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Grass rules my life!

May 11, 2008

I wish all my pasture looked this good.

Grass, or the lack of it, rules my life.  MiG (Management- intensive Grazing) is a complicated blend of art and science.  I think about our pastures as much as I think about our gardens and orchards.  After all it is food for someone, my cows, and they “feed” me physically and mentally.  My cows are my friends.  One day I called a friend of mine, who has horses.  Her husband answered the phone because she wasn’t available, “She’s putting people in, she’ll call you back…”  I knew he meant the horses, but she feels about her horses the way I feel about my cattle.

I should (and am) writing a detailed post about the actual electric fencing procedure, but maybe the grass should be first.  My neighbors have been calling every couple of weeks, asking questions about laying chickens and other “growing your own” food type of issues.  On Friday, they wanted to know about getting a milk cow.  They live in a small settlement of about 15 houses, in the woods.  No grass, no clearings for grass and neighbors very close.  We like these people and have helped them with their chicks, but I draw the line at helping someone procure a cow, when they don’t even have a place for one.  Of course, they want a Dexter, and they think everyone in their immediate neighborhood will chip in and milk, when they get tired of it.  NOT!!!

We have gently tried to poo poo the idea.  I don’t know if it is working or not.  But, since it is making me think the food situation is getting so bad these people want a cow, maybe I should get a little more worried myself.  They are the type of people who look at all the colors the Kitchenaid stand mixers come in, and they buy white!!!!  Of course, I’m totally off the deep end and secretly covet one in every color to match my Fiestaware collection! 

Anyway, I’m on my second rotation and I’m starting to make my paddocks smaller.  It has been a cool spring, and  the grass is growing slower than expected, but doing OK.  I’m by nature a worry wart, I always think my garden is too small, too large, not enough tomatoes, too many tomatoes.  With the grazing, it’s overgrazed, or undergrazed I feel uncertain quite a bit of the time.  We don’t have flat fields so at this stage of the grazing season, I have to start paying attention the the keylines, (see Water for Every Farm on the book page) where slope meets swale.  I have to make sure I’m building my paddocks on the same type of ground, not combining a cooler north facing slope with a warmer south facing slope.  Nor do I want to fence small paddocks in a swale, where the ground may still be wetter and prone to pugging.

The main idea of MiG is the rule of the “second bite”, which means do not let the animals back on the grass until it is grown back and and is a darker green color.  Especially in two or three days, when the grass is light green and very tender.  You can graze short, but you need to give the plant adequate rest to recover.  Depending on the season that could be 2 weeks or 2 months.  If you let the plant get grazed again soon, you start losing productivity. 

 On the right, light green – too tender for grazing.

This is in our yard, where we mowed, but it shows the color I was talking about.

On our farm, cows rule, so there is no need for worrying about competing grazers.  Sheep, horses, and goats, can all starve out a cow.  Cattle don’t have top teeth and therefore must tear off the grass instead of biting it off.  The grass MUST be at least 4 inches tall, or your cattle will be working too hard to eat.  You shouldn’t see a cow grazing all day, she should be able to eat for several hours and then take time out to ruminate.  It’s hard to start holding back your animals, but if you start and let the grass get ahead of them, then you are on the way to having more grass for your animals.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Kristen permalink
    May 12, 2008 5:10 am

    This post was very helpful for me…..we have one huge pasture and I hope to have it divided out in the next couple of years. I know it would save us so much money…we feed hay all year to our horses because the field is in such bad shape. So much to do….but I love it!! I did get my orchard done and my strawberries in this past weekend.. YEAH

  2. May 12, 2008 5:55 am

    For a moment there I thought you were dissing Kitchen Aid mixers. lol That’s the one small appliance I said I’d keep in a recent post—I’d be lost without my stand mixer!

    Looking forward to reading your post on fences. I love all your how-to posts! I’ve been re-reading your family cow series again as I try to prepare for bringing Lavish home. Thanks again for your help on that front!

    Hope you had a great mother’s day filled with M&Ms.

  3. May 12, 2008 7:34 am

    We rotate on a bigger scale but keeping the same principles in mind. Our biggest challenge is when we’re breeding cows and don’t want to be up against the neighbors bulls. Electric fences has really helped us.

  4. May 12, 2008 1:46 pm

    I too spend lots of time pondering the pastures…should I move them tonight, or can they wait until the morning? Is that low patch dry enough to graze yet? Oh man, I should have moved them yesterday.

    Fortunately, grass is pretty resilient around here…while I’ve made some mistakes, none of them has outweighed the huge benefit to the pastures that has happened since I started rotations 4 years ago. ‘Good’ grasses (fescue, orchardgrass, meadow foxtail, subclover, vetches) are coming in strong, and the less productive species (sweet vernal grass, bentgrass, misc thistles) are getting shoved aside.

    I can only imagine what we’ll have 20 years from now (or 100!).


  5. May 13, 2008 4:39 am

    Being of the worry-wart variety myself, all I can say is “Oh my!” Never would have guessed there’s so much to pasture management. I think I’m already scared off cows. Maybe after a few years of reading here, I’ll feel knowledgeable enough to get a sheep or two. Maybe. : )

  6. matronofhusbandry permalink*
    May 13, 2008 6:30 am

    Kristen, congrats on getting your orchard and berries in! I’m glad the grass post is giving you some ideas. It takes a while to improve your pastures this way, but it is worth it. The paybacks in animal health and the economic gain is worth the extra labor, and it is a lot easier than plowing and reseeding (the usual recommendation) which just sets back the ground even more.

    Danielle, thanks for the Mother’s Day wishes. I don’t know what I would give up, since we don’t have too many modern conveniences anyway. Maybe I’d give up my tomato twine if I could keep baling twine… .

    I’m glad I could be of help with Lavish, soon you can be a worry wart too!

    Linda, I know electric fence is a lifesaver in breeding season. We have always had more trouble with heifers jumping the fence, with the bulls being better behaved. I can only dream of a rotation like yours!

    Rich, I know what you mean, I’m overgrazing the last part of the field the cows are in now. It has progressed to sweet vernal grass in a few places. If they aren’t in small paddocks they avoid it, so this year they are eating it, like it or not. No graze- no manure- succession doesn’t move forward…
    I always do move the cows the same time of day though, so they are grazing during the evening. That way, they can rest during the hotter part of the day and ruminate. They like it that I keep to a schedule, and so do I.

    AMWD, you are so funny, a few years of reading here… I don’t think I can blog for a full year! I didn’t say it but, I think worry-warts make the best graziers! lol The hardest part is just starting. Thanks for the kind words.

  7. Dan permalink
    May 13, 2008 9:00 am

    Hello grazers and grass watchers,

    A silightly different twist on rotational grazing is grazing tall. Here are a couple links that talk about it.


  8. matronofhusbandry permalink*
    May 13, 2008 10:13 am

    Dan, thanks for stopping by and for the links. More homework, I see.

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