Note: To best understand the details of this article, please also read, “What Are The Foundations of Soil Health?”
Animals As Master Nutritionists
Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night and needed a glass of milk? Although quite basic, this fundamental question has massive implications. Why milk? Why didn’t your body tell you it needed water, or juice, or tea, or coffee? It is because it needed milk.
Think about this for a moment. God has designed his creation to be infinitely complex but also intelligent. Our human bodies understand the deep chemical nature of themselves in ways that our minds never will understand. You needed milk but you have no fundamental idea as to why. It’s simple, really. The human body is truly amazing.
A ruminant’s body is no different. I like to think that a ruminant’s tongue is the most dynamic nutritional laboratory in the world. For wild animals to survive, this must be so.
Dr. William Albrecht wrote one of my favorite books, Soil Fertility & Human and Animal Health. Albrecht argued that an animal’s natural wisdom honors its relationship to all other “biotic strata on which it either is dependent or with which it is competitive.” In other words, wild animals must be deftly capable of analyzing the foods they consume. More importantly, as the quality of their foods depend upon the quality of soil in which they are grown, wild animals, to survive, require the “refined ability as a connoisseur of soil fertility.”
The logical next step is that animals “discriminate among compounds, not elements,” wrote Albrecht. Let’s go back to the milk example: did your body wake you up with the alarm that its current levels of potassium were not allowing for the maintenance of a healthy blood pressure? I doubt it. The alarm was for the biological compound of milk, not the elements contained therein. Your body understands the connection between drinking milk and maintaining healthy blood pressure.
In the same way, animals have survived for Millenia because of these same alarms. They understand that, when their bodies require more protein, for example, reaching their head outside of their paddock fence to consume fresh Timothy or Orchard grasses satisfies that alarm. Calcium, a mineral contained in these forages, is highly important in the process of synthesizing proteins (to be precise: calcium plays the fundamental role in the synthesis of amino acids that compose proteins). Perhaps, the animal understood its calcium deficiency. Perhaps, the alarm was for a needed synthesis of proteins. Either way, they understood the connection between consuming fresh pasture grass and the satisfaction of their needs.
What seems clear is that animals select their forages based off of their internal alarms for needed compounds. Let us be clear, however, we do not think that animals can naturally assay the “calcium” content of their forages. They can, however, understand their forage’s effects on their body and internal operations. This is the key.
People who doubt that an animal can properly make valid nutritional choices only have to watch a cow graze a paddock. The first thing you may notice is that cattle are not lawn-mowers; they are picky eaters. As the cattle walk the field, they will pick and select their forages based on composition, current physical need, time of day, temperature, weather patterns, existence of drought, etc. They will nibble, select, and then consume.
I’ve watched a herd of cattle navigate through a patch of poison hemlock to find the white clover hidden underneath. After their duration in this paddock, the white clover was completely clipped, whereas the poison hemlock was left nearly untouched.
In a sense, we allow the animals on our farm to tell us what they need – to self-medicate, if you will. Our designed systems attempt to “re-wild” our housetrained livestock and allow them to be the master nutritionists they were born to be.
So Why Free Choice Minerals?
First, let’s tackle why we provide minerals in the first place. About 90-95% percent of a plant’s makeup comes from air and water. These elements are combined together by sunlight to generate the chemical marvel of photosynthesis. Minerals, however, are nature’s tool that enables this miraculous process. In a sense, they are the fundamental enzyme that helps catalyze the sun’s energy into storable glucose. Any deficiency in available minerals will result in an equal deficiency in product and quality of the plant’s crop – its nutrient-density.
Interestingly, just as minerals were the essential function for the creation of energy, they are also required to break down the digested material’s chemical bonds to release such energy. Again, any deficiency in minerals within the animal’s diet will accompany and equal deficiency in total digestible nutrients.
To put it simply: mineral deficiency effects plant growth and nutrient absorption within animals. As no soil is perfect, we provide free-choice minerals to our animals so that they can correct what centuries of misapplied human activity has destroyed.
But Why Cafeteria-Style Free Choice Minerals?
Providing cafeteria-style free choice minerals is not a widely accepted animal husbandry practice. To be honest, we have been laughed at many a time by “cattle experts” when they see that we provide 14 different minerals to our animals. The commercial norm they argue for is to provide a one-cheap-bag-fits-all mineral program. Contained with this mineral mix is a perfectly balanced cocktail of all the mineral elements needed for healthy animals.
We find two blatant errors with this standard and commercial protocol:
1) It Lacks a Trust In The Wisdom of the Wild –
If an animal can discern its nutritional needs (hopefully we have showed this in the above portion of the article), then can’t we trust that animal to make decisions for itself? If an animal needs calcium, for example, then why not provide it calcium?
The standard protocol is fundamentally girded by the assumption that there were no healthy animals before humans domesticated them. That, as Richard Holliday and Jim Helfter wrote in their book, A Holistic Vet’s Prescription for a Healthy Herd, “the nutritional wisdom of animals was subjugated to the so-called nutritional knowledge of man.” It is wisdom matched by knowledge, and only the self-centered modality of modern man would put learned knowledge ahead of intrinsic wisdom…
We believe that the first step in regenerative agriculture should be a step of caution and child-like humility. Although our very farm’s name celebrates the free and creative human soul—one created by God to have dominion over his creation—we are only a part of this marvelous creation and not the masters over it.
2) It Lacks an Understanding of Actual Science
In man’s earnest desire to master the discipline of science he has, at least in this arena, missed the point. Providing a perfectly mixed mineral to animals consuming plants grown in soil whose minerals are perfectly deficient is not good science.
For example – calcium and magnesium.
A cow consumes forage that is deficient in magnesium. Over time, it understands its deficiency and walks over to the one-cheap-bag-mineral-program to consume its needed mineral. The perfectly mixed minerals contain the proper ratios of calcium and magnesium, but the cow is deficient in magnesium and not in calcium. Either way, the cow licks the mineral mix and consumes both calcium and magnesium and walks away. Over time, the cow is even more deficient in magnesium and so it walks over to the mix and again licks the mineral to receive the proper ratios of calcium and magnesium. This cycle continues until the cow is so deficient that the vet is called.
Why? Too much calcium prevents magnesium from being absorbed. The cow started its journey deficient in magnesium and not in calcium. Every time it licked the perfectly balanced mineral mix, its deficiency in magnesium was heightened and exaggerated because it also received the same levels of calcium. Every lick of the minerals made this cow more deficient in minerals…
To put it simply, you cannot provide a perfectly balanced mineral mix to animals eating forages grown in soils that are not perfectly balanced in their minerals as well.
Our Cafeteria-Style Free Choice Mineral Program
Our farm offers what we call cafeteria-style free choice minerals. That is, we offer 14 different minerals to our cattle on top of offering free choice kelp and rock salt. This program allows our animals to exhibit their natural wisdom and medicate as they need.
This system is also our soil-testing methods. Some days the Copper bin will be empty, other days it will go untouched. Our master nutritionists and lab technicians our are guides. They tell us what our pastures need and where it needs it.
They have been in the soil consulting business for thousands of years … and they do a wonderful job.