience

by Deborah Jeanne Sergeant

Pasturing livestock may seem a natural and straightforward way to feed them; however, it also promotes farm resilience. Paul Dorrance, owner of Pastured Providence, presented “Pasture-Based Livestock: Advancing Ecological, Economic and Emotional Resilience” as a webinar hosted by Food Animal Concerts Trust.

“More than ever, in this post-pandemic environment, that resilience is really necessary,” Dorrance said.

In 2013, he bought land and started a pasture-raised beef, pork, poultry, turkey, lamb and non-GMO eggs operation. He sold through farmers markets, custom cut and a restaurant customer. Toward the end of 2019, his marriage ended and he realized he needed two people to run the farm. He sold the livestock and now raises hay – and awareness for good food as a consultant and public speaker. Dorrance believes that Pastured Providence is meant to educate, encourage and equip farmers to raise food with a resilient farm.

“Pastured livestock offers a unique solution to all of these,” he said.

Dorrance said that the farming industry is inherrently difficult.

“When you have a bumper crop, prices are terrible; when you have calamity and no one around you has anything, prices are high,” he said. “The true fragility of the system is shown when farmers have massive quantities of goods and store shelves are empty.” The pandemic highlighted this issue as it broke down the supply chain.

Dorrance also said that agriculture generates 10.5% of the nation’s and 33% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. He’s also concerned about the number of slaughterhouses plummeting by 70% since 1967.

“Key commodity prices have dropped 50% over the last seven years,” he added.

These factors and more can contribute to anxiety and depression among farmers. Dorrance added that the rate of suicide among farmers is 3.5 times the rate among the general population.

“It’s easy to vilify folks pursuing conventional methods but I believe that everyone is trying to do their best for the land,” Dorrance said.

He thinks that one option is regenerative grazing, because monoculture is not natural. “Use manure,” he said. “Use perennials over annuals in most cases to keep a living root. Minimize soil disturbance, though animal disturbance is a positive effect. Don’t leave bare ground. Let land rest. These appear specific to row crops and vegetables, but they work across all kinds of agriculture.”

He applied it to beef as an example. Dorrance referenced studies that indicate grass-fed cattle emit 20% more methane than grain-fed cattle.

“But that ignores carbon sequestration and systems perspectives,” he said. “A lifecycle assessment of grass-fed beef shows managed rotations encourage forage growth, manure is deposited and utilized in place and I have a lot less fuel for feed.” The systems approach also offers benefits to the ecological resilience in pasture-based livestock. Dorrance said using perennial grasses, rotational grazing with rest and multispecies pastured livestock, including poultry, benefits the environment.

Economic resilience may differ between management styles. National beef consumption fell 2.3% between 2006 and 2015 – but grass-fed beef sales doubled yearly, from $17 million in 2001 to $272 million in 2016. Grass-fed beef commands a 70% premium, which helps boost income.

While some may consider grass-fed beef a food fad, “I disagree completely,” Dorrance said. “Amidst the confusion about food, consumers are driven by the desire to do right. True pastured production is the only place to be in the meat production world. The inputs are next to nothing. You do have water, mineral, veterinary and fencing costs. The equipment and infrastructure costs are relatively low.” He said the wide margins are because it takes an additional year to finish a grass-fed animal.

Since there is a lack of automation for tasks like rotating pastures, “this tends to be an environment where it’s more hands-on and management intense,” he said. It also requires more time each day.

Adding additional revenue streams to a grass-fed system tends to bring more profits to a farm. “If you add another enterprise, like one sheep per cow, it is ‘for free’ because they use different forage and management is similar,” Dorrance said – although you need different fencing and predator protection.

Dorrance also believes that pastured livestock help build economic resilience into a farm. He said many farmers in his area lamented the poor hay last year, harvesting only half the bales they normally would. Unlike his neighbors, he had a normal hay harvest.

“I wasn’t doing anything crazy or out of the box but my hay was amazing and thick,” he said. “The only reason I can imagine is my animals were on the land until Christmas last year. That influence showed up on the land. Ecological resilience often reveals itself as economic resilience.”

Dorrance also promotes pasture-based management to increase farmers’ emotional resilience. “I’m not proposing farmers are not tough,” he said. “The way I want to think about it is … if all you have left is a single thread of emotion, it’s easily broken, but woven together with 10, 100 or 1,000 of its kind, it becomes an incredibly strong rope that can pull us away from the edge of the abyss. As little things surround us and cut away at the threads of the rope and use up our resilience, we’re left with just a few strands. In a few cases, the next thing that happens negatively breaks the last thread we had left.”

Despite how tough farmers are, they have a lot to balance. This can include internal desires, historical context, family constraints, community status and national expectations.

“Livestock and mother nature will always find a way to test us,” Dorrance said.

He believes that pasturing livestock can help level the normal ups and downs of farming life as it’s regenerative, a climate solution and a means to meet demand for healthful, humane meat.

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