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Why doesn't everyone do it?

Before we moved to Iowa, I often read about this or that farming technique and thought - why doesn't everyone do that? If it makes so much sense to rotate cattle every day, for example - if it makes such an impact on the land and the animals - why isn't every rancher daily rotating her herd?

two men in green field
John and nephew Lucas work on part of the fence

As I rolled out the electric fence yesterday for this week's paddocks, the answer was abundantly clear. Time is the main reason why every farmer doesn't move their cattle daily. It took three of us 3 1/2 hours to put up only some of the fencing needed for this week. John will now spend at least an hour or two each day moving even more fence and the animals from place to place (and that doesn't count the time spent getting ATVs stuck in the mud or fixing a tractor that needs a part replaced). It is also raining today and then supposed to be 85 degrees and humid tomorrow, perhaps not the most exciting time to be out in the elements.

a dirt field with tiny plants in rows
New corn pops out of the ground

In comparison, I look out our front window at our neighbor's corn field. After two days of work spraying and planting, about ten days later the tiny plants are popping out of the ground like little soldiers standing in formation, neat rows lining the horizon as the landscape rolls over the hillside. The plants will do their thing throughout the summer without any attention paid to them aside from perhaps a spray to kill some weeds that will take a grand total of 15 minutes. Four months from now someone will pull up with a combine and spend maybe a day harvesting and putting the grain in a bin.

cows at the fence
Yearlings wait at the fence line, like a powder day at Alta.

The more "responsible" or "sustainable" the agriculture is, often the more time intensive it is as well. While John is out in the rain and heat moving cattle, our neighbor is working another job that actually pays his bills. Even if you compare apples to apples, when John's dad raised cattle, he put them in a permanently fenced area for weeks, checking on them daily for five minutes (unless of course they were out, which happened often).

The more time a farmer spends growing your food and taking care of the land, the less time she is working another job. Which means food is more costly, because we all need to get paid for the work we do.

The eaten grass on the right was where the cows were yesterday.

Rotating the cattle is the right thing to do. The grass gets to rest 35+ days between grazing periods, allowing it to flourish and grow deep roots. Our neighbors corn will grow up and be harvested, then the area will be a dirt patch again, eroding soil running off into the road. But I can't fault him for farming this way - it's how he can afford to farm at all.

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May 26, 2020

Hi Beth, well written, real life story. Thanks. I've known conceptually of the extra work sustainable agriculture requires, but to hear about if first hand was eye opening. Thanks for sharing.


Good reminder that things in life are often more complicated than one may understand from the outside.

I just read a series of posts on NextDoor from Mission Terrace and surrounding SF neighborhoods about shelter in place and a locally owned small business. I was saddened by how quickly many assumed the worst without trying to understand the other persons intent or experience first.

Thanks you for broadening my understanding of the costs and challenges of farming and raising cattle in Iowa on a small farm committed to organic and sustainable practices. This will better inform my choices when I purchase food and sustainably produced goods.

Miss you guys lots! Be well.


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