It’s More Than Just Grass
At first glance all pastures just look like grass. And many are, being so low in fertility they may be just grass with very few forbs able to survive. Diversity is the key in nature, but we humans have gotten pretty good at quashing that. Lawn culture is not pasture culture. Or shouldn’t be anyway. Same with hay, if you’re buying hay from a hay purveyor they have it all neatly categorized by type: alfalfa, orchard grass, etc. Meadow or native hay is thought to be inferior. And many times it is. It just depends on the meadow and meadow husbandman or woman.
I think the single best thing I have learned from rotational grazing is I didn’t know what I thought I knew about grass and cows. Namely what I think looks good is not what they think tastes good. And the only way to learn that is to confine them to a small paddock instead of the entire pasture and see what they won’t touch. It’s a classic thought and I have voiced it to myself too under my breath when a cow is eating through the fence to get at what is on the other side. “That dumb cow, can’t she see she has perfectly good grass right there inside the fence!” Taste and vision are two very important senses, but it doesn’t matter how good the presentation is with a dish, if it tastes bad, you don’t care how good it looks. Right? Now with the grass all being fresh and rested when the cows get back to it, I no longer see anyone trying to reach through the fence. It’s all good, or at least improving. Fortunately for me almost all the plants in my pastures are palatable to cows. Some parts are better than others due to soil conditions and terrain but for the most part pretty good. I’ll explain more as the post progresses.
Same paddock as above, well, actually it is two paddocks. Both trampled pretty good, but I like the look of the one on the left. Heavier manure coverage along with the trampling. Finessing paddock size is a measure in humility, its hard to get it exactly right every single day. Or at least it is for me. That’s the beauty of rotational grazing, if you’re a keen observer you see the result of your paddock judgment, good or bad, by the next day. And with only one day committed instead of a whole year you can fix your mistake, or smile to yourself when you do a good job.
I deliver water to the paddocks as needed. So to save water and time, I plan according to what I anticipate water needs are. In this photo I have two 100 gallon troughs split between two paddocks. The cows have just moved into the paddock in the top of the photo where you can see the mineral box. This water will last two days because they will only be here for two days. We were blessed with a couple of sunny days necessitating the need for both troughs, if it was rainy or even cloudy, one trough for two days would be enough.
Same with minerals. The box moves every day with the cows. Forget the gym ladies, tote that trough and mineral box and you too can have nice looking biceps. Some days if it is monsooning though, I do not replenish the minerals, once they get wet the cows don’t like them and its a waste. A day or two without the salt lick is OK.
The plants growing in your pastures can tell you what is going on beneath your feet. You’re looking for height, color, and diversity. I look at my pastures constantly to confirm what I think I am seeing and I look for changes. Off in the distance on that steep hillside, I see ox-eye daisy blooming. That confirms what I know, that steep hillside has thin poor soils from row cropping many decades ago, the pasture plants that grow there from grasses to forbs are different from what grows on top the ridge and in the swale where the cows are now.
Plant communities overlap, and conditions like thin soils, compaction, and former uses all have a hand in what you see. In fertile soil you will see different grasses and forbs than weaker soils. Too much of one thing like clover for instance, should tell you something is going on. Clover should be about 30% of your pasture, any less and you should change your management and any more that 30% or 40% indicates a healing is taking place.
Here you can see where we used to run our pastured poultry pens. On the right where we didn’t run the pens, Spotted catsear (false or summer dandelion) shows up pretty frequently. Cattle relish the bitter herb, especially in hay, so it’s not a problem but it disappears and gives way to higher fertility plants if the fertility is supplied in the way of manure or compost. Years after pastured poultry pens the distinct line is still visible in the plants.
In poor or compacted areas of my pasture, its common to see these shallow rooted plants: Black medic, white clover and Spotted catsear and maybe a grass or two. Roots with naturally shallow root systems will be found predominately in shallow soils as they can survive there. This spot is next to the rocked driveway in the pasture and gets a lot of traffic, heavy equipment, vehicles, and that big chestnut tree that came down this winter is parked there now, as we make it into firewood. It’s no surprise to me to see this plant family there.
You can learn a lot from looking at the plants in your gardens and pastures, they reflect your soil, its historical management and your management. The best pasture is what grows naturally in your area. It may be a mountain type pasture like mine, or it may be a bottom land Reed Canary Grass pasture, adapting to what you have is the best way to go. Seeding is a waste of time unless you have broken the ground, if the conditions were right, the plants you seek would be growing there already. Don’t think of your pasture like it’s a vegetable garden, you know how hard it is to garden, the carrots need to be planted every year and coddled along. A pasture is a perennial, living entity made up of groups of plants. For more information, a good reference book is Weeds of the West, good photos of all stages of plants from seedling to seed head. Very helpful in identifying grasses too, even if you don’t live in the west. I have found the most pastures don’t differ all that much unless you’re in an arid environment. But for the most part a pasture in Germany will be very similar in plant species to one here. Some plants are different but the bare bones are the same. Manage for diversity and you’ve got it made.