Tuesday, October 15, 2013

A better kind of lawn

There are about 40 million acres of lawns in America -- a number which grows every year.  We use 800 million gallons of gas mowing those lawns, including the amount we accidentally slosh on the ground while filling our mowers: 17 million gallons, more than was spilled by the Exxon Valdez.  The average American sprinkles 238 gallons of water on his lawn every year.  About 71 million pounds of active ingredients of herbicides, insecticides, fungicides, and other chemicals are dumped on U.S. lawns each year, or about 7 percent of all pesticides used in the U.S.  Homeowners use more pesticides than farmers -- in fact, ten times as many.  Many of these pesticides are potentially toxic to humans, and pretty much all of them are harmful to the environment.  We spend $30 billion every year maintaining our lawns; I have no idea how many hours, but it's a lot.

In America, we slaughter 33 million beef cattle every year.  Some is exported, but most is consumed here, to the tune of $262 a year per capita.  Though beef cows and their calves are raised on large ranches, 75% of beef cattle is fattened on feedlots before slaughter.  Feedlots receive a lot of criticism for being inhumane (the cattle weren't meant to eat that much grain, to stand on bare ground instead of grass, or to have so little space to exercise) and for harming the environment with massive manure ponds.

If very carefully managed, one beef steer needs about an acre of irrigated pasture if it doesn't receive any supplemental grain.  (Or so Gene Logsdon says in his books.)  In addition, the same acre can be stocked with chickens which eat bugs out of the cow manure along with a provided grain ration.

Do you see where I'm going with this?

It seems to me you could fit those 33 million cattle on those 40 million acres of lawn with room to spare.  The grass is already very intensively managed.  People could continue watering, but skip out on mowing, weeding, and fertilizing.  No chemicals at all will be needed in this scheme, and no petroleum.

I have knocked around a number of schemes in my head for this, considering that most families don't own enough land for one steer, and don't have the time or knowledge to be cattle wrangling either.  What makes the most sense to me is for there to be a neighborhood cattle farmer who cares for a small herd and rotates them each day, or even twice a day, into a new yard.  Frequent rotating through new pasture is the very best thing for the cattle and the pasture anyway. 

Every couple of weeks you'd have your yard full of cattle for one day.  Then a couple of days later the farmer would bring a mobile chicken coop through.  The chickens would flip over and spread the cowpies, eat any parasites or fly larvae, and move on.  The rest of the time you'd have an excellent yard for your barbecues and games of catch, with no mowing or fertilizing necessary.

I can't figure out -- since this system is so mutually beneficial -- who should pay whom.  Should the farmer hire out his cattle as a lawnmowing service, or should he rent people's yards?  Some fencing will also be required as a startup cost, and who pays for it?  Well, you'd just have to let people try it and see.  You could even run it as a co-op -- everyone pays for their own fencing and shares the purchase price of the calves, and everyone gets a cut of the beef at the end, in proportion to the size of their yard.  The farmer gets an extra-big cut which he can sell for his own wage.  The chickens are pure bonus -- you could do meat birds or laying hens, whatever you want, so there would be shares of chicken and eggs as well.

That's the sort of small-scale solution that wouldn't need to be done all at once. People who wanted to, could participate, and every person who did would be saving oil, money, erosion-prone farmland that's currently planted to corn for cattle feed, and the environment around where the feedlot used to be.  Meanwhile you'd be getting pastured beef and free-range chicken, which we know are better for you, for far less cost in money and resources than what you could buy at the store.  It's efficient in a way you never could practice on a large scale.

This wouldn't hamper anyone from having a fruit tree or two -- those would just provide shade for the cattle.  The chickens would pick up any fruit rotting on the ground, so you wouldn't have to worry about that like I do with my plum tree.  You could do your back yard in cattle and your front yard in vegetables.  If you didn't want to deal with the farmer, you could have a couple pigs in your backyard all on your own, and ask your neighbors for their food scraps for them.  There are any number of absolutely local, sustainable solutions for food production on land that is currently wasted.

And why are we not doing this?

Two reasons only.  The first is cultural, though that's beginning to change.  Some people just don't want cows in their backyard.  (What is wrong with them, I wonder!  I emphatically DO want cows in my backyard!)  And the perfect manicured lawn is something of a status symbol.

The second reason is the government.  First, they zone you residential, and then the next thing you know it's against the law to grow tomatoes instead of rhododendrons.  Why the overreach?  Pesky neighbors who think they have a right to decide what's in other people's yards based on appearance, and perhaps a little bit of fear of what can't be controlled.  Our food system, after all, is a major industry which employs a lot of people and turns over billions of dollars a year.  They have powerful lobbies and they care about beef a great deal more than you do.

However, the law isn't the same in all places, and I've heard of people renting out goats to mow people's lawns.  For real.  I hope this is a growing trend!

N.B.  In the "everything I want to do is illegal" category, look at this gorgeous earth home.  Then read how the government is ordering the family to bulldoze it.  It makes me want to cry.


entropy said...

This seems like a good idea. The biggest problem I see is fencing. Cows will eat flowers and trees and trample anything else. I guess if you had a big enough yard you could stake them in the center but then you'd still have to mow the edges.

Putting up and taking down the fencing for both the cows and the chickens would be a giant pain in the butt. The manure wouldn't really be all taken care of by the chickens either. There would still be enough left for you to step in it. Of course, once it dried it wouldn't be so bad.

This might work in areas with bigger houses with their acre yards. I say it's not likely to happen because of all the work involved. Much easier to throw a cow in a field and worm him every now and then. Also, to pull this off you'd have to have a cow that you'd spent some time working with to be able to handle them so much. Maybe a 4Hers show cow or something.

Conquistadora said...

'The benefits of a low-impact development do not outweigh the harm to the character and appearance of the countryside.' What an idiot!

Anyway, I would totally let them use my yard in return for some beef credit. I was never much into pristine landscaping anyway. And I hate mowing.

Sheila said...

Well, jentropy, many Americans already fence their yards. Ours is fenced, and so are about half the yards in our neigborhood. The initial fence cost would pay for itself when you factor in not having to buy and fuel a lawnmower.

The goat people use electric netting, which is quite easy to put up and take down daily. So that's an option as well.

Dung beetles, if introduced into the yards, would do an amazing job of dealing with any manure the cows had left. Since the cattle would only visit one day every two to four weeks, it wouldn't become unmanageable.

The farmer himself would have to have a larger property with a barn for the rainiest time of year, when cattle might damage the lawns. He might have to bring in a small amount of hay, depending on the climate (probably a lot in Wisconsin, but none needed in Florida).

I have about a quarter acre and would happily host a cow. It would beat mowing. And for the farmer, there would be more labor involved, but since he wouldn't have to go into debt to buy a ranch, he could easily come out ahead.

Enbrethiliel said...


Well, that's something I've never thought of! Hosting a cow would definitely keep the grass manageable. It seems as if lawn manicuring is one of those "first world problems" people keep joking about--except that it's hiding in plain sight, so everyone misses it! =P

entropy said...

It's worth a shot but if I were the farmer I'd be worried about my cow damaging fencing. I think privacy fencing might be ok but cows love to rub against things and lean over fencer to get at "greener" grass. There's also that the grass that's planted for yards isn't optimal for cows, especially if it's been "treated".

I'm not trying to just be a downer. I think it's a really good idea but there are a lot of issues to work out with it.

Sheep or goats would be a better substitute. They're smaller and easier to handle and you can still get meat from them. They also bite the grass rather than pull it like cattle so the grass would stay shorter. One problem would be that goats are kind of a pain in that they will climb on absolutely EVERYTHING (cars, whatever) and will eat anything (which could be good or bad depending on how much brush you have in your yard!).

Sheila said...

Yes, you would have to change your lawn system -- no treating, and grow a greater variety of things rather than just fescue. My yard is probably about ideal now, since I don't do a thing but mow -- most of the "weeds" are actually excellent forage plants: white clover, plantain, dandelion, chicory.

Sheep would certainly be an easier choice. More sedate than goats and they produce golf-course-like short turf. The downside is that not many people like mutton. But I might have a sheep NOW if the zoning laws would allow it! Just for the wool.

entropy said...

We live in a very small town and aren't allowed to have chickens or any livestock in our yard either. It's infuriating.

We have to keep our chickens at my dad's farm a few miles out of town.

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