Virginia’s Salatin speaks on converting grass to animals
Torrington – Polyface Farm, or the “farm of many faces,” is located in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, and on Aug. 25 its founder, Joel Salatin, visited Wyoming to share with producers his practical solutions for getting the most income from his acres.
The event Salatin attended was the Living and Working on the Land: the Building Blocks of Success, organized by the Wyoming Business Council and attended by a large group of people from around the region.
“For all of our differences, there are a tremendous amount of similarities between our states. People there eat, like in Wyoming,” said Salatin. “We are far more similar than dissimilar. Our frost dates are May 15 and Sept. 15 – we’re in the same horticulture zone as South Dakota.”
Salatin’s philosophy is that people are stewards of a piece of creation, and he wants to pack as many symbiotic relationships as possible onto that piece of ground, to collect more solar energy and create more biomass activity than the ground would if left to itself.
“Landscape is made up of open land, forest land and water, and the more we can intersect those, the better. We’re grass farmers, and we’re all about converting grass into animals,” he said. Polyface Farm covers 550 total acres, 450 of which are forest. “We’re beginning to use the forestland more aggressively for economic benefit, figuring out how to increase on the once-a-generation harvest.”
“One thing that’s important for keeping options open for us is to reduce our purchase of single-use, capital-intensive infrastructure,” he explained, noting that when cutting trees they use the same open tractors used elsewhere on the farm, instead of specialized lumber equipment.
He also explained how a bandsaw mill can be a profit center for many small farms. “Eight years ago, if you wanted to mill your own lumber, you had to have a five-ton sawmill with belts and pulleys. These weigh 800 pounds and run on a Honda engine on two gallons of fuel,” he said of the bandsaw mill. “We can run 30 percent ahead of recovery on commercial mills.”
He said the mills cost about $5,000. “Farmers spend a lot more money on crazier things,” he said. “We can cut our own fence posts and build a lot of things people want, especially for those who are coming into the countryside and creating farmettes, or residential estates. These folks often want custom things, and in our area it’s German-sided buildings, with 5/8- by seven-inch poplar siding. They can’t go to Home Depot for that, but they can come to us and we can customize it for them.”
Salatin said the machinery is light enough to customize everything, including sheds, barns, gates and corrals. “One advantage of leasing a run-down farm is we can cheaply mill the lumber to build a corral on the farm, and for just the time and labor we can have a state-of-the-art corral through which we can work several hundred head of cattle cheaply. Don’t underestimate the leverage of being lumber independent.”
In addition to the lumber, Salatin said the farm has its own chipper. “Farmers are in the carbon business, and we’re constantly looking for chips. We need to realize this whole thing runs on carbon – it’s the engine that drives fertility, water retentive capacity, etc.,” he said.
The farm uses the chips in their sheds during winter, as part of the bedding pack for its cattle. Add hay to the chips, and you get anaerobic fermentation when the cattle are in the barn, which keeps the barn warm and reduces hay consumption.
In addition to hay and wood chips, Salatin spreads corn in the bedding pack, which is trampled in by the cattle. In the spring, he lets his pigs in on the bedding. “All pigs have a sign that says, ‘Will work for corn,’” he said. “They go in and aerate and fluff it, and turn it from anaerobic to aerobic compost. The pigs do all the work, changing the economics and profitability.”
When that compost is removed, the farm’s chickens run in the barn, which Salatin said bring $10,000 to $20,000 a year to the farm through the sale of ready-to-lay pullets.
When the pigs leave the barns they head to half-acre lots, where they root and dig. “Some have the mentality that the best thing for the planet is to extract humanity,” said Salatin. “Nothing could be farther from the truth. We’re supposed to bring cleverness to exercise ecology to achieve more than the land would in a static state, and what that requires is periodic disturbance, which freshens the ecology to become more diversified.”
“The pigs bringing disturbance is critical to create the subsequent successional regeneration that gives us a healthier ecology and more biomass sequestration than we would have in a sterile area,” he explained. “In the entire mid-Atlantic region, the foresters are concerned, because all the oak trees are dying due to lack of disturbance. Oaks love fire, and now we’ve got dense, impenetrable forests with a no-burn, no-cut policy, and we’re doing as much damage with lack of disturbance than we are with the disturbance we’ve done in the past.”
When the pigs are done in the half-acre lots they’re moved to the forest, contained by an electric wire with trees used for fence posts and nylon rope tied to the trees as insulators.
“We run a three- to five-acre paddock with electric fence from tree to tree, and the pigs go through and eat out the nuts and grubs and clean around the oak trees, stimulating decomposition,” said Salatin.
“Gradually we get two tiers of production that capture way more sunlight than just the forest alone. The cycle with forage and grass is much faster than the trees, and we’re saving $300 to $500 per acre in feed cost every year while we’re growing trees,” he explained. “The forest becomes something valuable if we can take starchy roots and seed drop and convert them into pork. This is a way to get that cash flow all the time. We can have an artisanal product with a cheaper production model – a better product at a cheaper production price.”
Salatin also explained his intensive grazing strategies on Polyface Farm, as well as the pasture egg-laying system he’s incorporated on his acres. The Torrington workshop also featured marketing to local markets, cultivating new ventures and business strategies for success.