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It’s More Than Just Grass

June 30, 2011

At first glance all pastures just look like grass.  And many are, being so low in fertility they may be just grass with very few forbs able to survive.  Diversity is the key in nature, but we humans have gotten pretty good at quashing that.  Lawn culture is not pasture culture.  Or shouldn’t be anyway.  Same with hay, if you’re buying hay from a hay purveyor they have it all neatly categorized by type:  alfalfa, orchard grass, etc.  Meadow or native hay is thought to be inferior.  And many times it is.  It just depends on the meadow and meadow husbandman or woman.

I think the single best thing I have learned from rotational grazing is I didn’t know what I thought I knew about grass and cows.  Namely what I think looks good is not what they think tastes good.  And the only way to learn that is to confine them to a small paddock instead of the entire pasture and see what they won’t touch.   It’s a classic thought and I have voiced it to myself too under my breath when a cow is eating through the fence to get at what is on the other side.  “That dumb cow, can’t she see she has perfectly good grass right there inside the fence!”   Taste and vision are two very important senses, but it doesn’t matter how good the presentation is with a dish, if it tastes bad, you don’t care how good it looks.  Right?  Now with the grass all being fresh and rested when the cows get back to it, I no longer see anyone trying to reach through the fence.  It’s all good, or at least improving.  Fortunately for me almost all the plants in my pastures are palatable to cows.  Some parts are better than others due to soil conditions and terrain but for the most part pretty good.  I’ll explain more as the post progresses.

57 days of rest.

Same paddock as above, well, actually it is two paddocks.  Both trampled pretty good, but I like the look of the one on the left.  Heavier manure coverage along with the trampling.  Finessing paddock size is a measure in humility, its hard to get it exactly right every single day.  Or at least it is for me.  That’s the beauty of rotational grazing, if you’re a keen observer you see the result of your paddock judgment,  good or bad, by the next day.  And with only one day committed instead of a whole year you can fix your mistake, or smile to yourself when you do a good job.

For comparison, it all looked like the tall grass to the right.

I deliver water to the paddocks as needed.  So to save water and time, I plan according to what I anticipate water needs are.  In this photo I have two 100 gallon troughs split between two paddocks.  The cows have just moved into the paddock in the top of the photo where you can see the mineral box.   This water will last two days because they will only be here for two days.   We were blessed with a couple of sunny days necessitating the need for both troughs, if it was rainy or even cloudy, one trough for two days would be enough.

Same with minerals.  The box moves every day with the cows.  Forget the gym ladies, tote that trough and mineral box and you too can have nice looking biceps. 😉  Some days if it is monsooning though,  I  do not replenish the minerals, once they get wet the cows don’t like them and its a waste.  A day or two without the salt lick is OK.

The plants growing in your pastures can tell you what is going on beneath your feet.  You’re looking for height, color, and diversity.  I look at my pastures constantly to confirm what I think I am seeing and I look for changes.  Off in the distance on that steep hillside, I see ox-eye daisy blooming.  That confirms what I know, that steep hillside has thin poor soils from row cropping many decades ago, the pasture plants that grow there from grasses to forbs are different from what grows on top the ridge and in the swale where the cows are now.

Plant communities overlap, and conditions like thin soils, compaction, and former uses all have a hand in what you see.  In fertile soil you will see different grasses and forbs than weaker soils.  Too much of one thing like clover for instance, should tell you something is going on.  Clover should be about 30% of your pasture, any less and you should change your management and any more  that 30% or 40% indicates a healing is taking place.

Here you can see where we used to run our pastured poultry pens.  On the right where we didn’t run the pens, Spotted catsear (false or summer dandelion) shows up pretty frequently.  Cattle relish the bitter herb, especially in hay, so it’s not a problem but it disappears and gives way to higher fertility plants if the fertility is supplied in the way of manure or compost.   Years after pastured poultry pens the distinct line is still visible in the plants.

Beef Bouquet.        

When the grass is tall, you can’t see all the other plants growing in its midst.  If you step into the tall grass you can find a bouquet pretty quickly.

In poor  or compacted areas of my pasture, its common to see these shallow rooted plants:  Black medic, white clover and Spotted catsear and maybe a grass or two.   Roots with naturally shallow root systems will be found predominately in  shallow soils as they can survive there.  This spot is next to the rocked driveway in the pasture and gets a lot of traffic, heavy equipment, vehicles, and that big chestnut tree that came down this winter is parked there now, as we make it into firewood.  It’s no surprise to me to see this plant family there.

Just a few feet more into the pasture and you still see the Black medic and the white clover, and a little lance leaf plantain sneaking in.  No Spotted catsear though.

A couple more steps deeper into the pasture, and the Black medic is gone, and I see more red clover, plantain, and a lone Spotted catsear.  The grass varieties are changing as well.

Where the red clover is able to grow, the plantain is taller too and more lush.

You can learn a lot from looking at the plants in your gardens and pastures, they reflect your soil, its historical management and your management.  The best pasture is what grows naturally in your area.  It may be a mountain type pasture like mine, or it may be a bottom land Reed Canary Grass pasture, adapting to what you have is the best way to go.   Seeding is a waste of time unless you have broken the ground, if the conditions were right, the plants you seek would be growing there already.  Don’t think of your pasture like it’s a vegetable garden, you know how hard it is to garden, the carrots need to be planted every year and coddled along.  A pasture is a perennial, living entity made up of  groups of plants.  For more information, a good reference book is Weeds of the West, good photos of all stages of plants from seedling to seed head.  Very helpful in identifying grasses too, even if you don’t live in the west.  I have found the most pastures don’t differ all that much unless you’re in an arid environment.  But for the most part a pasture in Germany will be very similar in plant species to one here.  Some plants are different but the bare bones are the same.  Manage for diversity and you’ve got it made.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. June 30, 2011 9:04 am

    What kind of plant is that in your ‘beef bouquet’ photo on the far right of the bouquet with the the small pink/magenta colored flower? I just discovered this in my pasture the other day and have never seen it before! I think it is gorgeous!

  2. June 30, 2011 9:22 am

    Sheer genius this one, our next Joel. Thanks so much!

    I will forward this to my friend who has inherited a 73 acre grass seed farm in the Valley. She’d like to convert to either organic grains/beans or rotational grazing or both, and she’s almost my age which means she can only throw just so much work at it in a day, even with hired hands.

    The farmers around her are saying the site is too wet for anything buit the grass seed — “cows will beat that up and grains will get wet feet.” It’s ditched but maybe not enough, and should have been wetlands. Drains way poorly.

    I’ve talked with her about how a variety of root systems can help eliminate that “giant sucking sound” from cow feet in winter, but I don’t actuall know much about it. Are there good resources for researching what she wants to do, tailored for Western Oregon/Washington?

    Hate to bug you for a response but right now you look like the best go-to person for a place to begin, as Mr. Salatin is Eastern.

  3. June 30, 2011 10:27 am

    Loved this post, Matron. And love all your knowledge, too.

    I wonder, if you found huge thistles or nettles – I find them hard to tell apart – in your pasture, what would it tell you about the land?
    I have tried to search this and I can’t really find what I am trying to find, which is, are they growing from something that’s needed, or something that’s not needed?

    I’m going to bookmark this post for the next time we head out to our property.

    • July 1, 2011 5:18 am

      LindaG, thistles have purple or lavender flowers and bloom into summer, stinging nettles have very tiny flowers that raise welts are bloom very early spring. There are several types of both. Both thistles and nettles like rich ground, you will likely find nettles in the shade and thistles in the sun and a pasture type setting. Seeing thistles tells me that there was too much manure and compaction at one time in that place. We only have bull thistles near our manure/compost so that one is too much manure. Bull thistles are biennial and can be cut or hoed down and kept from setting seed. That’s the easy one and the prettiest! Canadian thistles tell me the same thing but are perennials with an extensive rhizome root system, cutting them just before bloom each year can gradually bleed them out. We have Canadian thistles in our barnyard or in former barnyards where cows have congregated in the past. They don’t spread really unless you till them and do “root cuttings” so I just mow or hoe hem and frankly don’t worry about them too much.

      • July 1, 2011 8:55 am

        Thanks, Matron. I am thinking they are probably thistles, since the pasture is almost completely open to sun.
        We did have some in the main yard though. Some in sun and some in semi-shade. Didn’t see any flowers. They looked like dandelions gone to seed. I thought perhaps ‘down of a thistle’, but I didn’t know if thistles had big spikes on the end of the leaves or not.
        Appreciate all the information once again. Thank you!

  4. June 30, 2011 10:34 am

    Your pastures look a lot like mine – white and red clover, plantain, alfalfa, dandelions and false dandelions, dock, vetch, amaranth, shotweed, chicory, groundsel, and many more all mixed up with several species of tall grasses. However, I have lots of problem plants, too, that I’d just as soon not have any of at all. Creeping buttercup is a major issue, spreading over more and more area year after year. There’s an overabundance of chamomile and tansy in the higher, drier areas. Poison hemlock is a recurring issue, but we are making progress with hand pulling the roots. And of course, thistles. Oh so many thistles. Canada and bull thistle, mostly, but there’s many kinds. I don’t hate them because the bees love them and even the goats will eat them if they must. My pasture is improving slowly – but it IS improving.

  5. June 30, 2011 5:28 pm

    Just got my first good look at a rotational grazing setup for sheep. I’m lost as to why it’s not more widely practiced.

    • July 1, 2011 7:40 am

      Kevin, I think the single biggest factor in people’s minds about rotational grazing is the “work” involved. Growing up the cows were just “out there” free ranging and watering themselves and making it to the salt lick. We would have a rodeo and harvest the calves off yearly. I did not know what I was missing not being around the cows every day. The other thing many do is make their fencing systems too involved so moving frequently is a pain. Following the KISS method is the route to success in rotational grazing. Once you start geeking out with spreadsheets and all the tools available it becomes expensive and cumbersome. Then you don’t move your animals because it is too much work.

  6. June 30, 2011 9:43 pm

    Your pasture looks wonderful, green and diverse! Its so different to the pasture here in Australia (we try to keep the grass short so that it stays green and there’s nowhere for the snakes to hide). We have a list of weeds that we need to remove as they are toxic to the cattle, do you have that problem? Especially lantana (we tend to use the mattock, rather than spray). I am also interested in your mineral box, we feed out minerals with grain, but I think its better to give them free access to it, which minerals do you put in the box? Sorry if you’ve already explained it somewhere, I couldn’t find it on your blog. Thanks for your interesting post!

    • July 1, 2011 7:44 am

      Liz, ooh snakes! We only have garter snakes here, thank heavens. They startle me but they eat lots of varmints. Ironically here the poisonous plants on the list to remove are not eaten by cattle unless it is in the hay, and the ones that they will eat readily that will kill them pretty fast are not on the list!

      Currently I am feeding Fertrell’s Poultry Nutribalancer, Kelp and Redmond Salt. I don’t know what would be comparable in Australia.

  7. July 1, 2011 3:28 am

    We have formerly logged land (read:topsoil is down in the ravine which is wooded now). I’ve got a lot of white clover. Can you give me more details on the greater-than-40%-clover-healing-the-land? As always, thanks Nita!

    • July 1, 2011 7:50 am

      Kristin, here the abundance of white clover means either fresh ground as in your logged land, or compacted, grazed short areas. In our fields we have a mix, where the land is looser, we see more red clover, and as soon as you get close to the barnyard, or where we drive or where my daughter has pastured her horses extensively. White clover tolerates wet feet and compacted soil. Do you have Red Alder there? If an area is logged here and left to recover without the forestry laws kicking in, the Red Alder (clover of the woods) comes in and fixes nitrogen for the soil in preparation for the higher succession trees. Pasture is a little quicker to recover, an alder stand takes about 40- to 70 years to prepare the ground for the conifers. Much to long to wait for modern forestry folks!

  8. July 1, 2011 5:38 pm

    Excellent post!

  9. July 2, 2011 1:26 pm

    Love this post! Saw many plants I recognize from my pasture. But especially loved hearing “Clover should be about 30% of your pasture, any less and you should change your management and any more that 30% or 40% indicates a healing is taking place.” I have one area that had clover last year, but this year it’s intense – maybe 80% red and white clover, mostly red. I figured it was a generally good thing, but didn’t know anything about these percentages. My front field is short on clover and this bothers me – probably not more than 10%. Will just keep mowing now and then and doing occasional compost tea and raw milk sprays, and hope for the best. The added organic material and microorganisms should, I hope, help whatever is missing. Have only mowed once this year so far. Some folks are past their second cutting of hay already.

  10. July 3, 2011 12:18 pm

    Thank you so much for spending so much time documenting and sharing details. All cows should be so lucky as to live at your farm.

  11. A.A. permalink
    July 7, 2011 4:27 am

    Would the book you recommend in your post have information about what grows where, when and especially why? I tried looking at the book description, but it didn’t really say, so probably not. The books that I have leave it down to me to read between the lines to find what’s relevant to reading and healing pastures, and mostly there’s not much there.

    Our pastures have started to grow a thicker sward since grazing them last year. It looks like the timothy the pastures were planted for some years ago was set back by the first couple of rotations. Overall there’s more stuff out there to be trampled this year than last year, so I think it too will recover now that the cows are able to properly level the patches they graze. I am seeing that the cows really like to graze the ditch sides that grow a pretty mixed stand of grasses, raspberry, thistles, cow parsley, alder saplings and willow. That’s great, because I don’t have to clear under the perimeter fence much at all 🙂

    Last year it looked like buttercup would come up a winner after the first round of grazing, but in most spots the other grasses are outgrowing it or at least measuring up nicely. It’s been something of a surprise that both the cows and the sheep graze it readily, even though it’s supposed to somewhat toxic and definitely unpalatable. Just the other day I turned the sheep into a new paddock, a decent looking growth of timothy that was putting up a seed head, and what did they eat first? They went through the undergrowth picking up clover and buttercup leaves.

    • July 7, 2011 8:37 am

      AA, no that book doesn’t give reasons why plants grow where they do, but the photos are great for identification purposes, especially for grasses, I like that it has photos from cotyledon stage to leaf to flowering stage. Then when you get them properly identified you can consult Weeds and Why they Grow, by Jay L. McCaman. It’s helpful and helps identify soil conditions that bring about certain plants. However there is no perfect book for anything, as what’s in the book is always based on that person’s experience. But these two have given me lots of food for thought. My friend and I spent Independence Day standing in “weeds” pondering the wonders of capsella and stellaria in the garden. She uses them for medicine and I want to know if they do the same for the soil as the human. After a couple of beers and 85 degree weather, neither one of us could draw any conclusions!

      I took some photos of our buttercup with the thoughts of doing a post. In the last 15 years or so we have seen a different buttercup come in and it is very toxic, I look for it and pull it, whereas the regular old buttercup doesn’t do any harm to the cows. Although we did poison some pigs in a buttercup patch, not fun. Took a while to figure that one out. And that being said we don’t have much buttercup at all, only in a couple of compacted, wet, shady areas.

  12. A.A. permalink
    July 7, 2011 4:37 am

    Oh, and I meant to ask, what did you mean by a mostly clover stand going through a healing process? We have a small patch that was probably some sort of a sacrifice area earlier. Last year it was almost all clover, but now some timothy and plantain are coming through. This year I’m planning to let it grow very mature and then graze it. On that particular patch, the cow pies and the trampled grass vanish just like that and after two rotations, the’re small worm droppings all over the ground. It looks like it’s the most biologically active part of pasture here. Can you tell from your experience what kind of a process is it going through?


    • July 7, 2011 8:54 am

      AA, around here when you see a row crop field let go or a new area worked or scarified you generally see lots of clover. It gradually gives way to a more diverse mix and mowing or grazing help thicken the sward. A farm nearby recently changed hands and we were curious to see what the new owners would do. The fields have been worked to death as long as I can remember and the high voltage transmission line runs right through the place. (EEK) Anyway the last crop was winter squash in 2010 and a poor one, lots of weeds, etc. And then let go…lo and behold this spring beautiful red clover was the predominate plant making a nice dense cover which in turn was making it hard for the persistent annual weeds to get enough light to germinate. It looked pretty good, and I was worried that it would fall to the plow again, but the new owners mowed it! Yeah! It’s on it’s way to becoming a nice pasture. So a change in management can make a huge difference. The red clover will disappear as it needs to get tall to set seed, so mowing an grazing at the wrong time will drive it out, but white clover will make an appearance then.

      I think what you’re seeing is the perfect combination of carbon and manure being placed on top the ground. The worms need both to work fast. And the more food they have the more work they do. They can’t get to the carbon if it is standing and that’s were the trampling comes in. You’ll like my post in the works about grass, I just need to get some photos.

      • A.A. permalink
        July 7, 2011 11:31 am

        “You’ll like my post in the works about grass, I just need to get some photos.”

        Yay!! 🙂

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