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Stymied. Serendipity. Solution.

June 18, 2014

“What can’t be cured, must be endured.”  Laura Ingalls Wilder


Or the story of the perplexing paddock.  What, only one you ask?  Well, okay, the most perplexing paddock.  See that spot just behind the cows?  That’s steep, and steep means it probably shouldn’t have been cleared in the first place, but I have enough trees, and not enough pasture so it remains pasture.  But because of the steepness it means erosion over the years.  This piece of land was purchased by my parents in the 1940’s, so I don’t really know the history of it other than I have seen photos of this field in oats, only one set of pictures leads me to believe that was the first crop “we” put in after acquiring the land.  I’m also venturing a guess that type of cropping had been happening on this piece of land during the previous owner’s farming days.  In my memory it has always been pasture or hayfield.  And the weakest pasture we have at that.  Because it is weak, it grows weak grass and forbs and because of that, historically over the years the cattle would pick at parts of it and leave the rest.

For you keyline conscious graziers, this field is a study in the keyline concept.  Not only do I have slopes and swales, I have “shade” keylines, and soil keylines.  This is where you use science to make art in grazing.  For a me, a quilter, this is my biggest “quilt” yet and the most difficult to get right.  The science part of shade and soil?  If you have different soil types under all that green, you will have different plants above.  If you’re not sure what you have under all that green, consult the web soil survey for your farm.  It will tell you.  If you have paid attention you will see the different plant communities that grow.  What I usually see is groups or guilds of plants growing that will give you some clue to what’s beneath.

Yarrow, vetch, sweet vernal grass, sorrel, and ??????

Yarrow, vetch, sweet vernal grass, sorrel, and ??????

It may be short grasses, and poverty type legumes like medic and vetch.

Or grasses and legumes like white clover that prefer a semi-compacted soil.

Or it may be waist-high orchard grass.  All this and more in the same pasture.  I took all these photos in this one pasture during paddock shift time.  See the diversity?  And the beauty of it is that for the most part cows eat all of it.  That’s what Salatin is talking about when he says Salad Bar Beef.  Even if you go to the work of working up the soil, planting anew, the pasture will gravitate towards the sward that the soil beneath will support.  That’s a real hard pill for some to swallow, to realize that all that effort may be for naught, when you can just build a fence and move a herd of cows through and change what grows there by adding fertility, and timing animal disturbance.

Sounds so simple…but still that steep paddock had me baffled each summer.  When you realize you only have a chance or two a year to effect a change, you need to make the chances count.  Somehow though I just couldn’t graze that paddock “right.”  It’s so steep the cows don’t like to stay on it, and I never could get the size right.  If the paddock is too large, the cows cream it, and leave little manure.  Too small, and they eat all the grass leaving this south-facing slope bare in the heat of summer.  Big no-no.  I tried stockpiling it and mob stocking, and that didn’t seem to make the difference on this south-facing slope that I had experienced on similar steep north-facing slopes in other pastures.  I dreaded grazing the draw in that field so much, I wanted to skip it most times, but didn’t because it needed grazing.  But still, I didn’t like it at all.  I merely endured it.

coyote field
We/I tried coming at that part of the field with so many different ideas.  But the one thing that escaped us?  Changing direction when we started grazing that field.  Change is hard for humans.  The photo above is at least 16 years old and we’re grazing the field clockwise.  No date but I can tell by my daughters ponytail.  What is so funny, not funny ha ha, but funny interesting, is that we would start that field at the gate and would go clockwise around the field.  Every. Single. Time.  Thinking back I can’t think of why, it’s just what we did.  Then one summer we needed to get to the back-end of this field in early July for a function of some sort.  I didn’t want the grass trampled, so I decided to graze counter-clockwise – lo and behold, the serendipitous solution to the pesky paddock.

Taking keylines into account when fencing on this particular part of the pasture I make a large strip on that south-facing slope and divide it further into about three to five paddocks depending on the time of year and stage of pasture growth.  Going clockwise would always have the cows entering that paddock last in that strip.  So depending on my paddock judging prowess the previous four days or so in the strip I always ended up with too small of an area, or too large, I just couldn’t get the sizing right.  I was either overgrazing this spot or over resting it.  Stymied.  Adding insult to injury, blackberries were starting to take over the succession plan and were pushing the plant community to a plane I wasn’t interested in.  Grazing counter-clockwise has the cows entering this strip at the steep end and I can judge the size better instead of just ending up with leftovers.

Now I’m onto Plan D (plan duh!) since I realized that if I continue to graze this field counter-clockwise I can make this paddock the size I want, to get the impact I want.  Remember the cows will only graze here three or four times in a year, I have to make each time count.  Plan DD (double duh!), now I don’t endure this strip, I look forward to it, one for obvious change of manure placement, but…now I am building fence and moving troughs going downhill, wow, let me tell you that is a huge energy savings on this old bod.  Talk about feeling kind of dumb for not figuring that one out sooner.

So here is pesky paddock in all its disturbed glory.  A heifer was in heat the day the cows were pastured here, so there was quite the trampling party going on in this spot, but hey at least it’s at the very top of the hill,  rain and gravity will take care of moving some of that fertility down the hill for me.


I grazed it short, so I could get at the blackberry clumps with my mattock and dig them out.  That chore is on the list…and with the recent rains, I’m feeling pretty good about finally getting at this paddock on my terms.


12 Comments leave one →
  1. June 18, 2014 12:15 pm

    Like your three S’s… glad it worked! Simple solutions not always easy to discover, but work best most of the time.

  2. Pippa permalink
    June 18, 2014 1:26 pm

    Again, a very interesting and thoughtful post. Look forward to reading more. You certainly have a great understanding and knowledge of your land.

  3. CassieOz permalink
    June 18, 2014 11:16 pm

    A great essay in ‘know your land’ in order to ‘plan your grazing’. Perhaps like you I’ve realised that no battle plan survives the first skirmish so you have to be willing to turn your own habits and preconceptions inside out to examine them once in a while. Great food for thought as always.

    • June 19, 2014 5:08 am

      I find it’s easier for me to learn something new than it is to break a habit. Jane is better than that, it takes about 3 repetitions to turn that battleship around then she’s good to go with the new routine. Me, it takes a little longer.

  4. June 19, 2014 11:26 am

    Great info (as usual) on grazing steep hills. My pasture land is mostly hilly, though not quite as steep as that bit of land you highlighted. You address some things I was concerned about. Thanks.

  5. June 19, 2014 10:33 pm

    Our land is mainly hills and we are battling weeds this year. Many things seemed to get ahead of the grass. Still the grass seems to be fighting back now. Do you have any recommendations on resources for grass management?

  6. June 21, 2014 1:42 am

    That makes perfect sense. Grazing from the top-down, means you were strengthening the grass growing lower down the slope (aka: natural fertilizer) before the cattle started treading it down. Doing it the other way around, meant you were fighting against the forces of nature, so it was weakening the pasture as they were eating from it and treading it into the slope at the same time.

    Gravity, it’s powerful stuff!

    • June 21, 2014 4:23 am

      Chris, exactly, and it took me so long to figure it out, just because of gate placement in the permanent fence. We dug out the blackberry plants yesterday, and sprinkled some seed in the bare spots. It looks better already 🙂

      • June 23, 2014 3:24 pm

        That’s always the cherry on the cake – when you see what you’re doing actually working! I know it will come good given a season or two. I look forward to seeing how it progresses.

  7. Janet permalink
    April 9, 2015 9:40 am

    Wow. Amazing thought processes to follow for me. So hard to break the thought of just throw them out and let them eat. The way you manage it is so much better.

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