The State of the Pasture – End of July Edition
realized the other day that I’ve learned more about grass in the last 5 years than I ever did in my first 50 years of life. That’s pretty funny when you think about it, especially when I have had cows that grazed all those years. Here. On this land. I want a do-over! My grass always used to look like this photo below. Every week we drive by this place to go to riding lessons. It’s a couple of eighties over, same elevation, same rainfall, about the same stocking rate per acre, and the only difference is that this pasture is continuously grazed and ours is tall grass, mob stocked with daily moves. When I was little this was a Guernsey dairy, and the pasture was very productive.
Now that grass never gets a chance to get out of the ground. Those cows nip at it all the time trying to find food. Their owner starts feeding them hay sometime in December and they have their calves in February, if they’re lucky. The bull is always in with them, so the calves could come at any time… The fella that rents this place for his cows, thinks we don’t have cows anymore, it’s sunnier here, and we must be fertilizing – because we have grass! But none of those things really have anything to do with our grass compared to his.
It’s because we started doing MiG almost twenty years ago, which was a start, but just baby steps. Thank heavens for Greg Judy!
Going into the third season of tall grass, mob stocking, I continue to be blown away everyday by the pasture explosion. My daughter’s riding instructor came here last week to give the riding lesson, and as we walked through the hayfield she was shocked to learn all the timothy, orchard grass and clovers were regenerating themselves – she thought we were over-seeding, or had recently replanted. Nope the field we were in had been worked up and reseeded 30 years ago. And I don’t know when the pasture in this photo essay had last seen a plow? Maybe the 1940′s? It does not need any reseeding or plowing.
I’m getting better at judging my paddock sizes as the grass changes. The dark grass line in the center of the photo shows me I am allowing enough forage for my twenty-four hour period. The cows are not supposed to be eating under the fence into the next paddock, if they do habitually you’re not allotting enough forage.
I’ve mentioned this many times in my grazing posts, and the common thread among livestock folks is that any forage that doesn’t get removed, either by grazing or haying is waste. I used to believe the same thing. It’s not true. It’s actually false economy, like the fellow’s pasture in the first picture. Those cows aren’t wasting a bit of forage that’s for sure, but that pasture could be turned around in one season with a little temporary fencing and some thought and time. Advice he has gotten has been to plow and reseed and get some good grass growing there, but he’s resisted because that is too expensive. And it’s not the right diagnosis – plowing and reseeding worn out pasture land is like suggesting you go have abdominal surgery when you’re hungry! Really, hunger pangs = surgery? Why not just sate that hunger with a little food and rest. If you want to feed your grass and grow more, rest it, and feed carbon and manure, and instead of a tractor, use the cow to put the meal on the “table.”
It is such a simple solution, but so hard to arrive at, really. We read all the MiG books, and practiced really hard at management-intensive grazing, and we saw improvements, but we reached a plateau quickly and stalled. Enter Greg Judy and his articles and books. High Density Mob Stocking? Huh? Crowd those cows that much? I could not believe that my cows would even speak to me if I entertained such a thought, and then I kept reading that DON”T under any circumstances try HDMS with under a hundred head. Okay, I don’t like being told what to do – you know the Bossy Boots chafes a little under authority So I tried and saw immediate results, in the pasture and in the cows. OMG! We have crazy grass! I have to blog about this because my family is so sick of hearing about the grass – but what my DH likes is that we are saving money and work. We make less hay, feed less hay, buy less carbon, and make less compost. Make less compost you ask? Yes, we make less because we are skipping that step to some extent. There was no one here making compost for the tall grass prairie, nature took care of all that by herself. A lot of the compost we make is used for the hungry vegetable gardens, growing annuals takes a lot of inputs, growing perennial pasture does not. By employing mob stocking with stockpiled forage, we are growing the carbon along with succulent forage, while the cows graze, they trample the carbon they don’t want to eat, and add their manure and urine at the same time. It’s the perfect storm for growing great forages. And from a purely economic sense it doesn’t take a lot of expensive fuel to do it. Gathering all the supplies to make compost on this scale to cover this many acres and to do the covering is an expensive farm proposition. Equal to I think, making more hay, storing it and bringing back the hay back to the cattle. Or buying in hay to feed. At a certain point, if fuel costs continue to rise, people will have to stop keeping cows the way all the hobby horses are kept, or they will have to have one heckuva job or inheritance to keep it afloat. Personally I like to stay home and grow grass and have my cows harvest it, not go to work and pay someone else to grow grass and bale it so I can buy it and haul it home. But that’s just me. My cows are good at harvesting grass and I’m getting real good at watching them do it!
If possible, we rotate our hay ground to apply a different type of use and impact to each field. Last year this field was allotted for hay, this year it will be rejuvenated with the high density, short duration grazing which applies animal pressure via grazing and trampling. In our climate our stockpiled grass is only good for sixty to ninety days after the fall rains begin. At that point the nutritional value of the stockpiled forage is zilch. With that in mind we still need hay for a about three months of feeding and that is the time to switch gears and do some deep bedding building. Being flexible is the key.
To switch from MiG, the only change I had to make was to make the paddocks smaller and actually have a mob. It’s difficult to start at first, because you do have to have stockpiled forage to begin with. Which means you have to change what you’re doing. Whether it is keeping the cows off the grass in early spring, or setting aside a field the previous fall for stockpiling, you do need to change what you’re doing even if it seems counter-intuitive. That is if you want to grow more grass…
Your grazing won’t be perfect the first year or possibly ever, it is a journey. There is no template or magic number of paddocks or cows to give you a certain set of results. I’m happy with a steady improvement in the pastureland by using my beef cows as a tool. Tomorrow – Jane’s food setup, it’s a little different.