What the heck is a “perennial grass” anyway?
We’re often asked how our animal and land management is different than the management that produces conventional beef, or those feedlots you see driving along Highway 5. There are a lot of differences between Morris Grassfed and confined animal feedlot operations (CAFOs), but today I’m going to answer this question with two, simple words: perennial plants. Our management of the relationship between our cattle and the plants they eat is critical to whether perennial plants (oak trees, grasses, shrubs, for example) survive on our ranches. It is also critical to how well they do their work. And what is the work they do?
Think of perennial grasses as the tops of straws, poked into the surface of the earth moving both carbon and water between the atmosphere and the soil. If we manage our grazing animals well, these “straws” (roots, actually) grow deeper into the soil, moving both carbon and water further into the soil where it is more safely kept and used. Perennial plants are essential intermediaries in these processes whereby life may thrive.
First, perennial grasses provide a soft landing spot for precious rain that falls, and their deep root systems move those raindrops into the soil, while holding soil in its place so that the soil itself becomes a rich, biodiverse habitat for billions of organisms. Annual grasses, though they too function as important members of the grassland community, have much shorter root systems and cannot do this nearly as well. Also, perennial grasses, shrubs and trees stay green throughout much of the year and are better adapted to withstand drought. Soil held in place means there is less erosion and water loss and more opportunity for life.
Joe likes to use a cookie sheet when he explains this to third-graders at our annual San Benito County Farm Day. He pours a glass of water on a cookie sheet to simulate a rain storm and the fourth graders watch as it runs down the sheet and falls to the ground, a lost opportunity if you need water to live. The cookie sheet covered in hay, however, quickly absorbs the rainfall and then slowly allows it to move downhill. Slowing the flow of water increases opportunities for living creatures to use it, from earthworms to human communities.
Another benefit of perennial grasses is the role they play in the cycling of carbon. Through photosynthesis, plants absorb carbon dioxide, take it in through their leaves to build their bodies and begin this flow of energy through all creatures great and small. If we allow grazed plants to rest after their work of feeding grazing animals, they can grow more leaves and deeper roots, moving more carbon—and water–into the soil and supporting more life and actually cooling the earth. We monitor our grazing and have seen significant increases of soil carbon. You can see the results here. Global Cooling Earth.org says it this way: “By understanding the water cycle and regenerating landscapes we can rehydrate and naturally cool our climate.”
Morris Grassfed animals are managed to achieve the promise of grassfed: to enhance the earth’s life-giving capacity even as we use it, to make it more beautiful, more peaceful and more resilient. These are the values you receive when you purchase Morris Grassfed Beef. It’s good for you.
So the next time you’re criticized for eating grassfed meat, ask back: “Does your food grow perennial grasses? Because mine does.” Good for you!
To learn more about perennial grasses and the important role they play in a healthy eco-system, check out the sources below.
Soil Carbon Coalition: http://soilcarboncoalition.org/taxonomy/term/2