Skip to content

High impact, low impact

July 1, 2008

I want to leave a light effect on this land that I have had the great fortune to grow up on.  To do that, I have to understand when I have to be hard and when I have to be soft.  Usually, I have to do both at the same time.  Finesse is required to do MiG.  It is a challenge every day, every week, every month, and every year.  What I’m doing right now affects what happens next year.  Add in weather, and other distractions, and you can see why grazing properly takes careful consideration.  As for grazing properly, this is how I’m currently  grazing the cows, and every farm will have different requirements.  But these are the basics, as they apply to our land.

I just had things pretty well figured out, and then we decided to cut back on our cow herd, and try to find the magic number of cattle that would allow us to make all our hay here.  I’m still not sure if we have reached that magic number yet.  Until last year, we bought additional standing hay from an acreage that my folks used to rent.  While I don’t want to sell any of my land’s fertility by selling the hay we make here, I could give a rat’s behind, if the neighbor wants to sell his carbon to me.  Besides, he fancies himself an environmentalist and he wouldn’t believe me if I told him he’s depleting his land.   I have decided that for me to make a difference in the world, I have to take care of my own piece of Earth and keep busy, if everyone did just that, things would be better all around.  It was a relief last summer to not have to leave the farm and try to make hay around someones party/event schedule, instead of when the hay was in its prime.  We do however make hay on a field, about 10 miles away, just to help out some friends.  That we don’t mind, we have a key and can go when we deem the hay is ready.  While not the best quality, it is still carbon for us to add to our fertility program. 

In this post I will try to explain and show grazing in my poorest quality pasture, and the challenges it presents.  This picture clearly shows the graze line with repugnance zones.  The repugnance zone is the area around an older cow pie where the growth is the lushest and parasite load is the highest.  The cows naturally avoid these areas.  I purposely build my fence high enough, roughly 32″,  so the calves can creep feed if they want to and I can still step down the fence to get over it.

This pasture is always a challenge to graze, it has dominate keylines, and some areas are quite steep.  On the poorer ground in this pasture, the predominate grass is sweet vernal grass, and  while it smells sweet, the taste is acrid and the cattle don’t like it.  There is also a mix of white clover and red clover, Japanese clover, and common vetch.  These items show some calcium is available to plants, but not enough to support a good stand of orchard grass, timothy and some of the more desirable grasses.
I suspect there are many reasons this field is different than our others, even though it is near our better pastures, and  shares the same characteristics.  My parents bought this piece of property in 1942, I have pictures of a crop of oats on this parcel.  Of course the picture is not dated, I don’t know if it was taken after they purchased it or not.  Or how long it was in grain production.  In my memory, it has always been pasture.  Our land was continuously grazed until 14 years ago.  That means the cattle ate where and when they wanted.  Cattle, like all grazing animals, eat the most palatable and leave the rest.  Where they don’t eat they don’t defecate, so the pasture never progresses to a higher fertility level.  The cattle would graze at night and spend most days ruminating in the woods where it was cool, leaving their excrement behind when they meandered out to graze.  Another practice we followed was feeding the cattle out all winter, this field is farther away and not as convenient, so we rarely fed there.  The wind also blows there.  My brother always watched the cows, knowing that they would find the warm microclimates, and we would feed them on clean ground near where they were waiting.  This feeding practice put out seed, and lots of manure in one pasture.  You guessed it, that is our best one, despite the hard use in the winter.

 To make the cows eat less than appetizing grass, and to graze on steep ground I have to confine them to those places.  I also have to provide them with fresh water, and minerals, since they can’t leave and go to the springs to drink, and browse in the woods.  What this does is concentrate a days manure, urine and hoof action in one spot.  I only allot what I think they will eat in one day.  Here is where the management part comes in.  I spend an average of an hour each day analyzing the grass, checking fence, building a new fence, moving minerals, water, and assessing the weed and grass population.  If that sounds like drudge work, it is not.  I enjoy the mental stimulation and seeing if I’m making a difference or not.  High impact is what I’m looking for.  I want those animals to leave their manure and fertilize that ground.  Where it is steep, we couldn’t spread compost if we wanted to.  It is far easier to put up a quickie fence and let the cows do it.  However, the low impact part is where I have to be careful.  Every cow and calf has to take frequent drinks of water, so I don’t take land out of production by building a lane to a permanent water source.  This would be easier, but the impact would be too high, too much manure concentration and too much treading and standing by too many animals.  I need low impact in this situation.  I have been moving my water every two to four days.  This is where I’m trying to be soft.  Moving the water is the hardest part of the rotational grazing for me.  Squeaking out two -four paddock shifts per trough placement is as far as I want to push it as far as compaction and manure concentration is concerned.  To kill two birds with one stone, I try to place the water and minerals where the fertility is the lowest in a paddock.  That puts a greater amount of fertilizer in the place I need it most.  Cows will not even lounge in the low fertility spots.  Which just continues the cycle, if they don’t frequent the area it can never progress in fertility.  When this pasture was continuously grazed, there were areas the cows didn’t even graze after May.  Once it gets rank, they prefer to go back to the other overgrazed areas and eat shorter more tender grass.  Too much rest in one area, and not enough in others.  Not very productive.  But, it takes time and commitment to do this.  I have adopted this with a devotion that even surprises me.  If I’m on time, the cows and grass forgive me if I mis-judge, and don’t allot enough or too much.  They know I will fix it as soon as I can.

My favorite analogy to explain the concept of rest, comes from Holistic Resource Management by Allan Savory, I think, this could also be something Stan Parsons has said.
Imagine the Grand Canyon, it’s fragile environment, and the burros that are used there on the trails.  The impact from 1 burro going down the trail 365 days a year, is a higher impact with no chance of rest/recovery, than 365 burros going down the trail, 1 day in a year.  The numbers are the same, but the effect isn’t.  This is why you can’t just divide up you acreage into neat little packages and graze away and expect the outcome to be the same.  Each piece of ground has it’s challenges, and should be seen as different, just like children are each unique in their own way.  In this field, I’m currently building a rectangular paddock every two days, and I divide it in two, but not in half, part of this field grows better grass, and part of it doesn’t.  I know I won’t have any trouble getting them to eat the choice pasture, but the poorer stuff has to be eaten too.  I also have to allot a larger paddock in the weak grass too, because it is poor – the food value isn’t there, so it takes more.  To determine this, I have to look at how the cows ate the previous day, how they are acting, and what the quality of the next paddock is. 


I want this grazed short.  We cut hay on this piece last year, and didn’t get back to it with compost.  This year we are paying for not spreading that compost here.  The grass is weak and slipping backwards.  This is grazed no shorter than if we mowed it again for hay.  At least by grazing and taking all the grass, the cows are adding their manure for fertilization in addition to the roots sloughing and adding organic matter. 

New paddock, they get right to work.  They will graze this into the night and rest most of the next day until afternoon, when we do it all again.  In this particular field, if I came at it from the other direction, and put them in this paddock first, the next day, when moved to the weaker section, they would just fuss about and eat here and there, and go back and hang out on the good ground, since they know I will be there a regular time the next day. That would almost put two days worth of manure and impact on one paddock. That’s why leaving cows in place for days doesn’t work as well, unless your pasture is all the same quality.  It took me a while to figure these things out.  You can’t read it in a book, you have to put the animals in a place and observe their habits and impact.  Since they don’t like yesterday’s paddock pictured above, I can leave down the back fence, giving them access to the water without having to move it, knowing they won’t be hanging out at the “water cooler”.  Paying attention like this, to the habits of the cows and their preferences, saves me some work and helps me achieve my goals.

Oxeye daisy coming back in, shows low ph.  We had record rain this spring coupled with our lack of compost spreading.  I will have to wait until next year, to see if my grazing plan has done any good.  (Note:  the cute dog is not necessary for good MiG, but I sure like my baby dog.)

The ravens have been scratching through the cow pies, looking for fly larvae.  This is how Joel Salatin’s Eggmobile works.   At his farm, a flock of laying hens, moves behind the cows, staying about 4 paddocks back.   They scratch through the cow manure looking for the larvae, and in the process spread the manure and take care of the parasite problem.  We have never been able to pull that one off, with our predator situation.  I’m not in a place mentally, where I could just have a dog for livestock guarding – so that one will have to wait, until my next reincarnation.  Who knows maybe I’ll get to be the guard dog!  Just my luck I’ll be the cow pie… .

I’m always looking for weeds, mostly to try to figure out if I’m doing an OK job or not.  What some consider weeds, are grazed and utilized, so I don’t get tensed out about those.  These are some I don’t like to see.  I remove them when I find them.  By waiting until the cows have grazed they are readily apparent and easy to pull or dig.

Himalayan blackberry, Rubus discolor    Another low ph indicator.

Tansy ragwort,  Senecio jacobaea.  Poisonous to cattle and horses, sheep and goats can graze this, cattle avoid it unless it is dried in hay.  This weed used to be a problem, now with the MiG, it has virtually disappeared.

Yellow Rattle, Rhinanthus cristi-galli.  I hate this one, it came in from someone’s hay field .  It’s seed pods are dry when it is hay making time, so it easily is spread that way.  The cows do graze it though.  Another low ph indicator, but not a problem in all our fields.


In our sacrifice areas and high traffic areas, I expect to see the following weeds.  These types take a lot of work to get rid of, since they are usually in areas where animals have congregated during the wet season, and ruined the soil structure.  Sometimes on a new place it is hard to understand this because you don’t have a clear idea of the history of your land.  While I have some of the weeds they aren’t a problem.  But, I can tell that my daughter can’t fathom that where a barn stood 60 years ago, you will still have these weeds, even if there is not a sign of a building.

Canadian thistle,  Cirsium arvense.  This is in a corner of a pasture, it is on an old driveway, where the “New Barn” was built in 1957.  A snow storm in 1980 flattened this barn.  Now you would never know a barn once stood here.  I know it, and the plants show it.  Since there is quite a bit of rock here and it received quite a bit of manure every year.  The thistles do well, and shallow rooted clovers are doing OK too.  These haven’t spread, I cut them at pre-bloom stage and they seem to going away gradually.  Horses relish wilted Canadian thistle.


This is in our barnyard, Western Dock, Broadleaf plantain, dog fennel, pineapple weed, and prostrate knotweed are all common here.


Near the driveway next to the greenhouses.  Here again there is some rocked road here, so pineapple weed, and broadleaf plantain grows among the clover and bluegrass.  This is a high traffic area, humans and vehicles, so we’re responsible for this compaction.


This post has given me some ideas for explaining my weed problems in the garden.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. July 2, 2008 9:43 pm

    I am, and will be, studying your post. You have me thinking a lot about what kinds of weeds that I have in my field. I never thought of them as soil quality indicators, this is some good information and I am going to take my time an read it well. Thanks for sharing this post with us all.


  2. July 3, 2008 3:31 am

    I came across a book not long after we moved here describing a good portion of the weeds that were common to our region. Surprisingly it was fun to learn what all the weeds were that were growing here and how to eradicate them naturally. I’m making progress, slowly. At least I know what I’m up against and that makes it easier.

    I’ve read your post four times – I’ve picked up something each time I’ve read it. Thank you for the time and knowledge that you share. For me, I couldn’t get this valuable info from any book and it certainly has be thinking about changes I need to make and how it will benefit my land and my livestock.

    Do you think it’s beneficial to have a small flock of chickens grazing with your cattle if they cannot be 4 paddocks behind?

    Thank you!!

  3. matronofhusbandry permalink*
    July 3, 2008 6:18 am

    Chris, thanks, it is a challenge to explain this in a manner that makes it easier to understand. Learning why the plants grow where they do has helped me immensely. I used to think all the weeds just were there or blew in – now I know what role I’m playing in all this.

    Debi, now that I don’t look at weeds so generally, I have been able to use this knowledge in my garden plots as well. BTW they are very weedy!! But, we’re making headway. I have to have the gardens ship shape before we start haying.

    Thank you, it is a challenge to explain what I’m doing as far as grazing goes. Or to remember to take the camera when I go and move the cows!

    I think your chickens are fine, especially, you feed grain, and if your cows are getting whole oats in the mix, the birds will scratch through the fresh cow pies to get the grain. The four day lag time has to do with the manure fly larvae. Our beef cows don’t get grain, (unless, they are bad and get out)(hmmm, am I rewarding bad behavior??) and we aren’t running chickens with them, so I have to rely on the crows and ravens.

  4. July 3, 2008 5:03 pm

    As always your amaze me with your wisdom. Our situation is vastly different in lots of aspects but yet the same principles apply. Having big pastures with lots of plant species and looking out that they don’t get overgrazed is the key for us. Our water situation (using fixed dugouts) are where we have the problems. Cattle like to stand around these areas when it’s hot or for their “downtime” so we place our salt licks away from water and on poorer land so they’ll give it a little “crap” and congregate there instead:)

  5. matronofhusbandry permalink*
    July 3, 2008 10:32 pm

    Linda, I don’t think it’s wisdom, we subscribe to The Stockman Grassfarmer, have read a lot of books on this, and have been trying to make it work here. I think your grass probably is more nutritious being in drier country. But, I agree, they love to hang out when they’re full, and can they ever make a mess. I’ve got a few of those places too.
    Your pastures look great, now that the pesky snow is gone.

  6. July 4, 2008 9:49 am

    i thought tansy was poisonous to sheep and goats. we have lots of thistle, growing right where a barn used to be. and burdock too. the goats will eat the thistle only if there’s nothing else to eat. we haven’t done much to control it as the yellow finches love the seed.

    what do you do to raise the ph on your pasture?

    how long have you been doing this rotation? i am amazed at how in tune you are with what’s going on. i think that is excellent! i am learning a lot from you! thanks so much for sharing your knowledge.

  7. July 5, 2008 3:27 pm

    Very informative post on stuff I need to learn about. We have 30-40 acres of field that we would like to put some cattle on after we get set up with fencing and all. Someone else is haying our land right now…for 3 more summers after this, part of the deal when we bought this place. However, we may hay thereafter or we will at least take a portion of it for our critters.
    I have no clue as far as weed identification so thanks again for the post, very helpful!

  8. matronofhusbandry permalink*
    July 6, 2008 1:40 pm

    Kristine, we bought our sheep specifically for tansy removal, and friends of ours have a weed removal business utilizing Boer goats. I suppose some breeds could be poisoned, but it hasn’t had any ill effects here. They don’t have tansy as a steady diet either, and they can metabolize the alkaloids differently than cattle and horses. Even though the sheep have helped us by grazing the Senecio, it has disappeared in areas we never grazed the sheep. So I’m thinking the healthier grass stand has helped eradicate the tansy.

    As to the ph thing, we can’t afford to lime all the pastures, so we have been applying compost and grazing pressure. Not a quick fix, but an affordable one for us.

    We started rotating in 1994, but we didn’t move the cows everyday, and didn’t have our water supply system. (Our water system still needs work, sigh) It has taken a long time to get to this point – but each year we’ve seen improvements on some front, so for us it is worth doing.

    Kim, thanks, since you are new to your place, by the time your hay contract is up, you will have a better feeling about what you want to do with your pasture land. At least with someone doing the hay right now, your land isn’t going back into forest. Grazing animals or machinery sure can be a big help. Around here if you turn your back for one season, there are saplings sprouting up.

  9. December 8, 2008 9:51 am


    Thanks for sharing this excellent grazing strategy. Both your cows and pasture look so healthy and vibrant. I use an electric fencer and rotational scheme to move my 2 heffers, but have learned quite alot from your information here. I really value the care to detail…in all of your posts (milkin, soap making..its quite spiritual.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: