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The grass is greener on the other side of the fence

October 23, 2010

I knew deep in my heart when we stopped doing pastured poultry on a large scale, that the fertility building in our soils would take a few steps backward, and would slow down to a slower more sustainable pace.  But like an addiction, having all that manure at your disposal enabling fast results on worn out continuous grazed pastures can make you a little, well, addicted.  Sigh.  I hate regrouping… . Now we are at a peasant pace in soil building.  Not quite so glamorous but most likely more doable in the long run.  Our soil’s fertility wasn’t ruined in a day, and I won’t be able to get it back in a day either.  We are in the Cascade slopes, with well drained volcanic soils stolen from forestland for pastures.  Building and maintaining the fertility is a full-time job.

Timed animal impact can make all the difference in world as shown in this photo above.  The pasture Ruthless is riding in, was cut for hay this summer, after being grazed once.  Behind her you can see the dark green grass in an adjacent pasture that was grazed twice and received more animal disturbance.   The yellowing is most likely showing a magnesium imbalance – very common in spring and fall when rains bring on quick growth.  A magnesium imbalance (I’m saying imbalance because in most cases the magnesium is there, just not available) can cause grass tetany.  Many times the yellowing is thought to be a nitrogen deficiency and fertilizers are applied which actually makes the problem worse.  In my area, it’s common for beef farmers I know to apply nitrogen fertilizers in the spring to spur growth, which actually exacerbates the imbalance.  To remedy this, they put out magnesium blocks to stave off grass tetany.  A simpler solution would be to not apply nitrogen in the spring which favors grass  growth and drives legumes and broad leaf forbs away.  A mixed sward of perennial grasses and forbs keeps the pasture more in balance and gives the grazing livestock a choice in plants to graze which also avoids grass tetany.  The deep-rooted forbs can bring up needed minerals that shallow rooted grass may not.  Offering free choice loose minerals vs. a hard mineral block also can make up for imbalances and shortfalls.

Where the peasant part (me) comes in, is observation.  Current logic would suggest I run out and get a soil and/or forage test and act accordingly.  That is all well and good, if that is what floats your boat, but that will tell you what is happening right now, not next spring when the grazing season begins again.  I know from experience that this will correct itself if given the tincture of time, observation and a change of use on the ground.  But it will take me another season or two to see results, and that isn’t quick enough for most in our real-time world these days.   But, by all means, if a soil test is important to you, use that tool.  But if you want to learn to read your land, you have to start by actually looking at it, the plants and your animals that graze the land.  Even with soil tests and brought in amendments, you will still have to gauge the effects by looking at the plants and animals, you can’t just test the soil, throw on the recommended amendments and go about your merry way.

We got stuck in that conundrum a few years back with a farm down the road.  As a child and into my 20’s we rented said farm and summer grazed our herd there and made hay.  I knew the land.  The absentee owner eventually built a house on the farm, and stopped leasing the land to us, and began to subsequently just have the fields cut for hay.  Our cows left there for the last time in the 1980 give or take a year.  Flash forward to 1995.  I always kept an eye on these fields over the years and one summer I noticed that the hay was not cut and it was getting late in the season.  I contacted the owner to inquire about purchasing the standing hay.  He was happy to oblige, his normal guy was experiencing too many break downs, and it was too frustrating to the land owner to have the fields of tall grass.  So we got the job of doing that hay.  I was a little surprised at the drop in fertility that had taken place since the hay mining had started in earnest after we brought our cows home for the last time.  A few years passed, yields were getting smaller and smaller, and we unknowingly brought a weed from another hayfield that saw an opportunity to take hold in these hungry fields.  We identified the weed, the landowner was again frustrated, this time with us, (you know, kill the messenger syndrome) and he began his research.  He got advice from many different sources, from herbicide, plowing, liming, and leave it alone.  He $h&t-canned the herbicide and plowing (phew) and leaving it alone.  He decided to go with soil testing, and go from there.  The recommendation was to lime.  Heavily.  The soil probably could have used this much lime, not all at once, but spread out in several applications.  But getting a lime truck out here in non-farming country is like pulling teeth.  And spread in small amounts, over the course of growing season, forget it.  Not to mention some of this ground is so steep that you say your prayers when you’re in the tractor seat.  That’s what happens when pioneers decide to clear farm ground on an extinct volcano… .  Anyway, a years worth of lime was applied in one week, we cut the hay, our cows suffered that winter with foot problems, and other maladies because of the imbalance that too much lime at one time caused.  That did it for us, we decided that winter, that we would could no longer afford to buy that hay, if we weren’t in on the management aspect of the land, there were just too many variables to plan for.  To us the hay needed to be health giving, and to the land owner the hay was just a commodity that needed to be gone.  We cut down our herd to accommodate the shortfall , and he is still mining his fertility and having the hay cut.  We were seeing that there really is no quick fix by just going by the university recommendations.  It all looks good on paper, but the land and animals tell the real story.

Anyway, back to today…I stood on this spot the other day and took some photos of the grass on either side of the fence.  The spot I stood at was grazed at the edge of the hayfield.  It’s showing good regrowth and no sign of yellowing.

However, the field we cut hay on directly in front of me is showing yellowing signs in some spots.  Ironically everywhere we intensively pastured poultry is exactly where I am seeing an imbalance years later.  On pastures that we weren’t able to hit with chickens, due to steepness, predator pressure, etc., the pastures are much different.  Pasturing poultry in those fields pushed some of our pastures to a higher plane of succession and now some of those plants are slipping backwards because they needed that yearly chicken manure boost.  Backwards isn’t always a bad thing, I have no desire to run pastured poultry anymore, so I will have to accept a slower rate of soil building with just rotational grazing with my cattle.   That’s OK with me.

A 180 degree turn shows the adjacent field only grazed this year, no mechanical cutting, and it is green (it does appear yellowish as I had to take this picture facing the sun, but to the naked eye it is not) with no yellowing despite it having some of our thin hillside soils.  I think this just shows we can’t just look at our grass as a vast green blanket out there on the horizon.  How our soils have been treated in the past, how we are treating them now all make a huge difference.  Understanding a pasture and what grows there is so important, something will grow there for sure, but it’s pretty easy to go backwards in succession and much harder to go forward and push your plants to a higher fertility state.  The earth will cover herself over with something, we just need to make sure that something is what we want.  What may grow a decent beef cow will not sustain a high producing dairy cow, or where cows do well may not be suited to goats.  The funniest thing I have heard in a long time was from person who raised heritage breed livestock only, they always were getting out, and wreaking havoc.  The livestock owner surmised that heritage breed animals were smarter because they got out, whereas more domesticated breeds tended to stay put.  Wrong, any animal no matter what the breeding, will get out if it is hungry.  And especially if the fencing is not good or strong enough to begin with.  many times we look at that blanket of grass and think there is ample food there.  Trust me, if they aren’t eating your grass, or browse, they know what is good for them, we many times can’t discern good forage from bad or mediocre.  And if they are eating it, but you are seeing health problems in your animals like scours, poor reproduction, birthing difficulties, crankiness, mastitis, milk fever, ketosis,  etc., you have an imbalance going on.  We as a collective society seem to think that supplements are the answer, but really the bulk of our nutrients should come from food with maybe a few added supplements.  Sadly, we treat our animals the same too.  Nutrient dense food is hard to come by for humans and is woefully lacking in livestock food too.

October 2010 grass – results of one day’s application of Cornish X gold in June.  Subsequently grazed 2 x by equine.

Now we just raise meat birds for our own use, but I still do the floorless field pen as opposed to free range because of the results you see above.  If that isn’t a reason to quit free-ranging birds nothing will convince you.   There is virtually no regrowth to the right of the picture.

And since I am showing you all my pasture bad.  Here is another one.  It illustrates perfectly what people usually think of grass and how good it is.  Like your kids or dogs, you don’t see the imperfections.  Most people I know think their pastures are good.  I don’t agree.  Green doesn’t necessarily mean good.  This is our barnyard, full of clover, little grass and lots o’ weeds.  Why?  Because the soil is so compacted that the only thing that really thrives here is clover.  It doesn’t need deep soil to grow, so if you’re seeing a pasture or area in your pasture that is predominately white clover, your soil is compacted.  (The farm I spoke about previously has just such a patch from horses being left in one area too long, they eat the grass so short and compact the soil so badly that it takes years to recover if ever.)  Ty and Jane do not touch this grass that looks so succulent to me.  Too much manure over the years and too much clover.   It isn’t palatable.  Strive for about 1/3 legumes in your pasture, more is too much, and less means you’re heading towards an imbalance.  Over-seeding won’t help, if your soil conditions are right, the clover is there and will appear.  So remember this – if you don’t have clover, and you over-seed clover and don’t change your management as far as timed grazing or applying fertilizers etc, you will have to keep re-seeding at great expense.  Timed grazing alone with animal disturbance and rest will bring clover and other forbs back to your pasture.

Other tell-tale plants in this “beautiful” clover patch –  dog fennel, sour dock, broad leaf plantain,  and Canadian thistle, all signs this soil is compacted.

Besides compaction in high traffic areas, poor thin soils can be revealed by looking at the “weeds” that grow there too – in our area Queen Anne’s Lace, Toadflax, Bracken fern, Scotch Broom, and Sweet Vernal grass to name a few.  Equally one type of grass or grass trying to set seed while still short is a sign your pasture is in trouble and in need of attention.

I wrote this post to illustrate ( I hope) that not all pasture and land is the same, even on the same farm.  And it can change from year to year. and depends on many factors.    I can be patient with long-term soil building techniques because I know the land will try to gain some equilibrium and I can learn as I go.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. October 24, 2010 4:27 am

    I never thought maintaining a pasture would be so complicated! This is something I really need to think about. Really great information…THANKS! I hope your day is a good one.
    Maura 🙂

  2. October 24, 2010 5:49 am

    I have seen a few claims that biochar – charcoal produced at low temperatures – can restore both carbon and carbon structure – moisture and micronutrient reservoirs – into the soil, and that the secondary effects last indefinitely.

    I wonder if you had considered using biochar for restoring the soil fertility? And I wonder if you could mix modest amounts into the chicken feed, or other livestock feed, as a means of conveying the carbon to the soil.

    When you mention “forbs” – is that white clover only, or do you consider other broadleafs to be beneficial? My neighbor pastures a lot of beef cows, and considers rotating pasture once or twice a year “rotation”. I have suggested adding vetch to the bermuda, and get the same argument: If vetch is moderately useful forage, won’t he have to reseed every year? And how could he get rid of the vetch (with 5-7 year dormancy of the seeds)? He relies solely on the soil samples. I have helped take the samples, and he doesn’t distinguish the hillsides from the flood flats next to the creek (where the soils are obviously different colors), the old growth pasture from the sandy just-recently crop field. It almost hurts to watch the folly, and want to reduce the silliness.

    • October 24, 2010 7:00 am

      Brad K, I suppose you could add biochar to feed, but I no longer have many chickens or really anything that eats “feed.” Raw milk or sea salt solutions are getting some interesting attention too. If I was going to go any type of spray or active program I think I would do Biodynamic sprays, but for now I am happy with the results from high density grazing and applying composted manure. And if I was younger, I would probably do pastured poultry again – easy to market, fast cash return and quick to get out of. But, that would put back in big Ag’s hands buying grains, since they do not grow well here. So I am actually much happier with slow pasture building for my slow food.

      As for forbs, all are useful either for bringing up minerals for or to tell you what is going on with your soils. Common in our pastures (without seeding) are white clover, red clover, japanese clover, vetch, narrow leaf plantain, dandelion, and false dandelion to name a few. All are relished by the cows. Some plants like vetch and red clover need to set seed before they can get well established, and nitrogen fertilizer application or continuous grazing will drive them away. So if your neighbor is doing any of those things, then he would have to reseed, if he allowed the grass to get tall (seed heads formed) and then grazed, the seed would pass through the cows or be trampled into the ground and he would only have to purchase his seed once. But getting someone to let grass express itself, and then putting cattle on it is a stretch.

      And to flesh out the white clover thing, it doesn’t root deeply and makes a great ground cover, so while it is a good companion plant in a pasture, when I see a vast patch, I know the hard pan is right there. I know where my hard pan areas are, but someone buying new land may not. You never know what building sat where, or what happened in previous decades on a piece of ground. Anywhere I have Canadian thistles is where there was high animal impact from a previous barn site, or corral or the cow herd’s favorite spot to stay out of the wind, and the ground feels hard underfoot compared to other pasture areas. All interesting for sure.

  3. October 24, 2010 6:27 am

    An amazing post with so much great information. It’s nice to see how you observe and keep track over the years……..everyone could take something out of this information.

  4. LindaG permalink
    October 24, 2010 11:06 am

    Thanks for all this information. I am hoping to do something with different grasses and plants so that our pasture, hopefully can be self-sustaining. I know it will take time, but I know it can be done, too.

    I think your post hints a that.

    Thanks again!

  5. Linda Zoldoske permalink
    October 24, 2010 12:39 pm

    These are such wonderful posts! I first thought they gave wonderful information but that they don’t apply to me because I don’t have grazing animals any more. Now, I am seeing that it does apply to my land too. I have compacted soil and clovers grow very well here. I would free range my chickens but after losing half of them in a month to predators I am only letting them out of their enclosure for 2 hours before dark but now I’m thinking that might be a good thing. Thanks!

  6. October 24, 2010 2:57 pm

    I agree, great info. and although we know our pastures have some of the very problems you spoke of, we are working to fix it and as you mentioned it won’t happen overnight. Right now our main problem is getting water ( applied evenly)to certain areas of pasture we have. Finances haven’t cooperated this year, so again we fought to keep our pastures water well enough. Praying next Spring we’ll have this issue under control. Thanks for posting this and sharing your insight, it’s invalauble to us!

  7. ann ceraldi permalink
    October 24, 2010 6:11 pm

    How would you recommend I manage my pastured horses? I have about 6 acres in one pasture, 3 acres in another, and 3 in another. I have 3 horses (ponies) and two mini donkeys. I’m wondering if how I should rotate. Maybe I don’t even have enough land to keep the pasture healthy….

    • October 24, 2010 8:34 pm

      Ann Ceraldi,

      There are any number of plans. The one for horses I heard, was take the horses off when they get the pasture down to 3 inches, put them back on when it grows back to 6 inches.

      I think that is probably for some specific pasture grass, and I don’t know what strain.

      A book on pasture rotation pointed out their definition of “over grazing”. Take a specific blade of grass. Let an animal bite it off, say at half height. If that particular blade gets bitten again before returning to the original height – that blade of grass is overgrazed. The same definition applies to areas of the pasture, and the pasture as a whole. It might take the blade or pasture 10 days to recover from the first bite – and 20 or more days to restore from the second clipping.

      The less tall the grass, the shallower the roots. Letting pasture be grazed to the ground might seem efficient, but it weakens the root system (the part that pushes re-growth to restore the plant).

      One way to manage the pasture differently is to subdivide into small areas, so that an area gets grazed really intensely – so that less tasty grass and weeds don’t get left alone and the nicer stuff get badly overgrazed. Then get them off right away. One, two, three day rotations mean a lot of fence moving or building, and 14 day or month rotations are likely too slow to avoid overgrazing while getting an even attack (and even application of droppings) over the whole area.

      You have to balance what your pasture needs to build and recover, with what you can accept for fencing, pasturing, and resting the pastures. And what works best will depend on your mix of grasses and supplemental vegetation, the forbs.


    • October 25, 2010 5:11 am

      Ann, you definitely have enough pasture for your animals. Rotating your pastures would be great for the health of the sod and the animals. I am writing about cattle for the most part and the difference between cattle and horses are that I am trying to put weight or keep weight on the cows – whereas with a horse, usually keeping weight off, avoiding founder, and other digestive upsets are the objective. Other differences are horses can eat so close to the ground that they are more susceptible to parasites also. (Really, I should say any animal on short grass is going to be prone to parasites) And horses hooves cut the sod up more than cows hooves too – so I can’t really say that rotationally grazing horses would be easy or a good candidate for soil building as much as other type of stock that lend themselves to high density grazing. Because of the horse’s tendency to manure one area and keep others for grazing, dragging and mowing seed heads is part of the pasture management scheme. Keep in mind though that dragging manure can spread parasites, so make sure that you do it after horses leave and allow a minimum of 30 days rest before putting horses back in the dragged pasture. Likewise, for any animal, if you drag, you must rest or you are just covering your entire pasture with parasites and giving the animals no chance of avoidance.

      Just keep in mind, that horses are what you have, and they will help the land if you practice some rotation, any animal on the land is better than none. 🙂

  8. October 24, 2010 9:33 pm

    We have “free ranged” our meat birds on our lawn two summers running now, and it is wonderful to see the huge improvement in the grass.
    The lawn was almost nonexistent 3 years ago, and now its think and lush :o)
    Paula Runyan

  9. Rae permalink
    October 25, 2010 11:26 am

    Your blog is always so incredibly informative. We’re going to have to battle back blackberries and scotch broom before we EVER get an inch of pasture, but I have a feeling I’ll be mining your blog for information in the future!

  10. October 25, 2010 2:44 pm

    Wonderful post! Now I know why some of my fruit trees are not doing well (lots of bracken fern in the orchard)….

  11. wondering permalink
    October 30, 2010 8:47 pm

    What do you recommend for decompacting soil? Thanks!

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