Archive for the ‘Pastures’ Category

Last rotation West Pasture 5 Nov

A very short three weeks ago my little herd of Devon cattle was grazing the last of the sweet fall regrowth in the West Pasture, heading down range toward the Lower Pasture where the winter feeding rotation has now begun.

Once I make some culling decisions and reduce my cow numbers, the late summer regrowth should last longer into November.  Ideally, we’ll end up with just enough cows, heifers and growing steers to graze on reserve growth and improve the pastures well into the winter months, feeding hay at the end of the dormant season and long enough into spring to let the new growth get a good start.  For now, I’m just observing, and learning, and contemplating what changes can and should be made, while I keep everyone fed.

Last year’s winter feeding strategy was a 1.5 acre sacrifice paddock on as high a ground as I could find, where I fed them hay, managed the manure load by carting away excess to start the garden, and hated the mud when it rained.  That area was heavily fertilized, received a well-distributed layer of carbon as the hay was fed out (there is always some left uneaten), and was also, unfortunately, beaten to a pulp by animal impact.  That’s why it was called a sacrifice paddock.  Left alone, in the spring the damaged turf grew mostly weeds, the weakened grasses overtaken by opportunistic, stronger annual plants.  That paddock is now renovated, sown to a high-sugar grass mix, and will be my finishing paddock for fattening the grass-fed beeves just before slaughter.  Another post, I promise, on how that was done and how it is doing.  So far, it looks very promising, heading into winter with a good first growth which the deer are enjoying immensely.

This year I’m trying something different.  Without a permanent winter feeding station, where I might feed round bales of hay on concrete surrounded by well-drained gravel access paths for the cows, and not wanting to confine them to another sacrifice area, I’m going to rotate them around the entire pasture complex, in large paddocks – several acres each – to spread them out and lessen the destructive impact of their hoof action, and feed, as before, to evenly distribute the carbon and manure and traffic.  This year I have a hay wagon that will hold enough to feed the entire herd in two feedings per day, one in the morning and the second in early afternoon.

Hay wagon

I am still hand-forking hay from round bales set on end, which is not as laborious as it might sound, especially since I started placing the bales on pallets to keep the bottom edge free as the roll unwinds.  Believe it or not, I find forking loose hay from a round bale into a wagon, then forking it out in piles for the cows, easier than lifting and toting and tossing square bales.  It takes longer, but I’ve learned to use very good pilates-inspired body mechanics so it does not strain my back, wrists, elbows or shoulders.  I call it Farmer Tai chi.  My cows call it pizza delivery.

They are eating well so far, going through three rolls in a week, on average, with very little waste.  And I am happy with the improvements in my setup and delivery system, which should make the winter feeding much less of a chore, and easier on the pastures.

Cold November morning feeding hay 2


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moving through Lower Pasture, May

This is the happy circumstance I have spent years dreaming of, researching and planning for.  After a decade of preparation, including a great deal of reading and studying, many workshops and seminars, and six years of farm ownership before retirement allowed me to move here, I finally have a small herd of beef cows to rotationally graze and improve the pastures.

It sounds so easy when you read about it and imagine how it will work.  What can be easier than cows eating grass, after all?  But not all grass grows the same; some pasture is quite lush while in other areas the stand is thin, weather factors a lot in how well a grazed area regrows, and moving the grazing herd around a farm in sync with the forage growth cycles can be quite tricky.  So, it is anything but easy.

I suppose this is some of what the “intensive” part of Management-intensive Grazing, or MiG, refers to.  I’m not talking about intense physical effort, although it takes a fair amount of walking to string electric fence every day or every couple of days, and my neighboring cattle farmers would no sooner hike around their fields with an armful of fiberglass posts and reels of electric wire, than fly to the moon.   No, the muscles most used, I’ve found, are between my ears – and as a novice to both the art of grazing and bovine husbandry, I am learning to use them and stretch them beyond what I’d ever imagined.

This is the first year I will have seen these pastures grow from dormancy, and the first full year they will be repeatedly grazed by animals instead of mown.  Last August the herd arrived to the dense stockpiled stand that had grown unmown since spring, and worked their way through it in about 6 weeks before returning to regraze their first paddock assignments.  That was an abnormal grazing situation and there were more animals then, too.  This year I’ll be learning as I go, with some basic grazing concepts to guide me, and the realization that it will take years to achieve what the books and experts make sound so simple.

I have enough animals to concentrate their efforts and achieve the benefits of what’s known as high-density mob grazing, where the herd, constrained to a fairly small grazing area, consume a portion, trample a portion, and leave a portion of the forage standing.  Currently I’m building paddocks sized to last them a couple of days, moving them before they crop the undergrowth right down to the ground.  They aren’t crowded, but they aren’t free to roam and cherry-pick throughout an entire pasture.  Since the cows are highly competitive grazers, this method gets them to eat more of what they would rather leave – grass stems and seedheads, for instance.  They don’t eat everything and they only get it down to 3-4″ before I roll them into a fresh patch.

Concentrating their grazing also concentrates their manure and urine deposits.  This is absolutely critical to the task of pasture improvement.  All my neighbors let their cow herds roam on acres and acres, and they never see much of any benefit from the cows’ fertilization.  It’s just too spread out.  Without a pack of predators to keep their herd formed up in a group and moving together, the animals disperse and nibble here and there, moving quickly through the pasture and depositing most of their manure under the trees where they rest and ruminate in the shade.

This is what the paddock looks like by the time I move them forward.   That’s fescue seeding on the other side of the line, and you can see they’ve cropped most of that down where they’ve grazed.

Lower pasture, just-grazed paddock

Leaving a residual of several inches and a fair amount standing, cleaning up all the weeds and forbs and native clovers, as well as other plants I have yet to identify.  Plenty of plant matter trampled into the soil as well.

Lower pasture, residual

Here is where I take a different approach from many graziers.  For many reasons, but mostly to help manage what is already a burgeoning fly population, I drag their manure either the day I move them or the day after.  I don’t have Joel Salatin’s egg-mobile chickens following my herd to disperse the cow patties and eat the fly larvae, at least not yet (and won’t for some time).  We had significant pink eye infections last fall with outbreaks throughout the very mild winter, and face flies wintered over in great numbers.  Face flies are manure-breeders; their larvae hatch in three days, so if I can disrupt that breeding cycle it will help, I hope, keep their population in check, and lower the risk of another cycle of eye infections.  Doctoring an entire herd of 1,000 lb beasts of prey with a flight zone of 15 – 20 feet at best, is not fun, for either the animals, or the farmer doing the doctoring.

I know all about the drawbacks of spreading cow crap, believe me.  Cows avoid patches of grass near manure pats for good reason, and most of the experts say dragging their pies out just makes more grass unpalatable to them next time they graze an area.  I’m not so sure it’s as bad as all that, and I’m willing to make that mistake if in turn I’m able to beat the flies down to a low roar by reducing their breeding resource.  Chickens would do a better job I’m sure, but I’ve called a moratorium on gaining new livestock until after I get the horses here and settled.

And that’s another blog post.  Heading up the hill now to continue work on the new horse barn.

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New spring grass

We wrapped up calving on April 13 with one last heifer calf I named Jessica Rabbit, then began rotating the newly-expanded cow herd on spring grass on April 26th.  Hopefully next year it will be the other way around, and the calves will be born on tall spring grass to mothers that have grazed for a month or more already.  It worked out fine, though, with six healthy calves born unassisted and no complications.  Two heifers, 4 bull calves.  A good start for the beeve inventory.

April whipped by, with all the livestock caretaking activity.  Now May is nearly gone too, having been filled so far with spring cleaning and preparations for visitors come to help build a little horse barn.  Now the barn building is in full swing, so I need to close the calving chapter here and get back to regular posts, to document what’s going on right now.

Sigh.  Wish I had a ghost writer to log on here and post for me some days.  I post Facebook status updates regularly because they are so quick and easy, but they aren’t the same as journaling here.  So we’ll work on that.

Today is my 52nd birthday.  I hope to get a couple of roof panels on the pole barn with the able assistance of my barn-building buddy, sister Linda.  The weather’s cooperating so far, so off we go…

More later.

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Winter feeding paddock yearlings

Yet another first for me this year on the farm:  transitioning from winter to spring.

While I’m thankful for the short and mercifully mild winters here in south-central Kentucky, it does keep a beginning grazier on her toes.  Seems like we just moved the cows and yearlings to their winter feeding paddocks and now, it’s time to build a strategy for getting them transitioned back to rotational grazing, in concert with what will soon be growing grass.

The trick, as I see it, will be holding them in hay-munching mode long enough to let the pastures get a good start, all the while trying to avoid undue damage to the soil where they’re parked.  Just where to put them, and when, to accomplish this is what I’m bending my brain around this week.

The five youngsters pictured above are not really a huge problem where they are, and they’ll probably stay in their fenced acre or get rotated onto the short stockpile around their sacrifice paddock in increments, until it’s time to join them up with the big girls and move the entire bunch onto fresh tall grass.  They are lightweight and by feeding out their hay in various spots, I’ve been able to conserve the turf in their paddock pretty well.  It lies underneath a layer of trampled hay, which adds carbon and will virtually melt into the surface once the temps rise and microbial activity begins; but most importantly, it is not altogether mud.  A little compacted, lightly pugged in places, and definitely in need of tillage and seeding renovation, but in reasonable shape.

Winter feeding paddock

The cow paddock, however, has had enough impact, since they are so much heavier and there are more of them.  After these past few days of moisture I hate to walk through it and I can’t bring myself to take pictures of it, although as cattle feeding areas go around here, it’s only a bit soggy.  It has layers of leftover hay from feeding piles distributed very evenly all around, and the very highest sections afforded fairly dry conditions  up until this last bit of precip, but now it’s all wet all over, and with a couple of the ladies due to calve soon, I want them up on terra firma.

So yesterday I dropped the partition line across their enclosure, letting them back into the section where I’d first fed them back in November, out of the round bale feeders.  Roped off and left alone, the soil there had finally drained and dried out pretty well, and enough grass was still left around the perimeter that the girls ran around clipping off the remnants like they hadn’t been fed in three days, ignoring the piles of hay I’d already tossed down.  Good hay just can’t hold a candle to green grass, no matter how short it is, for a cow.

That rested acre will give them some clean dry ground for a few days, in case miss betsy decides to calve, and buy me some time to get the 5-acre First Pasture set back up for a quick, minimal-impact rotation through the month of March.   There’s a short stockpile left on it that they will enjoy very much and I’ll keep feeding hay and move them on before they have a chance to graze it too close or pile on too much manure.  Then I expect the grass will have broken dormancy by the time April is upon us, and I’ll have to figure out a holding pattern for the herd until forage growth is well above the post-emergence stage.  Nothing sets a sward back faster than being bitten too soon, and I don’t want to get ahead of the grass growth in the sequence of rotation.  Better to wait and feed hay a few more weeks, and let the forage bank build.

So the little herd may end up back in their winter feeding paddock for the first part of April, as it will have drained and dried by then and can wait another few weeks for my Rotavator to get here for the renovation festivities.  I haven’t decided what sort of crop or forage mix to plant there; still strategizing best use of that heavily fertilized couple of acres.  It’ll get lightly tilled (not plowed), worked into a seedbed and be ready to grow forage annuals or perhaps a patch of oats, millet, or even feed corn.  The Big Experiment continues.

I’d love to hear how other grass farmers transition their livestock from winter feeding (or grazing, if you’re doing really well) to spring pastures.  Despite the wintry look of this morning’s snow-covered dormant pastures, green grass is on the way, and I am planning for it.

Hay pile framing snow pasture

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Standing water on hilltop pasture

Standing water on hilltop pasture, 30 December 2012

This started out as two posts:  Outwintering, and Slow-draining Soils.  There is much to say about both.  But because these two subjects are, right now, my greatest challenge, and so interconnected and related, I could not separate them.  So let me begin.

Until such time as I am able to achieve the ultimate in managed grazing, which is to have stockpiled forage to rotationally graze as much as possible throughout the calendar year, I will have to feed hay during some or all of the winter months.  This grazing year was a complete anomaly, starting late with a hungry, starving herd of animals on summer stockpiled pastures and doing my best to make the forage last as long as I could, without compromising either herd health or pasture condition.

I was able to utilize every acre of stockpiled growth, and move the cow herd back through about 15 acres of regrown pasture before the growing season ended, grasses went dormant and I deemed it time to stop grazing around the end of October and leave what cover remained to protect the soil until Spring.  Without a loafing shed or permanent feeding area set up yet, and limited areas suitable in terms of slope, wind protection and vehicle access to outwinter the herd, I picked several spots to set up as “sacrifice” paddocks this winter.  They’ll get way more than their share of manure and hoof impact and will need some serious renovation come spring, but I believe it is better to do that to a relatively small area than visit serious damage far and wide.

I knew from my limited periods of observation during short working visits to the Farm in previous winters that there were areas in the central part of the pasture that held standing water after a rain event, and drained slowly over a period of several days.  I also knew from having performed soil quality tests, that my pastures are a clayey loam, with not a lot of organic matter, and the root profile of the sod does not penetrate very deeply.  Knowing that the pastures were reclaimed from invading forest by bulldozer some 25 years ago and had been seeded and maintained as tractor-mown meadows without animal impact since then, I also accepted the fact that the topsoil was probably thin, mixed with subsoil, and compacted.

So, when I went to set up my winter paddocks I skirted what I had identified as the low, wet area between the two ponds, and fenced the highest summit-like areas, maximizing proximity and orientation to forest edges for shelter from the west/northwest winds.

Feeding cows round bales of hay in ring feeders set in open fields is standard outwintering practice in these parts.  Most feeding areas I’ve seen on neighboring farms are not even on high ground.  I thought my carefully-chosen locations would work very well.  And they did, for a few weeks, until the December rains came and saturated even the highest spots.  Dormant grasses don’t move water.  Two inches of rain in two weeks is not absorbed or utilized the same way in December as two inches of rain in, say, September, even on the best soils.  And my clay soils hug water like they never want to let it go.

The cows and a small area of soil around the failed feeding areas suffered for a week or so until I came to my senses and realized the pugging damage and ankle-deep manure/mud was not worth the convenience of having them self-feed out of a ring feeder.

I won’t post a picture of the destructive impact caused by eight full-grown cows around a ring feeder on wet, slow-draining soil.  Trust me, it’s ugly.  It made me sick to my stomach to see, and I wracked my brain trying to figure out first how to prevent it, then second, how to mitigate the muck once they had stomped through the sod and worked the area into 8″ of sloppy mud.  Finally, the light bulb came on, and I realized what a losing proposition those ring feeders are on unfrozen ground in this climate.  At least, for a farmer like me.  I know what happens to soil structure when it is churned into mud, and it’s the exact opposite of what I’m trying to accomplish on these pastures.

And the cows aren’t the only problem – driving the tractor in to fork another bale in makes mud ruts in a hurry, too.  I was trying to limit the tractor moves to below-freezing mornings when the ground was stiff and frozen, but the timing didn’t always work out.

So, I am hand feeding now, forking the hay off the rolls, which are set on end in a staging area, into the dump bed of my little 4×6 Gator and delivering it, gently, to the paddocks.  And it is better, much better.  I can move the piles around which distributes not only the hoof impact, but the leftover hay that becomes trampled-in carbon to feed the soil.  With the Gator I can haul and dump huge piles of hay in just a few minutes, and fork out the excess manure pats to stockpile in next year’s garden area.  It is more hand work.  It takes more time.  But the ladies are eating better, I’m able to keep a closer eye on their condition with the twice-daily interaction, and best of all, the pasture area they are feeding on now looks excellent.  The sod is somewhat trampled, but not broken.

Hand fed cow

Next year I hope to graze a little longer into the winter, but I’ll still need a winter hay feeding strategy.  I think for the long-term an idea like this permanent central feeding station that would integrate with pasture rotations would be ideal.  It’s a matter of finding the right location, as it is quite permanent; but it could also be roofed and serve as shade and a rainwater collection point.  Not something that can be thrown together at the last minute but certainly worth planning for.

Meanwhile, the cows have learned the new feeding routine and don’t seem to miss the mud.  And I sleep better at night.

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More hay laid in

Sunday I finished hauling in another 30 round hay bales for the cows’ winter feeding.  This hay was made just down the road by a guy that’s been making hay a long time and doesn’t have cows to feed anymore.  It’s really good hay, despite having been left out in the weather until now.  Even the spring hay is in good shape, and the girls are loving it.  I’ll be back for more, I think, to make sure we have plenty well into April, so I don’t have to start grazing too soon.

I hustled up to the pasture yesterday morning to get it covered before the predicted rain hit, and finished just as the first sprinkles started.  It didn’t rain much, but I wanted it covered before it did.  This next spring and summer I’ll buy it from him early and haul it out of the field right after he gets it baled, put it up on logs to keep it off the ground, and cover it before it ever gets any rain on it at all.  Lots of hay goes to waste by leaving it out in the rain, although it’s pretty common around here; you see a lot of hay lined up on pasture edges like this, without any cover.

A barn with hay storage will be nice, when we get to that point.  And as time goes on I’ll be able to manage the paddock rotations better and graze longer into the fall and winter, which will reduce the amount of hay needed.  Meanwhile, it’s about keeping the redheads fed and healthy.


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all grass

Our 20 acres of hilltop pasture that Bobby reclaimed from the encroaching forest some fifteen years ago are doing well, despite the lack of grazing animals.  They were cleared and reshaped with a bulldozer back then, and seeded to orchardgrass and ryegrass, that he could remember.  The forage cover I observed our first year of ownership was mixed grasses and forbs – low value weeds, mainly – none of which I could yet identify with any precision, with an occasional easy-to-recognize clover volunteer and a goodly number of invasive black cherry seedlings gaining ground.   The forest always tries to come back.

 In many areas the cover was thin and enough bare ground showed on some of the slopes to merit beginning a pasture improvement program right away.  Since we bought the farm in 2006, the hay harvest has been mowed and mulched twice a growing season, returning as much of the organic matter as possible to the soil where it can build tilth and add nutrients.  I also disced and overseeded perennial ryegrass and red clover two years ago, to fill in thin spots and improve the nitrogen profile; the clover took well and should remain vigorous for another couple of years, and the ryegrass has added complexity to the mix of established grasses.   A pasture walk while I was there in early June confirmed the stand is thick, the bare areas have filled in, and the clover-sown areas look just right.  But a major problem remains.

The primary cool-season grasses found in our area pastures are orchardgrass, bluegrass, some timothy, a little ryegrass, and tall fescue.  Though there are good stands of orchardgrass at the pasture edges, and a wide variety of different grass varieties can be seen throughout, the tall fescue predominates.  It does this naturally, being a vigorous perennial bunchgrass that forms a tight sod, out-competing other species for sunlight and nutrients, and it has an unfair advantage, as well. 

Most tall fescue is infected with an endophyte, a fungus that lives inside the plant cell walls and enhances the fescue’s vigor and survivability, making it a highly-productive forage plant.  This was the characteristic that caught Dr. E.N. Fergus’s attention when he visited a farm in Menifee County, Kentucky in 1931 and observed an impressive tall fescue growing on a mountainside pasture.  Dr. Fergus took seed from that hillside back to the University of Kentucky and subsequently tested and released the ‘Kentucky 31’ variety of tall fescue in 1943, which was vigorously promoted by the University’s Extension Agronomist and widely accepted by Kentucky farmers.  During the next two decades there was great interest in and planting of ‘Kentucky 31’ throughout the lower Midwest and much of the South, as this new variety was more vigorous and better adapted than other cool-season grasses available.

It was not the great grass they thought it would be, however.  Palatability to livestock was disappointingly low, and performance of animals grazing it suffered, though no one knew why.  Cattle grazing fescue would sometimes go lame, referred to as “fescue foot,” and would also more often exhibit an unthrifty condition in the summertime, called “summer slump,” eating less and having difficulty staying cool.  In horses grazed on fescue, reproductive performance was especially affected:  pregnant mares often aborted, or carried too long and had difficult births; foals were sometimes stillborn, and milk production inadequate.  These toxic effects of fescue on horses and cattle were observed and recognized, but the cause was not known and remained a mystery for many years.

Research finally revealed in 1976 the source of the toxicity:  the fungus Acremonium coenophialum, an endophyte that grows inside the fescue plant and produces alkaloids that protect the grass from insects and nematodes, making the plant more tolerant to marginal soil environments and poor conditions.  What is good for the grass in this case is not good for the grazers:  the alkaloids are the cause of “fescue toxicosis,”  which negatively impacts feed intake and heat regulation for cattle and causes serious reproductive problems in horses.  

Nearly 80% of the fescue in Kentucky pastures is infected with this endophyte.  So most, but not all.  And new varieties have been developed that either have no endophyte, or have a less toxic one instead.  But the endophyte-infected fescue (E+ fescue) is persistent and vigorous and once established, is difficult to eradicate.  It can be done, but it usually involves chemically killing the entire forage stand, planting a smother crop, re-killing any remaining fescue, then re-seeding an alternate variety.

Or, the percentage of E+ fescue can be reduced and controlled by cultivating and overseeding/interplanting clovers and other grass varieties, suppressing the seed-producing stage by mowing (the endophyte propagates through the seed), and grazing at early stages when the endophyte is at lower levels (stems and seeds contain the highest levels of toxicity).  With careful management, a grazier can drastically lower the percentage of infected fescue, rebalancing the forage mix so other varieties predominate, and do much to minimize the negative effects of any remaining E+ plants.

Since I’ll be grazing and making hay for both horses and cattle, I’ve been especially concerned with determining how much fescue is in my pastures, not an easy task if you don’t know your grasses.  I’m learning them, slowly, and the fescue seedtruth has been disappointing, as it has become clear I have lots of fescue which means I have a lot of work to do before the mares will have adequate pasture.  Clicking on the picture in the previous post, those graceful side-bending seedheads you see, all fescue.  Yes there’s some ryegrass there as well as a nice clump of timothy in the right foreground, and at a different time of year other grasses are in growth and the fescue is not center stage.  And I haven’t had it tested yet to see what level of infection it has. 

But it is a beautiful, thick, healthy stand of mostly tall fescue I can safely assume is toxic enough to worry about.   Since I’d rather drink a gallon of Roundup than chemically burn the diversity and micro-life that is my pastures,  I have my work cut out for me.  Nothing done well and with care is quick and easy.

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