rass, grass, grass. If only that monochromatic landscape was just the grasses and the weeds we want. I don’t think I have ever seen a pasture that was perfect as far as grazing goes. Heavy use, too much rest, too many animals, not enough animals, heavy equipment use, no equipment use, all can contribute to a less than stellar pasture. Such is life, you have to just deal with it.
Innocent looking grass! Weeds show me what truly lies below! Once you start learning cause and effect, you can tell at a glance what is going on/has went on in your pasture areas. The green will fool you, but be vigilant, teach yourself how to read the weeds and you’ll be on the way to a better pasture. The earth is always trying to heal itself, that’s why weeds are here, allies is the war, so to speak. Like people, they have all kinds of agendas. But once you learn the basic agendas you can use this information to your advantage. Declaring all out war on weeds is a waste of time, like holding back the river, or pushing a rope uphill. Wasted effort, better to use that effort on reading your ground and what grows there and why. There is no one field guide that will give you all the answers. If you like photos, Weeds of the West is a good one to have on the bookshelf, once you know what you’re looking at, Weeds and Why They Grow by Jay L. McCaman can help you dial in your diagnosis.
Here are some of my problem areas…and my thoughts on them.
January water trough pugging.
Heavy use as shown above from this past January takes a toll on the soil conditions. We have great soils that are pretty resilient to pugging even in heavy traffic and high rainfall. This appears to be healing up and hairing over, but in reality it will never be really healed in my lifetime probably. My task then in the pasture future, is to make sure I don’t just keep repeating this “mistake” in different places. This is a good place to place a water trough, it’s near the edge of the field and near the road, meaning it will always be a high impact area that will not really produce a lot. If I was under the assumption that if it appears green and healed, and I should put the winter water trough in a different place, I would pretty soon have lots of these pugged places all along this field. I would rather keep my sacrifice areas small and in the same place.
Some sacrifice areas by nature of their location, are really weed patches. (This photo above is our barnyard.) It’s been seeing high traffic, hooves and manure for 131 years. It is compacted and grows some grass, and lots of weeds common with wet compacted soil.
I would say the biggest problem I see on most farms (mine included) is lack of fertility. Even here where there has never been a break in livestock for more than a century, it’s pretty easy to translocate nutrients to the wrong place. Continuous grazing, fixed pastures and allowing livestock to free range and have campsites results in too much manure in one place and not enough in others. Like anything it takes longer to fix than it does to ruin.
This photo of the same spot with my feet really shows why Salatin has the pasture he has, and why free-ranging chickens (or any livestock) is merely scratching the surface. People really poo-poo the output of the Cornish Cross chicken tractor method, but seriously folks, if one day of manure two years ago from 50 fledgling chickens can have this effect on ground, why aren’t more farmers doing this??? Talk about carbon sequestration, here you go. And they call Joel a lunatic, Bah! I can’t even tell you how much grass has grown there, but Jane and Willy have grazed through this patch probably 15 times since then, not to mention the sheep too. You can have your free range, that idea is for foodie elitists, and it’s too simplistic. To feed people and stock, you must heal the soil, so the plants that grow are healing and robust also. Looking at the plants in the photo above, what looks better? The patch on the left that appears robust, or the patch on the right that is barely eking out a living?
Imagine, no seeds, no tillage, just carefully timed manure application, applied by the chickens once. Apparently it was enough to feed the soil critters, wake up seeds that had lain dormant and get things going again. Repeat that year after year, and folks, you’ve got yourself a regulation pasture.
Back to the problem areas. This photo above is the reveal of the first photo of grass where Jane and Willy were to graze yesterday. What I look for is confirmation of what I meditate on all the time. What I inherently know to be true – high traffic areas will have to carry a lot of traffic (redundant, I know) and since this is close to the hub, a higher concentration of manure. Invariably on the way to the compost area, a dab of stable cleanings will fall out of the wheelbarrow. The wheelbarrow and our foot traffic contribute to the compaction also. Not as much as tractor, but still an impact just the same. I love Allan Savory’s analogy of the burros in the Grand Canyon. One burro making the trip in the fragile environment daily for a year is more damaging than 365 burros running pell mell to the bottom of canyon once in a year. It’s all about rest and time to heal. I know what you’re thinking too, that 365 burros sounds terrible, but this idea alone explains why math alone will not cure your pasture problems. Working with nature is art and science and lots of humility added in. :p
I look for dock in areas that are compacted, with its deep taproot this plant is trying to heal the soil, but tells me that I should be worried if I start seeing this in areas that receive adequate rest or that haven’t been compacted previously. If you’re new to your land, you might see this plant in areas that were compacted before. Our history is long on our land, and I know where cows hung out when I was a child or where other buildings used to be. Those are the places I see dock.
Tansy is one of the those plants that is poisonous to cattle and horses, but isn’t ingested unless it is in the hay. Sheep can and will graze this with no problems. I see it in my fields in weak areas. A biennial that forms a rosette the first year and sends up its seed stalk the second year. I hoe them out after the cattle pass through a paddock.
Canadian thistle, Cirsium arvense.
I only have a few patches of Canadian thistle, and all are in former or continuing high fertility and high impact areas. They don’t just appear, like most weeds the conditions have to be just right. I have a few in the garden and tillage spreads the rhizomes much more than the plant sending out seeds. The easiest control is mowing right at bloom time, it will eventually bleed the colony out. We have Bull thistle too, but only around really high fertility areas (like our compost pile) and despite its size, Bull thistle is easy to eradicate with a hoe or sickle. I’m a true Crayola fan though, I love to see the blooms, the Thistle crayon was aptly named.
Our barnyard is north facing, and is a wet area. Besides a few places in our orchard, this is the only place we have buttercup. Not a problem for grazers usually, but will kill your pigs, or at least severely poison them if they root them up. Been there, done that Buttercup thrives in poorly drained soil, you can either live with it or figure out a way to drain the soil.
On the sunny side of the barnyard, the plant community changes a little to Kentucky bluegrass, Dutch clover, Black Medic, Pineapple weed, and Dog Fennel or Chamomile. All are signs of compacted soil in my area.
Think of your pasture land as a Venn diagram, or several Venn diagrams in different locations. The plant communities will overlap somewhat, depending on the soil conditions and if you look closely you can use the plants as a mirror into the soul of your soil.