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Pasture Problems

April 26, 2012

Grass, grass, grass.  If only that monochromatic landscape was just the grasses and the weeds we want.  I don’t think I have ever seen a pasture that was perfect as far as grazing goes.  Heavy use, too much rest, too many animals, not enough animals, heavy equipment use, no equipment use, all can contribute to a less than stellar pasture.  Such is life, you have to just deal with it.

Innocent looking grass!  Weeds show me what truly lies below!  Once you start learning cause and effect, you can tell at a glance what is going on/has went on in your pasture areas.  The green will fool you, but be vigilant, teach yourself how to read the weeds and you’ll be on the way to a better pasture.  The earth is always trying to heal itself, that’s why weeds are here, allies is the war, so to speak.  Like people, they have all kinds of agendas.  But once you learn the basic agendas you can use this information to your advantage.  Declaring all out war on weeds is a waste of time, like holding back the river, or pushing a rope uphill.  Wasted effort, better to use that effort on reading your ground and what grows there and why.  There is no one field guide that will give you all the answers.  If you like photos, Weeds of the West is a good one to have on the bookshelf, once you know what you’re looking at, Weeds and Why They Grow by Jay L. McCaman can help you dial in your diagnosis.

Here are some of my problem areas…and my thoughts on them.

January water trough pugging.

Heavy use as shown above from this past January takes a toll on the soil conditions.  We have great soils that are pretty resilient to pugging even in heavy traffic and high rainfall.  This appears to be healing up and hairing over, but in reality it will never be really healed in my lifetime probably.  My task then in the pasture future, is to make sure I don’t just keep repeating this “mistake” in different places.  This is a good place to place a water trough, it’s near the edge of the field and near the road, meaning it will always be a high impact area that will not really produce a lot.  If I was under the assumption that if it appears green and healed, and I should put the winter water trough in a different place, I would pretty soon have lots of these pugged places all along this field.  I would rather keep my sacrifice areas small and in the same place.

Impact from one cow on the left, and one horse to the right.

Some sacrifice areas by nature of their location, are really weed patches.  (This photo above is our barnyard.)  It’s been seeing high traffic, hooves and manure for 131 years.  It is compacted and grows some grass, and lots of weeds common with wet compacted soil.

On the left –  residual fertility from 2010 broiler field pen, on the right – poor weak grass and forbs with bare patches.

I would say the biggest problem I see on most farms (mine included) is lack of fertility.  Even here where there has never been a break in livestock for more than a century, it’s pretty easy to translocate nutrients to the wrong place.  Continuous grazing, fixed pastures and allowing livestock to free range and have campsites results in too much manure in one place and not enough in others.  Like anything it takes longer to fix than it does to ruin.

Bird’s eye view.

This photo of the same spot with my feet really shows why Salatin has the pasture he has, and why free-ranging chickens (or any livestock) is merely scratching the surface.  People really poo-poo the output of the Cornish Cross chicken tractor method, but seriously folks, if one day of manure two years ago from 50 fledgling chickens can have this effect on ground, why aren’t more farmers doing this???  Talk about carbon sequestration, here you go.  And they call Joel a lunatic, Bah!   I can’t even tell you how much grass has grown there, but Jane and Willy have grazed through this patch probably 15 times since then, not to mention the sheep too.  You can have your free range, that idea is for foodie elitists, and it’s too simplistic.  To feed people and stock, you must heal the soil, so the plants that grow are healing and robust also.  Looking at the plants in the photo above, what looks better?  The patch on the left that appears robust, or the patch on the right that is barely eking out a living?

Imagine, no seeds, no tillage, just carefully timed manure application, applied by the chickens once.  Apparently it was enough to feed the soil critters, wake up seeds that had lain dormant and get things going again.  Repeat that year after year, and folks, you’ve got yourself a regulation pasture.

A plant community that represents what has transpired on this ground over the last year.

Back to the problem areas.  This photo above is the reveal of the first photo of grass where Jane and Willy were to graze yesterday.  What I look for is confirmation of what I meditate on all the time.  What I inherently know to be true – high traffic areas will have to carry a lot of traffic (redundant, I know)  and since this is close to the hub, a higher concentration of manure.  Invariably on the way to the compost area, a dab of stable cleanings will fall out of the wheelbarrow.  The wheelbarrow and our foot traffic contribute to the compaction also.  Not as much as tractor, but still an impact just the same.  I love Allan Savory’s analogy of the burros in the Grand Canyon.  One burro making the trip in the fragile environment daily for a year is more damaging than 365 burros running pell mell to the bottom of canyon once in a year.  It’s all about rest and time to heal.  I know what you’re thinking too, that 365 burros sounds terrible, but this idea alone explains why math alone will not cure your pasture problems.  Working with nature is art and science and lots of humility added in. :p

Common Dock, Rumex obtusifolius

I look for dock in areas that are compacted, with its deep taproot this plant is trying to heal the soil, but tells me that I should be worried if I start seeing this in areas that receive adequate rest or that haven’t been compacted previously.  If you’re new to your land, you might see this plant in areas that were compacted before.  Our history is long on our land, and I know where cows hung out when I was a child or where other buildings used to be.  Those are the places I see dock.

Tansy Ragwort, Secenio jacobaea.

Tansy is one of the those plants that is poisonous to cattle and horses, but isn’t ingested unless it is in the hay.  Sheep can and will graze this with no problems.  I see it in my fields in weak areas.  A biennial that forms a rosette the first year and sends up its seed stalk the second year.  I hoe them out after the cattle pass through a paddock.

Canadian thistle, Cirsium arvense.

I only have a few patches of Canadian thistle, and all are in former or continuing high fertility and high impact areas.  They don’t just appear, like most weeds the conditions have to be just right.  I have a few in the garden and tillage spreads the rhizomes much more than the plant sending out seeds.  The easiest control is mowing right at bloom time, it will eventually bleed the colony out.    We have Bull thistle too, but only around really high fertility areas (like our compost pile) and despite its size, Bull thistle is easy to eradicate with a hoe or sickle.  I’m a true Crayola fan though, I love to see the blooms, the Thistle crayon was aptly named.

Our barnyard is north facing, and is a wet area.  Besides a few places in our orchard, this is the only place we have buttercup.  Not a problem for grazers usually, but will kill your pigs, or at least severely poison them if they root them up.  Been there, done that 😦  Buttercup thrives in poorly drained soil, you can either live with it or figure out a way to drain the soil.

On the sunny side of the barnyard, the plant community changes a little to Kentucky bluegrass, Dutch clover, Black Medic, Pineapple weed, and Dog Fennel or Chamomile.  All are signs of compacted soil in my area.

Think of your pasture land as a Venn diagram, or several Venn diagrams in different locations.  The plant communities will overlap somewhat, depending on the soil conditions and if you look closely you can use the plants as a mirror into the soul of your soil.

31 Comments leave one →
  1. April 26, 2012 9:44 am

    Awesome post! I should put up photos of our orchard (where we ran our chicken tractors last year) and the filed that’s been fallow for 6 years. Night and day. Our issue is drainage, and grazing time due to wet soil. With goats I’m not as worried about pugging, and since I got some portable fencing last week I am itching to get the goats rolling on some of the orchard and fallow ground. It almost seems like we should do broilers as much for our freezer as for the land this year….

    • April 26, 2012 9:50 am

      adalyn, it’s pretty amazing really when you look at it. I think that the Fertrell minerals in the feed make a huge difference too. I don’t know about goats, but our sheep really are hard on the ground, they are more active than the cows and waste a lot of time (like the horse) pacing and walking the fenceline. I know that is a symptom of needing to move them sooner, but with two, they are pretty much delegated to mowing an area short where I don’t want to mow or use the Weedeater, they are the weedeaters! Do your goats do a good job of grazing or are they more interested in the woody stuff?

  2. April 26, 2012 9:45 am

    Reblogged this on The Farm Blog and commented:
    MOH is one of my favorite bloggers. I envy her the farm she has grown up on, and the options she has, but we must play the cards we are dealt. I’m starting to get that land ownership, and farming is more about the soil than the animals.

  3. joshuabardwell permalink
    April 26, 2012 9:47 am

    I have come to a similar conclusion as you: it’s better to absolutely ruin one area, and just keep ruining it, than to try to spread things out and end up ruining the whole thing. It’s one of the biggest challenges with rotating the sheep versus penning the pigs. The pigs have absolutely stripped their pen, but at least there’s no more damage that they can do. The sheep, in constant rotation, do just a little bit of damage all over the property. It’s easy to get behind the curve. This year, we decided that some bare spots were just going to be impossible to avoid, even giving the sheep relatively large paddocks and moving them every day, so we’re going to try seeding the bare spots in the fall, once the pasture growth slows down and the sheep are in the pen (and on hay) for the winter.

    • April 26, 2012 10:17 am

      Joshua, I like our pigs the best in the compost area, at least I’m not giving up pasture just to see it ripped up! And we don’t have much of a deciduous forest here for them to forage in…

      I think you’re right, just living with it is the best way, nothing is ever perfect and we just do the best we can 🙂

  4. April 26, 2012 10:11 am

    I love all your posts, but these are so informative they always make me giddy. Thank you!

    • April 26, 2012 10:15 am

      Amy, thank you! The grass is making me giddy now! After a winter of hay, its nice to see everyone as full as ticks and napping!

  5. April 26, 2012 10:29 am

    Ooooh, thanks for the warning re: buttercup and pigs! Is there any percentage of buttercup that is safe in an area that pigs are pastured in / rooting in? Rainforest, wet pastures. Some areas clearly will remain pig-less, but I’m not sure we have places with zero buttercup!

    • April 26, 2012 10:45 am

      Marilyn, it didn’t take much, they were pastured near some apple trees and rooted up the errant buttercups that were under the trees, before that the pigs didn’t really bother with the few in the pasture. Out of 5 pigs, all got sick, two died, and we got the others healed with raw milk and a homeopathic. Their guts were really raw. It took forever to find a book that actually listed ranunculus poisoning for swine. We had no idea what was ailing them at first!

  6. April 26, 2012 11:08 am

    Awesome post. Thanks again for taking so much of your time to share things like this. You’re sowing farmers too.

  7. April 26, 2012 12:58 pm

    Best post ever. Wow. I don’t know what else to say. Put up a paypal donation link so I can pay for my education.

    • April 26, 2012 1:57 pm

      HFM, Thank you! You mentioned keylines earlier, have you seen this old post?

      • Head Farm Steward permalink
        April 26, 2012 4:05 pm

        What old post?

      • Head Farm Steward permalink
        April 27, 2012 2:42 am

        Yes, I had read that and found it very useful. I appreciated the pasture division illustrations and the note on making divisions smaller as the season passes. I’m sure these are things Judy, Salatin, Ruechel, Savory and others had written about but it didn’t sink in till that article. Let me know when your grazing book comes out.

        • April 27, 2012 5:37 am

          HMF, Ha Ha!

        • April 27, 2012 5:47 am

          I’m liking the book idea more and more. You could model your pseudonym after John Taylor of Caroline and become N. Matron of Trapper Creek.
          “How to be a Stay-at-Home Gardener” by N. Matron
          “Managing the World One Pasture at a Time” by M. O. Husbandry
          “Weeds, Voles, Mud and Manure: Allowing for Nature in your Garden”
          “Holistic Management in Simple Terms”
          “My Husband Built a Cannon and All I Got was a New Halter for my Cow”
          Or model after Miss Coulton
          “Our Garden of Four Acres and the Money we Saved by it” by Mrs. Hangdog

        • April 27, 2012 6:29 am

          Hehe, I like the cannon one best! Except I can’t complain too much, I got a manual choke on my pickup, now we’re all happy!!

  8. April 26, 2012 1:45 pm

    Thank you for this post. Your comment about the bare patch around the water trough rang true, I will have to remember that for future decisions about positioning things, we have similar patches around the place. We run our laying hens in tractors and let them free-range in the afternoons. I think this achieves the best of both worlds, we see visible improvement in the soil after just one pass (and eggs), and they get to run around and dust bath in the paddock for a few hours. I really enjoyed reading about how you read the pasture, unfortunately I have different weeds in Australia, and I find it very difficult to source independent advice about which weeds are really a problem. Most of the information is published by herbicide companies, and according to them just about everything will kill my cattle and I don’t believe that for a second! This post has made me realise that I really need to find some good local information about the weeds on our property so I can understand what they are telling me, or maybe I’m just stuck with me own observations, either way I need to pay more attention.

    • April 26, 2012 2:00 pm

      Liz, I am geographically challenged when it comes to Australia,but these folks come to mind, I sure like reading their blog.

      • April 26, 2012 11:42 pm

        thanks, I think that link didn’t work either! please try again?

      • April 27, 2012 12:58 pm

        thanks, I have heard of them, they are south of here, but still worth a look at their information in case its relevant, a good place to start anyway, thanks very much for the tip.

  9. Chris permalink
    April 26, 2012 2:31 pm

    Another amazing tutorial!! Very interesting and informative…why don’t you get a part time teaching job at your local community college…you know…with all your spare time?? 🙂
    PS. Love your first letter art!! 🙂

    • April 26, 2012 3:43 pm

      Chris, hehe, I used to teach quilting at the CC, planning the grazing layout is like planning a quilt in my mind 😉

      Aren’t those cool, I’ve seen them on a couple of blogs and couldn’t resist 🙂

  10. Head Farm Steward permalink
    April 26, 2012 4:08 pm

    My broilers are running on the alfalfa stand this year. It really helps their feed conversion rate but the neighbors can’t believe I’m “going to ruin that beautiful stand of alfalfa with that chicken manure.”
    A. So what if I do? I’m getting $6000/acre off of that field.
    B. So what if I do? It’s mine?
    C. So what if I do, I can’t graze a pure stand of alfalfa without worrying about bloat.

    • Head Farm Steward permalink
      April 26, 2012 4:09 pm

      I forgot to add, it’s growing back thick and dark green where the broilers have been. We’ll see how it ends up.

  11. April 26, 2012 4:17 pm

    Thanks for a great, informative post, Matron. :o)

  12. April 26, 2012 6:05 pm

    Great post! I’m very glad I’ve found your blog – it’s inspired me to dig for some local information on the grasses and weeds in my area. I’m raising broilers for the first time this year and I’m hoping they might be able to help the grass out some. With two horses, a llama and an alpaca running roughshod over a very small space for years, it’s in pretty sad shape. We’ve had to feed hay more than ever in the last year and half because there’s just no grass. You and Joel Salatin have given me a lot of ideas about what I can do to manage the small amount of pasture I have and help things along. Thanks!

  13. Janet permalink
    May 1, 2012 5:53 am

    Wow. You are incredible. I appreciate your time and your knowledge so much. Agree with an earlier poster that you are sowing farmers. I think much differently than I used to before I found your blog. Love it!!

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