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Carrots and grass

September 27, 2010

Pasture is usually the most misunderstood crop on a farm.  Taken for granted, mistreated and often worn out but still expected to perform year after year.  And yes, pasture is a crop.  Too many years of lawn culture etched in our brains makes it easy for us for us to just see a sea of green out there and call it good, literally.  Good pasture is always a work in progress, and it is hard to visualize.  What we do each day affects what happens today of course, but it also affects what will happen next year and beyond.  It’s interesting don’t you think, on most farms, (choir preaching here, I mean farms where people are pasturing their livestock) that people do things day after day to their pasture what they would never think of doing to their garden or field crops…

What happened to our carrot crop this year provides the perfect visual aid to help me explain why I will not graze this pastoral field that while green, is nowhere near ready to be grazed, (unless I want to set it back for a year.)

And rotate my cows through this rested stockpiled pasture instead.  The look of stockpiled grass hardly calls up any thoughts of verdant pastures, more so an absentee farmer who is an embarrassment to her continuously grazed, short grass neighbors.

“What’s a matter?  Bush Hog broke down??”

But in fact, I am not absentee, they are, I am out there every day moving my cows.

They say a farmers footsteps are the best fertilizer, and I believe that is true, since I am in my pasture every day during the grazing season.  But in conjunction with the footsteps you need to use your eyes and your mind’s eye too.  You see the grass, the cows and your mind’s eye hopefully can see the past and future impacts of your management or mismanagement.  One thing about rotational grazing is that it is a little more forgiving to you than continuous grazing.  You may overgraze one day or undergraze the next, and the cows will let you know by their reaction the next day.  But if you’re continuously grazing your pastures, and the cows are basically fending for themselves, even if you see them every day, it’s hard to correct.  If I don’t feed enough one day, I can make a bigger paddock the next day which makes my correction and the cows are satisfied, I only overgrazed a very minute portion of my pasture.  But if I let them overgraze for months, by the time I notice, the grass is basically done for the year, with no expectation that it can be fixed until the next year.  But most people I know, turn their cows into the hayfields as soon as they green up after cutting.  After all, it is green and growing, but it is a tender plant that is recovering from being mowed, it doesn’t expect to get its head bit off, so when it does get grazed, it will react by shedding its roots and starting over – again.  Sigh.  Imagine running a race, and getting tripped, and the rules dictate you have to go back to the beginning to start over each time you trip and fall.  You will give up eventually, and that is what happens in pastures.  They give up and only will grow mediocre species that can survive the nipping, tripping scenario.  And that is the slippery slope, soon the plants have very few minerals in them because their roots don’t go deep enough to get any.  Then the cows start to have problems.  Usually that’s when the experts come out of the woodwork and suggest fertilizer to make the grass grow, and drugs to make the cows healthy, when really all the grass needs to grow, is to be left alone.  Imagine that, leave the grass be and let it be grass, and then let the cows come in and be cows, eating grass.   How simple, yet it never occurs to most people.

Carrots are main food crop for us.  The milk cow, dogs and the resident humans  here eat a lot of carrots from Fall through late Spring.  Summer not so much, that is when the main crop carrots are stockpiling sun and growing the roots that we so love to eat.

Not unlike the forage we are allowing to grow for our stockpiled grazing.  I want to grow roots on my grass to feed the soil, but to do that I have to let the grass grow.  You know the “what is below the ground is the same as what is above” thing.  By now,  I know you are wondering what in the world do carrots have to do with pasture or rotational grazing?  And when will she get to it!

OK,  here is the carrot tool for visualizing why continuous grazing or grazing grass before it is rested is so costly.    The number I see bandied about in grazing circles for economic losses of continuous grazing or grazing too soon is a 30% loss of productivity per year.  To me that sounds like a lot, especially when you take into consideration that in a continuous grazing operation most likely you are losing lots of manure (fertilizer) too by having fixed water troughs,  fixed mineral feeders (if at all) and most likely throwing hay out on bare ground in the barn yard too because you have run out grass mid-summer, all those things concentrate too much manure where it can’t be utilized and keeps it out of the pasture that needs it.   Been there, done that.  Can’t afford it anymore.  If someone gave you a $100, would you throw away $30?  Or if you had a hundred bales of hay would you leave thirty of them out in the rain to get ruined?  Pay for 10 gallons of gas and only take 7 gallons?  Probably not, put in those terms that sounds like too much money to be wasting.  But pasture is just out there, to abused, eaten into the ground and used up, and when it is gone we put out hay, which is just tall grass that has been stockpiled so it can be cut, raked and baled and hauled to the barn or across many miles if you don’t make your own hay.  Stockpiled grass for grazing is like money in the bank.  It just takes time.

This year we got a late start with our carrots.  According to my garden journal, my daughter planted her carrots May 15th, and I planted mine June 24th.  In the photo above, the small carrot on the left is from my daughter’s earlier planting, and the two on the right are from my planting 5 weeks later.  What happened?  Well, someone – voles, deer, rabbits – kept mowing her carrot tops down to the nubs.  Repeatedly.  A few Elmer Fudd episodes later, rabbits became less of a problem, but as soon as the carrots would send up some tender succulent growth, bingo!  Chomp, Chomp!  Being optimists and experimenters, we left them to grow to see what would happen.  We suspected as anyone gardening would, that if we expected to get a decent size root, we would have to leave the carrots tops grow.  It’s the same with any crop a farmer or gardener grows, no one in their right mind would go lop off the corn stalks or brussels sprouts stalk and expect to get much after a growing season.  But grass in a pasture – most of the time it gets nipped into the ground as soon as a leaf dares show its head.  And just like the carrot above on the left, there is no root development to speak of.  The plant is alive and trying to grow, but just keeps getting set back, it is the same with a pasture.   If you want drought resistant pasture for your stock, rotationally graze and make sure you don’t put the animals back on the grass until it is fully rested and recovered.  This is important for us here in Western Oregon, even with all the rain we have in a normal year, we still have a summer that is primarily dry.  That is normal in my area of the Pacific Northwest.  Many pastures do dry out, but it isn’t from the lack of rain in most cases, it from lack of roots and a healthy perennial sod.  If the top of the plant mirrors the roots, then you can see why I still have grass even though we had two dry months during the heat of the summer.  The roots run deep to the soil layer that hasn’t dried out yet.  When the plant is grazed or mowed the plants release the roots and they become organic matter, or food if you will for the critters that inhabit the soil.  And since I am not applying anything toxic, like conventional fertilizers, to the soil or plants, those guys underneath are ready to get to work.  Just like the carrots with the tall tops that were allowed to grow and turn all that solar energy into food, the grass in my pastures is doing the same if I don’t let the cows nip at it every day continuously, all year.  The cows are turning the grass that I can’t eat, into meat and enhancing the land as they go, tearing off the grass, pooping, peeing and trampling some of the grass into the soil for soil food.

And so it goes, when you get down to cow’s eye level, you can see the green undergrowth in the stockpile.  The brown becomes carbon that hasn’t been transported from anywhere, and it’s put right back from whence it came by the cows.  Some gets eaten, and super charged in the cows rumen that is full of microflora, and then reapplied to the land in the form of nutrient rich manure and urine.

Looking at that tall grass you might get the idea that our cows are suffering, because ol’ meanie here makes them eat that icky, old brown grass.  But proof is in the pudding.  Fat, sassy, and relaxed waiting for me to build their new fence.

Slick and in good shape.  No grain, just grass, water, and free-choice minerals.

I move the cows to a fresh, well rested paddock each day.  This is what it looks like after 24 hours.  Lots of carbon in the form of trampled grass, and lots manure to go with it.

As soon as they move to the new paddock, they get busy.  They have to, no dilly dallying around and leisurely wandering here and there.  It reminds me of lunch time in school, when the bell rang, lookout, we tore to the cafeteria to get hot lunch.  It’s every cow for themselves, if you don’t get down to business and eat all the grass and forbs on your plate you may be hungry.  That is where the herd action comes in, disturbance from the tearing of grass, and hoof action in combination with the pulsing action of the plant roots sloughing, plus manure and urine and folks, you got a soil and therefore a pasture building machine.  No fertilizer to buy and apply, no plowing and planting, just build a quick temporary fence and provide water and minerals and the cows are ready to go to work for me, ensuring their happy home.  Because after all, I do have to make some money at this.  And it has to be enjoyable work too, the cows are glad to see me, when I open the gate they  get to work, making the pasture better for them, for me and for the future.

A herd of mixed ages is nice to0, the young ones learn from their elders and some believe that a calf is imprinted with the terroir of the land in womb, sensing the food that its mother is grazing.  Which means all the bitter herbs and weeds in the varied pasture will be known to the calf when it begins to graze.  And if you think the term terroir is controversial in the wine industry, just imagine what people think when I say that in relationship to my cows…

So remember the carrot when you think of letting the cows have the run of your place.  And grow some real grass, not a lawn in your pasture.  Your cows will thank you.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. September 28, 2010 3:06 am

    Great info! I deal with this with my horses too and I am still learning. It is always a daily education!!

  2. September 28, 2010 5:48 am


  3. September 28, 2010 6:28 am

    What wonderful advice…now if only more farmers would think like this too! We only have 5 acres on our little farm and most of what was pasture was covered with piles of old cut down tree’s and other farm garbage since the 40’s. We’ve cleaned up a lot of it but still have more to go (only been on the farm for just over a year). I’m hoping eventually that we will be able to get the pastures build up with good grass and put in more fencing so that we can have a horse or cow and rotate them throughout the season. Hopefully we’ll have enough good grass for them to feed all season without having to supliment with hay. This is all new to us so it will be a learning experience. You’d think at our age 57 that we wouldn’t even consider this but that’s the plan. All this info I’m getting from you is greatly appreciated. Thanks!
    Maura 🙂

    • September 29, 2010 2:55 pm

      Maura, you’re never too old to learn new things – it’s when people don’t even try that it gets sad.

      Good pasture takes time to build, ours was in pretty bad shape from our own continuous grazing, the hardest thing to do was to start. Once we did, it has just gotten better and easier. 🙂

  4. Diana R.Smith permalink
    September 28, 2010 6:44 am

    We call this “new grass”–we can look out the window and the grass looks lush and green but to our cows it is “old”grass…grass that has been tromped on, well urninated and manured so really there are major areas they won’t graze. When we open up the gate to a different pasture they eat like there is no tomorrow. Most of the farmers around here mow and put stock on the land right away or they have them out so early that their pastures are churned into mudholes.We have learned to feed hay later into the spring and this gives us pasture that provides good grazing way into Dec or even Jan. if we are having a warmer year.A good mix of warm and cool season grasses really help and we don’t have fescue anywhere. This is in So MO but I remember reading an article in an old Organic Gardening about a dairy in Vermont that grazed its Jerseys all year with the stockpiling method. We also keep two 5 acre paddocks for our expectant moms where the grass is fresh and untrampled and move them in a couple weeks before they are due. Your herd looks really healthy. DEE

    • September 29, 2010 3:00 pm

      Diana, what a great comment! I like to hear of other folks rotationally grazing too in different parts of the country or the world for that matter. Sounds like you’re doing great. One friend of mine is having a conniption because we haven’t turned the cows out on the short green grass, he already has, and as he left he told me had to go pickup his ton of grass screening pellets to feed his cows because he’s out of pasture… 😉 He’s a hoot, when his garden is bad compared to ours he says it is colder at his place, and when his pasture is gone he blames it on lack of rain, and he is just a couple miles as the crow flies. I keep sending him articles to read, a couple of things have stuck, but not all, a work in progress I guess.

  5. michelle permalink
    September 28, 2010 6:59 am

    You would think your neighbors would take a look at those beautiful animals and think twice about poking fun. Your cows are perfect looking and I bet they taste perfect too!
    My question is how to make it work on a smaller scale? What if you don’t have 80 acres? I guess you have to bring in hay instead of mowing your own? And a smaller herd? I’d be interested in any advice you may have.

    • September 29, 2010 3:13 pm

      Michelle, my neighbors cows don’t have any pasture but they are pouring the grain to them so they don’t look too bad. Although their pasture looks like an indoor/outdoor carpet of mixed green and brown 😉

      I wish I had 80 acres of pasture too – but to answer your question, it’s takes a while to match the critter number to the land, as you graze more and build more fertility you might have enough grass to cut hay or maybe not. But basically give your animals what they will eat in one day, nothing more, nothing less if possible. You want to see content cows, trampled forage and lots of cow pies. If they seem hungry and are talking to you in earnest they need a little bigger paddock, if they are lackadaisical about the move, make it smaller. With the stockpile I have now, I have 20 head of mixed ages on about a 1/8 of an acre. Without a stockpile though this would not work, there has to be enough pasture there to last a day. In spring my paddocks are quite a bit larger. Last year I grazed until mid January only feeding a little hay during that time in a cold spell in December where we hovered around 10F for a week or so. In January I moved them in to the feeding barn/sacrifice area and fed hay until late spring.

      And an even smaller scenario was my family cow (RIP), who grazed in very small paddock each day at the farmstead. She got approximately a 20′ x 20′ paddock each day. So I hate to say it depends – but it really does. Starting is a good way to get your feet wet. A good rule of thumb is that the longer between your paddock moves the longer it takes to build fertility. So daily moves gets you there quicker.

  6. September 28, 2010 9:30 am

    Wow! What a helpful post! I’m going to get my husband to come read this one. He’s 57 and I’m 55, and we’re new at this, too, like Maura. (By the way, I love the name Lilac Lane Cottage!) Who says old dogs can’t learn new tricks? Just keep teaching us, Matron of Husbandry!

    • September 29, 2010 3:14 pm

      Susan, thanks! I’m probably technically an old dog too according to AARP 🙂 But I don’t feel like it. Must be all that cow moving that keeps me youngish…

  7. Chris permalink
    September 28, 2010 9:47 am

    I’d like to know more about your rotation method; specifically how large is each area, how many cows, and what do you use to contain them. Thanks for a most excellent blog :).


    • September 29, 2010 3:19 pm

      Chris, the area depends on the forage and what time of year. This field I am working on right now, was 1 paddock, then 3, now it is going to be around 75. I roughly have about 20 head, babies add, meat animals subtract, bull adds, heifers not to be bred subtract. I use a single strand metal wire with rebar posts and plastic insulators, fence energizer powered by a 12 volt marine/RV battery.

  8. September 28, 2010 10:24 am

    Great post Nita!

    • September 29, 2010 3:20 pm

      Linda, thanks Big Sky lady! It must look funny to see cows in such a small space to you 🙂

  9. September 28, 2010 6:03 pm

    Exactly! People poke fun at us but you know what they also scratch their heads at how well our animals do with little to no illness. We’re working toward dividing our pastures and moving them as you do. We don’t get the moisture you do but this will free up two areas for irrigation, while one is grazed and one awaits grazing.

    Thank you for sharing this information it warms my heart. :o)

  10. Randall permalink
    September 28, 2010 10:54 pm

    How do you know when the pasture is ready to be grazed again?

    • September 29, 2010 3:22 pm

      Randall, it depends on the time of year, and the types of grass, but basically just before seed heads appear. In my stockpiled stand right now, I have some that has went to seed, some at the right stage and some a little younger. It’s never a perfect world in a natural setting.

  11. September 30, 2010 5:02 am

    Your cows are gorgeous. Puts my neighbors’ cows to shame.

  12. LLB permalink
    November 26, 2010 7:14 pm

    How does the watering trough moving work with the daily moves? Water is HEAVY etc.

    • November 26, 2010 10:08 pm

      LLB, yes, at over 8# per gallon it is heavy. I dump the water if there is any… . I have seen trailers with holding tanks and troughs that are pulled from pasture to pasture too.

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