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Fall into Winter Grazing

November 7, 2011

Besides the garden winding down for fall and winter, so is the rotational grazing.  This is my third fall/winter to graze late and I have learned some things and remembered things I knew, but forgot.

The first year, I still didn’t have much of a concept of stockpiled forage.  The cows put down lots of manure, but I had my paddock sizes too small, and the grass was not rested enough so the cows took the sward down too low.  I had a few flushes of weeds, that I am now just getting under control.  It never pays to be complacent about rotational grazing, just like gardening, every season can and usually does throw you a curve ball.  You have to be ready to catch it, but usually you don’t see it coming… .

The upside, this is my worst field, and it is improving slow but sure.  I did better last winter, but this year I hope to do even better.

This year my stockpile consists of some very mature grasses and forbs, and some succulent green grasses and forbs.

The green is for grazing and the brown is my carbon.

Sure, the cows ingest some of the brown, but for the most part they are trampling the brown and eating the green.  That is the perfect mix for improving your pasture, soil organic matter and giving the soil life some cover during the winter also.  That is what I missed the first year – my grass was too short (not rested enough) and with small paddocks, there was no trampling of carbon, it all was consumed by the cows.  Entirely my fault.  Straight manure will not build pasture very fast, it’s better than nothing, but not ideal.

I still have to pay attention to my keylines otherwise  I can’t get the cows to graze the weak, hilly areas let alone place ample manure there.  This is paddock 12 outlined in this post from last year.  I pretty much stuck to the same plan this year for this particular field, and there is considerable improvement in this field in its third year of late grazing, enough so that family members where surprised at the growth and regrowth of this field.  If they notice, I know I’m doing something right 😉

What did I do different this year?

♣  Adequate rest which results in more stockpile, I had to up my game in the carbon department.

♣  Larger paddocks so they don’t have to clean their plate.  Leave some carbon with all that manure and urine.

♣  Change my rotation for this field to take into consideration of the microclimates for this particular field.  The entire south side is shaded by dense conifers.  I will graze this side first before it gets too cold.  The last two winters it timed out that the cows were on this side during our coldest weather, just out of reach of the sun.  Duh!  Frozen cows, frozen grass, and frozen water…I’m slow but I eventually get it.  I know better than to provide force shade for livestock during the winter, yet here I was sticking to my “flexible” rotation plan.  Sorry, cows.

Key points:

♥  Overgrazing is how long and often animals have access to the plants, not how short they eat it.  One day of intensity will invigorate your pasture and soil, after that you’re on the downhill slide.  Keeping animals in the same paddock for weeks or months and then rotating just means you’re most likely turning your entire pasture into separate pathogenic sacrifice areas especially if you live in a non-brittle environment like I do.  Exceptions to that are understocked pastures for instance, Jane and Willy have access to a 10 acre hay field, they can’t graze it hard enough to set the entire acreage back, nor can they tear it up either and make it into a mud hole.  Their management means keeping them close to the house, so they are treated differently.

♥ Just like your garden, start planning your 2012 fall grazing now.

♥  Be flexible, sometimes the answer is right under your nose.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. November 7, 2011 10:03 am

    I’m fascinated with your rotational grazing posts and just learned about keyline this weekend. It all has my head spinning (not that it takes much). I have a tiny pasture and goats but am slowly working out how I can plant fodder bushes and trees and fence off so that I am also rotating them through the forage (they don’t eat the grass or forbs so much.) This concept of tromping on carbon and encouraging root growth by precise mowing is amazing – and the pictures even more so. Thanks for sharing your lessons.

    • November 7, 2011 2:02 pm

      Annette, you might consider planning some permaculture hedge type plantings for forage for your browsers. Goats need to eat above their knees as a general rule and are about the opposite of cows for browsing needs, correct me if I am wrong, goats are 80% browse – 20% graze, and cows are 80% graze and 20% browse. It’s hard to get the trampling with goats and sheep unless they are with some cows. And that is hard to pull off with small acreages too 😦

      When we had to replace/fix exterior permanent fencing 15 years ago, we were faced with wiping out older established hedges, or sacrificing some pasture and building a second fence. We chose the second option, (much more permaculture-like) forming a lane to protect the hedge from heavy browsing, which in turn helped the century old hedge thicken considerably. Building two fences like that to get hedges established is a great way to plant your desirable browsing/food forest type plants and have livestock at the same time. By the time the livestock can browse the plants, the plants are established and fruiting and have been for sometime, which creates beneficial habitat for all the critters we take for granted.

      I agree it is amazing so see the soil transform under my feet. And so much more enjoyable than going the fast food route of bringing in tons of amendments and seeds. 🙂

  2. Frank permalink
    November 7, 2011 10:27 am

    Thanks so much!!!!

    • November 7, 2011 2:07 pm

      Frank, I don’t know if I really answered your questions or not. Ideally, I should be leaving an entire field stockpiled to start out on in the spring. I haven’t pulled that one off yet. I start out with huge paddocks in the spring and try to not graze too hard, and gradually cut back the size of the paddocks. Last year I skipped a portion of one field and it never did get grazed, I watched all winter, and when spring green up started, that tit in the field was noticeably different from having had cover all winter and some decomposition of the sward. I knew then what I needed to do. Now I just have to figure out how to do it. 🙂

      • Frank permalink
        November 8, 2011 11:18 am

        You sure do — though indeed every situation (and year!) is different. I guess we ought to leave some more carbon in, which probably implies giving the sheep bigger paddocks. The problem is they seem to move around close together and either graze a part mostly bare or not tough it at all. Regardless, rotational grazing has extended the grazing season significantly already (the soft fall weather might have helped too 😉 ).

        • November 9, 2011 6:36 am

          Frank, I think to leave more carbon you have to have smaller paddocks, for the carbon to do much good it needs to be broken or bent and close to the ground. I think the biggest thing is you won’t see carbon trampling with sheep due to their grazing habits. The best carbon smashers on our farm have been broiler chickens, laying hens, and cows. Sheep and horses haven’t worked at all.

  3. Brooke permalink
    November 7, 2011 11:55 am

    MoH – I know this varies greatly depending on many conditions, but how many head do you have on how many acres (other than the 10 acres for Jane & Willy)? Thanks for another great post!

    • November 7, 2011 2:14 pm

      Brooke, 20 head total (including Jane and Willy) on 40 acres. That includes hay ground too. And if you meant paddock size, I’m fencing about an 1/8th of an acre each day for 18 of mixed ages. If they weren’t mixed ages I might be doing something different. All feeders graze differently than cows and calves.

  4. November 7, 2011 2:17 pm

    Thanks for the photos and the explanations of green vs brown grass, we are yet to try rotational grazing (only have 5 cattle on 8 acres though, so its just a bit of a hobby) but its interesting to see what you’re doing and think about how we might apply the same principles to improve our pasture (would like to increase the carrying capacity so we can fit in some pigs :)).

    • November 7, 2011 2:30 pm

      Farmer Liz, I know I struggled just reading about stockpiled forage, until I actually saw it, I didn’t really grasp what I needed to do. Glad the pictures helped. It could actually be more green and still be stockpiled, it just depends on the time of year and amount of rest. Lots of stuff to think about. Pigs do good in areas that provide shade (summer), think trees or brushy areas and some foraging. Most farms always have a weedy area that needs some pig treatment making them very useful and tasty “tools” to add to the mix. When we had pigs over winter, we kept them on deep bedding in a hoophouse, with laying hens. Separate areas for each worked the best, and everyone stayed warm and dry and out of mud, which is a huge factor with pigs in our neck of the woods.

  5. Karen permalink
    November 7, 2011 2:22 pm

    You mentioned changing your plan for this field, how do you do that after you have grazed it a certain way earlier in the year. I read somewhere that you shouldn’t change the order of grazing? Does that make sense?

    • November 7, 2011 2:33 pm

      Karen, it would matter if I was on a faster rotation, because I could potentially graze an area before it was rested. I think most MiG books do mention that. With longer rest periods now, I can pretty much start anywhere in this particular field. I am looking forward to beating that week or two of cold, I am sure the cows are glad I finally decided to bend a little and change my plans 🙂

  6. November 8, 2011 4:40 am

    I’m really enjoying your blog and learning much.

    I’ve had a lot of trouble with the pasture this year as i wasn’t able to move the cattle to the summer pasture I usually use. This resulted in our home pasture being grazed down way to much, and now I have to start feeding hay early. It’s early days for us in this process though, and I’m still using pigs to slightly turn “bad” areas which I seed with new pasture mixes.

    We had a really bad infestation of tansy ragwort and also very low diversity in these pastures when we first started farming here 6 years ago; mostly due to the hay being removed from this old farm for about 35 years without anything being returned to the soil. The ragwort is pretty much gone now due to a lot of hand pulling and grazing with sheep and goats. No doubt there are still lots of viable seeds in the ground though as this nasty weed has many survival strategies, and the seeds can remain viable for up to 15 years I’m told.

    Do you have any suggestions regarding grazing sheep and cattle together or sheep following cattle; or would you recommend completely different pastures? Do you have any suggestions of any pasture seed mixes that would be advantageous? I’ve been hearing about Eastern Gamma Grass and its benefits. What’s your opinion on that or other potential species for introduction? We’re in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, so our climate isn’t as warm in winter as yours on the West coast. I’ve recently cleared about 12 acres of over-mature and diseased white spruce, and i’d like to seed it with whatever might work best here. The pH is lower there so i’ll either have to increase that “synthetically” or encourage it to change over time with management (if that’s even possible). It will take about 4-6 years before that area becomes significant pasture though I’m thinking.

    Thanks so much for blogging. Your work is very encouraging to me.
    Brooke Oland
    Old Man Farm
    Middle River, Cape Breton

    • November 9, 2011 10:07 pm

      Hi Brooke, I hope your 15 year ragwort seed viability is right, I have heard up to 70 years here. Either way, it is a tough, persistent customer.

      I’ve kept our sheep separate because we were using them for weed control in marginal areas and it was simpler to use electronet and place them where we needed them for weed management, and our predator issues were too great with mountain lions. But Greg Judy writes about success with just two wires and that the sheep stay with the cows, but I think he is grazing such a large mob that it probably works very well. I don’t know how well it would work with a small herd, I haven’t been brave enough to try it.

      I’m not a big proponent of seeding, but more of adding lots of manure and carbon. If you feed the soil the pasture will come back, but in reclaimed forest land an initial seeding would probably give you a good jump start. When we have reseeded we used a standard pasture mix for our area, several types of grasses and clovers and it worked well. You can change the pH by topdressing with some type of carbon and manure, which will in turn feed the earthworms which secrete calcium in their manure. So instead buying lime you can buy worm food 🙂 Actually with high density short duration grazing with small paddocks and a stockpile, you can do the same thing and see huge changes in just one year. Not perfect pasture mind you, but an improvement for sure. Sounds like you have your work cut out for you!

      Here is a link to a pasture mix from Fedco seeds, their climate is similar to yours.


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