“Get Growing!” – Pasture

Our never-ending quest for improved pastures has lead to some fun discoveries in the past few years along with some moments of thinking, “Will they ever improve!?”

I thought I had written quite recently about our work on an old pasture, just to find it was June of 2013 when that post was written! (Read here: Pursuing Pastures June 1, 2013 article & click on underlined words for links to additional information and references.)

Our same field, circa 2016 – Still needs a little burning, but improved forage every year:

Pasture burn 1
Early spring burning to clean up the edges of the field and areas thickly matted with old grass. Found a few gopher holes to trap as well.
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Black becomes brown, then green! The same area as the first picture a few weeks later. Getting a taste of early pasture & acclimating ‘winter rumens’ on fresh grass – April 21st, 2016

Although we’ve had an unusually warm spring and decent rain, grass in our country is not exactly thick and abundant. The only spots in the field that are extra plush are the old cow pie spots. (We harrow in the fall or spring to break them up, but some low spots get passed over.) The rest of the field is growing, but I’ve seen better fields.

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May 7, 2016 – The cows have been on full pasture for about a week. The grass is finally growing. In the background, tall blobs of grass indicate an overall need for fertilizer in other parts of the pastures, still.

One way we measure the productivity of the pasture is how the cows respond in milk production. This year was significant – Rosebud jumped in production by 1/4 and her cream line stayed the same (sometimes early spring grass jumps overall production, yet cream line decreases). Yay for grass -makes good milk!

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After morning milking, Rosebud heads to the trough to refill on water and lick up some loose salt and minerals – the cows have been consuming a lot of salt and minerals since going on pasture, confirming that cows have different needs at different times & they know when they need it!

We’ve been troubleshooting the lack of apparent overall growth and all we can think of is that there is a general lack of nitrogen & nutrient friends needed for green growth. Our soil test confirms that our soil is well balanced in nutrients (meaning, proper ratio of NPK, plus others, nothing super high or low) but it’s on the low end of normal for all nutrients.

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THE LOOK – “This is OK for now, but how’s it gonna perform in August??”

From day one, we put into practice pasture management techniques based on the concept of Rotational Grazing. We had some weedy rough patches when we moved here 4 years ago, so brought in Mulefoot pigs – they did great eating weed roots and plowing for us. We harrowed those areas (and we now have a disc which is even better for heavy duty management) then reseeded with a barley cover crop, dryland pasture mix, and clover.

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Young cover crop up close – doesn’t look like much, but the barley is protecting the new seedlings. Next year this section will be plush dry land grasses and clover!

To get a proper “take” on the seeds, the soil needs to have enough organic matter and moisture that the ground doesn’t form a hard crust that seedlings are unable to penetrate. One or two good waterings with a sprinkler are very helpful.

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A new seeding, about a month after germination. Barley comes up first (within a few days of putting out the seed!), then fragile grass and clover pop out of the ground, protected by the taller cover crop! Weeds too? Hardly any!

The few patches we’ve done have come back amazingly well. How do we know? The cows stare at those gates in preference and the White Tailed Deer … eat it all!!!

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As Jay asked, “Do I win Star Farmer Award?” So gorgeous it makes you want to cry in joy!!

Some days I wish we had just done the whole field at once, but we’ve had to build up the nutrients to get a good take on the seed, which takes time when done organically from the farm without buying organic matter to be shipped in and applied.

Our latest venture is sheep – their manure is small, so no harrowing needed. They eat down the grass and weeds really well, so that when the second crop comes up, it’s even and plush for the cows. Sheep have a different palate (and non-competing parasites, bonus!) than cows, so between the two most of the forage gets eaten.

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A sight for sore eyes – happy sheep!

 

We have the pastures well managed – Our question now is how to continue improving the ground?

The neighbors have been working on their pastures for many years now, organically, and the only things they do are:

  1. Spread out winter cow manure over the field in early spring – We have not had good luck with this, perhaps still too much of wood shavings and straw mixed in with the manure and not enough nitrogen to break it down. We’re working on ideas to get our compost aerated better so it will break down faster. Any design ideas out there?DSC05982
  2. Use sprinklers around the house to keep nearby pastures growing in hot dry months – We are limited by how much we can legally water, but notice that the areas with more organic matter and clover tend to keep producing. As we cultivate new pastures, we’re working on seeding in dryland mixes of grasses and continue to look for legumes that will persist longer through dry weather yet are still palatable to the cows. DSC05992.JPG
  3. Brush hog areas when they get tall (or use a riding lawn mower) – Cutting promotes growth and division of plants, excess grass provides organic matter back into soil, and grass is kept at palatable height so animals like to pasture it and it gives them the best nutrition. Cutting also has helped eliminate weeds. – Improving the soil and bringing in new seed, especially the clover, has reduced weed populations – particularly the knapweed, mullein, and other local problem weeds. But, we’re still fighting thistle. Weeds indicate to us there’s still room for improvement! Each year we have better access to equipment for mowing the fields to prevent weeds from going to seed. This is great, because I’m tired of deadheading/digging up and bagging weeds by hand.
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    A lovely trick of nature: Improve the fertility and water holding capacity of the soil and the good soil will choke out some of the bad weeds (or at least make them more palatable to eat in the young stage) – ha ha ha – Death to Knapweed! (Although knapweed is a known pollinator for honeybees, knapweed is an invasive weed we’re trying to limit/eliminate!)

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    Hopefully frequent clipping of the pastures will help stop thistles from setting and spreading seed. The sheep get quite mad at thistle when it pokes them in the mouth!
  4. Pasture-raised broilers to add fertilizer to the fields – Our layer hens free range, and we don’t raise broilers due to the cost of grain, but a recent addition to the farm of a small grain mill, plus locally sourced “cheep” grains (So far, barley and peas, with the hope of finding nearby wheat) may allow us to have more chickens in the future. As we buy grain, I just have to remind myself we’re really buying something that will make healthy eggs & meat and powerful fertilizer. I recently found an article on making a “Poo Hammock” which can help keep the chicken coop clean and concentrates the chicken manure from the coop so it can be spread exactly where we need fertilizer. One more thing to add to the “to-do” list!

It’s not even officially “summer” yet, but we’re already watching the fields for issues, clipping fields as needed, monitoring water levels, and taking care to not overgraze the land. A few prayers for decent rain this year and we might be able to pasture several months!

Just writing about it makes me tired, it’s a long process! But well worth it once the pasture’s improved – hopefully more production, less work, and satisfaction of improving the land in a healthy, sustainable way!

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One thought on ““Get Growing!” – Pasture

  1. Rose Mary

    hello Spirited Rose folks, I do so enjoy your posts. Always so honest and informative. I have asked questions before and now have a new one……..We have a first time heifer that had her calf on Wed. May 11th, which was my birthday. She is a Jersey/Dexter cross and had her calf on her due date. The calf is a heifer and sired by an Angus. The problem is that one of the quarters has no milk. The whole udder seems to have a bit of edema, not bad, and all other quarters are milking well. The calf sucks on the “empty” one then moves on as there is nothing there. Are there suggestions as to what may be wrong? or is there anything to do? We also have another first time heifer that was due last Sunday and has still not had her calf, but is doing fine it seems. The calf is moving around in her and she is small Jersey/Dexter cross, 1/2 sister to the other cow. Thank you in advance for any help or answers you are able to give me.
    I am not on FaceBook or such so answer to my e-mail address would be so helpful.
    Rose Mary Nipp
    networkernipp@windstream.net

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