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Back On Grass

April 8, 2011

early spring – light stocking density

Time flies, it seemed like just yesterday I was taking the cows off the pasture and here it is time to start the grazing season again.  The best part of rotational grazing?  I only fed hay for 3 months.   That’s huge when you’re making or buying hay.   With continuous grazing, figure on feeding hay at least for 6 months.  At first when I was reading about MiG I pooh-poohed the claimed benefits.   The reasons I came up with in my mind sounded like this:

♥  It’ll never work!  We’ve always fed hay starting in October at the latest!

♥  Too much work!

♥  Some guy from town musta come up with that idea.

♥  Electric fencing?  Why, my cows will all be out!

♥  My grass  ALWAYS falls apart in July and August, we don’t have any rain!

♥  How will my cows get water if they can’t get to the crick?

Geez, what a stick in the mud.  But I am not alone, I hear these same things from other people too.  A while back I loaned a grazing book to an acquaintance.  Guess what?  He about quoted me with all the above statements about why the book was all wrong.  The funniest thing?   I didn’t remember him being a poor student in school, but he must have flunked the Reading and Comprehension part, because he would not believe any part of the book.  Swearing that the guy was a townie who moved out to the country and wrote a book ( which is not totally unheard of these days.)  Yes and no – the author, Greg Judy did have a job in town when he started MiG, but his life experience pretty much paralleled that of my acquaintance.  Grew up on a dairy, sold the dairy cows, and did small farming with a family cow until college, got a off-farm job, kept toes wet with beef cows while still keeping town job, just about lost the farm.  Here is where the differences between the two start.  Greg Judy thought to himself there must be a better way, and he started MiG, now he is making a success of his farm (no off-farm employment anymore) while my acquaintance is still stuck in his tracks.  I need to get my book back!

The oddest thing is that it’s not a huge investment money-wise if you already have stock and pasture, but it does take mind investment.  You actually have to manage your stock, you can’t just let them go where they want.  Unless of course you really like buying and making hay.  Take charge, whatever you want to call it.  Can you fail?  Sure, but not so bad that you can’t fix it.  The mistakes are small, and the fix is easy.  The usual mistake is too much grass, or too much impact or not enough grass and impact.  When you move your stock everyday, they will tell you what you did wrong – if you pay attention.  You’re cows talking to you?  They need something and the only thing they really want from you is food and water, so fix it.

I know it sounds confusing on where to start, but you just need to start.  In the spring you want light impact because the grass is new and tender and coming out of a winters rest (I hope you’re resting your pasture.)  Now is not the time for high impact.  The diagram below is a sample of how I might graze a field over the season.  Starting out with huge paddocks and gradually moving to smaller paddocks.  Still moving every 24 hours.  As the grass gets stronger, later in the season you can meter out smaller paddocks because the grass has more nutrition.  By making smaller paddocks you are increasing your rest time between grazings, and that is a good thing.

It would be too cumbersome to draw out all my paddocks for you, and every ones situation is different.  This diagram takes into consideration my other pastures too which are part of the rotation.  Basically, by the time I get back to this field (middle diagram) I might make three paddocks where at first grazing the division was two.  A lot depends on growing conditions.  You do have to get good at eyeballing your grass and stock.  And you can’t do that without moving them everyday.  Your personal limitations may be restrictions in your mind, see the above excuse list, or say in the case of sheep (pasture setter-backers) you may have netting which really restricts your paddock size unless you add more netting for early spring grazing (good idea.) If you have cattle, it is very simple to control the cows and the size of your paddocks with one single wire.  Cheap and very effective.

Next post:  reducing stress (me and them) and fencing woes.  I’m off to check some fence.

28 Comments leave one →
  1. April 8, 2011 7:03 am

    Great as always, is there any other reason a cow likes to talk to you, I only have girl, she does have a sheep as her buddy, and they get along very well, so she is not alone totally, and she has all the hay she can eat, fresh water etc, time out each day with the main flock of sheep and fresh air, access to pasture and access at least twice a week to a wooded area, but she is one talky cow, not so much when she can’t hear or see me, its quiet then, but if she hears my voice or see’s me coming, she does not stop the whole way to me, and again when I leave her. She was a bottle baby, will she outgrow it or think its pretty much set?

    • April 8, 2011 7:20 am

      JADOTF, yeah Jane is pretty talkative, but not so much unless she’s mad at me (yesterday, I took Ty away) or when it is close to feeding time. Some are not usually, but bottle babies are a whole ‘nother thing. Your Girl just may be that way forever – which is kind of cute 🙂

  2. April 8, 2011 7:11 am

    Good post as always, Nita. Are your fields dry enough right now that your animals aren’t pugging? We had ours in the backyard last night (I know, we’re such hicks!) and saw definite pugging in the sod still. We tried MiG last year with limited success, mostly because we had too many head on too small a piece of land. This year we’re going to ship everyone off to leased pasture for a couple of months in the summer to give ours a break, and so we can just brush hog it to proper height once or twice. I’m kind of excited about that!

    • April 8, 2011 7:25 am

      Amy, no pugging, (except where my daughters horse is!) The fields are fine despite the rain. Do you have Reed Canary Grass? You might need more animal impact than less and no hog mowing. If you get a chance to pick up Comeback Farms by Greg Judy you might find something of interest there. But with that being said you plan sounds like a good one 🙂

      I can’t wait for warmer weather – we had snow in the air the last two days and it is ccccold for here.

  3. April 8, 2011 7:52 am

    I’m homesick looking at your pictures and reading about rotating cows around pasture. I grew up on an Oregon farm and we raised beef cattle on pasture. Thanks for sharing!

  4. April 8, 2011 8:03 am

    This winter, thinking about all the grass I mowed last year, I decided to get sheep this year. We have enough acreage to support 3-5, or at least that’s what the Internet says. Your posts about rotational grazing have been instrumental.

    I notice you call sheep “pasture setter-backers.” Can you elaborate?

    • April 8, 2011 8:27 am

      Joshua, lest you think I’m an old western cowboy throwback… sheep can be pretty hard on the grass, due to their ability with top teeth to nip the grass right down the carpet look. Simply said it is pretty easy to overgraze with sheep compared to cattle. But it sounds like you want short grass anyway, so in that case sheep would be perfect. Especially if you have only feeder lambs that can graze during your grass season then be committed to the freezer. Eating the lawnmower so to speak. That would also give your land a break from sheep parasites until the next year and save you from having to deal with animals (feed, water & housing) in the winter.

      And just so I’m not ruffling the wool of sheep owners everywhere, they too can be grazed well without setting back the grass. 😉

      • April 8, 2011 10:44 am

        The rule I learned was the “boot” rule. Put the sheep on the land when it’s at the top of our boots (8-10″) and take them off it when it’s at the toes (2-3″). I’m not as much concerned with the look of the field as with the wasted energy (fossil fuel) I put into it when mowing, versus the energy I can extract (solar, via photosynthesis) by putting an animal on the land. I don’t require a manicured look, and it’s a good thing, because my fields are covered with clover, plantain, dandelion, thistle, and a zillion other things in addition to grass. I just want something that’ll keep me from having to mow every six weeks or bush-hog every year.

        Our plan is to keep a small flock of adults and put the lambs in the freezer or sell them each year. It’ll be a bit of an adventure, as we’ve only done weaner pigs so far, and they don’t over-winter… well, except in the freezer, I suppose. I hope that we can get the sheep into a rotation that allows them to sustain themselves and the land. We’ll see!

      • April 8, 2011 10:47 am

        It’s a tiny bit off-topic, but regarding weaner lambs: we looked and looked for those, hoping to repeat our pig model, but, at least in our area, weaner lambs are scarce as hen’s teeth (sheep just aren’t that popular here, I guess), and when you do find them, you pay nearly as much as a market-weight lamb. Our conclusion was that the only way to have sheep and not lose your shirt was to keep a breeding flock. It’s basically the same up-front cost for the sheep, and you get the lambs “for free” each year.

        • April 9, 2011 6:52 am

          Joshua, that sounds like a great plan – lambs aren’t that hard to find here. Especially since it sounds like your pasture is perfect for sheep, they need more than grass, the forbs have a lot of nutrition jammed packed in them. Sheep are much more enjoyable than mowing any day!

        • erikamay85 permalink
          April 9, 2014 7:07 am

          Yeah, most people who raise sheep keep the lambs simply because at that point they are “weaners” they arn’t that much trouble. just feed them more grass and tee-daa, you have marketable meat! might as well finish the operation! Plus you make more money off the lambs than most other products (wool is a low value crop). If you wanted fresh lambs yearly you’d have to get yourself bottle babies. they are often more work than they are worth for a large operation, but bad for a small operation but cost of milk replacer is certainly something. I would contact sheep dairies and producers in the area to see if they would sell bottle babies to you.

  5. April 8, 2011 8:21 am

    Oonce more you have written a wonderful post! Good job, Nita!


  6. Jenny permalink
    April 8, 2011 9:27 am

    I don’t even WANT cows and I still love reading this stuff.

  7. April 8, 2011 10:58 am

    Great post! Green is such a beautiful color!

    • April 9, 2011 6:53 am

      The Home Ranch, I agree – nothing looks better than grass, unless of course there are animals grazing on it 🙂

  8. Tami permalink
    April 8, 2011 6:55 pm

    My husband is getting tired of me quoting Greg Judy after reading his latest book. I do think there are lots of issues here in CO that he doesn’t have to deal with and vice versa, but I think your advice is excellent, just start!!! Oh, and I’ll trade you our 80 degree days for some rain!

    • April 9, 2011 6:45 am

      Tami, I agree, some of his ideas won’t work here either because of the opposite – too much rain on the stockpile during the winter months. I don’t foresee never feeding hay, but cutting it in half has been great. Steve Kenyon writes in the SGF and he is in Alberta – he grazes all year in that bitter condition – all food for thought. When I buy a book I try to find at least one thing in the contents that will give me back my $30 book purchase – sometimes it is the pep talk, and other times it is an actual money or time saving item.

      We made it up to 50 yesterday! Heaven!

  9. April 10, 2011 5:24 pm

    As always, thank you for the super informative post! So very helpful for us since we’re just starting to consider how we should manage our “pasture”. (former side yard :D)

  10. Linda permalink
    April 11, 2011 8:18 am

    I love reading about how you manage your livestock with rotational grazing. This will be our third year of farming and our second year with a few cows. We are trying to figure out how to go from one large area of about 15 acres to dividing it up into smaller areas. One of our problems is the fencing. We didn’t seem to have enough fencing set up last year before winter so sometimes the cows grazed the grass way too short or we moved them back on an area that hadn’t rested enough. My goal this year is to get my fencing figured out to make it easier for moving them. We only have 2 jerseys and 2 beef steers so I know we have plenty of pasture. I’m learning so much from reading your blog & it reinforces my belief that it is possible to keep the cows off hay for most of the year, especially out here in the Pacific Northwest. Thanks!

  11. April 12, 2011 5:55 am

    ah grass! …with 4 sheep and 4 lambs…grass is on my mind 24/7 and it doesnt help I have only 2 acres and the last year was a year of drought. I love your paddock idea. I wish I can manage the pasture better this year.

    Happy Spring!

  12. April 12, 2011 9:27 am

    Do you feed any hay as they go back on pasture? Is there any health problems during the transition?

    • April 20, 2011 5:17 am

      Ben, I turn them out before the grass is so lush that they would bloat, which is the real concern with spring grass. It takes the rumen about 5 days to adjust to the change. So my procedure is to stuff them with hay and turn out in the afternoon when the grass is dry, and watch them. If I had a set-up where they could come back to the barn each day and be fed hay I would be tempted to transition them a little slower. But it’s too much of a pain to shut down the county road several times a day and move the cows back and forth.

      Other concerns too in the spring could be grass tetany (magnesium imbalance) which is common on spring fertilized fields that are monocrops. With native pastures with a balance of legumes and forbs that isn’t a problem.

  13. April 15, 2011 2:48 am

    Hello Matron We have been rotational grazing for as long as I can remember. We run about 60 cows and calves through the spring to fall, then we ship stockers that were born in our winter. They have always moved from one space to another. We rent the retired farmers next door and use that to start, then move to back of our farm, to front of our farm, to the fields close to the house then start all over again. We have a good fence and gate system. We have not had to replant our pasture in 5 years it holds up very well. We had planted a mix of brome grass and, our and the cows favourite, white clover. It is a very hardy plant and multiplies itself every year. Unless there is a drought we will not feed any hay from the middle of May till the end of October. If we are lucky we can still only feed a little hay till end of November when the snow comes. This works for us. B


  1. Spring Grazing…Ugh. | Chism Heritage Farm

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