Cowbro Science

In response to my recent post soliciting reader questions, one that jumped out at me was about soil erosion and mineral depletion. Mineral depletion in particular is a topic of regular discussion around these parts, right up there with the maximum theoretical digestive capacity for a hindgut fermenter or the best ways to shift pasture composition using animal management. Obviously, these make for scintillating discussion, but at some point I inevitably want to apply the ideas to the land, and this is where Cowbro Science comes in. It’s a term with a rarefied etymology (Cowboy + Bro Science = Cowbro Science) that I hope makes clear how serious an undertaking us practitioners of it - meaning me and Alanna and Ed and Normandy - consider it to be.

Joking aside, one of the difficulties of farming is knowing if a given practice is actually making a significant difference. There are so many variables in basically any agricultural system that conducting a carefully controlled experiment, while not impossible, is beyond the capacity of most of us who are running working farms. But there is still value in experiment-y things, even if the data they yield aren’t suitable for publication. It’s done in much the same spirit as changing something in your diet just to see if you notice a difference.

What does this look like in practice? Well, if you’ve ever spent much time perusing magazines for homesteaders and small-scale farmers, you’ve likely seen stunning photos taken down a fence line. On one side the grass is lush and green, on the other brown and desiccated. The text beneath is generally a glowing testimonial along the lines of, “In the recent hot spell all my neighbor’s land dried out, and he had to sell off half his cows. Meanwhile, the fields I treated with [Miracle Product X] produced 1,000,000,000 tons of dry matter per acre despite the drought.”

Most often Miracle Product X is some sort of fish emulsion. Intuitively, it makes sense that something with a ton of trace minerals in a bioavailable form could improve plant health dramatically, so a couple years back Ed bought a bucket from each of two manufacturers. He regularly sprayed an area of the pasture and one row in each bed of garlic as directed. The only difference any of us could see was that the leaves of the sprayed garlic looked yellow and less vigorous, which was not the result we'd hoped for. Obviously, this doesn’t mean that fish emulsions are completely worthless across the board, but it’s compelling enough to convince me to put my fertility dollars elsewhere.

On the other hand, we’ve spent years balancing the minerals in our garden by getting soil tests and amending accordingly. This too is inexact, since a given soil test can vary depending on ambient conditions. But we have noticed a difference in the quality of the vegetables, particularly when compared to those grown in unimproved soil, as Ed detailed on our old blog. The next step would be to compare the mineral content of vegetables grown in soils treated with various amendments.

This is a roundabout way of saying that I think soil mineralization is extremely important, and it’s certainly true that even land in organic production can be depleted of nutrients. That said, what a fully or properly mineralized soil looks like is up for debate. We basically shoot for the targets set forth by William Albrecht, and the results fulfill the criteria required to be good Cowbro Science. I’m proud that we consider soil health in our management plan, but I’d want some more rigorous study before I’d begin making claims about how this creates a particular benefit in a product we sell.

I have lots of Cowbro Science experiments I’d like to conduct, involving topics ranging from stocking density to a blind taste test of broiler chickens raised with a variety  of housing arrangements and feed programs. Maybe it would be a good idea for next year’s blog.

-Garth

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