Wis. rancher pushes for healthy soil

LUCK, Wis. -- For decades, Mike Miles has stood up -- or sat in -- for his beliefs. Now, the Luck, Wis., farmer is determined to make the world better in a small way that has a big impact. "I spent a lot of my life as a peace activist trying to s...

Rotational grazing
November 2014 photo of farmer Mike Miles, of Luck, Wis., who uses rotational grazing as a way to improve soil and allow previously grazed pasture land to regenerate. (Courtesy photo)

LUCK, Wis. -- For decades, Mike Miles has stood up -- or sat in -- for his beliefs.

Now, the Luck, Wis., farmer is determined to make the world better in a small way that has a big impact.

"I spent a lot of my life as a peace activist trying to stop the world from blowing itself up with nuclear weapons," he says. "Now, the most important thing I can think of doing is to put the carbon cycle back in balance so we can feed the world and cool it back down to more manageable levels."

Miles' strategy involves management, intensive grazing, a growing movement promoted by British ecologist Allan Savory.

"The idea is to set up competition between your beef cattle," Miles says.


He uses a moveable corral small enough to foster that competition. Cattle have a herd mentality; they gather in packs with the weaker animals on the outside where they are prey to wolves and such.

In Miles' corral, the animals don't just eat what they like, the way they do in large pastures; instead, they eat everything that's there. It's a matter of eating and trampling. Cow dung is ground into the soil. The chickens scratch through the cow pies, looking for larvae and adding fertility to the soil through their own manure.

Miles moves his electric fence pens every day or two. "It takes 10 minutes and it gives me daily exercise."

He tousles the topknot of a large steer that approaches the fence.

"The process also gentles down the animals -- as you can see," he says.

In summer, a portable canopy gives the animals necessary shade that saves trees from damage as the herd seeks shade.

Clearing underbrush in the woods provides more pasture. When the herd returns to its starting location, they find improved soil and fully recovered grass. There is no need to cut down what the animals did not eat.

The result is extraordinarily large animals that make for high-quality, grass-fed, antibiotic-free beef.


"Whatever Mike is doing out there, he's doing it right," says Ross Anderson, of Luck's Van Meter Meats. "Normally, grass-fed beef lack a bit of finish; they are a bit leaner and might need to be cooked more slowly. But Mike's beef are nice-sized and have an excellent appearance. We'd have no problem selling grass-fed if they looked like Mike's beef."

Water Management

Managing water is part of the farm's process, too.

The idea is to put to use water that normally would run off to a low spot.

"You figure out your wettest point," Miles says. "Then, using a laser level from the lowest point, you survey from the top 1 percent downhill grade. The trench you dig is called a swale. It diverts water from your wettest location to the driest, which is your hillside. The swale has a berm on the downhill side, and here you plant woody perennials, things like fruit and nut trees, raspberries, hazelnuts, apple trees or chestnuts. You can harvest these vertically; they grow at varying heights so you have either cash crops or food for grazing chickens and pigs."

Another part of distributing water is to slice 18-inch-deep slits 4 to 6 feet apart along contours between the swales. The slits slow water runoff and divert it horizontally.

"As water flows into the slits, it combines with oxygen, organic material and soil microorganisms so you build compost in the slit," Miles says. "You get excellent soil in just a few years."

Miles uses the space between swales for conventional agriculture or for his grazing pens.


"The benefit of building up the soil is that you create a carbon dioxide vacuum cleaner," Miles says. "You are restoring soil that we've wrecked by how we do agriculture. You get free fertility. All the stuff people have to add now to our soil already is in it. I think it's all about reducing your inputs. People who are bigger than I are making a living doing rotational grazing because they are not paying for diesel fuel, huge machinery, fertilizer and the like. You can do rotational grazing with milk cows, too."

Miles and other advocates of rotational grazing say this simpler approach holds the key to feeding large populations.

"Most small indigenous farmers around the world are women," Miles says. "This is the only way we will be able to feed the world."

They believe genetically modified seeds and their related processes are the wrong thing environmentally.

In fact, Miles' beliefs led to his recent arrest in Des Moines, Iowa, during a protest against some of the world's large agricultural corporations.

"Grazers and ranchers are in the best position to make a positive impact on soil health," Miles says. "Rotational grazing has been shown to increase soil carbon from 1 to as much as 8 percent in years, not decades. A side benefit is enabling water to infiltrate more quickly and deeper into marginal soils, so drought becomes less of a concern."

He references the larger issue of water runoff that makes it to the oceans, where it creates dead zones and contributes to rising sea levels.

"During the dust bowl years, President Franklin Roosevelt said, 'A nation that destroys its soil destroys itself," Miles says. "This is a battle I want to be part of. It is the least I can do as someone who manages land for the common good."

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