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The State of the Pasture – End of July Edition

July 29, 2012

I realized the other day that I’ve learned more about grass in the last 5 years than I ever did in my first 50 years of life.  That’s pretty funny when you think about it, especially when I have had cows that grazed all those years.  Here.  On this land.  I want a do-over!  My grass always used to look like this photo below.  Every week we drive by this place to go to riding lessons.  It’s a couple of eighties over, same elevation, same rainfall, about the same stocking rate per acre, and the only difference is that this pasture is continuously grazed and ours is tall grass, mob stocked with daily moves.   When I was little this was a Guernsey dairy, and the pasture was very productive.

July 28, 2012

Now that grass never gets a chance to get out of the ground.  Those cows nip at it all the time trying to find food.  Their owner starts feeding them hay sometime in December and they have their calves in February, if they’re lucky.  The bull is always in with them, so the calves could come at any time…   The fella that rents this place for his cows, thinks we don’t have cows anymore, it’s sunnier here, and we must be fertilizing – because we have grass!  But none of those things really have anything to do with our grass compared to his.

It’s because we started doing MiG almost twenty years ago, which was a start, but just baby steps.  Thank heavens for Greg Judy!

July 28, 2012

Going into the third season of tall grass, mob stocking, I continue to be blown away everyday by the pasture explosion.  My daughter’s riding instructor came here last week to give the riding lesson, and as we walked through the hayfield she was shocked to learn all the timothy, orchard grass and clovers were regenerating themselves – she thought we were over-seeding, or had recently replanted.  Nope the field we were in had been worked up and reseeded 30 years ago.  And I don’t know when the pasture in this photo essay had last seen a plow?  Maybe the 1940’s?  It does not need any reseeding or plowing.

Regrowth through trampled forage – grazed July 6th, 2012.

I’m getting better at judging my paddock sizes as the grass changes.  The dark grass line in the center of the photo shows me I am allowing enough forage for my twenty-four hour period.  The cows are not supposed to be eating under the fence into the next paddock, if they do habitually you’re not allotting enough forage.

I’ve mentioned this many times in my grazing posts, and the common thread among livestock folks is that any forage that doesn’t get removed, either by grazing or haying is waste.  I used to believe the same thing.  It’s not true.  It’s actually false economy, like the fellow’s pasture in the first picture.  Those cows aren’t wasting a bit of forage that’s for sure, but that pasture could be turned around in one season with a little temporary fencing and some thought and time.  Advice he has gotten has been to plow and reseed and get some good grass growing there, but he’s resisted because that is too expensive.  And it’s not the right diagnosis – plowing and reseeding worn out pasture land is like suggesting you go have abdominal surgery when you’re hungry!  Really, hunger pangs = surgery?  Why not just sate that hunger with a little food and rest.  If you want to feed your grass and grow more, rest it, and feed carbon and manure, and instead of a tractor, use the cow to put the meal on the “table.”

It is such a simple solution, but so hard to arrive at, really.  We read all the MiG books, and practiced really hard at management-intensive grazing, and we saw improvements, but we reached a plateau quickly and stalled.  Enter Greg Judy and his articles and books.  High Density Mob Stocking?  Huh?  Crowd those cows that much?  I could not believe that my cows would even speak to me if I entertained such a thought, and then I kept reading that DON”T under any circumstances try HDMS with under a hundred head.  Okay, I don’t like being told what to do – you know the Bossy Boots chafes a little under authority 😉  So I tried and saw immediate results, in the pasture and in the cows.  OMG!  We have crazy grass!  I have to blog about this because my family is so sick of hearing about the grass – but what my DH likes is that we are saving money and work.  We make less hay, feed less hay, buy less carbon, and make less compost.  Make less compost you ask?  Yes, we make less because we are skipping that step to some extent.   There was no one here making compost for the tall grass prairie, nature took care of all that by herself.   A lot of the compost we make is used for the hungry vegetable gardens, growing annuals takes a lot of inputs, growing perennial pasture does not.  By employing mob stocking with stockpiled forage, we are growing the carbon along with succulent forage, while the cows graze, they trample the carbon they don’t want to eat, and add their manure and urine at the same time.  It’s the perfect storm for growing great forages.  And from a purely economic sense it doesn’t take a lot of expensive fuel to do it.  Gathering all the supplies to make compost on this scale to cover this many acres and to do the covering is an expensive farm proposition.  Equal to I think, making more hay, storing it and bringing back the hay back to the cattle.  Or buying in hay to feed.  At a certain point, if fuel costs continue to rise, people will have to stop keeping cows the way all the hobby horses are kept, or they will have to have one heckuva job or inheritance to keep it afloat.  Personally I like to stay home and grow grass and have my cows harvest it, not go to work and pay someone else to grow grass and bale it so I can buy it and haul it home.  But that’s just me.  My cows are good at harvesting grass and I’m getting real good at watching them do it!

If possible, we rotate our hay ground to apply a different type of use and impact to each field.  Last year this field was allotted for hay, this year it will be rejuvenated with the high density, short duration grazing which applies animal pressure via grazing and trampling.  In our climate our stockpiled grass is only good for sixty to ninety days after the fall rains begin.  At that point the nutritional value of the stockpiled forage is zilch.  With that in mind we still need hay for a about three months of feeding and that is the time to switch gears and do some deep bedding building.  Being flexible is the key.

The cows are looking great with this mix of protein and energy forage.  Lots of slick coats and pretty dapples.

Lana has picked up considerably and finally shed out that belly fuzz.

To switch from MiG, the only change I had to make was to make the paddocks smaller and actually have a mob.   It’s difficult to start at first, because you do have to have stockpiled forage to begin with.  Which means you have to change what you’re doing.  Whether it is keeping the cows off the grass in early spring, or setting aside a field the previous fall for stockpiling, you do need to change what you’re doing even if it seems counter-intuitive.  That is if you want to grow more grass…

Your grazing won’t be perfect the first year or possibly ever, it is a journey.  There is no template or magic number of paddocks or cows to give you a certain set of results.  I’m happy with a steady improvement in the pastureland by using my beef cows as a tool.  Tomorrow – Jane’s food setup, it’s a little different.

40 Comments leave one →
  1. Craig permalink
    July 30, 2012 4:02 am

    Great post, thank you as always for taking the time to share! So why is it not recomended to do mob grazing with less than 100? You’ve obviously had success. I just can’t seem to think of any reasons it wouldn’t work on a smaller scale and you’ve proven it does. How many cows are you grazing this way now?

    • July 30, 2012 5:01 am

      Craig, thanks! I think because the guys doing mob stocking & writing about it have very large herds, so of course the thought of scaling something down doesn’t occur to them. I think the greatest benefit would be from a larger herd, but throwing the baby out with the bath water thinking is what got us all in the predicament we’re in now. Certainly some of that makes sense, it doesn’t take any longer to move 100 cows to the next paddock, but that implies that you have the land base and the cow numbers to do that with. I think everyone should try it, grass improvement is grass improvement plain and simple. I share because I want people to feed their cows well, and take care of their grass, whether they have one cow or 100.

      I’m grazing 20 head right now this way.

  2. July 30, 2012 5:05 am

    It is so refreshing to hear someone actually making sense on this. I have a small pasture with no livestock on it at all. It seemed a shame to have all of that lovely, natural grass going to waste so I advertized on CL saying I wanted no more than two horses or cows grazing it so it wouldn’t get overgrazed. Everyone who contacted me had more animals than that. One guy wanted to put 11 cows on it! Without exception they reassured me that it wouldn’t be overgrazed because they supplement feed year-round. Huh? My thought is that if it wasn’t overgrazed you wouldn’t NEED to supplement (well, maybe in winter but not the rest of the year), I could not get a single person willing to limit themselves to two animals so my pasture sits empty. Next year I plan to get a couple of my own but we moved in too late this year to do that as we had a zillion other things to do to learn something new.

    • July 30, 2012 8:00 am

      HHOW, kudos to you for not letting someone damage your pasture! Maybe if you could get the guy with 11 cows to take them away when they grazed and manured the whole it would work…cows do magic to the land.

      • July 30, 2012 8:17 am

        Hmmmm….that is an interesting idea because I really did kind of want the manure. My other concern is that there is a pond in the middle of the pasture and I wanted to limit the number of animals so that the banks of the pond didn’t get destroyed with them going for water multiple times a day. If there were stock tanks for water, do you think they would prefer those to pond water or just drink from whichever is closer at the time?

        • July 30, 2012 8:28 am

          HHOW, I would provide water, and fence out the ponds banks. The pond doesn’t need the manure and urine and the cows shouldn’t be in it anyway. Electric fencing is very simple and cattle respect it mightily. We don’t have power to most of our place and use a 12V deep cycle battery for most of our fencing – works like a charm!

  3. Lyelle Perschino permalink
    July 30, 2012 5:39 am

    Lots of good info here as usual…and Jane is looking absolutely gorgeous!

  4. Sherrie Blake permalink
    July 30, 2012 6:21 am

    Thanks so much for your pasture grass updates. I hope to be able to start mig one of these days. I’m in Texas and this drought has been devastating both this summer and last where I live. Having pastures like that would have been heaven. We had most sources of our livestock water dry up last year and we basically just worked on survival without having to sell our cows. You have about the same amount of cows that I have, so that encourages me to give the mig a try and see what happens. Water has been my main holdup in getting started.Your pasture posts are really educational to me.

  5. July 30, 2012 6:26 am

    This is one of the reasons I read your blog. You’re right. I read books that say something like, “Cows don’t really form a mob until you have at least 500 head out there. Then you can really see the competition and the cows that are weaker get pushed to the edges.” Well, that’s nice. But I have 20 acres. Maybe someday I’ll have 60 acres. Those kinds of things don’t apply to me Mr. Ruechel. Greg Judy does a great job of explaining what to look for in stock, how to manage your land, etc. but doesn’t have much to help a guy with fewer than 10 cows. 10 cows does not a mob make so you are entirely dependent on a hot fence to keep the ladies grazing in a tight group. Totally different scenario. Worse yet when trying to figure out how to mob graze fresh dairy cows in a way that doesn’t sacrifice production. There’s almost nothing out there for that. Even Graze magazine doesn’t cover HDMS with dairy. It’s all short-rotation, high protein grass.

    I guess it has been a while since I made this request so here goes again. Please write a book geared toward normal people. Small farmers…not ranchers. The kind of book Carol Ekarius wishes she would have written. You have the info in your head. It overflows onto your blog at intervals. Just spill it all into a book. You could be the Greg Judy of the PNW. It could be awesome!

    • July 30, 2012 7:58 am

      HFS, I hear you on the dairy stuff, balancing Jane’s diet is not easy. She is getting lush that I have to counteract with hay. If only she could go with the cows and I wanted to walk a mile to milk things would be perfect. 😦

      I may be too abnormal to write for normal folks 😉

      • July 30, 2012 8:02 am

        There are enough odd ducks like us who would buy to make it worth your time.

      • July 30, 2012 1:41 pm

        Ha! Should I be offended, lol? I tanked pasture rotation this year and will have to buy my hay. Sigh.. it is a journey. Do you have shade in all of your subdivisions? That’s part of my problem – I hate them to be out in full sun with no shade.

        • July 30, 2012 1:59 pm

          No shade but it isn’t all that hot here.

        • July 30, 2012 4:04 pm

          No you shouldn’t be offended. From what I’ve seen cows on land continuous graze or not are better for the land than no cows! You do what you can do, and that has to be good enough for the time. Jane is basically on a free-range continuous graze program. I’m just posting so others can see what is happening fast here in my pastures since we switched it up grazing-wise.

  6. Amy Blattner permalink
    July 30, 2012 7:26 am

    Love your blog and all the great information you post. How do you handle water for your mob grazing? We are trying to get a plan in place to begin mob grazing and that seems to be the most difficult issue we are facing.

    • July 30, 2012 7:54 am

      Amy, we haul water to each paddock. It would be cost prohibitive for us to install semi-permanent poly with feeder lines. We looked into it, but with our pasture configuration and timber breaks it would be nightmare. Hauling water works for us because we are driving to the pasture anyway – it may not work in every situation though but is a cheap and easy way to begin, kind of like waiting 3 years before building any permanent fence.

      • July 30, 2012 12:02 pm

        Why wait 3 years to build a fence, and what does one do in the interim? Just electric fence?

        • July 30, 2012 12:31 pm

          Harriet, permanent perimeter fence is a given right away, but interior fences and gates should wait until you see how the farm flows with you and any stock and equipment you have. It’s hard to think of everything right off the bat, and our rule of thumb is build wide gates, in barns and fields, I’ve never heard of a gate being too wide, and but always hear about them being too narrow!

        • July 31, 2012 9:05 am

          Thanks for the reply! Makes sense. Quotes for fencing all came in around $25k and that stopped us in our tracks. And that was just perimeter +1 cross fence. I’d kick myself to the moon and back if I paid that much and did it wrong!

  7. July 30, 2012 8:10 am

    We’re in our second year of leasing 10 acres of summer pasture, and I’m starting to get uncomfortable. The guy we lease from lives there year round (our animals are between his house and the road) and has old ways of doing things. He always continuously grazed, and that’s what he knows. He hays part of our piece (we get half), and bays the rest of his ground that we don’t lease. His hay fields this year were thin. We rested “our” hayfield three plus weeks and just moved the cattle (1 bred cow, 1 bred heifer and two 28-month old steers) to it last night. My husband brush hogged about 1/2 of the ground the cattle have been on the last few months because that’s all the owner would allow – for now. Lots of carbon, lots of poop, lots of trampling, and hopefully that half will be the better for the rest. We’ll move the animals across the driveway into his “real” (thin!) hayfield in a couple of weeks…he hasn’t had any animals or chicken manure on it in years and you can tell. I would LOVE to at least practice MiG on what we lease, but i seems hard to convince him to let us try. 😐

    • July 30, 2012 8:33 am

      Amy, I know what you mean, around here the hayfields are all so thin, with poverty grasses growing. It’s sad, to see what a lack of animals on the land is doing…the vibrancy is gone and the hay guys here are ecstatic because the hay is so thin it dries faster!! I’ve done some mowing here too where Jane has been, she just couldn’t keep up, and it’s looking real good.

      Keep trying – maybe he’ll see the results and slowly change his mind… 😀 Baby steps!

  8. July 30, 2012 10:32 am

    I learn so much from you! One of the first additions to my library was an 1805 farming book, I figure they knew a lot then about raising food without a lot of petro & cash. Blend old wisdom with new science and a little gut check and there might just be a sustainable path.

    I’m curious, how do you deal w/weeds? We’ve got a creek and a windy valley, and everybody gets everyone else’s weeds, including nasty invasives. We’re looking to resurrect a neglected farm, but the weeds have chased out almost everything else, except canary grass, which is its own adventure.

    • July 30, 2012 12:33 pm

      Harriet, we learn to live with most of them, and try to learn what the plants are telling about our land. The theory that everything blowing in will take hold is somewhat of an old wives tale. Some invasives do take over, Himalayan blackberry comes to mind, but many are pretty specialized to certain soil conditions and management practices and those are things that can be changed.

      • July 31, 2012 9:01 am

        I’ve got a job ahead of me getting rid of ’em (Canadian thistle, Himalayan blackberry being the worst), but it’s heartening to think that nourishing the soil and moving in something better might make this just a few-years’ job. 🙂 I see the puffs of thistle seed floating around and just cringe inside.

  9. Linda Zoldoske permalink
    July 30, 2012 10:40 am

    Thanks! I am learning so much from you!

  10. Anne Taliaferro permalink
    July 30, 2012 12:20 pm

    First of all, I second the idea of you writing a book on grazing geared to the PNW and for smaller parcels of land with fewer head of cattle. I do think there is an audience for it. If not geared to the PNW, at least explain how practices differ here from those in other climates.

    Second – what reading do you recommend for someone wanting to learn more about this type of grazing. You’ve mentioned Greg Judy – any particular book?

    Third – I think there is a limit to how much you can scale down. We only have two cows, a 1 yr old heifer and a new calf from this Spring. One of the cows is very dominant, and when we had them in a really small paddock there was not enough room for the other one to steer clear of her wrath. With more cattle I suspect the herd dynamics would be very different.

    Another challenge for us is that we are milking one of our cows. We bring the calf into the barn at night and bring the cow in to milk in the morning. Last year we weren’t milking, so it was relatively simple to set them up in paddocks – even the ones on the other side of the driveway and through the woods from the barn & main pasture.

    Now we are trying to set up an alley system but we need to figure out how to keep it from becoming a complete mud hole in the Winter. We also are having a difficult time figuring out how to extend the alley across the driveway and through the woods. We’re trying to clear the underbrush with assistance from the cows & goats so we can eventually thin and limb up the trees to create more grazing area beneath the tree canopy. Any suggestions are most welcome – from you and/or from other readers.

    • July 30, 2012 12:50 pm

      Anne, I would recommend Comeback Farms by Greg Judy, No Risk Ranching is good but concentrates more on leasing land and custom grazing.

      As for dynamics they do change, and I don’t allow any dominate cows with horns here, period, with rotational grazing. The horns go one way or the other, the cow gets to choose, be a bitch and you’re in the freezer or learn to cope. They usually choose the freezer! I have a friend who just makes his fence hotter and deals with cattle getting gored and shoved through the fence. I would not tolerate that behavior at all. Continuous grazing is another story – then horns are ok, and I do have one horned cow right now, but she is timid and doesn’t bully anyone. I think someone should speak out about cow bullies, but they never do. So much for low stress livestock – end of rant.

      Milking does add a whole new set of logistics. I keep the calf, and bring the cow in at milking time. The calf stays in it’s own pasture or is tethered, and I lead the cow in. Right now I have to cross a county road with the cow to get her to the barn. I have not figured out a way past that, except illegal things like dynamiting the road closed, but that doesn’t sit too well with others around here. So I still have to spend some time taking my cow back and forth to pasture. Can you do a summer lane and a winter one? I don’t use lanes, but they are very useful in certain situations, but you’re right they do just become one more sacrifice area from all the heavy use. I always halter break my milk cow and calf instead of relying on fencing for moving and while it does take some commitment from me, it sure gives me some flexibility as far as putting the cow somewhere temporarily. Actually Jane drives pretty well, so once we get across the road she goes to her stall to be milked, after of course inspecting laundry and anything else she can get into on the way to the barn 🙂

  11. CarolG permalink
    July 30, 2012 1:32 pm

    Just chiming in to say I’m another person who would love to have you write the book so I could buy it and recommend it to some of my friends who plan to homestead.

  12. July 30, 2012 1:45 pm

    PS: your cows & grass do look great. Thanks again for sharing so generously.

  13. July 30, 2012 2:11 pm

    So make that three of us that want your book…
    Your pictures and explanations are so clear and helpful as always.
    I just finished No Risk Ranching, which I got through ILLO at my local library. I know you said read the other one, but if there’s a sequence, I like to start at the beginning. I know what you mean about the leasing and scale, but it was still a great read. A light bulb moment for me was when I suddenly realized I don’t necessarily have to own the animals that graze to improve the pasture. I’ve ordered Comeback Farms, still waiting for it to arrive. I think I’ve learned a whole bunch from the comments above as well! Never occurred to me that the herd pecking order might be an issue in a confined space for example.

    • Elizabeth permalink
      July 30, 2012 4:20 pm

      Me too, me too!
      I’ve read your blog and older entries about feeding your cows/ cattle over and over trying to glean enough information to feel like I know a little about what I’m doing before we get a milk cow. I also would like to be on the “book list”.


  14. July 30, 2012 4:22 pm

    See? Your audience has spoken. Now, start jotting down chapter ideas and you’ll have this beauty published by spring. Let me know what I can do to help. eBooks are hip with the youngsters these days…

    And you have more than 10 readers. I count 14 commenters so far and I suspect between 1 and 3% of blog readers comment. You’ve probably gotten 400+ hits on this article today.

  15. One of the regular readings who never comments... permalink
    July 31, 2012 9:26 am

    Just thought I’d chime in as one of the 97% who read regulary but never comment. Yes please, a book would be wonderful, I would buy it! The way you think about the land and your place in it, and constantly working to improve it, would resonate with many, they don’t even have to be looking to homestead! I live in a city, grew up in a small town, but have no plan to go back, and love reading your blog, because your writing teaches me how to think in a deeply holistic way.

  16. One of the regular readers who never comments... permalink
    July 31, 2012 9:27 am

    Sorry, my ‘fake’ name should have said regular ‘readers’. Oi, so much for clever anonymity.

  17. bdmccall permalink
    July 31, 2012 10:49 am

    I’ll chime in (as one of the 97-99%) that I’d love to read a book from you as well. We have 5 acres in central Illinois, and only about 2 acres that can be devoted to pasture and hay. As best I can tell, that means I could support a single small dairy cow (and calf to sell), and possibly a goat or two thrown in for company (I know if I buy hay I can have more animals, but I don’t want to do that … self-sufficiency and all). I still find all your articles extremely interesting and informative, even if they are not directly applicable. I wish I had more land, but that’s not going to happen. You’re always an inspiration and your cows are so pretty!

  18. Janet permalink
    July 31, 2012 9:34 pm

    Raising my hand as well. You are an inspiration, love your blog and would love a book. I don’t know when you would write it but… I would definitely buy it! 😉

    The grass you have…sigh. Your cows are so healthy looking! Thanks for your sharing!

  19. August 1, 2012 1:19 am

    You’re giving me grass envy again MoH! What are the chances of me seeing this kind of improvement using a few sheep? I know sheep are not cows but i have some hope.

    You rock, your blog rocks, i have learned a lot here~you’d have my support, too!

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