Where do the cows go?
November 21, 2011 5:58 PM   Subscribe

Can you pasture animals in a field that's lying fallow for crop rotation?

I'm in the worldbuilding stage for a fictional project, and I'm interested in even the little things that will probably never come up. The civilization is in a roughly northwestern-European/northeastern-United States setting, with kind of a Bronze Age or early medieval technology level, but it's not the real world so I'm playing loose with things like farming tech. They have three-field crop rotation and keep sheep, cattle, and pigs. I figure the sheep have their own land, the pigs get set loose to look after themselves in the woods, and the cattle need pasturage. So, yeah: could the cattle be pastured in the field that's currently laying fallow (so their manure would fall all over and be fertilizer), or would there need to be a fourth field just for the cows? My research indicates that medieval peasants kept a separate pasture, but I'm not sure if that's for practical purposes or just because that's The Done Thing, and I don't know enough about farming to be sure.
posted by titus n. owl to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: It sort of depends on what you mean by "lie fallow." If you take a field out of cultivation and it's been plowed for row crops or whatever, and just let it go wild, you'll get a pretty spotty mixture of weeds and volunteers from the previous rotations. You could graze it, but the feed value would be minimal and unpredictable. A dedicated pasture is basically a grass and legume (like clover) mixture that you let get established into a sod.

A more plausible scenario would be if they seeded a cover crop in early fall like rye or even peas that could be also grazed. This would give the cows something to eat the next year.
posted by werkzeuger at 6:11 PM on November 21, 2011

Best answer: Oh and cows and sheep can happily share pasture since different species have different grazing preferences. It's called "mob grazing" and it can be kind of smart, it keeps the pasture more evenly clipped.
posted by werkzeuger at 6:12 PM on November 21, 2011

Best answer: You'd have to feed the cows something; a field 'lying fallow' is just going to be dirt and some weeds, not enough to pasture cattle. But the idea of seeding it with clover (which would actually help the soil, since it's a nitrogen-fixer) is a good one. Your people might not understand about nitrogen-fixing plants but they could have done it once by chance and found it worked well so now it's 'tradition' or 'the way God wants it' or whatever.
posted by The otter lady at 6:13 PM on November 21, 2011

Yes. it's possible to keep livestock in a fallow field. Fallow technically means unplanted, but weeds and quick growing native grasses will provide some forage. cattle were kept in at night and driven into/picketed on a common or waste to graze during the day. Many peasants would keep a few animals under the house or in a room attached, and a farmer with a larger herd would have a cow byre that would be scraped out and used for fertilizer. A larger herd would be 6-8 cows. They didn't have huge numbers of cattle in a herd as we do today.
posted by BlueHorse at 6:14 PM on November 21, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks! This is all really useful information.
posted by titus n. owl at 6:21 PM on November 21, 2011

Also, consider that the cattle were not the high-bred performers we have today. Small, hardy, multi-purpose animals were the standard. The animals I saw in remote Turkish villages were stunted and scrawny. The village people admired American livestock, but didn't want anything to do with them. They needed 'pampering' and were not as disease resistant, cold hardy, easy to keep or as productive on rough forage, or aggressive enough with wild animals to protect their young. People and animals were either mal-nourished or on the verge.

Because fields were gleaned by hand, there would be volunteers as well as hardy native weeds, which were not affected by any pesticides, so the cattle would do fairly well scrounging.

I swear the high mountain Turkish cattle were grazed on rocks.
posted by BlueHorse at 6:32 PM on November 21, 2011 [2 favorites]

But do remember that plowing the first year after will be a lot more work as the field will be packed down.
posted by sammyo at 6:45 PM on November 21, 2011

Joel Salatin is kind of at the cutting edge of this sort of thing. Wikipedia has a good capsule synopsis of his pasture rotation system, which is pretty awesome.
posted by ErikaB at 7:50 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

Medieval and early modern farmers on a three crop rotation did exactly this: winter wheat, then spring barley, then fallow pasture. They didn't care that the pasture wasn't the best - they really needed the manure for fertiliser. Animal dung was so valuable that lords would try to force tenants to "fold" (bed sheep for the night) on his land instead of their own, because it bettered the soil.

Many medieval villages may have also had additional pasture because they had land unsuitable to grain crops (most of Britain) and/or didn't need that much arable land (pasture expanded after the black death, due to the labour shortages). Many places also had haying meadows - again, places like wet river sides which weren't great for grains, but which were great for grass (grass benefits from flooding, provided the water isn't standing too long).

As populations got higher, many of the more arable villages suffered from a lack of pasture as they converted their more marginal land into arable and had to rely only on the fallow - you see common rights for pasture get restricted when pasture is short.
posted by jb at 8:58 PM on November 21, 2011 [1 favorite]

as for nitrogen fixing crops - there were legumes in the medieval period, but I don't think they rotated with clover (that's a later innovation, along with fodder crops like turnips). Early medieval farming would have been very low productivity compared to later - but they also had a lot more land per person in places like NW Europe. In c1000 ad, Anglo-Saxon people were just about as tall as modern Britons, because they had good nutrition.

If you are interested in bronze (c1000 BC) or iron/early medieval age farming (c500 bc-1000 ad), you'll want to look at research specifically on that, because there were big changes in farming between 1000 and 1300 ad.
posted by jb at 9:04 PM on November 21, 2011

Response by poster: I want to mark you all as best answer but I feel like that would be silly. Everybody who's commented, thank you for helping me learn more! I appreciate all your answers.

I've read a book by the Gies which included mention of the advances in farming equipment during the medieval era, but that book only covered the actual physical equipment - the innovations in plows and such - without going into the actual process of farming. Other books I've read have gone into pretty good detail on how people lived, their material culture, the rhythm of the year (haying season and threshing season and what-have-you) and that sort of thing, but again without much in the way of actual explanations of agricultural practice.

Also upon further thinking I guess what I'm really looking at is more of an Iron Age analog, historically, than a Bronze Age, just without the widespread use of iron & steel, although it might be that the people I'm writing about just don't have access to a lot of iron ore or something. I like the idea of rotating with clover, even though that wasn't happening in our world in that time period - unless there's a reason that didn't develop sooner? (As the otter lady mentioned upthread, they obviously wouldn't know WHY it worked, but sowing the "fallow" field with some sort of fodder crop would make sense and they could have an associated story of how their farming god and the herding goddess did something together providing a mythological origin-story for the practice. [The writing I'm doing is kind of telling a tale about them half through narrative and half through relating in-universe stories and myths and things, so that might be a good opening for me in fleshing the world out.])
posted by titus n. owl at 11:38 PM on November 21, 2011

Chiming in with jb and otter lady. I just want to add that vetch was popular for this purpose. It's use is apparently ancient. It was cultivated in Anatolia (modern Turkey) in the neolithic. And it's cultivation is sometimes interpreted by archeologists as evidence for the early use of the kind of crop rotation system jb described.
posted by nangar at 12:23 AM on November 22, 2011

Something else to think about with medieval agriculture - you spend all summer doing everything you can to store up food AND SEED STOCK, so if it's February, and you're really hungry, and you touch your seed stock, next winter you are going to die. Horribly.

Kind of puts a new spin on Lent.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 1:37 AM on November 22, 2011

Most of my research on farming is c1500-1850, so I'm a bit vague on the earlier (talked about mostly in contrast),

but as far as I understand it, the physical/technical changes in farming were the major change c1000-1300, rather than brand new crops, etc (but still increased productivity) -- but you also have a lot of population growth, which changes the economics and social aspects of farming. Generally, higher population meant more demand on food, and so more land turned to arable rather than pasture (because it produces more food per acre), except for truely unsuitable land like marshes (what I study) - unless they could be reclaimed (which they were, c1200-1300).

In the early medieval period in England, for example, you would have had more space between villages, a bit more forest than later (check out Oliver Rackham's History of the Countryside for forest history - a good read in general). In the very early medieval, English villages often weren't nucleated but scattered households more like North American areas - and they didn't have communal fields but private ones. The nucleation of English villages appears to have happened part-way through the Anglo-Saxon period (I read about this in Williamson and Bellamy, Property and Landscape), possibly force to by the state as a means of control. I can't remember the dates for the introduction of common fields (called "champion" landscape, as opposed to ancient), but I know that it's in Rackham.

One problem you will have getting information on actual farming practice is due to extreme lack of sources; most of what we
know is archaeological, not historical, and even then the evidence has been stressed by continual farming in the same place.

by the way: actual Iron Age people also wouldn't have had that much iron - it would have been expensive and many tools would still have been mostly wood, bone, etc.

This question has inspired me - I now want to learn more about Iron Age crop rotation and livestock management than I do (I was talking about c1200 earlier). I have a popular book on medieval archeology that I could check out; I could also try the email lists for environmental history. That said - northwestern Europe and north-eastern US have very different environments - especially climate. Which do you want to go with? also, since you're talking fictional, why not check out native American farming practices in the NE US - they had very different but equally effective ways of doing things, and it would make your world creation more interesting. (Bujold has done some nice playing of contrasting Euro-style societies with more native-inspired in her Sharing Knife series.
posted by jb at 6:08 AM on November 22, 2011

My medieval history professor swore that the greatest invention in the history of mankind was the invention and perfection of the horse collar circa 12th century. Second to that was the development of the heavy plow. You're correct in that there was a major change c1000-1300, One of the major things to keep in mind is the labor intensive nature of agriculture. Early on, fields were turned by hand with wooden shovels or a wooden plow pulled with a shoulder harness. Peasants worked and produced for their own keep, but were also expected to devote a certain amount time to working manor fields. It could be as much as half their labor, or as little as every seventh day. Taxes and tithe needed to be taken out. Keeping cattle and horses is an expensive proposition. Sheep and pigs not so much, they could graze on the commons and forage in the woods, but that access was limited by the size of the village, the amount and types of grazing and the nature of the feudal relationship. It was a lucky peasant who was able to afford a cow to produce a calf each year, and plow horses were owned by the lord of the manor. As jb mentioned above, manure was gold. Sammyo stated that a tromped field would be harder to break, but a field planted in green manure, while potentially more productive, would be very hard to plow without a heavy plow, almost akin to opening a new field. Additionally, the expensive of seed to sow a green manure would be affordable only by the manor, and most likely not used on common or individually worked fields. My understanding is that the feudal system was not totally clear-cut across the area now called England, but that one manor might have a slightly different method of dividing out property and labor. Depending on the kindness and fairness of the lord, and he usually wasn't, life could be extremely difficult, and most often was.
posted by BlueHorse at 11:36 AM on November 22, 2011

This will probably only be available at a university library, but if you can get a hold of the volumes from the Agrarian History of England and Wales, they are considered to be among the most important publications in the field of British agricultural history. I can't remember when the pre-history volume was completed, but I'm sure the basics are all still accurate (archeologists of iron-age Britain, please feel free to correct me). Among other things, it covers pre-Roman livestock farming - as well as much more (see the table of contents).
posted by jb at 2:21 PM on November 22, 2011

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