There’s a weed called Shepherds Purse and it tends to thrive in paddocks that grow crops. Farmers will cultivate their paddocks and prepare a nice seedbed. They then plant the seed of their desired crop. The crop grows and the farmer then harvests the crop.
The paddock is then cultivated again ready for the next crop. This cropping system provides the ideal conditions for the weed Shepherds Purse.
Many farmers will use sprays to control Shepherds Purse. This is a cost and many people are becoming wary of the amount of sprays used in our food. Organic farmers will utilise other non-spray methods such as cultivating in between the crops. This is time-consuming and costly.
Either way cropping farmers both organic or conventional have to battle to control weeds such as Shepherds Purse.
Dairy farmers don’t have a Shepherds Purse problem though. That’s because Shepherds Purse doesn’t grow well in pastures that are grazed and trampled by stock.
Instead, dairy farmers can have a problem with a weed called the Broadleaf Dock. Docks love the conditions found on pasture-based dairy farms, especially wet lowland paddocks.
Like the cropping farmers, the dairy farmers control docks with sprays. I’m not sure how organic dairy farmers control docks. But the last organic farmer I spoke to simply reclassified the Dock as “part of their diverse pasture sward”.
I’d normally be very impressed with this reclassification method except for the fact that cows don’t eat docks because they are bitter. Or at least they won’t eat them unless they are really hungry.
Cropping farmers don’t have a problem with docks because docks don’t like to be cultivated and they don’t survive in cropping conditions without livestock.
So what many cropping farmers do is after they have grown two or three crops in a paddock, they plant the paddock into pasture and run stock on the paddock for a year or two.
The grazing animals have the effect of killing off the Shepherds Purse without the need for sprays.
Dairy farmers are also able to eliminate Docks by planting the affected paddock into crops for a year. The other thing they can do is to have some sheep on the farm because sheep eat Docks even though cows won’t.
Thirty years ago, it was quite common for farms to be mixed farms. Farms would have some combination of dairy, cropping, sheep or beef. There are many cases on farms like the Shepherds Purse & Dock example, where different stock types or crop rotations working together have beneficial relationships.
But as the decades have moved on, farms have become more specialised. Dairy farms started to concentrate on just dairy. The only crops dairy farmers would grow would be those needed to feed their stock in dry summers or cold winters.
But in the last decade, many dairy farmers don’t even do that any more. Preferring instead to send the cows away for winter grazing. Essentially outsourcing the crops.
The rationale is, that the dairy farm is more profitable if it just grew grass for milk production.
No doubt the spreadsheets prove that specialisation is the more profitable option for many businesses, not just farms.
But the end result is we end up with monoculture farming systems. These systems have been enabled by modern fertilisers and sprays. They produce cheap food too, so they are hard to argue against.
I’m sure the overall farming system including the environment is much better off with these more diverse farming systems.
Not a week goes by where I don’t read or hear someone promoting the end to livestock and how a plant-based utopia awaits us.
My household has dairy intolerant members, as such, we are consumers of plant-based milk and we are big fans of TipTops Vegan Trumpet icecream too.
Many great things will happen with plant-based products but a plant-based future without livestock is just a cropping monoculture. That just means more sprays and lots more fertiliser.
The debate we should be having is more around how we grow our crops and livestock not whether crops are better than livestock.
Nature is not a monoculture and I think the more our farming systems mimic nature the more sustainable they will be.