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:
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!!!
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.
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:
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!