How about both?
April 22 is earth day, and per Earth Day tradition, many folks will feel inspired to plant a tree, and they should. In a time of drastically changing climate, planting trees is one way of combating the excess of greenhouse gases trapping heat in the atmosphere. Through photosynthesis, trees and other plants pull carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into sugar, cellulose, and other carbon-containing carbohydrates that they use for nourishment and growth. This natural process is called carbon sequestration.
Although trees are famous for their carbon sequestering abilities, it is actually soil that is the largest terrestrial reservoir of carbon. Soils contain approximately 3/4 of the carbon pool on land — three times more than the amount stored in living plants and animals. This is great news, but, how does carbon come to be stored in soil? The answer: through plant roots. When plants convert CO2 into food for themselves, they are also creating food for microorganisms in the soil through their root exudate. These microorganisms eat and defecate, directly adding organic carbon to the soil and increasing its organic matter.
Trees are impressive exemplars of biomass, many of which grow taller and older than any human. However, in reality the greatest amount of carbon is sequestered in the soil of grazing lands. While trees store most of their carbon in vegetation that eventually dies and rots (re-releasing the carbon), carbon sequestered by grazing lands is more readily transferred into the soil itself, where it can be permanently stored (1). Among the types of agricultural land, grazing land has the highest ability to sequester carbon, partly because its soil is left intact as it is used. Although many crop farms now use practices to keep soil covered, carbon is lost to the atmosphere every time cropland soil is disturbed via tilling and in some cases harvesting. Our soils have lost more than half their carbon over the last 200 years due to common crop farming practices.
There is a long-held misconception that pasturing livestock only results in overgrazing and desertification of grasslands. However, if done with proper management, the use of grazing lands with domestic livestock can play a significant role in mitigating climate change. Researchers have estimated that it is possible for 29.5-110 million metric tons of carbon to be sequestered annually in the grazing lands in the United States (2).
Grass has evolved to be grazed. When grass is grazed by an herbivore, it stimulates the plant to begin a phase of rapid biomass production. This means more photosynthesis and thus more carbon sequestrated into the soil. In the absence of grazing, or well timed mechanical harvesting, grass merely grows to a certain maturity, becomes senescent and dies. Dead grass will decompose, but the amount of carbon it adds to soil is nowhere near the amount the cycle of grazing and regrowth can sequester. Nothing can mimic the natural interaction between plants and grazing animals.
When overgrazing occurs, the grass does not have enough time to regrow, so it drains the energy reserves in its roots. This results in shorter and shorter roots that are unable to hold the soil together or feed the resident microorganisms. Proper grazing management allows grass to recuperate after a calculated grazing period on a specific area by a certain number of animals. The livestock are moved rotationally around the pasture in paddocks, and may not re-visit a previous paddock for weeks at a time. This management is very healthy for the soils, and it is beneficial for the animals subsisting on them. There are several different types of management strategies that take a pasture’s rest and regrowth into consideration such as Management Intensive Rotational Grazing, Mob Grazing, and Holistic Grazing Management, to name a few. Well managed grazing land could rival the intensity of passive soil carbon accumulation of native ecosystems.
As a triple-bottom-line business that equally weights Environment, Community, and Profit in our operation, we at Kriemhild take great interest in the grazing management of our producers. We believe that grazing is important nutritionally for livestock animals and the food they produce, but it also has the ability to affect profound and far-reaching positive environmental impact. If all of the countries on earth committed to increasing their soil carbon by just 0.4% each year, the global community could store 75% of our annual industrial greenhouse emissions. The way that farmers choose to use and manage agricultural grazing lands, and the practices consumers support thru our purchases, can and do shape our global environment thru local ecology.
So, don’t hesitate to plant your tree on earth day. Just remember this as well: when you choose purchase our Meadow Butter or Crème Fraîche, you are choosing to support over 1500 acres of active soil carbon sequestration; and that’s one more way you can influence global change thru small, local action.
(1) Schuman, G.E., D.R. LeCain, J.D. Reeder, and J.A. Morgan. 2001. “Carbon Dynamics and Sequestration of a Mixed-Grass Prairie as Influenced by Grazing.” In Soil Carbon Sequestration and the Greenhouse Effect, special publication no. 57, edited by R. Lal, 67-75. Madison, WI: Soil Science Society of America.
(2) Follett, R.F., J.M. Kimble, and R. Lal. 2001. The Potential of U.S. Grazing Lands to Sequester Carbon and Mitigate the Greenhouse Effect. Boca Raton, FL: Lewis Publishers
Why no Butter?
You may have recently found yourself asking this when at a local Farmer’s Market or a Kriemhild Dairy retail partner. We’re willing to bet this question has come to mind in a few of you because we’ve certainly been fielding a good many inquiries about our current Meadow Butter “shortage.” <--finger quotes implied
Our quick answer when asked is simply that our sole supplier for our Meadow Butter source milk, Red Gate Farm, is a seasonal dairy farm. Unlike farms that implement rotational breeding, Red Gate chooses to breed their cows together to follow nature’s rhythm of pasture grass growth. This choice means that the moms-to-be have been dried-off (a.k.a. not-milking during the final months of pregnancy) since December, and by extension, we do not yet have milk to make your favorite butter.
Although this short explanation gets the general point across, we would like to dig deeper on what commitment to being a seasonal farm really means: a holistic farm management choice that is far more subtle and intricate than just the result of a perceived butter-famine in the dead of every winter.
Milk, like all other food, has a season; not that many of us realize that nowadays. Before the introduction of grain feeding practices, farmers were keen to match a cow’s peak milk production to pasture quantity and quality. This meant breeding in the fall, and calving around March and April. This schedule closely mimics nature, as most wild grazing animals give birth in the spring when there is high food availability as they nurse their growing offspring.
A seasonal dairy is different from a year-round dairy in that all the cows are on the same breeding and birthing schedule. This results in the whole herd going dry for the same two month period in the winter to save up energy for birthing in the spring. On a year-round dairy, each cow still dries off for two months, but since the breeding and calving periods are staggered, different groups of cows go dry at separate times of the year, giving the illusion of seasonless food production.
Many year-round dairy farms find that grain or corn silage (a fermented feed made from corn stalks) work best in order to meet the cows’ high nutrient requirements during the winter milking. High quality stored pasture feeds like hay and hay ferment (haylage) can also meet winter production nutrition needs. Seasonal management lessens the reliance on grain, corn products, and stored forages.
The Rivington family have been managing their herd seasonally since 2005, only a few years after starting Red Gate Farm in Hamilton, NY. They chose to manage the farm seasonally for a few reasons.
Firstly, because of their commitment to grass-fed farm management, organizing their herd’s reproductive cycles around the the grazing season made practical sense; their cows are able graze on fresh, nutritions pasture when their nutrient requirements are the highest (during lactation), and then can maintain their body condition on stored forages throughout the winter when they are not milking and therefore have lower nutritional needs.
Another logistic factor that complemented seasonal production was their selection of an open-air milking parlor design. Red Gate Farm’s milking parlor is bright and breezy in the summer, providing ample ventilation (and vitamin D) for both bovines & humans during milking times. By extension, given the climate of Upstate NY, this design doesn’t necessarily lend itself to the most comfortable temperatures for humans or cows during the winter. Drying off the herd for two of the colder months of the year, again, works with nature and limits this issue.
In addition to providing their cows with the best nutrition, eliminating their need for grain, and compensating for their limited infrastructure, the final major factor supporting seasonally dairying is a human one: it offers the Rivington family a break from the twice-a-day (and sometimes thrice-a-day) milking for two months. With their daily farm work hours reduced from time-and-a-half down to part-time, the Rivington family can sleep full nights, have weekends off, reflect on the season, plan for the future, and most importantly recharge before going back at it for another 10 months straight.
In spite of these benefits, do not be deceived! Seasonal dairying is not all sunshine and blowing bubbles in your milk. The trade off for the two-month break during the winter is two epicly intense periods of breeding and calving. In order to dry off the whole herd at the same time, more the 300 cows must breed, conceive, and calve on a tight schedule. These two narrow windows of time leave very little room for mistakes, and only raise the stakes for this family farm. In order to increase the chances of having the herd bred within the same 60 day time span, all the cows must be at the pinnacle of health; wellness begets fertility. Nine months later, calving season consumes the daily and nightly, activities as the increasing number of calves need to be tagged, moved, and fed. This frantic pace can reach the extreme of one calf being born every hour. Although the breeding and calving periods are, shall we say intense, seasonal farming allows the Rivingtons to keep the pregnant cows’ and newborn calves’ wellbeing at the forefront of their focus and attention.
Since Meadow Butter stores well in the freezer with no effects to its quality or nutrition, we intend to supply it to you throughout the winter as we grow our production and when we bring on more dairy farmers as Kriemhild partners. But even then, our butter, like a meadow, will still be produced seasonally, and remains a seasonal product. So, you see, the “shortage” (finger quotes again) isn’t really a shortage, but a natural ebb between swells of abundance. We feel that highlighting this connection between the foods we love and the seasons of nature is essential to understanding what it means to be well nourished.
Spring is a sacred season on any farm. Produce farms can finally put their seeds in the warm ground, chicks are hatching from eggs, and livestock graze on lush spring pastures. At Red Gate Farm, spring arrives with a hundreds of babies mooing.
Located down the road from Kriemhild Dairy in Hamilton, NY, Red Gate Farm is our sole milk supplier for our seasonal Meadow Butter. It is the second-largest grazing dairy in New York State and is owned and run by the Rivington family who practice holistic grazing management for over more than 1,500 acres of land.
The typical dairy farm produces milk year-round, meaning that calves are born throughout the year on a staggered schedule. Being a seasonal dairy, Red Gate Farm goes about breeding and parturition differently. All the cows at Red Gate are bred in the same span of time and therefore give birth in one short period at the beginning of spring. As you can imagine, it is the busiest time of the year on the farm.
The dairy farm lingo for a cow that has given birth is “fresh”. At Red Gate Farm over 350 cows freshen over a two month period. At this time, the farm transitions to a maternity ward. It is the birth of the calves that begins the cows’ natural lactation which will peak through the bountiful grazing season and continue until December.
But for as busy and hectic as it is, the season specifically set aside for calving is also reverent. Its suddenness and newness is the ultimate acknowledgement of the fertility and abundance of new life that comes with the spring season.
As we all look forward to another season of fresh grass-fed Meadow Butter, we’re also just as excited to receive the newest additions to the herd. About 140 of the calves born this spring will be the future milking cows of Red Gate Farm, known by the term “heifers”, which is a pretty good gig as cow-jobs go.
So far, more 100 calves have been born this season. As the calf barn fills up with brand new bouncing baby bovines, we’re gearing up to introduce you to them.
On Saturday, April 29th, Red Gate Farm is hosting Calving Day. Whether or not you have visited the farm before, Calving Day will be a great time to make a trip. It will be a special event highlighting the natural cycle and processes that surround seasonal grass-fed dairy farming. We encourage anyone who wants to know more about where their food comes from to join us at the farm to celebrate the start of the season.
Until then, we’ll be keeping you abreast with our Calving Day COW-ntdown (we couldn’t help ourselves). As our Calving Day event approaches, we’ll be counting-down the days and adding-up the number calves we’ve welcomed to the farm. Stay tuned on social media & here on our website for the running total of fresh baby calves!
As the Butter Churns
Author: Ellen Fagan
Farm and Outreach Coordinator