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Posts Tagged ‘rotational grazing’

suddenly green

Well that was fast.

Plenty of rain and several weeks of May-like temps have turned the switch on early, it seems.  We’re told to expect some cold nights and snow flurries before March is behind us but there’s really no stopping what’s going on out there in the woods and fields, ponds and streams, soil and sky.  It’s all awake now.

This verdant green pasture isn’t ready to graze, it’s mostly just a carpet of inch-high new clover leaves, but it sure looks yummy.  The promise of delicious meals to come, and sooner than last year, they were covered with snow at this time a year ago.  We normally don’t start rotating the cowherd through the pattern until late April; it’ll probably happen a couple of weeks earlier than that this time around.

Once again the sap run blew right past me, if it happened at all.  Buds on the maple trees mean sugaring season is over; oh well there’s always next year.  And the next.  It’s scramble time now, to stay ahead of the bunch grasses in the garden rows that didn’t get seeded to cover crops, get the mowers and trimmers ready for action, finish setting up paddocks for horse grazing, and on and on.

Ready, set, go!

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Fall grazing

That title phrase is borrowed from a recent Gene Logsdon blog post, in which he talks about bringing in firewood for the winter ahead, and how the onset of winter makes some of us uneasy, whether we know why or not.

I know why the coming months of dormant grass, saturated soils, and frigid temperatures make me uneasy.  Because I’m not ready for it, that’s why.

It feels like we went hurtling through the heat of August just last week.  But of course, August was two – nearly three – months ago.  Back then, I was mapping out all the things to get done by October, and though the list was ambitious, it seemed doable.  Now October is heaving its last breath, and the bottom half of my list just rolls to the right.  November.  We’ll get it all done in November, then.

Meanwhile, the leaves are changing color and falling, and the cows are on their last rotation through paddocks just recovered enough to provide good grazing – most are 8″ at the tallest and some areas much sparser.  Quite the difference from the lushness of May and June.  Regrowth slowed in September and after this time through, will be just enough to regenerate root reserves before growth stops.

It is sobering to see the end of the grazing season fast approaching, knowing that soon I’ll have to serve up hay to hungry animals in all sorts of weather.  Glad to have the hay stockpile; not thrilled with the work ahead to feed it out.

The things that did get done should make me feel very contented, and in any other season than this, they would.  For example, in just two weeks I tracked down 80 rolls of grass hay for the cowherd, hauled them up to the top of the hill, set them on pallets along the hay storage lane, and covered them with plastic.  That was huge.  A lot of work, and a load off my shoulders to finally get it done.  Having enough hay to feed a mixed herd of cows, steers, heifers and calves through the winter is no laughing matter, even here in balmy Kentucky.

The garden harvest has gone very well, too; my shelves are literally groaning with quart jars of tomatoes, green beans, and three kinds of pickles.  There are pounds of chard and edamame in the freezer, bags of dehydrated herbs and cherry tomatoes in the cupboard, piles of winter squash in the spare room, and an overflow fridge out in the shop stuffed with potatoes, beets and carrots.  The abundance makes all the work worth it, and I’m glad to have homegrown food for the winter and beyond.

Still, I am uneasy.  My firewood pile is very small.  I’ve just enough split and stacked on the back porch for the next few weeks, then I’ll have to devote a couple of days to harvesting some standing dead trees, cutting them to length and splitting a mix of large, medium and small for the woodstove.  I wish I’d have had time to get ahead of this resource but I didn’t.  I won’t run out and I won’t freeze, but it’s work that should have been done by now.

Then there’s the horse hay storage structure, still sitting in the palletized box it shipped in, waiting for site prep, footer holes dug and poured, and assembly of the 24′ x 20′ steel tubing frame that’ll be covered by the heavy-duty custom-sewn covering, warrantied to last 15 years.  Once erected, it’ll hold 600 bales of hay for the horses.  Sitting in the box, it’s a long way from being able to hold 600 bales of hay.  Might as well be a box of rocket ship parts out there, as useful as it is to me right now.

Barn doors need built and hung to finish the stall so I can wean the little colt; cows need run through the corral and chute again for annual shots; calves must be captured and hauled to the vet for castration and vaccinations, the yearling colt needs a vet visit for his gelding ceremony; the list goes on, and the weeks fly by, and it is getting cold already.

I shake off the uneasiness but it’s the season for that sort of thing, and it returns.  Maybe I’ll get used to it in a couple of years.

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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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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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