How Can Two Acre Farming Scale Up?
At Starkey Farmstead’s pasture walk, we saw their red wiggler setup, which was actually just a little table-sized bin in their shop, plus a homemade castings spinner made of hardware cloth.
Now, Starkey Farmstead is a small, 2-acre farm, with a focus on small scale. But, being a beef producer who focuses on pasture and soil health, I’m always looking for ways that information can apply to our farm. For example, we learned that worm castings (poop) are ph neutral. And, we saw after the spinning that worms can produce a lot of castings in just a few days. And, we learned that earthworms (such as night crawlers) focus on eating soil, while red wiggles eat only organic matter. We were told also that worms take in heavy metals, and they leave behind bacterial-rich material in their castings.
What does this mean for a larger-scale farmer or rancher? It's HUGE!
If you’ve ever done a soil test in Louisiana, 99% of the time it’s going to tell you you need to add lime (and usually a lot of it!) to adjust the ph of your soil closer to a ph of 7 (neutral) for better plant growth. Lime is not cheap! If earthworm castings are ph neutral, it means that your pasture earthworms are constantly working for you to bring your ph closer to 7 every day. And how do we get more earthworms in the soil on the farm? Organic matter.
Sometimes this could mean spreading organic matter. This is what Samantha Starkey does - she uses her animals to create organic matter, adding shavings, or stall sweepings, leaves, etc below them, allowing them to poop on it, then shoveling that into the garden. But on a farm, it’s not always realistic to spread organic matter on a large scale, although that is what many of our predecessors did before commercial fertilizers were readily available. What we CAN do though, is create a system where the grass is creating the organic matter, and the animals are helping “process” it. If earthworms can create healthy castings, think about how many more lb of fertilizer and soil inoculant a cow can produce!! We’re talking taller grass and much more concentrated animal impact. Practically speaking, this is referring to tightening our fences to smaller spaces, with more animals per square foot, for shorter periods. The grass is either eaten and “processed” through a big rumen vat and redeposited back onto the soil, or it’s trampled down by feet, to give it straight to the earthworms. Then, the animals are moved and KEPT off the pasture, where the rest time allows the grass and worms to do their thing.
Samantha Starkey created a no-till garden on heavy clay in ONE year. And, she said her husband laughed at her when she said she wanted to do no-till on that ground. How did she succeed? She used what she referred to as “trash hay” as a very deep organic matter layer on top of the heavy clay. And let me tell you- her garden soil looked healthy. As someone who has done the same method and seen results over 3 years- she is going to have a very, very healthy garden. She added trash hay to her garden (one armful at a time) to create a deep layer of rotting organic matter. Ideally, this would’ve been done in the fall/winter before the gardening season, so that the soil and worms had time to break down that organic matter. If you didn’t know, our Louisiana rainfall levels and humidity make organic matter break down much faster than in lots of areas of the US. How does this ^^ apply to larger-scale farming? We’re back to organic matter.
Realistically, there’s no way I’m going out in the cow pasture and spreading trash hay out by the armful. But, when feeding our hay to the animals in fall and winter, we can unroll the hay, move the bales around, and place them in spots where we have heavy clay or compacted areas. And this does, as Grant Estrade says, “massage the soil.” It attracts worms (and ants, which Samantha uses as tools to till the soil for her!) and creates an organic-matter-rich area under the leftover hay. I’m not going out to start spreading organic matter by hand or turning compost by hand, in my pastures. My husband would laugh at me too. But I will tighten fences, move cattle, and hopefully find a spreader and tractor to use soon. For more information on organic matter breakdown, using hay as pasture organic matter, and the importance of that in your soil, check out our 2023 podcast with Grant Estrade.