Daniel O'Malley, owner of Sweet Home Meats, pauses at a gate which connects his barn to one of the grass pastures where he uses management intensive grazing practices.
Daniel O’Malley feels like he always has had an affinity for nature, and he learned holistic management techniques from his dad that should enable him to continually improve the quality of his farm’s natural resources. When working for Sweet Home Farms, Daniel learned the practice of Management Intensive Grazing (MIG), which requires the regular movement of livestock from one area of grass to the next. He also learned to rotate different types of animals through the various fields to create positive symbiotic relationships that result in organic soil improvements.
“The land is always doing its thing, but we’re trying to get higher levels of production by keeping things holistic and organic,” Daniel explained. “When you use synthetics, you actually deplete soil microorganisms and other benefits. So you’re actually losing something… it’s a false gain. Whereas what I’m trying to do is make it a real gain. It’s still a little early to tell on this farm, but over at my dad’s property you can easily see how much more grass there is… how much more variety of plant types there are. Their dry matter per acre has to be five or six times what it is on neighboring farms that use synthetics. A cow can be on that acre five times longer, which means we can put extra weight on the animal. So we just made money by improving the land naturally.”
Daniel went on to explain that natural soil improvements begins with grass, which grows in an “s” curve – a slow-growing first stage, a fast-growing second stage, and a slow-growing third stage, which includes the seed production that leads to dormancy. If a grazing animal eats the grass during its fast-growing stage, the grass goes back to its first stage because it can’t photosynthesize as well and the roots take a little shock. Some roots are actually killed. When those roots die, small air pockets created. Then, if the grass is allowed to return to stage two growing, new roots will retake those air pockets and also make new ones. Repeating this process over and over results in aerated soil. In turn, aeration results in better water retention and allows both more grass and other plant types to grow.
Several stray chickens pass the time with some Berkshire hogs in a shed adjacent to a pasture where cattle are grazing. All three types of animals -- cattle, hogs, chickens -- play a role in Daniel O'Malley's management strategy.
The key is to avoid allowing the grass to be bitten into a second time before it grows back to stage two, which is accomplished by moving the cattle from one paddock to another every two to three days. And following the cattle with chickens also helps by providing a rich natural fertilizer. But even fertilizer additions need to be halted until the manure can adequately decompose before more manure is added to the grass.
Daniel’s explanation makes it easy to understand why the technique is called “management intensive.” And the quantity of information and level of detail that Daniel readily and easily imparts is impressive knowing that he’s only farmed for a couple of years.
“I think you should do what works for the long term,” said Daniel. “And all that begins by improving the soil, increasing plant diversity, and raising better grass. I’m basically a grass farmer. But I know I’ve got a lot to learn. Like I don’t really know all the different types of grass, and I don’t feel a need to run out there and test the protein levels of all the different grasses. I figure if my grass starts growing earlier this year than it did last year, then that’s good enough for me. You don’t need any science to see that grass gets thicker and darker green after you run chickens through it.”
Everything Daniel conveys makes sense from a long-term business standpoint, but it’s clearly a risk when one considers that his land is currently being leased rather than purchased. When I point that out, his tone becomes more thoughtful, but he remains steadfast in his opinions.
Daniel and his partner, Bryn, pose for a photo on their Sweet Home, Oregon farm.
“Leases come and go,” he said. “I feel pretty secure here right now, but I am setting up a business while remaining fully aware of these variables. That’s partly why I’m only feeding animals right now rather than breeding them, because I can adjust what I have at any time. I can either buy more or sell what I have. If I had a cow-calf operation and I lost a lease, I’d have a really hard decision to make. So I’m not going to get into that. Or at least I won’t do that until I have enough reserves to be able to afford it. Until then, I think it’s important to stay very flexible.”
Daniel believes that flexibility and creativity are the keys to successful farming. And that planning is good, but those plans need to stay loose.
“I think farming is as much or more an art as it is a science. You’ve got to just go with it. And hopefully at the end you’ve got something really good. But as you’re going, you don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m trying to let what’s around me, everything that happens, guide me, and help me understand what’s possible.
“I believe life’s a river, and I should be flowing in that river. That doesn’t mean I just close my eyes and hop on a tube and go wherever I want, but I should be flowing in the right direction. There is energy moving all around me, and I should be moving with that energy. If you try to fight it, you’ll run into all types of problems. So I try to approach farming that way. Just go with it, and observe, and see and feel where things need to be moving.”
This profile was excerpted from Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon's New Farm Movement.
All photos by Lisa D. Holmes. Used with permission.
John Clark Vincent is a writer and author who lives in Portland, Ore. His most recent book, Planting a Future, presents a view of what’s happening within Oregon’s rapidly growing movement toward sustainable farming practices. In an effort to provide a glimpse into the many different aspects of such a surging movement, he uses profiles of 18 different farmers and farm supporters to represent the different elements of Oregon’s farm community. Find John online on his website, and read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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