Conversation Tracks: Ballet in the Pasture


Joel Salatin, Polyface Farm


N.B These notes do not do justice to the force of nature that is Joel Salatin! This man’s energy and enthusiasm is amazing – check out his YouTube videos.


I run the 550 acre Polyface Farm in Shenandoah Valley on the Western edge of Virginia at 600-1000m elevation. We have frosts from May 15th to September 15th and 31” rainfall per year. The valley is 20 miles wide and 80 miles long and the Blue Ridge Mountains lie to the east of the valley. It was Germans, Scottish and Irish that settled in the valley years ago. The elevation and lower rainfall means that we have tall grass in the valley. Going back in time the Indians would have grown beans and squash.

When the Europeans came with grain – which was very expensive – they needed armies to protect it. In order to grow the grain, the tall grass of the prairie was inverted with ploughs and this inversion opened the valley up to losing 3-5ft of top soil. When I first came to the valley in 1961, there were gullies 16 foot deep. We didn’t have enough topsoil to hold up our electric fence stakes!

We also lease a further 9 properties and have 11,000 acres of open land and 900 acres of forest.

We are currently perceived as a ‘biological threat’ due to our free range, unvaccinated poultry.

We also have lots of trees and sell firewood.

I had to force myself to think in a holistic way – it isn’t natural to our education and society. There is a philosophical tension between the holistic and the individualistic.

One of the biggest problems is capital intensive infrastructure.

We are emotionally and economically tied to the structures that we create.

We place an emotional investment in them. We must be very careful about the capital infrastructure that we invest in. The portability of machinery is very important.

We house our livestock in winter during the snows and we also bring them in when the ground is wet and boggy.

The inefficiency of cows makes them so useful. A cow builds more than she takes out of the system with her manure!

If agriculture had put fertiliser money into carbon from day one, we would have productive soils and not be in the situation we are in today.

The problem is investing time and energy in the wrong things! We are very good at the ‘how’ but not at the ‘why’.

The cows walk on the bedding and oxygen is extracted and it then ferments. Then we bring in the pigs which aerate the fermented corn and convert it to aerobic compost (we have to add corn as payment for the pigs!). The animals do the work for us so we have no overheads. We have about 140 days to get it out otherwise it ferments to nothing.

You cannot make good compost with only woody material, so for every 4th bedding we use old hay etc. or leaves. Adjustments are made for the carbon ratio.

The composting process takes 4-6 weeks.

The weak link is never cash or location but constipation of imagination! We need to use resources more efficiently.

The compost is spread on the soil and then we raise pullets on the area.

We use structures in multiple ways and we do not use complicated structures – see the photos of slides.

Our infrastructure is so portable.

If we impact too much we get weeds, if not enough it turns back to the original flora.

We have to calculate the time needed to create a constant disturbance factor.

The idea that disturbance is bad is prevalent in environmental circles. There is a temptation to say ‘leave the environment alone i.e.  National Parks/wilderness areas. Instead we need a participatory ecology.

The pigs feed on GMO free grain, soy, oats with hulls and an organic high mineral supplement. The pigs then go into the woods which mimics fire disturbance. The forests are dying because there is no disturbance.

The problem with forestry is that the only thing that you can sell is the timber harvest so people don’t go into woods as an economic venture, but we have the pigs.

The second tier of biomass generates $500 per acre in feed savings.

What is the reason we have herbivores in nature? Electric fences allow the herbivores to prune the grass for maximum biomass generation.

Electric fences and plastic pipes are two things that allow us to mimic migratory patterns.

We also have portable water containers – see photos of slide.

We create shade so that manure does not all go under the trees.

Comfort increases the productivity of an animal and so we gain more. They increase in weight and produce more milk etc.

The portable shades also protect the urine from evaporation and give a 5 year residual. We get the impact of intensive feeding of soil without the fencing.

We follow the cows with the chicken in portable hen houses. We generate $400,000 of eggs via pasture fertilisation.

The equipment that we use is suitable for a developed and developing country.

We also use guard dogs.

In winter, the chickens go into the tunnel with pigs – see photos, then we grow vegetables in the tunnels afterwards – see photos.

We employ 20 people (this includes bookkeepers, accountants etc. – so not all on the farm) and have $3 million annual sales. What we do dis-employs the fertiliser industry, vets, pharma etc.

We do not buy in hay as we can control the quality of our own hay. Others may spray it etc. This also minimises translocation of biomass.

Predators forced migratory animals up the valley to fertilise the mountains. That was the natural cycle.

We have hay wagons that can support 8-10 hen houses. We raise 5000 chicks a year.

We also do Grass Stain tours for local schools.

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