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Cows as a tool

July 8, 2010

Drought-proofing our pastures has come about as we changed our grazing management.  It’s hard to hit it right every day, but I am getting better at it.  It isn’t just rainfall that makes pasture, as a quick drive around my immediate area will tell you.  Neighbors think we have abundant grass because we have had abundant rain, but the rain clouds have dumped on their land too, and they are almost out of grass.  Well, actually they are out of grass, but they don’t really think so, as long as they can look out and see their cows eking out a bite of grass they are happy.  The thought of feeding the cows now and giving the meager pastures some respite from the continuous grazing is virtually unheard of.  These days many of our neighbors think we don’t have cattle anymore because they rarely see them because of the rotation schedule and we have grass!

Last year for the first time I started really grazing my hayfield headlands aggressively before we cut hay.   Our old practices were to cut the hay and then maybe let the cows in to clean up the edges.  But we were violating the second bite rule by doing that.  The cows pretty much left the edges and  preferred to eat the tender new shoots coming up where the hay had been cut, which really set back quite a bit of acreage.

Obviously grazing the edges does sacrifice some hay, but the benefits have far outweighed that problem.  This photo doesn’t show really how steep and shady this pasture gets, and by grazing the steep, shady part before the hay gets cut, voilà, that pesky outside round dries better.  If you have made much hay you know what I am talking about, even if the entire field is double raked, the outside round just does not dry as well with less air circulation.  I hate heavy, damp bales – we have to set them aside, if they don’t heat up, they will mold.

In our fields we have definite keylines,  so a straight fence isn’t always in order, as you can see I followed the contour of the hill with my fence.  This photo also shows that on our ridge tops the soil is poorer, hence the false dandelion strip.  Just to the right to that on the south-facing slope you rarely even see a false dandelion.  While some may think I need to eradicate that weed, I just look at it as a tool to tell me what is going on with my soil and plan accordingly.  And really the biggest factor is if the cows readily graze a weed or not?  They relish these false dandelions, so by not tensing out and getting out the chemicals and amendments, but by applying grazing pressure I can relax and enjoy the art of soil building.

This is kinda, sorta in the same hayfield, but is right along the county road.  As long as I can remember there has been Scotch Broom there in that fence row, where the soil is good the Scotch Broom doesn’t take hold and encroach into the field, but just over the ridge, where the land is weak and grows a poor pasture stand, it tries to spread.  We aren’t doing anything different, but the plants know what to do.

Since I really want to build the soil here, I want the cows to trample some of this forage, not clean it up.  Trampled forage = carbon, manure = nitrogen.  A great combination for building up pasture quick.  But alas, hard to do, every paddock.  If the paddock is too large, they waller the grass down and don’t really cover it entirely with manure, so to use the cattle as a tool, instead of hog mowing this, I made skinny paddocks and moved them twice a day.  You can really change the herd interaction with a narrow paddock.  They move around more, and trample more.  The twice a day move gives them plenty to eat, and gives me the coverage I want.  I also waited to do this until I had removed my 2-year-old steers from the herd.  They add a little too much herd action, and I didn’t want any breakouts into the hayfield.  That is tempting fate too much for me.  After this treatment once a year, this soil will be too rich for the Scotch Broom, it won’t set seed here.

Something I don’t ever really see anyone mentioning in grazing articles is that you get no manure coverage near the electric fence.  So it is imperative that the fence be moved a little each time you rotate back to the same paddock.  If you’re truly getting a good size rest period built into your grazing program, it isn’t a problem.  The strip where my cows are presently was one paddock in early May, now it will yield 7 or 8 paddocks.  That is how I am increasing my rest period – as the grass grows more, the cows need less space for a day.  But it does require observation of the cows and the forage.

Good litter and plentiful disturbed  cow pies.   Woot!  Makes you wonder if I am a little disturbed?

Here we’re looking across a hayfield into the next field, the cows are in the strip I mentioned above.  One days grazing in early May, now it is at least a weeks worth.  It’s hard to see but the cows are down in the swale of this pasture.  When they get done with this strip I will move them uphill where you can see again poor soil on the hillside, but still some excellent grass just above the strip they are in now.  Cows naturally gravitate to the more fertile areas, which over time makes the fertile areas better, and depletes the poor zone more.  To remedy this a I will build a wide strip and then divide that into two paddocks as I inch the cows ahead in the strip – one day they will graze the bottom fertile ground, the next day uphill to the poorer ground.  By doing this the cows will be depositing different seeds and more fertile manure (from the more nutritious plants) on the poor ground, and it also benefits the cows to not eat on depleted paddocks for a week.  They do get crabby, just like us when we aren’t fed nutritious food.

I don’t have all the answers, and building soil with grazing management takes time.   And it is fun to see the changes!

25 Comments leave one →
  1. Steven permalink
    July 8, 2010 8:18 pm

    Could you explain how you handle providing water to the beef herd when they are being rotated like this?
    We rotate daily in flat former crop ground and we ran water lines down the field but I’m interested in learning ways to do it in more hilly/rocky pastures.
    I’m guessing lanes but I didn’t see any.

    • July 8, 2010 9:01 pm

      Steven, I haul the water, for now it works the best for me. I drive to the pasture anyway so taking fresh water with me is not a hardship. The cost would be prohibitive to install water lines, which is what initially what I thought we might do. The way our property lies with county roads bisecting parts and deep timber separating the pastures would make it quite a project. We would have to install a mainline on the ridges for gravity to the lower areas. I’m still not too keen on our cattle water being delivered via hot hose. On rainy days they hardly drink any water, and if I put on my thinking cap I can place the trough where it will last 4 days with access from 4 different paddocks. Of course, with a bigger herd, you would need a larger water supply but that isn’t my problem. Depending on the weather and grass conditions, I may use one or two 100 gallon tanks, or a 300 gallon.

      For me a lane gets over used and too much manure, even for a weeks use. But it all comes down to what works best for you. A potable water tank, and a couple of water troughs and you’re in business, and you can place your water and minerals in areas that need higher impact. We did the same with our pastured poultry flock, the skid had three 55 gallon barrels plumbed to drink cups, and we moved the whole works every 3rd day. The full water tank gave the truck enough weight to pull the skid, and when it was in place, we filled the barrels. So I am used to hauling water I guess. We used to let the cows water at will in the canyons too – but that is frowned on and close to illegal – so for now, we pamper the girls by bringing their drinks to them. 😉

  2. July 8, 2010 8:41 pm

    You know, even I have heard of pasture management, and I’ve never kept cows, so I’m not sure what’s wrong with your neighbors!

    I sure hope that people and cattle that can benefit from your knowledge are reading this. I’ll never use this info, but I love reading about it!

  3. July 9, 2010 3:45 am

    Sounds like you have put a lot of thought and planning into your strategy and it seems to be working! Lots of good info on pasturing here!

    • July 9, 2010 4:49 am

      Sheryl, thanks! There is no possibility of renting additional land nearby so we have to make the most of what we have.

  4. July 9, 2010 3:52 am

    I enjoy reading about your rotational grazing methods. Watching a cow eat, it makes perfect sense. I only have one beef cow and two milk cows, and I keep them all together. Milk cows present a different challenge to rotational grazing because of the need to milk twice a day. This is my first year of explicit focus on rotating my cows in a deliberate fashion. I posted about my current method at Rotational grazing milk cows: my method. It’s been working out fairly well, I think. If there are ways I can tweak it and make it better, I will.

    • July 9, 2010 4:58 am

      Darryl, your method is very similar to mine, I just have a higher stocking density. I agree the milk cow presents a challenge. Since our place is so long and skinny, I kept the milk cow separate, which meant she only grazed near the house and gardens, coming to the barn for milking. For me it actually worked the best keeping her home, she was able to utilize feed that I usually just hog mowed to keep it down. I am not milking right now, and it feels like a vacation. I have extreme cow envy, I found a cow on Craigslist for a friend, she bought the cow and now I wish I had. 😦

      Before I know it, Jane will be having a calf though…

  5. Leon permalink
    July 9, 2010 3:52 am

    Thanks for a very informative (as usual) post!

    Have you ever played with swales along the keylines or other ways to keep water from rushing down the hill? We’re about to start building swales but I’ve yet to see someone who has actually done it, it’s all theoretical knowledge for now 🙂

    (We have hills, sandy soils and rains that damp an inch of water in 40 minutes, so no land management is possible without water management).

    • July 9, 2010 5:02 am

      Leon, I haven’t had to worry about rushing water – our location gets about 100″ of rainfall per year, but we have no runoff problems, or flooding because of our soil type, and excellent sod cover.

      I know of no one either that has actually employed swales to manage their rainfall, but I sure enjoy reading about it. I would like to actually build ponds, but it is illegal here because of salmon 😦 Ponds would add much more diversity here.

      • Leon permalink
        July 11, 2010 7:00 pm

        wow, the things we could grow if we had 100″ 🙂 (I’m in Central FL – lots of sunshine, 35″ in a good year)

        A bunch of little ponds (3 – 10′ dia) seems to be more beneficial than one large one actually … The little ones can’t be illegal, can they? Just call them “naturally occurring puddles” and plant some trees around so they don’t show up on the next USGS survey 🙂

        P.S. Still trying to figure how salmon could possibly be connected with ponds inland?

        • July 11, 2010 8:52 pm

          Leon, we are shy of sunshine – lots of gray skies with all that rain 🙂 Oh my, a 10′ pond here is just mud puddle LOL, but seriously all the water that falls here is on it’s way to the Columbia River, which in turn flows to the Pacific Ocean. I live just above the edge of the gorge.

          The restrictions are very strict, and I know too many people who have been busted on the aerial survey and forced to remove their illegal ponds. Sad but true, it’s hardly worth the hassle. Ponds on every farm would be an asset but are viewed as a liability and as a way to keep water from the spawning salmon…

  6. July 9, 2010 5:30 am

    I am, as always, endlessly impressed by the way you manage your grass and the grazing of it.

  7. July 9, 2010 6:41 am

    It always makes me sad to see cows, sheep, horses and goats in pastures full of “GREEN” uneatable weeds and tough, gone to seed grass. As time goes on the animals grow thin and then start getting out. When they finally come to our place….we try really hard to mangage our pastures as well as our crops….we try to gently tell thier owns green doesn’t mean food.



  8. July 9, 2010 7:29 am

    This was a great article. We are a few months into our first season of rotational grazing on our prairie pastures, and while it’s not perfect, my husband and I are both pleased that we’re taking the first steps to keep the cattle moving. We’ve fed a lot of hay and haylage this year so far, and in fact right now the herd (3 cows and 2 calves) are off the pasture and eating hay in the sacrifice paddock while the freshly brush hogged pastures take a break and regrow. (Of course, we brush hogged just a few days before our current heat wave. Hopefully the grass will hang on and grow.)

    What I found interesting is last winter we ran two sacrifice areas as we had a yearling bull to keep away from his yearling half-sister, and for convenience in the one area we fed along the fenceline. It bothered me to see so much old hay piled up and trampled, and I thought for sure we’d kill any grass underneath. Well, I can hardly believe the lush, green (probably) hay seed that sprouted and is growing crazily! This grass is very, very green and is the picture of health. We will try feeding hay in our barer pasture spots over the winter (but before thaw) to see if we can get the same effect.

  9. July 9, 2010 7:53 am

    You have so much information in your head. I love reading about your rotational grazing. It might be because you write so well and it is just interesting to me.

  10. akaangrywhiteman permalink
    July 9, 2010 9:04 am

    …”Woot! Makes you wonder if I am a little disturbed?”…

    No, MOH, we really don’t wonder all that much, most of us have a pretty good idea.

    It’s good to see you’re conquering that fanny fetish and including more head shots.

    All kidding aside, I really do enjoy reading of your stewardship of the land, especially the way it benefits man, beast, and earth. Symbiosis is much preferred to parasitism.

  11. July 9, 2010 1:29 pm

    Ive really enjoyed your blog for some time. I am part of an organic farming co-op in the lowermainland of BC… so i always sympathize with your discussion of heavy rain…!

    I would like to start a field management project on the farm and Im having trouble coming up with any concrete sources for organic weed control.. your blog has been VERY helpful.
    We are dealing with totally unmanaged/ungrazed fields. Butterup has almost entirely taken over in a lot of places with thistle and nettle and st johns wort also. We have two horses on the farm and are planning on a couple milk goats.

    If you have the time.. I wondered if you could think of any books that have been a big help to you…

    or maybe you are getting your knowledge here and there…??

    I will keep digging through your old posts too!!

    thank you for all you do here!


    • July 13, 2010 6:46 pm

      Hi Kelsey! I’ll start out with mentioning the book, WEEDS AND WHY THEY GROW,by Jay L. McCaman is helpful. The book is available at Acres, USA. It basically lists weeds and gives the soil conditions that they need to thrive. Weeds really are there to tell us what is going on in the soil. The buttercup is probably on poorly drained sites, and the thistle and nettle just love sites that got too much manure at one time, perhaps near an old barnyard, or a place where livestock hung out a lot in the shade. Or even possibly the site of an old manure pile. Many times it’s hard to tell what went on before you when you are new to the land. We humans tend to be prone to tunnel vision – weeds present – must spray. Which is frustrating because if you don’t change the soil conditions to something more desirable plants like, the same old problem weeds will be there to remind you to do something. Just deciding what to do is the hardest.

      Another way to really turn old abused pastures around is with High Density, Short Duration rotational grazing. That would be hard to do with horses and goats, though. Cattle are the best soil builders with their intensive rumens. But it doesn’t hurt to read up about those things – COMEBACK FARMS, by Greg Judy is also a good one and is also available from Acres. You never know when a paradigm shift is in order. Also if you’re doing vegetables and utilizing your horses, anything written by Anne and Eric Nordell is a must read. They write for the Small Farmers Journal and there are many articles on the internet about them.

      That a start anyway – Good Luck MoH

      • kelsey landers permalink
        July 15, 2010 6:06 pm


        thank you so much for taking the time to answer! I will try the library for those books or order them if neccessary!

        It will be a long process for this project but i feel im off to a good start anyway…


  12. July 9, 2010 1:37 pm

    I’m a new reader and an urban student rather than a farmer, but I wanted to say that it’s so cool the way you can tell the quality of the soil and what’s been happening to it just from watching the plants grow and the cows eat. That you can get what you want to happen, to happen, without using chemical stuff, is also amazing. I’m glad you have this blog to share the wealth of knowledge! It seems techniques like this will go a long way towards promoting low-chemical farming.

  13. July 10, 2010 6:37 am

    Fascinating. You hear a lot about problems with overgrazing; much less about how to manage cows to keep the land healthy. Thank you so much for sharing your knowledge; some of it will be applicable even if I never keep cows.

  14. July 10, 2010 6:45 pm

    It is encouraging to know there are others doing this right way of grazing. This year I am paying more attention to the herd behavior/impact and making the paddocks large or small according to the grass density. I will have to try my hand at guiding the nutrients from the fertile areas to the less fertile hill tops as I have the same situation going on in my hilly pasture. Thanks for this information it is very strait forward.
    Keep up the good work!


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