A wise man once said, before you can hope to change things, you must understand why they are the way they are. I recently bought a book called Traditional American Farming Techniques by Frank D. Gardner which really helped me understand the “culture” of American agriculture.
This book was originally published in 1916 as Successful Farming. It was reprinted in 2001 by The Lyons Press. I bought my copy from a bookstore remainders table so it will probably soon be out of print again.
Agricultural economic historians have identified the period between the American Civil War and the onset of World War I as the longest period of overall agricultural prosperity in American history, even though it was a time of almost continuous deflation.
Prior to the Civil War most American farmers lost money. The availability of new cheap virgin lands farther West prevented the development of a national conservation ethic and extensive, non-regenerative farming prevailed. After the Civil War farm prices collapsed, the frontier closed and there was no more free land anywhere in the country. No longer could farmers obtain cheap virgin land, mine the nutrients out of it and move farther West.
For the first time American farmers had to learn to make the most of what they had where they were. They began to study the European soil building techniques they had previously been able to ignore. By focusing on the soil, American farmers began to make money even though their average yields per acre in 1914 were a third of those in Germany.
This hefty 1100-page book is supposedly the repository of the cumulative farming wisdom compiled during that 50-year period of general farm prosperity. Of course, everything was “organic” then and the book could still be an excellent resource for today’s organic farmers.
One of the things the book admits is the fact that American knowledge about the care and feeding of pastures did not advance at the same rate as that of crops. This was particularly true of pastures for finishing beef cattle.
In the Beginning There Was Corn
Corn was the most widely grown crop in the USA in 1916. At that time the USA produced three-quarters of the world’s corn supply.
This tropical import responded well to the long, hot summers in the heartland. In 1916, the South grew almost as many acres of corn as the Midwest, with Texas, Oklahoma and Kentucky being major producers.
Rain in July and August was the most critical factor in determining yield. The Midwest has a more reliable rainfall during this period and so became the corn belt. The average yield for the country as a whole was 62 bushels per acre.
In 1916, 80 percent of all the corn harvested was consumed within the counties in which it was grown. Almost all corn fed to swine, beef cattle and sheep was home-grown. Dairymen were the only livestock farmers who tended to buy–rather than grow–their corn needs.
At this time, work stock consumed much of what a farm grew. A horse or mule ate approximately 70 bushels of corn or 100 bushels of oats per year. There was one horse or mule for every 30 developed acres in the USA.
Livestock Densifies Crops for Transport
The USA and Canada with their large land mass and widely dispersed cities created a different kind of agriculture than the more densely settled Europe. Probably the greatest factor influencing North American farm culture has been the fall in freight rates in the last 50 years.
A Canadian reader recently described his province’s grain as a “freight-challenged commodity.” However, this was even more true a century ago.
In 1916, thanks to the monopoly the railroads held, it cost far more to ship products across the country than today. This made most food production local in nature. Only high-value products could pay the freight tariff for long-distance transport.
Livestock production was primarily used as a way to “densify” low value crops into something that could be economically shipped to the cities where the highest price could be gained.
Here’s how Gardner explained the 1916 economics of livestock production:
“It requires about 10 pounds of dry matter to produce one pound of beef or 30 pounds of dry matter to produce one pound of butter,” Gardner wrote.
“The farmer in transforming such coarse products to a more refined one not only reaps the profit in the process of manufacture, but the pound of butter may be sent to a market a thousand miles away.
“One cent a pound for transporting butter would be but a small percentage of its value, but one cent a pound for transporting hay would be prohibitive.
“One bushel of corn will produce ten pounds of pork, but the ten pounds of pork can be shipped to market at considerably less cost than the bushel of corn.”
So, our cultural history in North America is that of livestock’s–including ruminant livestock’s–primary role to add value to grain.
Chickens & Hogs as Scavengers
In 1916, chickens and hogs were the dominant non-work stock farm animals. Almost every farm had a few pigs and 50 to 100 chickens which were kept as scavengers.
Swine were used as followers behind ruminants and would eat the cows’ manure. They also consumed the skim milk and buttermilk from the many farms that made butter.
While grain was cheap and plentiful, protein wasn’t. As a result, leguminous pastures were very important as an inexpensive protein supplement to all species of livestock.
This leguminous pasture was also a critical part of providing nitrogen for grain production.
“No cropping system will prove satisfactory for a long term of years that does not include at intervals of four to five years a leguminous crop such as clover, alfalfa or some of the annual legumes,” Gardner wrote.
The two most common rotations were the traditional four-course rotation of corn, oats, wheat and legume pasture and/or hay. In some cases, the legume pasture was lengthened to two years making a five-year rotation.
“The cheapest way of feeding is to allow animals to harvest their own feed. The grazing of grasslands and the pasturing of cornstalk fields is typical of this process,” Gardner said.
Interestingly, there is actually more in this huge book on pastures for swine than there is on pasture for ruminants.
Pastures Provided Protein
“The production of pastures is an economical proposition and is to be encouraged on every American as well as Canadian swine farm in order to obviate the necessity of purchasing high-priced protein concentrates.
“The most profitable supplemental pastures in the corn belt in the order of merit are: alfalfa, rape, red clover, blue grass and sweet clover of the first year’s growth.
“In the South, cowpeas, soybeans, Spanish peanuts and lespedeza clover may be added.”
With butter a major farm product at that time, hogs also made good use of the fluid byproducts and sanitized the pastures of cattle parasites by eating the cows’ manure.
The author warned that the dry lot production of pork was so expensive that it must be limited to the winter months. He said for pigs to be profitable they had to function as scavengers and value-adders.
“From the time of weaning to maturity pigs should have plenty of suitable forage. Nothing is better than pastures of clover, alfalfa, rape, etc.”
A problem with feeding grain to hogs was that the animals soon became mineral deficient if not allowed access to leguminous pasture. Confined pigs were given free-choice access to home brewed mineral supplement consisting of charcoal, air-slaked lime, salt, wood-ashes and rock phosphate.
It was recommended that hogs should be kept in herds no larger than 20 to 30 head to prevent cholera.
“Hogging down” or direct grazing of grain crops was said to be not only more labor efficient but improved the soil as well. Corn was grown in combination with soybeans or a stalk-climbing vining legume for extra protein when the crop was to be grazed.
Chickens Need Their Greens
While no one in 1916 seemed to know why chickens needed pasture, it was obvious that chickens that had access to green material were healthier and more productive.
“Those conditions essential to profitable poultry production are ample range and pasture available at low cost,” Gardner wrote.
Eggs were the primary product of poultry at that time. What meat was produced came as a byproduct of egg production.
The best size flock was said to be between 300 and 500 birds. Flocks larger than this were thought to be too susceptible to disease.
One hundred hens were said to consume as much pasture per year as a 1000 pound beef cow and were considered to be one animal unit.
Sprouted oats were fed during the winter to keep both the mature birds and particularly chicks healthy. Access to pasture was recommended for chicks as soon as they could be released from the heated brooder, in order to prevent disease.
“A succulent feed is necessary at all times,” the author warned.
Sour skim milk was kept available free choice and winter-confined birds cut off from their access to bugs and worms were supplied with meat scraps daily. Chickens were not seen as vegetarians in 1916!
Everyone Needs a Flock of Sheep
Then as now, sheep returned the highest profit on a per acre basis of all the ruminants, and then as now, were largely ignored by most North American farmers. However, Gardner was adamant. He said every farm regardless of its primary enterprise needed at least 40 ewes.
“Sheep may be kept profitably on either high or low-priced land. They do best on slightly rolling land where dry footing prevails. They get more sustenance and at the same time do the land more good than any other class of livestock.”
Gardner noted that sheep required much less capital than cattle. They did not need to be housed in winter and required little labor.
“These advantages, along with the fact that sheep destroy weeds, thereby helping to beautify the farm, make the sheep a valuable asset to the American farmer.”
Goats were recommended as an economic renovator of brushy lands. He said if you don’t have brush you will make a lot more money grazing sheep.
In 1915, lambs brought much more money per head than kids and that is still true today.
Farmstead Dairy Products Were the Rule
In 1916, four-fifths of all American farms reported having dairy cows. Cows grazed pasture in the green season and survived on corn stalks and straw in the winter. With such a diet seasonal production was the norm.
At that time, the highest return to dairying was from farmstead cheese manufacturing and this is still true today.
Cheese manufacture allowed the cows to be in production only in the green season but provided a year-round income from the sale of aged cheese. It also was a dense, high-value product that could be cost-effectively shipped to the cities.
Its main drawback–and advantage –was the fact that successful cheese-making required a lot of skill. Cheese became the primary product of Wisconsin and Minnesota because it had a high enough value to be shipped to the eastern cities.
Farmstead butter-making required less skill and less specialized equipment than cheese and was the most widely made farmstead product in 1916, with two-thirds of all farms reporting butter manufacture.
Other farms separated the cream from the milk and sold this. These farms typically had chickens or pigs that could utilize the by-products of butter, cream and cheese, namely whey, skim milk and butter milk.
Fluid milk dairies had to be located near population centers as their product was perishable. Fluid milk was seen as a low-skill, low-margin-per-cow activity and therefore required a far larger number of cows to make money than farmstead production.
In the South, dairying was practically non-existent as almost all dairy processing requires a temperature of less than 58o F. This ambient temperature factor kept dairying concentrated in the summer-cool Great Lakes region until the advent of rural electrification.
The Texas fever tick also prevented the importation of European dairy stock into the South. Native cattle such as the Piney Woods and Longhorn were milked instead.
Elsewhere, British dual purpose breeds such as the Shorthorn were very popular.
Most dairy breeds produced between 5000 and 7000 pounds of milk per annum. However, there were a few Holsteins hitting 28,000 pounds in 1916.
Gardner warned that as milk production per cow went up, the solids content went down. He said that the higher producing Holstein milk was frequently too low in solids to successfully make farmstead cheese or butter.
Most locally consumed beef came from culled dairy cows and male dairy calves. These were consumed as both light and heavy veal. Heavy veal was often called “baby beef.”
On many farms, milking occurred only once a day; the farmer got the morning milk and the calf got the evening milk.
Beef Was in Short Supply in 1916
Gardner wrote that there was a huge amount of consumer agitation in 1916 over the high price and low eating quality of the beef available. The majority of American beef at that time was from dairy and dairy-beef cross cattle.
Many of the non-dairy beef cattle at that time were descendants of the original Criollo cattle brought to America by the Spanish and had a low-muscle phenotype similar to a dairy cow. In other words, the cattle were more hide and bone than muscle. These were called “scrub cattle.”
A major push at the time was to use true English breed beef bulls on the American grade cows to increase their cutout yield and overall tenderness.
Here is the type of animal Gardner said a beef producer should be looking for to produce high quality meat: “The essential characteristics of a good fattening steer remain constant. A wide, strong, short head; short, thick neck; and deep, wide chest indicate constitution, and a deep roomy barrel indicates capacity.
“The type, quality, form and finish as indicated by the deep covering of muscle, even distribution of fat, high percentage of higher priced cuts of meats, high dressing percentage, smoothness and symmetry of carcass, and quality and texture of meat, are always associated with beef blood.
“A steer with a long, narrow head, long legs, or shallow body will not alter his type by fattening. A steer with a high tail or prominent hook-bones will finish into a fat steer with these same deficiencies.
“Cattle should be bred for early maturity otherwise they will grow rather than fatten and the cost of production will exceed their value. The majority of yearlings are marketed from 60 to 90 days before they are fat, which indicates that it is essential to secure calves of the type that will fatten easily.”
Short-Term Lending Created Short-Term Thinking
Despite ample cow forage and quality resources in 1916, the primary constraint against owning breeding stock was the long production period it required. At that time, bank money was only available to livestock producers for periods of 90 or 180 days.
Bud Williams has noted that the American cattle industry still runs on a six-month planning horizon. Perhaps, this maximum six-month lending period is the original source of our collective cultural short-mindedness.
Gardner wrote,”It is possible for a farmer who has pasture to go to almost any bank and secure funds with which to purchase steers to consume it. It is impossible, however, for him to borrow the same money with breeding females for security, because three to five years must elapse before the increase will be marketable.”
Another problem was that most farmers in 1916 were tenants rather than owners. Gardner said this limited them to short-time horizon activities like cash grains and cotton.
In the South, lenders particularly favored the growing of cotton because the borrower couldn’t eat it and the collateral could be easily seized at the gin.
“The rapid growth of tenant farming has eliminated the production of meat from thousands of acres of land which should never have been plowed.
“The chief profit in cattle farming is the increase in the fertility of the soil. Where land is rented annually there is no incentive to build it up and increase crop production when a different renter may farm it the next year.”
A Seasonally Divided Beef Market
In 1916, the United States beef market was divided into a grassfed and a grainfed market by season. Cattle were largely killed off of grass from the middle of July to the first of December and came from feedlots the remainder of the year.
Gardner warned his readers to consider the higher cost of grain-finishing and stick to the winter and spring months. He said that the only way cattle would make money in the feedlot was if they had a forward margin on purchase to sale price.
“It is seldom that the value of gain in fattening cattle is equal to the cost of the feed consumed. Generally, a feeder weighing 1000 pounds can be purchased for from one to three cents per pound less than he will bring when in prime condition and weighing 1200 to 1400 pounds.
“In the late summer and early fall the markets are usually well supplied with beef that has been produced cheaply on grass with which the grain-fed cattle cannot compete profitably.”
While calves were produced everywhere, large scale grass-finishing tended to concentrate in eastern Oklahoma and Kansas, southwestern Wisconsin and on upland pastures in the Appalachian states. These finishing areas featured naturally occurring high quality grasses coinciding with stony soils that couldn’t be plowed.
He noted a major problem with grassfed cattle at the time was the lack of information on how to successfully finish cattle on pasture versus volumes of literature on how to do it with grain. This was particularly true in regard to the use of annual pastures, which could have helped smooth out the annual flow of grass-finished beef and reduced the need for seasonal feedlots.
“While grass is the most important crop produced in the United States, there is not an important investigational project on the subject reported which the meat producer can use in a practical manner.
“More attention should be given to pastures to increase their carrying capacity by fertilizing them with manure or fertilizers, by thickening the stand of grass by natural or artificial means and by using grass silage during unfavorable periods.
“Waste by tramping may be prevented by restricting the area grazed by means of hurdles or temporary fences.
“Pastures of annuals require knowledge relative to the date crops must be sown to afford pasture when needed. In this respect it resembles the provision for soiling crops which are to be cut and fed from day to day.
“[In contrast to grass finishing] there is, however, so great an abundance of information as to methods of grain fattening that it is possible for those familiar with the publications and the general farm practices to recommend rations which are certain to produce rapid and economical gains in the feed lot with acceptable dressing percentages.”
As radio commentator Paul Harvey says, “Now you know the rest of the story.”
No Cultural History of Managed Pastures
The reason so few of us know and respect the value of pasture is because we never knew it. A management-intensive grassland culture is not a part of our cultural heritage the way it is in England, Scotland, Ireland and New Zealand.
We are not seeking a return to the past as some have claimed. We don’t have a past. There are no old wise men we can go to for guidance.
Rather, we are pioneers of something that has never existed in North America. As such, perhaps we should cut ourselves a little slack when we get frustrated by the difficulty of our task.
One of the things this lack of domestic history requires is that we be willing to look overseas for ideas and guidance.
New Zealand, the British Isles and northern France can offer a lot of guidance to the areas with cool, wet summers in North America. This is particularly true of the long narrow zone of cool and wet that runs from San Francisco to Skagway, Alaska. However, most of the United States is neither cool nor wet.
No doubt we can–and should–go back and recreate the upland pastures in the Appalachians that have largely reverted to forest. Jan Bonsma noted in the 1960s that the only good summer perennial cool season pastures in the United States existed above 4000 feet in elevation.
We now have new, low-cost, low-labor pasture irrigation technology for uneven ground that could transform many upland valleys in the cool, dry West into Swiss meadows. Again, this is a pioneer field with no previous domestic or international history to study so don’t waste time looking for the book on how to do it. It hasn’t been written yet.
However, most of our continent lies far below 4000 feet in elevation and most of it is hot in the summer. Therefore, for most of the country, the only alternative is to use compliementary, high quality annuals in combination with a base perennial pasture that can survive the heat. The annuals can help with both the summer and winter seasonal extremes in temperature of the heartland while helping maintain pasture quality and quantity.
Of this system, no doubt the Argentines are the world’s masters. The Argentines have a well-thought-out system that will work in our hot heartland for stockers, grass-finished beef or dairy. It is up to us to learn it.
Copyright: This review appeared in the June 2003 issue of the Stockman Grass Farmer.
This article appeared in Wise Traditions in Food, Farming and the Healing Arts, the quarterly magazine of the Weston A. Price Foundation, Winter 2004.