Some ponderings from Dan: My thinking on how we most realistically regenerate the earth has been evolving lately, thanks to characters like Graeme Hand, Darren Doherty, Ben Falloon and Alan Savory.
Now this might be a generalisation, but I reckon that upon initially learning about environmental degradation, many of us reach the conclusion that large grazing animals are bad. All those hooves compact the earth and hasten erosion. Bad bad bad. Some of us put land previously grazed into trees, often starting with soil tests and injections of various organic minerals to get the soil back on track. Care is often taken to fence the neighbour’s cattle out.
This isn’t realistic for most existing farmers. For them, if they are going to regenerate the land, they have to do so at a profit. They have to come out ahead or they can’t afford to be interested.
That’s where a research-backed alternative approach is rising to the fore. The idea is that grazing animals are not good or bad for the land. Their management by humans is. In fact, the intelligent use of grazing animals like cows appears to be the most effective, efficient and economical means to restore and regenerate damaged land. Cows can be used to rotationally crash graze grass and weeds in a way that forces the plants to pump foods into the soil and that knocks down tall stems onto the ground so fungi can recycle them, maintaining a litter layer at all times. Without large grazing animals filling a link in the nutrient cycle, it will take so much longer to for the plants to move the land forward. On this, check out a comment from Tim Flannery:
When were Australia’s glory days, the time when it was at its functional peak and what would it take to get the country back there?
Well, it was probably in its glory days, and I would define its glory days as the days when productivity was absolutely maximal, so this is when the system was working very efficiently; nutrients were being recycled very rapidly. It could support more biomass, more kilograms of life then at any other time. This was probably about 50,000 years ago.
Once you take the big animals out of an eco system you break the links that keep it productive, so in Australia’s case once the diprotodons went extinct and the giant kangaroos etc, you broke a link.
Just think about the ecosystem as a bank and the diprotodons going along eating some grass, forty-eight hours later putting that grass back into the paddock as a lovely great big diprotodon pat and the dung beetles digging that stuff in and returning the nutrients to the soil.
That’s like a ecosystem where a dollar changes hands every minute, whereas if you get rid of the diprotodons and the grass just grows up and eventually after a year or two burns and all the nutrients are lost to the atmosphere, that’s an ecosystem where a dollar is spent once a year and out of that 50 cents doesn’t come back into the system again.
We can’t get back to days like that can we?
Yes we can. We must.
We can? And how do we go about doing that?
Well, in the short term we can use large grazing stock, with dung beetles and all the rest, which have to be imported now, because Australia’s dung beetles are extinct. We have to bring in overseas ones, so we can start mimicking those systems and we can use kangaroos, but I think if you take the longer term view, we actually need to start rebuilding the building blocks of that ancient ecosystem and maybe one day, a hundred years from now, or two hundred years from now genetic engineering will let us start doing that, but we need to start moving towards integrating systems again that are very very productive rather than the profoundly disrupted ecosystems we deal with today (http://www.regenag.com/flannery.html).
Now what’s all this got to do with growing food in the suburbs? Well I’ve been thinking about what lessons carry over, and keep coming back to the sensible use of chickens and ducks to cycle nutrients on suburban properties in a way that builds healthy living soil fast. When you’re cycling nutrients through animals and plants you are feeding the soil life, and it’s soil life that unlocks soil minerals and transforms decomposing organic matter into nature’s silver bullet – humus. And in the future, the value of humus-rich soil will be increasingly appreciated.
To finish, this is a great little youtube of Geoff Lawton discussing how chooks and vegies can be productively (not destructively) integrated.
Now it’s a bit early on a Saturday morning for this rave, so let’s get to the upshot: if you are in any way disposed to the idea of getting chickens, do it!