A LESSON IN IMPROVING OUR PASTURES:
Almost exactly one year ago, we moved home to Washington State. Our cows followed about a month later. What we arrived to, field-wise, was 30 year old pasture, sub irrigated, no management, not even clipped or mowed. By the time the cows arrived, late June, the pasture was extremely tall and….chewy. The cows ate the tops off and refused to eat the rough undergrowth. The land had a lot of potential, but there was no “milk” in this field. WHAT TO DO!?
We let the cows “pasture” all summer, eating what they would, adding nutrients in the form of cow pies. We purchased extra hay in the form of first, second, and third cutting alfalfa x grass bales and fed hay from August thru April.
Meanwhile, our pigs worked on the rougher areas, digging up and eating weeds such as thistles, horsetail, hounds tongue cockle burr, st. johns wort (a weed in our area), and etc.
Then we patiently waited all winter. Our winter was long but very mild. A foot of snow fell and stuck, insulating everything and adding nitrogen to the soil. (In fact, both lightning and snow are known to add nitrogen to soil, we get more of the latter.) As seen (below, right) the deer (foreground) took advantage of what the milk cows failed to lick up after milking time as the dry cows look on longingly (background).
The early spring of 2013 afforded us both time and dry-ness enough to burn the excess roughage off the top of the field. Some areas were a foot deep or more of matted grasses. My dad led the way with a fiery torch as mom, Jay, and I raked the fire where we wanted it. The land was still wet enough that there was not much risk of runaways, but we took precautions to burn the edges and work our way slowly inward over the period of a few days. Thanks mom and dad!!
[Do we recommend burning pastures every year? NO! We decided to burn our field because it had not been managed for several…decades! A normal field that is managed properly and is healthy should not require burning.]
Underneath the grasses, we found catacombs of gopher holes and chipmunks galore. After burning, the ground became temporarily exposed, allowing birds to find bugs and the cats to hunt down gophers and excess chipmunks. Flurry and JingleBells have nearly emptied the fields of rodents! Tip: Feed your cats just enough to keep them home but not enough to make them lazy! Also, beware how many cats you own on your property. Cats, when bored, will start to chase your bird population which can have a negative effect on the ecosystem. Have just enough cats to keep the rodent population minimal. For our 50-ish acre area, our two cats are sufficient.
Additional support comes in the form of free-ranging chickens (excellent bug eaters, and they scratch apart old cow pies so the solids can break down into the soil faster) and helpful critters such as dung flies and beetles which help to break down the pies fast. TIP: If your chickens are causing chaos in the yard, consider chicken tractors. This way, you can pasture your broilers or layers and concentrate chicken manure where you want it. My dad did this in a lower field that was always a poor grass producer. After one year of rotating poultry, the grassland is significantly improved: greener, taller, plusher!
We’re poor folk, so don’t own a tractor. My dad got a four foot section of harrow from a neighbor that they ran over in their field with a tractor and brush hog (whoops!) Luckily undamaged, the harrow attached perfectly to the bumper of our truck! And with two large rounds of firewood for weight and a railroad tie attached to the back of the harrow, we were able to break up and level the ground sufficiently. This was especially important where the pigs had been, as they do not leave ground perfectly level! (See photo on right, that area was pig pasture last year, where the photos above of the pigs can show it was quite worked up!) May sound a bit redneck, but it got the job done – and right quick! And a quick confession, I only got stuck in mud once….
A bare field does no one much good. So, we filled in the bare (previously weed-filled) soil with a combination of a dry-land pasture mix of grasses and alsike clover. Tip: Find a clover that suits your area, and you will soon have happy cows!
A late spring snow inspired us to turn on Christmas records for one last time. I sang to Bing Crosby’s Christmas album as I took this picture from the kitchen window of our house…. Hoping that with a little more patience, our hard work would pay off!
By April we were able to get into the field for fencing. The one large several acre field became several small one-day paddocks. Why bother cutting up the field? Because this way we are able to control better where our cows are eating each day. We have five milk cow paddocks and three dry cow paddocks. The milk cows spend one day in each field, meaning the other fields can “rest” at least four days before being pastured again. This allows sections to regrow and not become overgrazed.
And while still a work in progress, the milk production is best ever and the cows are quite contented! We have a long way to go just yet, and will still have to buy extra hay, but for now we feel that is okay because the manure is so important for our compost piles, fields, and gardens! Already our improved garden soil has supported germination of all seeds planted (from squash to corn to beans to carrots to rutabagas for my dad (LOL). What a joy and blessing to see these crops growing, thanks to the grasses our cows ate, providing manure for our compost pile, which then can be used as safe soil amendment in the garden. Best of all, this soil is so rich, it rarely requires watering.
This film covers more of a gardening aspect, but I believe the concepts are relevant to pasturing as well, and can really open you up to a new viewpoint:
http://backtoedenfilm.com/how_to/index.html From the website: “BACK TO EDEN shares the story of one man’s lifelong journey, walking with God and learning how to get back to the simple, productive methods of sustainable provision that were given to man in the garden of Eden.”