Frugal fencing and the stockpiling update
I discovered something – I like to watch grass grow. And I really like watching it grow for a long season. Not only have we lengthened our gardening season by changing our habits, we have extended our grass growing season too. It struck me the other day on a pasture walk, that growing up with our cattle being continuous grazed that I never really did see the grass growing much. The cows did – but we didn’t. They sought out the most tender morsels of regrowth as soon as the grass poked its little shoots out. I never had heard of the law of the second bite, and how detrimental it was to the grass plants, causing them to be less productive and never able to really reach their potential. Now I know how important it is, that the cows do not get to regraze an area until it is fully recovered.
I have moved the cows to the final stockpiled pasture this past week, it has not been grazed since June 5th. That is 140 days rest! Not all the forage is top quality, what won’t be eaten, will hopefully be trampled and manured on, creating the perfect carbon to nitrogen ratio. No composting, just animals eating, and leaving a deposit. Pretty low tech and low-cost, with a huge carbon sequestering potential. And I am excited!! You see, the previous two grazing seasons, I kind of backslid – I had emergency surgery, and limped (figuratively) through one grazing season, and the next season I was just plain lazy. Cheating on the back fence and watering sites, and this season I was paying for it with weed pressure I hadn’t seen for 6 or 7 years. This year I vowed to be faithful, and having read Comeback Farms, by Greg Judy twice, I was ready to dive in. Hangdog and I are pretty much self-taught in everything we are doing. We look, listen and do, and make mistakes, misinterpret and learn. Books never can convey the whole story, and biological farming is a continuously changing situation. Some guidelines can guide you but, expect to be on your own. Your grass, your animals and your expectations will be different than those of others.
The concept of High Density Planned Grazing is hard for most people to get their mind around. I alluded to the disconnect most people have about cattle in an earlier post about chickens. Cattle can’t free range? But chickens should? Cattle have been made out to be the bad guy lately, but if managed and fed correctly, are much easier on the land than chickens, or other grain consuming animals. My cattle harvest their own feed most of the year without much fossil fuel, and definitely without a plow touching our land. When we had chickens and sold pastured eggs, quite a bit of fossil fuel, and plowing was required just to grow the crops to feed our chickens, let alone transport it to our farm from some faraway place. Talk about food miles, I think if you’re going to calculate food miles, you should add in all the miles of what it takes to get that particular food to your plate. My thoughts lately have been leaning to bio-regional everything, instead of all of us being the same, maybe pork and chicken should be seasonal foods where the grain grows plentiful, and maybe we will be eating salmon and huckleberries here. I recently saw some local chicken feed being sold, the big draw, no soybeans, just local grain, but to make up the missing protein from discarding the soy in the feed recipe, fish and crab meal (which are by-products of the ocean fishing industry or worse factory aqua farming) have been substituted. If I had my druthers, I would rather feed the soybeans, instead of those meat meals. Soybeans can at least be grown organically. Crabs, I doubt it… .
But I’m digressing, back to grazing.
The question I get asked the most is: How big to make the paddocks? The question should be how small to make the paddocks. Plan how much your stock will eat in one day, and build your temporary fence accordingly. That’s the beauty of temporary fencing – it’s temporary – if you miscalculate, you get a chance to made amends tomorrow. The cows and the grass will forgive you.
No need to apologize here – one day, high impact. The cattle will not be back here until next spring.
Three days, grass growth starting.
This is during the fall (grass is growing slow now), if it was June, the regrowth would be immediate and this shows perfectly that tender new growth that would be grazed, if the cows weren’t moved. That is why the daily moves are so important, and leaving the stock longer causes a decline in grass production.
10 days, more green showing than brown and well fertilized too.
I know it may seem strange that this is exciting to me, but it is. Will it work? I hope so, but I don’t have to have the exact answer right now, about next year. Biological farming means people need to get out there and do it, experience it, and figure out what is right and wrong. The class room is in your pasture not in the kitchen microwaving grass, or looking at graphs and charts to see how much grass you have. What I have learned in my classroom this summer, (some of this I already knew) is that even if I make the paddock size too small, and the trampling didn’t occur because the cows ate it, that is all I am missing. I have still been successful at getting the cows to fertilize almost all of each paddock. And the cows have been there for one day – period, that is it, no manure concentration that my pasture can’t handle, no pugging from constant hoof action, and most importantly no second bite on tender grass shoots. Or the flip side of that coin, if I make the paddock too big, and trampling doesn’t happen and the manure coverage is sparse, it still is a step in the right direction.
The idea of rotational grazing is that you can be flexible and strict at the same time. For time management sake, I have to let Della free-range. So her and my daughter’s horse, and two calves have the run of one pasture. I do not have time to walk a mile to get Della for milking and then take her back to the beef herd, they are at the far end of our place. Plus she wouldn’t want to leave them, and they would think she is getting something they weren’t – that is too stressful. Building flexibility into your chores is a must. If tasks are too complicated, they will cease to be done in an orderly fashion, if at all. And if the supplies are too expensive you may never start, which brings me to the frugal part of this post – electric fencing on the cheap.
The first order of business is that electric fencing is not a legal fence in most areas, meaning not that it is illegal, but it cannot be your only fence. Electric fencing is only a psychological barrier, and prone to disruptions. Legal fencing is a permanent fence, that keeps your livestock on your property, and out of harms way. A permanent fence is a physical barrier, which varies for different livestock. I have cattle, and we use 5 strand barbed wire fences for the perimeter fences and 4 strand for some cross fences. In some areas we have field fence, but it is cost prohibitive on large tracts. It all depends on what type of livestock you have, what you like, what you can afford, and what is allowed in your area.
When we were in the research phase of rotational grazing, we were dizzy with all the supplies that were available, and how much money you could spend. We weren’t really sure we were ready to sink a lot of money into something that we may not want to continue. Joel Salatin’s poor boy fence appealed to us. Fence charger, re-purposed welding wire spools, rebar, smooth fencing wire, insulators, and a hammer. Not much expense there, and easy to walk away from if it didn’t work.
We were reluctant though, the guy at the feed store counseled us a little differently, rebar posts will not work, you need visible fencing tape, and here, buy this charger too. We came home with a little diagram and Hangdog went to work putting in T-posts and stringing up two runs of polytape. He pounded the ground rods in and hooked up the fence charger. Next all we needed were the cows, who had never seen electric fence in their lives. Not knowing what size to make a paddock, we ended up with about a 3 acre spot, figuring that would work and last hopefully awhile, since it took so blasted long to set up.
The cows were compliant enough and curious. They all filed in and began to graze. We had put a water trough in the paddock for their convenience, which they promptly checked out. All was fine, until someone just decided to walk through the fence to the next paddock. Luckily everyone was bomb-proof, but they looked liked they had been TP’d, some had the tape wrapped around them, and the rest was just trampled. Secretly, being a member of the Barbwire Society, I knew this would never work :O It was too much work and the cattle just went right through the fence. We kicked the cows out, and back to their continuous grazing they went.
We went back to the drawing board, and the feed store with more questions to prod the clerk with. The clerk there was against a wall, he had no idea what we wanted or needed. His answer was more electricity and “Burn them buggers, that’ll learn ‘em!” I wanted to burn him! Luckily the owner overheard and steered us to a low impedance energizer. We were more than happy to try the new energizer, and while we where there we picked up some wire, and insulators for rebar, since our polytape was in shambles.
That was a long time ago, and I still am using those same supplies every day. What I appreciate about this simple solution to our electric cattle fence is that it is simple, inexpensive and easy to use.
POSTS – step-in posts are popular, making people think they don’t need a hammer, just step in the post and go. That’s fine when the ground is soft, but if your pasture is poor, the soil is poor, and it is hard to step those posts in. Most of the time they are plastic or fiberglass and don’t last, and you can’t pound them in with a hammer. Care to pack a cordless drill with you? My hammer fits in my back pocket, and doesn’t require batteries. The rebar posts last and last. If they get bent, I can re-bend them in the cat tracks or in my pickup bumper. And I could always use them for rebar if we don’t need them as posts anymore.
WIRE – I am using steel wire because it is the cheapest. Aluminum would be a good choice, it doesn’t rust, and is supposed to conduct better. But, any time I have been shocked by the fence, I have realized I don’t need to experience the better conductivity of aluminum. The cows respect our fence, so I guess it is working just fine, even if I can’t recite the joule output when quizzed. I think the use of polytape or polywire is highly overrated. We humans think it is necessary because it is easier to see for us. But the cattle don’t need to see it, they feel the pulse of the electricity. Over time those little wires weaken from flexing in the wind or from normal use and they break, and then the connection is not as strong and then the fence becomes merely a suggestion. However, if you’re using temporary fences with horses, then by all means get the highly visible poly product. Horses are notoriously hard to rotationally graze. They tend to run through electric fence because of their different flight response. Most horses I know need to be on a restricted diet, not full on grazing. Most horses are just maintaining condition so they don’t need the intensive caloric intake like animals raised for meat or milk. .
SPOOLS – my favorite, the plastic, recycled spools. We noticed that everyone wants handles for reeling the wire in and out, and I watched Joel do the same thing. It’s harder work than just reeling the wire on by hand, or letting it feed out by putting my fingers in the center hole. I have to walk far enough putting up the fence I don’ t need to make it a workout too. Hangdog decided he wanted handles too, and drilled some bolt holes in several of our spools, and attached bolts for handles. It made a simple job more complicated, and ruined the spools eventually to boot. Sometimes in the kitchen, a knife does the job just fine, no need for a food processor, this seems the same.
I may have forgotten something, and this post from last year shows more, but the most important thing about whatever type of fencing, is that your stock stays where you want it to, and it is easy to set up and take down. If your fence building takes much more than an hour a day, including travel time, restocking minerals, moving the water and the stock, you are spending too much time, or your fencing is overly complicated. Simplify is the answer. Just start, and take the grazing one day at a time, the next thing you know, you will be talking about next year and what you will do differently, and you will be excited too.