Saturday, February 4, 2012

Carbon Cycles

Proof that Roger and I were in Pacific Grove!  With the
beautiful weather, it took great workshops to keep
us inside!
Thursday, I had the opportunity to attend my first EcoFarm conference.  In its 32nd year, EcoFarm takes place at Asilomar in Pacific Grove - one of my favorite places in all of California.  My friend Roger Ingram (a fellow sheepman and our local farm advisor) also went - we both spoke at different sessions.

Roger's session on grazing systems also included another friend - Joe Morris of TO Cattle Company.  Joe spoke about using grazing (cattle in his case) to manage carbon cycles.  Joe said that he'd heard that the first two weeks in January were the warmest in recorded weather history in the U.S.  Regardless of one's perspective on what is causing these apparent climate changes, we are dealing with increasing levels of carbon in our atmosphere.  Joe is using cattle to incorporate carbon deep in the soil.

Joe's presentation helped me look at our sheep grazing operation in a different light.  In Joe's view, there are three ways that graziers can manage carbon - consumption (by livestock), trampling (also by livestock), and manure/urine deposition (hopefully by livestock!).  Some carbon sources (like green grass) are best managed by grazing.  Other carbon, like dry grass or weeds, is best consumed by fungi and bacteria.  Grazing animals may not consume this material, but they will trample it.  Accordingly, Joe calls these plants "trample" carbon.
Herding the sheep helps concentrate the trampling effect - the border
collies especially enjoy this technique!

At the moment, we're working with some homeowners near Auburn to control yellow starthistle.  Last year's plants have set seed and died (starthistle is an annual plant, meaning it completes its life cycle in a year).  Some new plants have germinated underneath the "carcasses" of last year's crop.  This dead starthistle, by Joe's definition, is trample carbon - it doesn't have much nutritional value for our sheep (except for the seeds, which they love!), but the soil fungi and bacteria will consume it if it's in contact with the soil.  We can enhance the carbon cycle, then, by trampling!

The after-effects of trampling.

We have several tools at our disposal to help manage this trample carbon.  We can increase stock density - more animals per unit of area - and we can herd our animals.  Prehistorically, the relationship between prey animals - coyotes, wolves, cougars, etc. - and herbivores - deer, tule elk, etc. - bunched animals to intensify and concentrate this herd impact.  This morning, I used our border collies as a substitute for these predators and our sheep as a substitute for these native herbivores.  Using herding, we trampled portions of last year's starthistle crop with the hope that the soil critters will thrive on this source of carbon.

Back to EcoFarm - I've been aware of this conference for many years, but have never attended (it's a pricey event that I've never been able to afford).  After my experience yesterday, I hope I can go back!  It was by far the most positive gathering of farmers I've ever been to.  Of the approximately 1200 participants, I'd estimate that more than half were younger than I am (44 years) - hugely unusual in American agriculture (where the average age of a farmer is 57+).  Even more impressive - there was a positive feeling about this gathering - little if any complaining about external forces (government, markets, etc.).

Most importantly, I felt renewed by the sense of community I felt at the conference.  EcoFarm draws participants from all over North America (and beyond), and yet there was a spirit of camaraderie that was both remarkable and unusual.  I came home with hope - both for our farm and for small farming in general!


  1. Your article was very interesting and informative. Glad to hear about the trample effect of the herd, that explains a lot of why my neighbors pasture has less star thisle as I run my little sheep herd over there. Thanks for the information, Dan. Sharon

  2. Just a brief update. We re-grazed this particular patch of starthistle in April. I revisited the site last week - and was pleasantly surprised by the lack of starthistle! We'll work on this again this winter!