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Grazing Recap – Finally

January 10, 2014

A month late and some stockpile short, here finally are my thoughts and obs of this, the fifth year of high density, short duration grazing (HDSD) on our farm.  Most of these photos were taken in early December before we had our cold snap, which pretty much blew the final weeks of my grazing plan that I had set into motion last spring.  Sometimes we don’t get frigid weather until mid-January, sometimes it’s much earlier.  C’ est la vie.  Or at least in the business of art and science down on the farm.  That’s grazing life.  I’m told I need to start doing crossword puzzles to keep my mind exercised – I think for me I’ll just stick with my grass and hay rotation plans, throw in a few curves from the weather and some well-placed poaching hunting seasons and I think I am exercising my mind quite a bit thank you.

end of season - almost

end of season – almost

cows in the shade - okay on a warm late fall day, not okay if the weather is freezing

cows in the shade – okay on a warm late fall day, not okay if the weather is freezing

I was going to write this post in the beginning of December and I got as far as taking the photos so if you see green, think the first week of December, if you see bleak photos in the post, think end of December.  I’ll do my best to make a note in the text.

The biggest change I wanted to implement this year was to have the cows closeup during the month of December.  It’s warmer up here at the upper end where the Columbia Gorge east wind doesn’t hit.  I also have less dramatic land and shade keylines in the fields here.

Rotational grazing was big breakthrough for me personally, she who grew up with permanent fence and free-ranging cattle.  The cows are on their own all summer while you make hay like the dickens, obsessing over hay while the cows are watering themselves at the spring holes,  gleefully hanging out in the shade by day, and grazing by night watching you haul in the hay.  Okay, so I unlearned all that only to be led down the path of Management-intensive Grazing, MiG.  MiG is where you move the cows every twenty-four hours, going through your fields at a fast clip leaving some residue for the next go round, only to find out that was only a little bit better than just letting the cows have it.  Personally now, on the other side of that grazing model, I see it was designed to assuage the folks who can’t wean themselves off machinery or the lawn culture that insidiously seeps into grazing rules.  If your grass isn’t the right height (determined by the grazing gods) you have to mow it, or if the cows don’t eat it down to the right height you have to mow it?  Crazy, I only use my hog mower now for Himalayan blackberries and I relish every minute of it… . Okay more unlearning.  Enter Greg Judy, et al, and mob stocking.  Of course, I read a lot of those things early on but none of it stuck because I don’t have 500 cows, never will, never wanted to.  I have the land that I have, there is no more for sale, all the farms around here have been subdivided, let go to trees, and then sold to back- to- the-landers or McMansioners.  I don’t have the money or the off-farm job to support that kind of purchase anyway even if land was available, so I have to make-do.  I was determined to mob graze my mobette.  With high density small paddocks the grass that doesn’t get eaten is trampled, no height, no clipping.

My goal was to extend my grazing season, I was pretty sure I couldn’t get hay out of my operation totally but cutting back on hay making, which while dear to my heart having participated in hay harvest all my years, making a little less hay would not break my heart.  Even though tears come to my eyes when I hear that plunger.  Dunno, it’s my hubby cajoling the knotters these days, but maybe in my mind that sound is an auditory blur of my life, my dear departed Dad and brother too?  Hay is a big worry, or I should say lack of hay is a big worry.  I worry about hay like I worry about our food supply, hay pretty much rules our life.  All year.  Right now where I am feeding my cows has to do with next year’s hay.  When my husband was my boyfriend he thought we were crazy when he first helped haul hay.  My brother was  mean cuss when it came to stacking hay – you had to do interlocking layers on the truck – no tying on a load, you stacked it to hold on hills, and on the road.  Hay Hazing 101, pure and simple.   Then in the barn, it has to be stacked just so too.  He still talks about how dumb he thought it was to care how the hay was stacked, and now he feels dumb because he knows it has to be stacked a certain way.

I digress as usual.  But hay does have a lot to do with it.

hay field

hay field

grazed field

grazed field

Compare the sward in the two photos above.  Both were “cut” the same time.  They only have a fence separating them.  The difference is my old life of hay cutting/depletion management, and this above is results of HDSD grazing.  As always, you never can adopt a total new way of anything.  What is working best for us is a blend of old and new, right and wrong, and what fits.  We get too much rain to graze our cows all winter and expect them to be alive when we get to spring.  The stockpile basically is not nutritious enough to maintain the cows, period.  I still have to make some hay.  Our weather has never been conducive to getting more than one cutting of hay, so we were always stuck with rank hay waiting for the weather to break.  Now I can get second cut quality hay by grazing the hay ground lightly in the spring, and then pulling that ground out of our grazing rotation.   My aim was to hit everything twice maybe three times if I had to in order to allow the grass to grow tall and be rejuvenated by a longer rest period.  What the cows don’t eat, gets trampled and becomes grass food applied on top.  Adding minerals to the cows diet also helps this along too.  A vet recently stated (in an online forum) that good kelp was bioavailable to the cow, and the other minerals go through the cow and help the land.  Sort of like applying compost without all the compost making and applying.  Let the grass grow, fence in the cow, feed her minerals along with her forage, make sure the fenced area is small enough that she tramples some of the forage as she eats.  Repeat the next day.


During this five-year period of new learning for me, I really taught myself to “see” different ways of keyline management.  I have soil keylines, and shade keylines in addition to the slope/swale areas that you commonly associate with keyline management.  It’s a little hard to make out but I grazed this part of the field from right to left in three different strips for 24 days.  This is our extreme south facing slope and I have learned not to graze this area in the heat of summer.  You want less grass, graze a south facing slope in the summer.  Ugh.  Learned that one.  The fences are missing now since I move them as I move the cows, but you can see the different stages of regrowth.   The rest is the key.  The brown strip was grazed during a frosty period, subsequently no or slow growth.  This photo was taken on December 2nd.  Back in the day of continuous or even MiG I would have not had any stockpile in December and would have been feeding hay for months.  Moving a fence is easy, making hay is not.

stockpile - December 2, 2013

stockpile – December 2, 2013

My late fall stockpile always looks like this before cows, some green and some brown.  Green for cows, brown for soil.

This is how it looks after the cows do their thing in the paddock.  Lots of litter and lots of manure and urine.

Regrowth about 10 days behind the cows in late December.

Same, just different angle.  The litter left behind protects the soil enough to allow the rapid regrowth, and the grass roots are strong enough to take advantage of this cover and growth period because the plants were fully rested before grazing again.   This field will not be grazed until next spring.

Ouch - 5F is hard on my grass

Ouch – 5F is hard on my grass

The art of grazing comes into play with the weather.  We got some cold (for us) weather in early December effectively killing back all my green grass in the stockpile.  Sometimes we have snow cover and the grass is protected and I can continue grazing after the snow melts, not this year though.

They gone

They gone

One of the problems I had in previous winters was having a grazing strip in a shade keyline during cold weather.  Cows are resilient creatures and can take the cold, but I believe on cold windy days, keeping them standing in shade when sun is just an acre away is cruel and a foolish waste of hay.  I moved the cows to a different field and started feeding more hay and gave up on what was left of the stockpile in that pasture.  I may be wrong, but I don’t see myself ever having an adequate stockpile to overwinter my cows without feeding hay.  I am happy at this point to be feeding less.

old stump salt lick - still tastes good.

old stump salt lick – still tastes good.

But you never know, some old ideas and methods are good and still work, and some new ones work good too.  Like everything else we do here on this farmstead, the methods, learning and unlearning span decades, dare I say a century?  A pinch of this and dash of that make the grazing go round.

20 Comments leave one →
  1. January 10, 2014 5:18 pm

    Your method seems to follow pretty much what is described in this TED talk:

  2. January 10, 2014 6:27 pm

    I’m as far as they hay stacking and I have to stop and comment. I wonder how many of your readers have any understanding at all of plungers and knotters. I can hear the baler running now. We are hilly enough that I have to stack hay carefully to stay put on the wagon as we go and there are only a couple of wagons that I can stack 5 bales high. We lay the bales neatly on their sides in the barn so they breathe better and so the raccoons don’t tunnel through the strings when they nest up there in the winter. These are things I have always done and never stopped to think about.

    Back to reading.

    • January 10, 2014 8:41 pm

      I know, it’s funny seeing bales this week that we squirreled away last July. Jane got a sprig of bracken fern in her bale yesterday, I immediately knew what round that bale was from in what field. How ’bout the sound of a shear pin shearing…ugh, usually with a storm approaching too. Who would think you would recognize a bale out of hundreds? But you do.

      Coons? You need some dogs!

      • January 11, 2014 5:51 am

        I rarely hear the shear pin on the wagon. I cringe when I hear the flywheel spinning freely as we come to a stop.

        • Bee permalink
          January 11, 2014 7:42 am

          Or the rhythm of the old Johnny Popper tractors…

  3. Lynn permalink
    January 10, 2014 6:59 pm

    I am never going to have cows or a farm and I still love reading your posts. Well done.

  4. January 10, 2014 9:41 pm

    Thanks Matron, that was excellent! It is good to see how your fields respond to grazing and how they change over time.

  5. January 11, 2014 7:22 am

    I remember my father in law describing how to build a load — that is, a load of salt hay on the horse drawn hay wagon — and how it was a lost art. This was in the days of no balers. Here in the Northeast coast of Massachusetts, salt, or marsh hay was fed out during the winter along with the field hay. Our family owned a piece of salt marsh, and they would drive the wagon and their team of two Belgians across town at haying time. It always took a few days, and the horses would be bedded down right there for the duration. The hay was layered up into a towering pointed stack with pitchforks, this way, and that, and this stack had to hold up to the ride back across town. Once back here, my husband’s grandmother would sit the children on the porch admonishing them to stay put, while she led one of the horses back and forth across the barnyard. He was hitched to a rope and pulley which drew the hay fork up and down, as the men, up in the loft carefully stacked the loose hay in the barn “just so.” As the horses neared the front stoop where the children watched, grandmother would give a little hitch command to speed up. This would create a swing to the hayfork as it neared the top of the pulley, neatly putting into the proper position for the men to grab it efficiently.

  6. Bee permalink
    January 11, 2014 7:39 am

    My husband is another one of those “stack it right, interlock the bales, square corners, make it perfect on the truck, in the stack and in the barn” ranchers. Now that he’s physically unable to load and unload hay because of his back surgeries, he gets his kicks supervising, criticizing and chastising those who don’t meet his standards. I was never quite that anal about it, but there’s no question that a well-stacked load won’t dump some bales in the road when you make a turn, or tumble down the end of the stack because something shifted. Great post on grazing management, Nita, thanks! Funny how all those things we were taught were the “right” way don’t hold up to new ideas, but you’re right, it does keep the brain exercised. Sometimes you go forward with new-age cutting edge technology and sometimes you go back hundreds of years to old-fashioned methods. What’s really fun is mixing and matching the two!

  7. January 11, 2014 8:00 am

    We are making do on a small plot of land. Only about 6 acres, total in pasture, with 3.5 acres taken up by the house, barn, ponds, gardens and orchards. I will have four cows in milk next fall, their calves and sometimes a bull. Is there any hope for me to do this type of system in the harsher climate of MO? At present, we feed a round bale every five days to 2 cows, 2 heifers and a bull, from mid Nov till good grass in the spring, usually mid April. Any thoughts? I am open to any and all suggestions!
    Btw, thank you for each and every post, they are truly high points of my day!

  8. twoaussie permalink
    January 11, 2014 8:13 am

    I love your Salt Lick.I saw weather last night .they said it would be sloppy wet in your area. And I thought of you.

  9. January 12, 2014 5:43 pm

    Is it possible to drive your t-bar fence posts into frozen ground. I could probably keep my animals out longer in the fall than I do, but my step in posts become useless once the frost sets in

  10. January 12, 2014 5:48 pm

    Sorry, I meant re-bar fence posts.

    • January 12, 2014 5:51 pm

      Personally I don’t like step-in posts and own about 3 of them, so I would say yes, because I use a hammer, 2 1/2 pound sledge that fits in my back pocket.

  11. Ben permalink
    January 13, 2014 3:31 pm

    So, I’m not sure I’m understanding why your rotational grazing is not considered MIG…?

    • January 13, 2014 4:07 pm

      Well, it kind of is, like Coke is a loose term for pop. Mob stocking with tall grass and high stocking density is a much better way to grow grass, and get rid of weeds. The usual MiG protocol is to make multiple passes through each year in larger paddocks having the stock only graze the top portion. They all work to some extent, and any movement/rest is better than the stock having constant access to the pasture.

      • Ben permalink
        January 13, 2014 4:52 pm

        So, upping the stocking density by making the paddocks smaller you would classify as Mob stocking rather than MIG? Got it. Just trying to learn all the vocab. 🙂

        • January 13, 2014 6:11 pm

          Yep – try and find used copy of Comeback Farms by Greg Judy. Interesting stuff.

  12. Ben permalink
    January 13, 2014 8:50 pm

    I need to. I read his first one a couple years back. It makes sense.


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