I’ve ruminated a lot over the last few months on how to build a farm and business that is resilient in the face of the economic changes I see coming over the next few decades. There are many factors that will come into play, and I don’t know which, politics, financial upheaval, or oil supply shocks will precipitate the crisis I foresee. Right now I think a deflationary crash is the most likely in the short to intermediate term, but I also thought the same thing a year ago, and it has not come to pass.
The metabolism of our economic system is cancerous. It mandates that the system grow in order to achieve full employment. Growth means some variable rate of increase in size or activity. A growth rate of 7% per year means the thing measured roughly doubles in ten short years. It has been a long time since the United States achieved a growth rate anywhere near 7%, but it also has been a long time since its economic activity dropped into contraction for more than a few months at a time. Our recent parry with deflation and contraction has in my opinion been staved off temporarily by massive government borrowing. I do not believe that the “pulling forward of demand” such massive borrowing creates is a path to create real wealth or a productive base for real needs to be met. It does, however, keep the wheels of the economy turning at roughly the same rate they have been though, so the more dramatic and wrenching changes are postponed for another day.
In agriculture a metabolism of incessant growth mandates speed and greater and greater production from the same amount of land base. It also imposes a 24-7 industrial mindset on what is fundamentally a biological system, not a mechanical one. Farming following the seasons is easier on all the lives lived therein, but the industrial mindset does not allow for the luxury of down time or breaks. Winter is an obstacle to overcome rather than a much needed time for recuperation and rest. An illustrative example can be found in the cow. Cows fed a mixture of corn silage, grain, a bit of hay, and some fat/protein supplements can, given the right genes in the animal, produce far more milk per acre of land than a grazing cow that harvests most of her feed herself. By providing large volumes of high energy feeds powerful red, orange, green and blue machines enable us to breed cows that produce over 100 pounds of milk per day during their lactations. To achieve that kind of production the feed has to be just right every day, or the cow will crash and not produce much of anything. Modern Holsteins relies heavily on the Deere to provide for her high metabolism. Depending on how the metrics are calibrated this giant amount of milk can be called “greater efficiency” since more food is grown on the same land base and in a given number of labor-hours. The labor input to milk a cow is not dramatically different whether she provides 120 pounds of milk or “only 35” per day. Looking at it through a different lens though, and those “efficiencies” appear less enticing as the costs are accounted for. The equipment needed to grow, harvest, thresh, grind, mix and serve large amounts of grain and/or silage necessitates large capital investments, and a constant stream of exogenous calories from hydrocarbons to run the machines. I now believe whole-heartedly those statistics that are bandied around that claim most food on American’s grocery shelves has 10 calories of hydrocarbon energy invested in every one calorie of food energy.
Since our example thus far has been the cow, let us continue in that vein. The modern Holstein is large, often tipping the scales a bit under 2000 pounds. The most selectively bred, highest pedigree, can produce over 100 pounds of milk a day in a ten month lactation. Holsteins like this have high basal metabolisms and will “milk off their backs” i.e. use their body’s store of fats (generally easily seen on their backs, hips and ribs), to maintain production as long as possible in the face of inadequate feed. They will literally dump their bodies’ reserves into their milk if the feed quality goes down because that is what they have been bred to do. It is little wonder then that farmers worry about the quality and composition of their feed. But it is circular though whether this tremendous amount of milk and a very high cow metabolism requires all the depreciating iron out in the field, or whether all those colorful machines force the cow to up the ante in order to pass on her genes. I like Micheal Pollen’s way of looking at domesticated plants and animals not as hapless things that we humans have shaped with our superior intellects but as collaborators in this game of life. Cows have decided to take us up on the bargain of providing milk, meat, leather, and draught power in exchange for protection from predators and some food insurance during hard times. Holstiens have an exceptional ability to produce mind-boggling volumes of milk, and this trait made them the most numerous and successful of their kind on several continents. It is as if the cow says to the human, “I will make ungodly amounts of milk as fast as I can in exchange for perfect food every day and a roof over my head.” I think of this as the “confinement bargain”.
In nature animals tend to lactate seasonally give birth in the spring as forages flush with proteinaceous new green growth. Cows can be managed in time to nature’s rhythm, to calve in the spring and then milk through spring summer and fall. In the wild, mammals put on weight in the fall as preparation for hard times to come. Many “heritage” breeds still exhibit this trait since it was not long ago that farmers valued animals that could provide for some of their own winter needs by grazing extra hard during the green months. Dairy animals tend not to do so since they have been selected to pour any surplus metabolic output into their milk rather than onto their ribs and backs.
I want to partner with cattle and strike a deal in which I provide spots to take the edge offof cold weather, protection from predators, feed during the winter in the form of hay, and paddocks of quality grass during the spring, summer, fall, and part of winter. In return I expect milk, and meat. Perhaps someday I will also desire draught and leather, though they are not currently on the table. In my mind this is the “grazing bargain”.
On the face of it the deals described above don’t sound all that different, but delving into the details demonstrates a host of differences. Grazing gives exercise, wears hooves down as they grow, allows the cows fresh air and lets them deposit their manure in a good place for it all by themselves. Confined cows stand or lie all day with no room to stretch their legs, their hooves grow too fast for such behavior and must be trimmed regularly, “fresh” air must be provided by giant fans, and the massive volumes of manure they produce must be mechanically stored and then returned to the fields with heavy machinery. Or at least that is the hope, in less regulated times/places some or all of it goes into waterways. In order to hold up my end of things for a grazing deal I need to invest in land, lanes to paddocks, some fence materials, water stations, and hay. For a confinement deal - land, many thousands of square feet of concrete, manure lagoons and spreaders, grain bins, silos, corn choppers, and so on. Both of these types of infrastructure depreciate over time, but the confinement model does so from a higher starting point and at a faster clip.
We recently put in a water line in one of our fields. By providing water to small areas of the large pasture we will be able to stockpile forage in situ and then have the cows harvest it themselves. That plastic isn’t going to go anywhere for a long, long time though the hydrants may need replacement parts in 15 or 20 years. Once a concrete silo rots out (the acids produced during ensiling eat the concrete away over time) there is nothing that can be done except to use it as hard fill of some sort. Our waterline uses gravity to deliver its goods. Silos demand hydrocarbons to fill and electricity to unload.
What then is efficient? Is it to produce the maximum amount of milk in a given year with a given number of labor inputs? Or is it to produce as much milk as possible with as little fossil help as is feasible? I believe both are forms of “efficiency” but would never willingly enter into the confinement model. Pushing the metabolic and biological limit of animals, our own time and physical energy, and the availability of natural resources is going to face ever higher costs and perhaps outright failure when fuel shortages appear. Finding cows that will make as much milk as possible given biological and seasonal limitations is a much more exciting prospect. I want to work with cows that produce seven to ten times their body weight in milk over a nine month lactation. Going into winter I want them to keep some reserves on their flanks for cold weather. I want them to calve every year and readily breed again. A cow that does these things will produce much less milk per acre per year, but she will be far more resilient in the face of losses of mechanical and fuel inputs.
The trick then is to fit a little biological system working with nature into the larger industrial, mechanical, metastatic economy at large. Ignoring the limitations imposed by capital is as sure a road to ruin as ignoring those of nature, and in many cases it is a more direct route. I don’t know how every piece of the metabolic puzzle is going to come together for us, yet I trust that there is a way to make at least the little part of the world within our ken productive, beautiful, exuberant, healthy, and resilient. And here are two recent photos of our cows (and bull) since we like them a lot.