Monday, August 5, 2013

CSA, Week 14, Permanent Pastures

Despite all our discussion about the value of rotating crops around the farm, many of our fields are solely suited for pasture and will never be cultivated. They have been in pasture at least since sometime in the 1700’s, when the home place was built, and will remain this way for decades to come. Pasture is a simple name for a complex and diverse ecosystem that provides great value to our farming enterprise.

Most people think of pasture as grass and we do often refer to our “grass fed beef finishing” system, but actually a healthy pasture is a mixture of grasses, legumes, and forbs, which is another term for weeds. Each species of these plants have unique characteristics as to their growth habits, structure and composition of the shoots and roots, nutritive quality for the livestock, and reproductive potential. Kentucky bluegrass, tall fescue, and orchard grass are the predominant perennial grasses with red clover and white clover the predominant legumes, all managed for our livestock to consume. These legumes take nitrogen from the air and feed it to the soil food web through a symbiotic relationship with a bacterium that colonizes the roots. The grasses and weeds also benefit from this boost of natural fertilizer, which not only helps them grow, but provides more nutrients to the livestock when consumed. The roots form an entangled fibrous structure that holds the soil particles together in wet weather and support the weight of the animals that tread upon them. Red clover is a biennial, which means it grows only leaves the first growing season and flowers to make seeds the second season. Even though plants are less nutritive when mature, we allow the red clover to produce seeds and naturally re-seed itself before mowing or grazing, thus behaving like a perennial. The grasses shoot up their flower stalk in late spring, then we graze or mow them for hay, preventing them from shattering new seeds so they do not overly dominate the field.

The forbs may be annuals, biennials, or perennials, which makes them a little tricky to control. If you cut a plant close to the ground when the seeds are almost ripe, but not viable, you can eliminate all those seeds from germinating in your field the following year. The plant also does not try to send up another shoot because it thinks it made a seed already, their sole job on this earth. If you mow it too soon the hormones in the plant kick in to make another shoot that flowers soon, as the day length and temperature are at play here as well. The chemical composition of each species of weed is unique and potentially beneficial to the pasture and/or the animals. A species that contains lots of zinc, for example, will mine the soil for zinc and accumulate it in the plant, which can be valuable in optimum nutrition for the livestock. It can also make zinc available to the other plants if chopped up with the mower and allowed to decompose. Albeit counterintuitive, if you were to fertilize the area with zinc fertilizer, these weeds would die off because of all the readily available zinc.  If they accumulated more, they would become overloaded with zinc and be toxic, and generally Mother Nature does not let those things happen. So, weeds can be an indicator of fertility problems, not the reason to put some toxic herbicide out. 

The cattle, sheep, and poultry consume the pasture in ways different from each other and this varies with the season. They all are known to be selective grazers, meaning they know the difference between the species, what they do like and what they don’t like. When the pasture is tall with lush vegetative growth, the cattle and sheep will go over the entire field pulling the top most tender and nutritious leaves. If allowed to stay longer in that field, they will double back and graze the less nutritious growth found closer to the ground. Overgrazing can compromise animal performance as well as retard pasture re-growth. It is important to leave enough leaf area on the plant to provide photosynthetic energy collection to promote new growth. If an animal removes all the leaf area by overgrazing, this energy must come from the root reserves, which makes for a weaker plant. Repetitious hard grazing can also be a tool to eliminate some weeds by purposely depleting root reserves in that species. If the seeds of a given species do ripen on the plant, the animals love to strip them off the plant and consume them, effectively removing them from the field as they are broken down by the digestive system. Poultry will do the same thing. Cattle and sheep both will often seek out the weeds when first moved to a new pasture, even when the desirable species are just right for grazing. It is believed this may be their way of naturally balancing the vitamins and minerals in their diet. It may also be a mechanism of warding off internal parasites because some plant species are known to help.  This is why leaves on the tree branches are eaten up as high as the tallest animals in the field can reach. Those of you who pick up your share at the farm will notice there are no dandelions or chicory in the sheep fields because the sheep love them so much.

Because of seasonal variations of moisture and temperature in conjunction with timing of grazing and mowing, there is no such thing as a perfect pasture.  One challenge of farming is knowing the biological nature of the many species of plants that make up a pasture, facilitating the growth of some, while minimizing the impact of others, all the while providing optimum nutrition to the livestock. 

In Your Share

Blackberries – organic
Garlic - organic
Bell Peppers - organic
Potatoes – organic
Baby Squash Mix
Tomatoes - organic
Red Cabbage - organic
Leeks – organic
Okra - organic

Recipes to Enjoy

Chicken Stew with Leeks and Cabbage, our thanks to a CSA member who adapted this recipe from an online source – it uses several ingredients found in your share this week, including an Elmwood chicken.

3-4 small leeks, sliced
1 carrot, chopped or sliced
1 celery rib, sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 T olive oil
1 lb potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes
4 C chicken stock
4 chicken breasts cut into cubes
8 slices bacon, cut into small pieces
½ lb cabbage, shredded

Fry bacon and chicken together until golden; remove from skillet.  (For crispier bacon, fry bacon first, then fry chicken in bacon drippings.)  Add a little more oil if pan seems dry, then sauté finely sliced leeks.  Add garlic and sauté for about 30 seconds.  Add potatoes, carrot, and celery, season well, reduce heat, and cover pan.  Let cook gently for about 5 minutes until starting to soften. Add stock, turn up heat and bring to boil; simmer about 5 more minutes until tender.  Add chicken, bacon and cabbage and simmer another 5 minutes or so.  If desired, thicken with a little cornstarch slurry or add some leftover mashed potatoes.  Excellent with crusty bread.

Spaghetti Citrusy Tomatoes, thanks to a friend of the farm who adapted this from a Chef Jason Barwikowski recipe sourced online; serves 2.

8 oz spaghetti
1 T salted butter
½ C breadcrumbs
1 T finely grated Parmesan cheese
2 T fresh basil, minced
2 pints of cherry tomatoes, halved or larger tomatoes roughly chopped
2 large garlic cloves, slivered
1 T flat leaf parsley, minced
2 T extra virgin olive oil
zest from ½ of an orange
zest from ½ of a lemon

Bring a large pot of salted water to a rolling boil and add the pasta. Give it a good stir.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a skillet. When the foam subsides, add in the bread crumbs and 1 T of the basil. Stir constantly until the breadcrumbs are evenly coated with butter and golden brown. Scrape the toasted breadcrumbs into a bowl and set aside. When cool, stir in the Parmesan cheese and add salt to taste.

Wipe out the skillet and then heat the olive oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add in the slivered garlic and cook until it is soft and just beginning to brown on the edges. Add in the tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally until they soften and begin to wrinkle. Remove from the heat as soon as the tomatoes begin to collapse. Gently stir in the remaining basil, parsley, orange and lemon zest.
When the pasta is cooked (it should be tender with just a little bit of bite), drain it into a colander and then immediately transfer it to a large bowl. Pour the tomato sauce over the pasta and toss well. Dish up the pasta into warmed bowls and sprinkle the buttery breadcrumbs over the top. Pass Parmesan cheese at the table.

Cabbage Ramen Noodle Salad, recipe from Fairshare CSA Coalition, serves 10-12

Salad ingredients: 
    2 (3oz) packages ramen noodles, crushed (discard the flavor packets)
    1 C blanched slivered almonds
    2 T sesame seeds
    2 T vegetable oil
    1 bunch green onions or green garlic, chopped
     1 head cabbage, thinly sliced (about 10 cups)

Dressing ingredients:
     ½ C sugar
     2 T vegetable oil
     2 T toasted sesame oil
     1/3 C cider vinegar
     2 T soy sauce

In a cast-iron or other heavy skillet, brown the ramen noodles, almonds and sesame seeds in the vegetable oil.  The sesame seeds will start popping.  When everything is toasted, mix in the green onions or garlic; remove from the heat; let cool.  Combine the cabbage with the noodle-nut mixture in a large bowl. 

Whisk together the dressing ingredients in a small bowl.  Pour the dressing over the salad and toss everything together.  Serve immediately.

Blackberry Ice Pops, recipe adapted from an online source, shared by a friend of the farm

1 C fresh blackberries, really any berry will do here
1 C plain yogurt
3 T honey
1 T fresh lemon juice (about 1/3 of a large lemon)

In a large bowl, smash berries with the back of a fork.  Add remaining ingredients, and stir to combine.

Pour mixture into ice-pop molds and freeze for 30 minutes.  Insert a wooden stick into each pop; then freeze for at least 2 more hours.