Beautiful is the New Ugly in Pastures

My heart is broken. I recently enrolled in a farm marketing course where I was sent to a website that had photos available for free and for sale. Because I blog about grazing, of course my first search for photos was ‘grazing’. My heart fell. These photos were not showing grazing, they were showing stressed animals and a whole dysfunctional ecosystem. None of the grass in any of the pictures (even the ones you had to pay for) was over one inch tall!  It was like someone took a picture of a train wreck and was trying to pass it off as a thing of beauty.

I wouldn’t have thought twice about it 10 years ago, but now I am shocked by these images. I want to educate the photographer, and the farmer (presumably not the same person), and the audience for whom the photo was taken. I want them to understand that this is not normal. This is not ‘grazing’. It is separate elements of an ecosystem dying for nutrients because of management, but it doesn’t have to be this way!

Let me set the record straight. No judgment here. I grazed like this for 20 years, and didn’t see anything wrong with it. Yes, when we had drought (which was almost every year), I didn’t have grass, but I didn’t know any other way to do it. Yes, it was frustrating, but I never broke out of my isolation to talk about it because everyone else’s pasture looked like mine.

This blog is more about paradigm shifts in thinking, and how startling it is for me to look at how I used to view the world. It’s also about how thankful I am to have taken the journey.

I’ve left the worlds of:

  • well-ordered gardens,
  • monocultures and the resulting war on weeds, and
  • perfectly mown lawns.
Pasture Management and Picture by Chris Hollen

(I have to add here that I’ve never really been into those things, but I’ve always felt guilty that I didn’t care more about them! I kept up a good front, and would actually try to keep up with the social norms because it was expected of me.)

In 2006 I finished my Master Gardener certification. I had been growing vegetables using Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening method where every plant has a well-ordered place in its own square foot of space. I ran a market garden and CSA using this method for four years, and it fit beautifully into my organized engineer brain. Fast forward to today, when over 50 percent of my garden is perennial fruit, and the beds are messy hugelkultur garden mounds with vines and plants growing in glorious profusion.

I look back at my never-ending war on weeds in both the garden and the pasture. The backbreaking hours of pulling chickweed and henbit in the garden in the spring, only to find out later that they are lovely edible groundcovers that reliably die in the heat and create a perfect mulch for the summer garden. No work involved. Or the gallons and gallons and miles and miles walked with a backpack sprayer fighting the weeds in the pastures because they were weeds, not knowing that those weeds were communicating with me, if I would only listen. They were telling me what was going on with the soil, giving the pollinators food, medicating my animals, adding diversity to the pasture, and on and on ad nauseam. Weeds are some of the most nutritious forage out there, many rivaling the protein content of alfalfa.

It’s crazy ironic that now that I have come to appreciate weeds, there are fewer and fewer in my pastures. My soil microbe biology has moved from primarily bacterial to closer to a 1:1 ratio of fungi:bacteria because of my grazing management. This new ratio is inhospitable to weeds, but is optimal for perennial grasses. In addition, the animals now enjoy many of those weeds because of my grazing management. They happily eat dog fennel, nightshade, goldenrod and lespedeza, gaining nutritional as well as medicinal value from the ‘weeds’. Of course their chomping on them weakens the weeds so that there are fewer every year.

Pasture Management and Picture by Kirsten Holland Robertson

My close-cropped pastures always looked similar to a lawn, so I thought I was doing great! The lawn was dutifully cut by my husband, who wasted hundreds of hours riding the lawnmower around on Saturday afternoons. Now the pastures are wooly looking and so is the lawn. In fact, our lawn is now officially a pasture. We fenced the house out so that the animals are not allowed to get to the ornamental bushes, but the animals now ‘mow’ the lawn. You can imagine that it rarely looks tidy. To me it is beautiful, feeding growing lambs and allowing chickens to forage for juicy bits of clover. The animals see it as a wonderland, and the native pollinators and birds are pleased as well.

So let’s get back to the beginning with the picture search. After I saw those ‘grazing’ pictures, I did what any sane person would do. I browsed back to my online sanctuary, my happy place, my reGenerative Grazing Group on facebook. That is a place that shows new pictures daily of fat happy animals chomping the tips off of a myriad of 12 inch tall plants and moving on to the next plant, with the residual never getting below 8 inches. It shows multi-species grazing, with people talking about adding new species all the time. It shows pictures of fields full of wildflowers and birds. It shows people who are not afraid to experiment and ask questions, and people who are happy to encourage others. What a difference from the isolated, frustrated place I was when we were fighting drought every year.

Looking back has given me a renewed enthusiasm to share the wealth. I want everyone to know the joy, to see the productivity and to have community. Wherever you are on your journey, welcome! Let’s learn together! My heart is full.

Healthy soils to you!



5 thoughts on “Beautiful is the New Ugly in Pastures

  1. Don Reply

    Liked the picture of the chicory, it was a little mature but I do not think enough producers are giving it a try.

    • admin Reply

      I agree. That picture is not on my farm, but I planted chicory in specific paddocks for my small ruminants for deworming purposes. Between that, the rotational grazing, and moving the water/salt daily, we haven’t had to deworm our animals in 5 years!

  2. Joey and Lisa Vieira Reply

    Great job, Kirsten!
    Right now, I’m where you were 10 years ago. I’m beginning to learn that there’s a much better way. I want to get outside and take my “before” photos because I’m planning on having some beautiful “after” photos! Thankful for your work and your example.

    • admin Reply

      Yay! That is a great idea to take before pictures! I sure wish I had, but I had no idea that I was on a journey. 🙂 Safe travels and healthy soils to you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *