Mastodon farm
(Image credit: Mastodon Valley Farm video)

In the Midwest, it’s now rare to find an oak savanna, a grassland scattered with trees. But those ecosystems were once widespread and rich with species.

“All the early European settlers talked about how amazing these savannas were and how much food there was and how beautiful they were,” says Peter Allen, a farmer who studied oak savannas in graduate school.

He says one reason they were so common in North America is that Native Americans burned land to create open areas that attracted bison.

“And then before that we had savanna for millions of years because we had megafauna – mastodons, ground sloths, large elk, and moose – that ate trees,” he says.

At Mastodon Valley Farm in southwest Wisconsin, Allen is mimicking this system, but with cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs instead of prehistoric creatures.

His herds graze on a few acres for a day, then move on so the ground can rest for a month or so.

He says conventional agriculture depletes the soil, but this approach to raising livestock can help build topsoil and store carbon.

“We’ve grown about three inches of topsoil in six years,” Allen says. “So that’s really inspiring.”

By learning from the past, Allen hopes to produce food while also preserving savanna ecosystems for the future.

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Reporting credit: ChavoBart Digital Media.

Topics: Food & Agriculture