How Many Reels of Fence Do I Need?

We have a dozen rolls of polywire fencing but how many do we need? I mean really need?

Ignore the fact that we keep our cows in two herds, beef and dairy. Let’s just talk about the beef herd. How much fence do we use?

We could get by with five. Easily.

Let me explain. We need two reels running in parallel the length of the pasture (let’s call those lines). Then we use one reel for a back fence, one for a front fence and the third defines the length of tomorrow’s grazing area (let’s call those cross fences). Those three cross fences rotate forward the length of the two parallel lines. Clear as mud? Let’s use pictures. This is an overhead view of the field north of the hog building. For decades it was where the sows and boars were kept. I remember it being a moonscape as a kid, now the fences have all been pulled down into the earth by grasses and trampled by cattle.

PigPasture_Bare

The satellite image has not been updated recently so the picture shows a lot of damage done by the cattle in the past. See those well worn paths across the field? That’s from the cattle lounging in the bottom or in the wheat field further north and trekking across the field every morning to eat silage and hay at the barn. The whole herd walked in a line right there several times each day, every day for years. There is good fence to the south and west of the field. I just need to build temporary fence to the north then subdivide the grazing to concentrate their activity as they pulse across the landscape. Because my cattle walk in a place only once every three or more months the old cow paths are healing. Instead there are deep roots and tall forages. Unfortunately, there are also tall weeds but that’s part of the healing process.

On the picture below I show the permanent fence in red, the north line in yellow and the cross fences in green. Those daily subdivisions are quite large. In September we were just trying to skim out the annual forbs (chicory, dandelion, clover and ragweed) while maintaining and fertilizing the standing fescue. Fescue is at its best when everything else has frozen out. The little extra dose of nitrogen left by grazing animals will make it even better…for longer. Better still where the layer flock passes.

PigPasture_Fenced

Every day we moved the cows. Every day we moved the water. Every day the cows got fresh salad and clean sheets. Every day a new section of the pasture got a workout. The strategy is only a little different in the clover field. Not much in that field will survive a frost. Hopefully I can finish grazing it before the forage is killed back by frost. In recent years this has been a lot of corn and beans.

Clover_Bare

Dad lightly disced the field in the spring and spread a pasture mix heavy in legumes (60%). We took a cutting of hay in late July and it has since recovered. The ground is a little lumpy, there are a few weedy patches (shattercane and cocklebur) but for the most part it’s a very nice field. Hopefully the cows can flatten it out a bit so the hay wagon won’t be such a bumpy ride. Because of the grazing strategy here we are grazing smaller areas. We want fair utilization, a lot of trampling and good manure distribution. We try to leave a blanket covering the soil but still give the cows what they need as measured by gut fill and manure consistency.

CloverRemains

We also have to move things along quickly enough to cover the field before frost. Really I should have until early November before snow pushes it all down but I need to be in the alfalfa field after it frosts and dries. So here’s what we planned:

Clover_Planned

Try to imagine yourself as a 13 year old boy trying to walk a straight line to the opposite corner of a field…when the corner is hidden by two hills.

RedClover

What really happened is he went wide on the initial fence. We cut a portion of the area in half with another roll of fence then applied our subdivisions. It worked. The pasture sizes vary wildly but it’s cool. We were counting on cool weather in these open areas but it got to nearly 90 degrees. When it got hot we removed the back fence and allowed the cattle to lounge in the shade of the few trees in the first subdivision. That’s not ideal but it also wasn’t a big deal. The cattle tended to concentrate their manure in the shade and caused additional disruption near the trees but they appeared to do their grazing in new areas, not in old ones.

Clover_Actual

From here we’ll attempt to define a mostly parallel fencing line to the south and keep movin’ on. I think we are currently using 7 reels of fence but only because we are lazy. We could easily get by with five. You just have to think through each movement and how to get the most out of your available resources. Pasture size is dictated by available forage, livestock needs and your management goal du jour. This winter we will really bunch them up in smaller pastures to utilize the stockpiled forage and distribute manure evenly. When it is warm and rainy we give them larger areas. Seasons change. Cattle needs vary. You’ll just have to figure some of this out on your own farm.

Let me give you another example of variation. We have gotten nearly a foot of rain in the last two weeks. We had seven inches of rain in 24 hours last week. This field is so new that there isn’t a dense net of roots protecting the soil. Hooves can sink in. To prevent lasting damage we just move the herd faster. Maybe we offer smaller grazing areas and move them twice daily but they don’t get a chance to make a mud pit. You must be flexible to change with both livestock and pasture needs.

With a mere 5 reels of fence you should have everything you need to put your cows in motion. A drink of water, a pinch of salt and a little shade on hot days and you’re on your way…these could all be delivered to a small herd with a single portable structure.

Additional thoughts:

  • An important thing to consider is placement of your reels. If you are planning to make any adjustments to your fence, put your reel on the end you will adjust. Sometimes we have to roll up a little bit to let the cows into a new stretch. No big deal if the reel is in the right place. For example, try to place the reel of your cross fence so the cattle will show you their left side to you as they walk into the new pasture…and you should make the cattle walk past you to go to new pasture every day. This gives you a chance to look at the gut fill of a portion of the herd as well as a chance to look at other details. Are their coats shiny? Are their rumps and tails clean?
  • I have a few 1400′ reels of fence and I find they are difficult to roll up. I think the best reels are the ones that are only half filled as they are less likely to fall off of the spool. If I need more than 700′ of fence on my little farm I should reconsider my fencing plan.
  • We use a mix of pigtail posts and rebar posts. Rebar posts will take abuse, pigtails won’t. But we have had our share of fence shorts because the insulator on a rebar post twists and grounds out the wire. I prefer pigtails for ends, corners and cross fences then use rebar for lines. Pigtails also hold the wire more securely when deer run through the fence. If I had to make a choice I would choose pigtails.
  • 5 reels would cost around $250 for string and reels, another $50-100 for posts and insulators. That’s all the fence you would need for your first few hundred head of cattle. You might want to offer more space or move them less frequently in the spring but by the time you have 100 head of cattle you can probably afford another reel or two.
  • Don’t skimp on the energizer. And get one with a remote!
  • I would like to try polyrope but it ain’t cheap.
  • I don’t seem to know if I’m writing this blog for me or for you. Or for you. Or you. Or maybe just my kids. Maybe this is the manual for our farm…what I’ve learned so far. Whoever this is aimed at, thanks for reading. I hope it is clear.

Could I Farm the Whole State?

No. I could not farm the whole state. It isn’t going to happen. It would cost something like $176 billion to buy the farmland. Besides, we are better off with a half million small farms than with one giant farm as more farmers can do more work, cast more vision and solve more problems. Break the herds and flocks listed below out to an appropriate number of farmers if you want but keep the big total listed below. That’s realistic. Let’s have some fun with one big herd today though.

We use cattle to cycle nutrients and fix carbon. To build healthy soil. They also heal riparian areas. This is accomplished by timing exposure, measuring mob density and allowing adequate plant recovery. The problem I have is I don’t have a mob. I have 60 hooves, not 60,000,000 hooves. Not yet anyway…

What would happen if we used the whole state of Illinois as a pasture? Pretend I could rent it or buy it. Work with me here.

First, let’s make room for people. We need people. People are good. More people allow us to achieve a more complete utilization of the land and resources because I can’t do it all. I need help harvesting the nuts and berries. I need help making the calculations for the jump to light speed. I need guitarists and poets and artists and carpenters. I need bakers and brewers and electricians and computer programmers. I need inventors and dreamers and deadbeats. Biographers, journalists, morticians, pastors, truckers, used car salesmen and bankers. I need overweight doctors, professors without truth and people with Facebook accounts who think they have all the answers. I need people who can manage resources efficiently and people who will gamble it all away in one roll of the dice. I need people cheering for the red team and people cheering for the blue team and people who think they are above the game. I need opportunities to serve in a community and a community to help me when I’m in trouble. So let’s leave room for the people. The cows are a tool. The dirt is the place. The people are the purpose.

Illinois has a population of 12 million. 8 million of those live in or around Chicago. People are often shocked to learn you can drive 5 hours out of Chicago and still be in Illinois. In fact, There are 37 million acres in Illinois. So let’s give everybody an acre. They don’t have to live on that acre, but we’ll reserve that land for retail, roads, recreation, housing, gardening…whatever. Everybody gets an acre. In fact, let’s reserve another 3 million acres for the unborn. Normally we, as a nation, allocate equal space for lawn and for recreational horse pasture. I may not be leaving that much cushion. You may have to buy your horse hay from Missouri.

That leaves us with 22 million acres. Awesome possum. Cool beans. We currently farm 26 million acres in Illinois so we are ahead of the game already.

In Illinois we basically need a little less than two acres per cow and her follower. That would mean we need to come up with 11 million cows (and 110,000 bulls!). But there are only a million cows in the state currently. Heck, Texas doesn’t even have 11 million cows. But we have the appropriate soil and sufficient rainfall and we would harvest something like 10 million calves each year. Basically one beef for every non-vegetarian resident. The USDA says we ate 195 pounds of meat per person in 2000 so you probably won’t be able to/shouldn’t eat the whole beef. We’ll have to sell a portion of our production outside of the state.

And 11 million is just the starting point. We have some of the best soil in the world. Right here. If we can grow 400 bu/acre corn we can surely build grasslands to support one cow per acre…or maybe just one per 1.5 acres. But let’s stick with one cow per two acres and add in sheep instead.

We can comfortably run 4 ewes per cow…so 44 million ewes. So 88 million lambs each year. 88 million. Not only do I need to gobble up a whole beef each year , I need to eat 7 lambs each year. That’s too much meat. Lamb may become the new chicken. The cheap meat. We’ll have to export some of it to Indiana and Missouri…or other states if our neighbors catch on and appropriately stock their land.

GrazingIllinois

But we aren’t finished. Imagine the mess behind the herd. We need a big-ole flock of layers to follow behind them and clean up the mess. We currently run 10 layers per cow and I think that ratio is about right. So we need to run something like 110,000,000 layers free-ranging behind the cattle. The flock may force us to rotate some grazing land into grain production seasonally but that really shouldn’t hurt our grazing total. We’ll also need some help hatching those eggs, let alone collecting and packing and selling 6 million dozen eggs every day. BTW, that’s half of the current egg production of our entire nation so maybe we should cut back our egg production…if for no other reason to lessen our grain needs. We will be grazing around 400 square miles each day with our herds and flocks so the more we distribute the materials handling the better. We should have egg-packing and distribution facilities all over the place. We could probably butcher the flocks and make canned soup and canned cat food and…whatever else while we are in Chicago each fall and they can compost the remains for sale to the millions of Chicago gardeners. We’ll pick up the new flock of 110,000,000 pullets when we pass University of Illinois. Maybe the pullet logistics could become an ongoing research program.

The flocks and herds will pass by quickly going from Jerseyville to Jacksonville in two days. One day the grass is waist-high, the next there is a carpet of grass and manure. Like sweat after a workout it only lasts a little bit then the recovery continues until the next workout. Every three to five months the herd will pass between Effingham and Olney then on past Harrisburg so we can wave at Metropolis then up again between Pinkneyville and Chester, across the flat stretching from St. Louis to Peoria to Rockford, skirting the freightened masses of Chicago who have never seen cattle before as we wind down to Champaign and back around again. Every three to five months we’ll graze, trample and manure the entire state, building inch after inch of soil on a dense fabric of roots and trampled grass blades…a blanket that cushions and protects the soil from ice, wind, sun and rain. Schools will let the children out for the day to see The Jordan herd pass by…a sight their grandparents never imagined. Letters will be written to editors complaining about the flocks of wild birds that accompany the herd migration and late pizza delivery caused by cattle crossing the road for hours. Chickens will follow behind…all 110 million of them, scratching out bugs and leaving additional manure. (How would that even be possible? Thousands of school buses converted to chicken houses driving from place to place? Maybe train cars full of chickens? Train cars full of chicken feed? Honestly, I can’t imagine the daily distribution needs.) A few days later there will be clouds of dung beetles. Deer and wild turkey and quail will graze with and behind the herd, not to mention the swallows swooping in above the herd as it grazes quietly along.

 

Newspaper

But surely we can do more with that ground. Cows appreciate shade on hot days. What if we planted rows of trees on contour? Miles and miles of diverse tree stands. Canopy layers of oak, hickory, chestnut or walnut. Lower layers of apple and cherry and filberts all on neat rows slowing the downhill flow of rainwater. Even lower layers of gooseberry and raspberry and strawberry. Black locust mixed in for nitrogen and wood products. All 12 million people in Illinois could have 50 pounds of cracked walnuts, 100 pounds of chestnuts, boxes and boxes of apples and cherries and strawberries. Of course, nobody wants all that food so we’ll have to hire people to harvest the abundance and build huge processing facilities to make brownies and High Fructose Chestnut Syrup and hard cider and applesauce and apple pie and caramel apples. Not to mention the massive squirrel and rabbit harvest…also enjoyed by the numerous birds of prey.

We would need something like one hired hand per thousand head of livestock so we’ll have at least 55,000 employees (probably on horseback) helping to manage the herd, culling old, open or injured animals, castrating young bulls and rams, keeping the mob grouped and moving. This does not count the teams that move ahead of the herds to build fence. (Not the kind of fence that subdivides the pasture for daily moves, the kind of fence that keeps the cows out of town…the houses from being smashed…and the cars from being trampled (we hope) by FIFTY-FIVE MILLION ANIMALS.) Probably another employee per thousand layers. Nor does this count their families that will accompany them on the migration amounting to a population larger than the city of Springfield. We’ll need many, many more people to help us transport, slaughter and distribute the meat. Thousands more to handle the abundance of nuts, fruit…just the raw materials. More to take those raw materials and produce finished products ranging from rawhide bones for pets to dining room tables to gooseberry pies. Think of the regulators required to keep us all safe! Think of the lawyers we’ll hire to keep us safe from the regulators!

And this is just the beginning. Remember, we set aside 15 million acres for humans. That leaves room for zucchini and tomatoes and flocks of chickens at home. Different strains of chickens…regional breeds. Maybe goats. Certainly pigs…everybody loves bacon. Pork may become that treasured annual delicacy bringing family together for harvest and celebration. Maybe one farmer in 20 farrows, allowing many others to keep a pig or two at home to make good use of uncollected tree nuts and garden waste. Maybe even home dairy. Heck, maybe small raw milk dairies to supply milk and cheese for neighbors…nevermind. Illinois doesn’t like raw milk. Sigh. Woodworking shops, welding and repair, bakeries, septic tank clean out… Heck, we’ll keep everybody so busy managing our abundance they won’t have time to write silly legislation to “fix” the world’s problems…let alone write starry-eyed, idealistic blog posts.

Do you know the difference between “riches” and “wealth”? What if I suggested rich people have an abundance of money and wealthy people have an abundance of time? How’s that sitting with you? (I’m thinking about this as I read P.G. Wodehouse.) Anyway, look man. When the herd is in your neighborhood, help us out. I’ll cut out a few head for your butchers and we’ll be back in a few months. When the herd is away, harvest the abundance of the forest. Bake a pecan pie sweetened with honey and pour a few mugs of hard cider. Sell the surplus production from your land then go fishing. No big whoop. Either you can lease me your grazing rights or you can lease space from me to plant your trees. Nobody is giving anybody anything. We all work hard. We all hold our heads up. We all become more wealthy (free time) and the money and resources we generate stay right here. You can buy that cool new techno-gadget if you want. I’m going to park my tookus under a tree near the herd and do some reading. Lamb for dinner. Again.

And what if we expanded the herd further? What if we worked with neighboring states to put together a larger migratory herd (probably herds)? Cottage industries springing up to help meet the needs of the families that stay with the herd year-round. There were somewhere north of 60 million bison ranging the plains 400 years ago….so…why not? Tens of thousands of people staying with the herd or working regionally with the herd as it passes through their area. Why not?

I’ll tell you why not. The EPA would shut it down.

Click image for source.

My goodness! How did the waterways survive before we shot all those horrible buffalo? What we need are more tractors! We need to rip the soil so the rain will wash it away. Put that stuff in the Gulf of Mexico where it belongs! By golly, God gave us a crater to fill and we’re gonna fill it! While we are at it, let’s poison the drinking water with weed sprays and bug sprays and anti-fungal sprays. Apparently cow poop in a stream and voluntary consumption of raw dairy will bring about the end of the world and don’t even mention the dead buffalo Lewis and Clark found in the Missouri River. Let’s sterilize the whole state right down to the bedrock. And it’s important that we tile the state to drain the rain away as quickly as possible too…in large part because atrazine in the ground water has become a bit of a problem. By golly, we have to feed the world and corn is the only way to do it.

So we’ll just continue on our current course. Eating corn flakes and puffed corn curls covered in corn starch cheese and drinking fizzy corn drinks and feeding corn to diarrhea-covered cattle in EPA-approved feedlots. Wasting our unhappy lives in cubicle-filled bureaucracies, out of touch with the natural world, never facing the reality of death…believing pharmacies and money can cure a lifetime of poor health choices…never accepting that the hamburger came from a beautiful living animal…and that it is OK to have mixed feelings about eating animals…that this is a discussion we can have. It’s OK to revere life…and take it carefully. Respectfully. To ensure our animals live each day with purpose. To ensure our people live each day with purpose. To save our soil for future generations. Nope. We can’t have that.

Pasture Acne…er…Transition, Healing and the Return to Health

Have you ever tried a new shampoo and had your face break out? I have. For Pete’s sake I’m 37 years old. Can I stop having pimples now? Please?

Actually it’s worse than that. Have you ever switched from using shampoo to…to not using shampoo? Have you ever gone pooless? Some people have to go through a period of…adjustment. Your hair may be greasy for a little while. I used to use shampoo almost every day and my body compensated by producing an excess of oil to replace what I was stripping out. It took a while for that to level out. I also had to learn how to use the baking soda and vinegar, in what proportions and how often (not very often). It was both an adjustment of the environment/terrain and an adjustment in management. If I didn’t get all of the baking soda out I had this crazy Zach Morris ’90’s hair almost parted, almost spiked. (If you don’t know who Zach Morris is…go to the Google. The show was cool in its time but is totally unwatchable now.)

Same with food. It is not uncommon for people to try real food for the first time and have …well…a biological response. It’s amazing how well sauerkraut can clean out some people’s pipes…let alone dairy. If your internal biological terrain is engineered exclusively for Twinkies, double cheeseburgers and Coke, it may not know what to do with yogurt. Cut the caffeine and sugar out of your diet and see how your body reacts. If you are normal, your body will DEMAND caffeine and sugar by making your head hurt. The more disciplined of you may find yourselves divorced. Good luck.

If I leave an open area of my farm unmanaged for a length of time what happens? The grasses begin to surrender ground to pioneer species. Raspberry seeds will be carried in by birds and thorny canes will rise up as tall, stale, oxidized grass shades out new grass beneath. Same with honey locust pods. Squirrels will bury acorns and hickory nuts and trees will begin fighting each other for dominance. In a few short decades we’ll see a transition from grassland to forest.

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It really is the same thing in the hay fields. A monoculture won’t last. We have an alfalfa field that is speckled with weeds and grasses. Most folks spray their fields to stop the advance of “evil” but I tend to be pretty chill about it. The first step in recovering health (diversity) in my alfalfa field is the emergence of grasses. Why do I want an alfalfa field anyway? What do those new plants mean? Do they mean my hay will have less value on the market? Why am I selling hay? Do the grasses mean alfalfa weevil will have a hard time? Good. Does the grass mean my cows are less likely to bloat while grazing? Good. Does it mean we are putting roots in a variety of zones in the soil, building organic material and fertility over time? Good.

Our pastures are changing quickly. Plants are emerging that have not had the opportunity in …well, maybe in decades. It’s a mess out there; cow poop, matted, brown grass, muddy areas where the waterer sat for a day, flies. And that’s the good stuff. I have so many acres and so few cattle I’m having trouble grazing everything. Steve says I just need to speed up grazing and clip behind them. Ugh. The open, sunny areas where the cows can’t get shade are on hold until fall. Most of those areas have gotten little manure over the years. One in particular is a compacted mess as it was the travel path to and from the barn for years after it was the breeding pasture for the swine herd. You would not believe the weeds in there. While I see the weeds as a reparative mechanism (not the problem itself) I’m going to mow before those weeds set seed, allowing the biomass to accumulate as mulch for the layers to scratch through. Maybe I shouldn’t (Grandpa Tom said it costs $100 every time you mow) but I just can’t bear to see the mess…even if the mess exists to heal the landscape. I can manage for grass and eliminate thistles. I can manage for legumes and win the battle against ragweed (which makes the milk taste a little sweet, a little…I don’t know…like I remember of the milk that remains at the bottom of your Rice Krispies. Genus Ambrosia…which, as we remember from Greek mythology, makes one immortal).  After cutting the trees I’m going to mow to hit the reset button and allow other forage species an opportunity to grow free from the shade of 7′ tall ragweed plants. I could certainly let it run its course then allow the cows to trample it in the fall but…well…it ain’t pretty. Any way you slice it. So I’ll try to use the brush hog without spending $100 (Update: Fail!).

WeedyMess1

In the shady places the cows are eating poison ivy, ragweed and plantain. They are trampling the goldenrod. Those places have looked ugly for decades but things are looking up. The cows are making improvements. They even found a hawthorn grove I didn’t know I had. I had never been able to penetrate the poison ivy to see in there…even in winter.

WeedyMess2

The cows are doing great but I don’t have enough of them. Even if I did we would have to go through a transition period. There are huge portions of the farm that may not look that great for a while. I once knew a woman whose 3rd molar roots had grown into her sinuses. She had the wisdom teeth removed and her sinuses drained for the better part of a week. She just sat with her face hanging over a trash can. Sounds gross but she is undoubtedly better off. It just required a few days of ugly adjustment as she returned to health. Do I want pretty pastures or do I want healthy pastures? Healthy microbes lead to healthy worms. Healthy worms, healthy pastures. Healthy pastures, healthy cows. Healthy cows, healthy people.

Pasture acne is part of the return to health. Things are changing for the better…even if it looks worse for a little bit. I could sustain and mask the lack of health with a bottle of chemical but…let’s not. Let’s move forward, away from monoculture. Away from “hay” fields and toward health.

Farmers Progress Chapter 8: The Management of Livestock

This is the continuation of a series as I read through Farmers Progress. The goal here is to jot down my initial reflections of Mr. Henderson’s works, not to republish his work. I do include a few quotes but I try to keep them short. I highly encourage the reader to find a copy of this book. It has changed the way we are approaching things…and how we filter incoming data. Just keep in mind, the focus of these books is entirely on efficient production of the highest quality products, not on marketing. I fear what I could produce if I followed Mr. Henderson’s advice to the letter. Not only would I have to quit my job, I would have to hire a marketing team.

FarmersProgress

Mr. Henderson begins this chapter telling us that, of all the things he does, looking at livestock is his chief interest and pleasure. Then he starts in about his own animals.

Poultry is the most important stock on our farm, from the point of view both of finance and the maintenance of fertility, though it makes possible heavy stock with pigs, cattle and sheep, to such an extent that most farms carrying as many animals in one or other class might regard themselves as a pig, cattle, or sheep-breeding farm.

It is important to note these aren’t simply egg flocks. These are parent flocks for hatching eggs and for raising cockerels for meat and pullets for replacements and for other producers. He next reflects that he can pick birds from their own lines out of other farmer’s flocks because of the familiarity they have with their own chickens. Not only has he bred a closed flock successfully for decades, he has reared them successfully as well. Then he offers a few tips for raising birds:

…we never saw any virtue in running chickens out in a biting wind and a few inches of mud early in the year. They will survive but it confers no lasting benefit when compared with the conditions of those reared in the more genial climate of a large brooder house, with plenty of fresh air and controlled humidity, and of course in equally small units.

and later

With laying stock, large, well-littered houses seem to provide the best conditions for winter production, especially if the eggs are required for incubation. The so-called deep-litter system works well in a dry winter, but when the weather is mild and damp there seems little virtue in leaving the litter in…

I enjoy our chickens. I really do. Most of the time. But I can’t begin to imagine the kind of work Mr. Henderson describes…a 1,700 bird breeding flock, raising pullets, raising cockerels for meat, culling breeding stock and maintaining separate breeding lines, collecting eggs, feeding, watering, moving portable houses and hatching 1,000 chicks each week on top of everything else. I just can’t imagine it. How did he market all of that? How did he sell cull hens, day-old chicks and 650 dozen eggs each week?!?!? But I agree that poultry are a solid foundation on which to build fertility.

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Stop watching! I can’t do this when you’re watching me!

I totally agree with him that the birds are more healthy when sheltered from the wind, rain and cold and Oxfordshire doesn’t get nearly as windy and cold as it gets here. We move our birds to a deep-littered greenhouse for the winter, collecting the litter for later fertility. This year the birds were indoors from January through March. Next year we will probably move them in a little sooner. I have a lot to learn about providing for the needs of our birds. We went through a short spell where our whites were very runny. Apparently this is caused by a build-up of ammonia. Maybe, as Henderson suggests, I would be better off removing and replacing bedding instead of just adding more and more. We used sawdust this year because that’s what we had. Next year I would like something a little more course…something that will not clump and mat easily.

Beyond fertility and bedding, Henderson gives insight into how to feed the flocks and lists how to modify the ration to use substitutions. The man fed a lot of potatoes during war rationing.

Up to 50 per cent can be fed in the rations, although it will take 4 oz. of potatoes, 1 of meal and 2 of grain as a minimum to keep a bird in full production and the meal will need to be up to 20 per cent protein, unless the birds have access to short grass and insect life on free range.

See? I told you. Buy the book.

From here Henderson offers a few notable quotes on British dairy practices of the time. We have two Jerseys of our own, Flora and May. Flora is beautiful, light colored and fattens easily. She gives a lesser quantity of creamy milk than does May and she can be a real pain in the rear. But she’ll mostly tolerate handling well. May, on the other hand, is dark, tends to be thin and gives a large quantity of thin milk. She has stated clearly that she is not a pet and she only comes in to milk because we offer her a snack. And she can be a pain in the rear. But they are our cows and they calve every year. The calves are much more important to us than is the milk…the milk is close to worthless actually when you account for labor and facility usage.

You can force a cow to give a high yield for a few lactations, or you can be content with a moderate yield over a period of years and of course many more calves.

And that’s the goal. We share milk with the calves, feed some to the pigs and cats and bring home around 2 gallons each day. They bred easily as heifers and calf without difficulty each time. Hopefully we’ll get 8 or 10 more years with them.

jerseys

That’s really all there is to say. But then Henderson calls the whole thing into question with this beauty:

The greater part of British dairy farming requires 5 acres to a cow, and even [then] a lot of concentrates, to produce an average of something under 500 gallons. If half that land were devoted to growing corn for pigs and poultry we should be self-supporting not only in potatoes and milk, as at present, but in bacon and eggs.

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And so the chapter goes. Pigs and sheep are next on his list. Pigs are a source of valuable manure, sheep are essentially without monetary value but do a good job adding manure and cleaning up behind other stock. Both sections offer the reader numerous tips and feed suggestions and are worth reading…if for no other reason to encourage the reader to grow fodder beets. He closes the chapter with this:

…it does sadden me a lot to see all the wonderful opportunities which are being lost to make our country once more the stockyard of the world. It could be done by each individual farmer making just one little effort to do a little better…

And there it is. We, in the US, could easily be the stockyard of the world. Also the forest of the world. Also the fishery of the world. This is the day I will make an effort to do better…even if just a little. I hope you will pledge to do the same and will encourage me with your success stories.

Updated: Changed my phrasing about sheep near the end. In the original post I reported Henderson saying “sheep are essentially without value”. That’s not what I meant to say. Mr. Henderson clearly cherished being a shepherd, treasured the contribution the stock made to the farm but acknowledged that the whole crop of lambs brought less money than one heifer.

The $10,000 Question

What can you buy for $10,000?

Julie and I drive a 10 year old Chrysler Town & Country. It is big enough that I can fit 4×8 sheets of plywood in it or a couple of 300 gallon tanks or, more simply, our 4 children with comfort. We paid $10,000 for our minivan a couple of years ago when we bought it used. Our previous van had been stolen (along with 5 dozen eggs, my favorite hat and my favorite knife)! $10,000 is about a third of the price of a similar 2014 van.

Our first house cost $30,000 and we had to put in $10,000 worth of improvements before we could move in including hooking on to city sewer and water, repairing the foundation, updating the wiring and replacing the furnace. $10,000 bought all of that…furnace, concrete, wiring and plumbing.

Now, I don’t know who you think I am. I don’t know what you really know about me. I’m not the kind of guy who keeps $10,000 just laying around. My pockets are only so deep. We had a couple of guys out to estimate a pond dam for us and they said $10,000…with more of a firm quote coming.

Sigh.

Can I afford that? I also need a loader tractor. The clutch needs to be replaced on our tractor. Julie wants to build a house…or at least put a roof on this house. I need to plant about a bazillion trees. I need to buy about a bazillion cows…well, maybe 5 or 10 more (easily $10k). There is no end of things I could spend money on…including replacing our minivan. I would love to buy Julie a new ring (lol). Can I really justify buying a 1-acre pond?

You know, I have found that I can justify just about anything. It’s just a matter of approaching the matter from the right angle. SO. Today I’m going to justify building a pond. I don’t know how I’m going to pay for it but at least I’m going to lay out why I think it’s a good idea for us. First, here’s a rough-out of the pond from the top down thanks to Draft Logic.

NewPondMy friend Steve says I will never regret having additional water on the farm. I suspect he’s right but this isn’t the pond he was rootin’ for. He wants me to make a single, larger pond instead of a series of small ponds over time (this is just the first). I would like to have it higher on the landscape than this but still, it’s pretty high. There is a lot of bottom ground I could irrigate from this pond if needed. Beyond the extra water, we will gain a dam we can drive across to get to the pasture beyond. The hills here are pretty steep…steep beyond what I would be comfortable mowing. The creek beds are washed out to the point that it’s hard to get a tractor across them too. The grazing on the steep south-facing slopes is sparse and the steep north-facing slopes are covered in moss. Not much grows here. A couple of thorny trees, a little scrap iron and some sparse grass that went to seed early. There are dry dams on two of the three valleys that feed into the pond area and a pond dam uphill from the other so the pond shouldn’t silt in any time soon. Here is the proposed pond area as it sits today. The dead tree to the left is around 18′ tall.

Pond1

And here is my concept of what the pond will look like. I spent a whole 5 minutes with mspaint making this picture.

pond vision

What we are talking about is a serious benefit to the water cycle, a benefit to the wildlife, a benefit to the livestock, a beautiful feature that will improve my farm’s value and something of lasting value for generations to come. I joked in a post called The Return of Surplus that we needed to bring resources back to the farm and this is a perfect example. Further, by making this investment now we will be able to increase biodiversity and, thus, compound our return over time. Just think of the fish, frogs and turtles. Think of the bald cypress I could plant. Think of the way it will moderate temperature. Think of fried catfish! But the water is illiquid. I will never get my money back without selling the land it is sitting on. Once that money is spent it is gone. That’s it. It’s either pond or loader tractor. Pond or cows.

But once the pond is built and stocked it’s here to stay. There will be nothing more to do for generations to come. Similar to the ponds grandpa built maybe 60 years ago, I’ll be leaving the farm better than I found it.

Can I justify it? Yes. Can I afford it? Ugh.

Simplifying the Cow…Mr. Miyagi Style

Daniel LaRusso was an idiot. He was an immature, hot-headed show off and he should have known better than to repeatedly pick fights with the Cobra Kai. But as the movie progressed Daniel grew up a little because of Mr. Miyagi. What did Mr. Miyagi do? Well, most importantly, he filled an emotional and developmental need in Daniel’s life. But in terms of karate training, he focused on what was important…simple things: belts hold pants up, hard work pays off, stick with it to the end (or <squish> just like grape). Daniel [Spoiler Alert!] was “the best around (Nothing’s ever gonna keep you down!)” because Miyagi required and enabled mastery of a few simple things: block punches, block kicks, punch with balance and a use a special, secret move that “if do right, no can defense”.

So, for the sake of my growing children, let’s break this farm thing down to simple things without secrets so if do right, no can go broke. It’s going to take me more than 90 minutes to teach my children these lessons – lessons I am still learning – but we will begin at the beginning. What is the essence of cow? More simply: What is cow? More simply: Cow?

It’s not about breed. It’s not about color. We are looking to add value to captured sunshine and enable future sunshine to be captured even more efficiently. We use cows. We can make fat cows. We can multiply our cows. We can multiply our cows and make the multiples fat. The cow is a leather-bound sunshine assimilation unit that tastes great with onions and mushrooms. That is cow.

I have seen unhappy cows. Hunched up, head down, shaggy, covered in mud and manure, ears drooping. Sometimes because of mismanagement, sometimes because they got a bad start in life, sometimes…who knows. I have one of those and she’s heading to the meat cutter. This is not cow. It just looks like cow.

WhiteCalfA happy cow is clean, her coat is laying neatly (though may be a little fuzzy in winter), her eyes are clear, she is not hunched up and ears are not drooping (unless she’s a brahman). If she is not grazing she is laying down in a dry, clean place chewing her cud. This is cow.

ZenCows

It takes grass to make cow and we want to make cow with grass…not with diesel fuel.  Grass makes cow. [I could be saying "beef" but saying "cow" seems more Myiagi and keeps the lame analogy going.] If you don’t have grass you can’t make cow. You only need sunlight and rain to make grass but having cow helps you make more grass and do it more quickly. And more grass means more cow…and more grass, if do right, means no can go broke. Quality forage is a science of its own but let’s keep things simple. How much grass does it take to make cow? It takes enough grass to fill this hole behind the rib and in front of the pelvis on the cow’s left…and keep it filled every day. How do you measure each day’s pasture? You offer enough pasture to fill that hole, little enough that the majority of what is left gets trampled and manure is scattered about. We line up a couple of parallel fence lines and move the cows throughout the day until they are full (there are more advanced and seasonal fencing techniques but let’s keep it simple today). If we are on the ball they will have enough fresh pasture overnight that they still look full in the morning when we come to move them. It’s no big deal. Fill that rumen. If it’s not full, give more pasture. If you miss today, do better tomorrow. Easy peasy.

Rumen

Let’s add a little complexity. Cows need more than full bellies. They need a balance of protein, energy and fiber. It is good to look at the side of the cow. It is better to look behind the cow. Look at the cow pat. Does it look like a stack of cookies? The cows need more protein. Does it spray out from the cow when she coughs? She needs more fiber…or she needs wormed (sell her). If it’s nicely piled up with a dip in the center the cow is getting what she needs. There are times when the grass is too lush and you will need to fill the cows up with dry matter (hay). There are times when the pasture just doesn’t have the protein the cows need and you will have to provide some level of supplementation but we’re getting away from simplicity. Graze tall, diverse swards a little at a time and things should be fine here in Illinois…especially if they can reach the lower limbs of trees.

CowPat

There are a few other things cows need like shade (hugely important when it is above 80 degrees!) and salt but that’s a good start. We will spend the rest of our lives learning about cattle and grass but if you only learn a few things, know how to keep them full and how to read manure. Understand what we have them for. They are pretty, yes, but that’s not why. They are fun too but that’s still not why. We have cows because we have grass…and because we want more grass. We are grass farmers. Cows fertilize, cultivate and harvest our fields.

Look at the rumen, look at the manure, buy a belt to hold your pants up and face down adversity. You’re the best around. Nothing’s gonna ever keep you down.

For another look at cow simplification, Hubert Karreman listed 5 (6) preventative measures for animal health in a recent Agricultural Insights Podcast:

  1. Don’t exceed the land’s biological carrying capacity
  2. Offer high-forage diets (75-80%)
  3. Offer good Grazing
  4. Ensure fresh Air
  5. Provide dry Bedding
  6. Give access to sunshine

At this point you’ll have to subscribe to hear that podcast but I think it’s worth it. I haven’t read Mr. Karreman’s books. If you have, let me know what you thought.

Walking the Farm in a Spring Rainstorm

According to the very expensive, precise and scientific bucket that was left sitting out, we got a total of 5 inches of rain yesterday, 3 inches in the first hour. When that kind of rain hits the farm I like to put on my raincoat and spend time looking around. I want to know where the rain is soaking in and where it is running off. Is there any soil washing out? Did any lids blow off of chicken tractors? Are the ducks teaching the chickens how to swim? We’ll start at our broken old bridge to nowhere.

Bridge

There is normally a trickle of water flowing through here. The kids crawl through the tunnel and hunt up crawdads or pretend it is a fort. Today it is roaring as water flows through. I’m glad to see that there is not more water flowing through. This tunnel is fed by the overflow from the pond (not much is overflowing yet thankfully), the runoff from the alfalfa field (again, just a trickle) and the runoff from the corn field and feedlot and the ditch across the road (the majority of the water you see). It looks like most of my water is either soaking in or being delayed in reaching the branch. I love it when a plan comes together. But the pond is receiving quite a bit of water and topsoil from the neighbor’s field and then there is that feedlot. Well, not much I can do about that. Following the water downstream I’m concerned the branch will flood the bottom…where the chickens are currently.

Branch

The water was about a foot from coming out of the banks. Too much water for me to cross so I can’t go any further to the North. Within an hour the creek was already receding so I slept soundly believing the chickens to be high and dry…until I heard it raining again about 2:00 in the morning. (Skip to the end: chickens are fine). No choice but to go east. Cows are out in the open east of the yellow house. I’m taking advantage of the cool weather to graze open areas right now. The cooler weather will end this weekend so we’re watching the clock. The cows are so full they are a little hard to move. I’m giving them larger areas right now to get back to the trees in time. We will have a big, square cutout in the pasture that will remain ungrazed until fall. That’s how it goes I guess.

RainCows

Further east the little wash is flooded and we are just about to lose our fence. I stop to adjust the insulator a little bit.

Flooding

This water is either overflow from the neighbor’s new pond or runoff from the eastern half of the alfalfa field. There is a dry dam on the alfalfa field that is making a huge sucking noise as the water rushes through the pipe. It was too dark in the woods to get a good picture but a dead tree was against the drainpipe and it was spraying water in two directions. There was a huge pool of water there. I’ll need to take some corrective measures to heal that forest floor. When I say “corrective measures” think cow hooves. Most of the green you see is poison ivy so it won’t be milk cow hooves.

DamDrainFinally I stopped by a mulberry tree for a snack, something I try to do a couple of times each day. Mmmmm, freshly washed fruit. I’ll get tired of eating mulberries in a few weeks…about the time I run out of berries I can reach. Mulberry trees will grow anywhere a bird can poop. They are tough plants, will take serious pruning, will grow from cuttings and make good firewood. They are all over the farm and I try to visit each one regularly. There are some deep in the woods that aren’t ripening yet extending the harvest season.

MulberriesLet me know if you got any of this rain too or if you have any ideas for preserving mulberries. I don’t care for them frozen and we don’t tend to make jelly. Wine maybe?

One additional note:

The chickens are a long way from the cows and have been for about 2 weeks. The chickens are currently housed in our portable layer houses. That design has worked well for the last year but has its limitations. We will be re-purposing those structures or the components. One severe limitation is the lack of portability over distance. We are moving to a new design on a wagon running gear so we can close it up and head down the road (cause we can’t cross the broken bridge). I have been delayed getting that project finished. Look for pictures soon.

Reap Your Wild Oats

I have had quite a bit of offline discussion about dealing with fescue in our pastures. I don’t claim to know everything there is to know about fescue – in fact, I only know a little about my own pastures – but I do have some observations. I can’t bend the landscape to my will for any length of time. The best I can do is to observe, learn and play along as well as I can. I measure my success by increased drought resistance, healthier cattle and increased plant species diversity over time. But it takes time.

WideView

Let’s start with a paraphrase of what I have read concerning fescue.

If your cows graze fescue the tips of their tails will fall off and their hooves will rot off…it’s basically a starvation diet. Spray all of your fescue and replant to more desirable species immediately.

Yup. So. That’s what I’ve read. Other advice seems a little more reasonable.

Broadcast 5 pounds of red clover and one pound of white clover per acre in February to dilute the effects of fescue on your livestock.

That second paraphrase is much less alarming than the first but we don’t really do that either. There is clover out there already. There are other grasses too. The thing is, the only grass that has been allowed to grow to maturity inside the fence in the last X years has been fescue…because the cows eat everything else down to the dirt. Our strategy has been this: we don’t let the cows eat everything all at once. It’s amazing the grasses that are coming out of nowhere because of this crazy idea.

Salatin jokes that “cows always eat their ice cream first” meaning they walk the whole farm eating favorite plants first. If you just open the gates to the pasture and allow the cows to graze continuously they will deposit their manure mainly in favorite loafing areas. You’ll have cow paths everywhere on your property. Cows will walk acres and acres to find just that one delicious, favorite plant and will nip it off as fast as it will regrow. You can see it in my east 40. For years the cows would travel single file between the feed bunk, the pond (where they eroded the dam) and the stands of trees beyond. They would graze only favorite plants, leaving the others to dominate the pasture. There is a fair amount of white clover in our pastures. We took pictures of it last summer hugging the ground for protection from grazing animals. Red clover, as you can see in the picture above, is almost nonexistent. The only saplings that survive are the ones that are too thorny to eat.

By switching from continuous grazing to planned rotational grazing we are allowing plant species to recover. In fact, that’s the point of the planning…to plan for recovery of desirable species. Better than that, we are allowing a wide variety of species to go to seed…seeds the cows will spread as they move on to the next grazing area. It won’t take long and we’ll see red clover coming up in more of the pasture as the cows move the seeds around. The long recovery windows are allowing species we have never seen to emerge, survive and spread. I had never seen wild oat go to seed in the east pastures (not that wild oat is all that great but it’s better than fescue!)

Oats

I had never noticed orchard grass either but it’s showing up in big clumps.

OrchardGrass

And that’s not the end of it. In fact, the end isn’t the end of it either. It’s the beginning. That perfect cow pat shows that the cows are getting a balanced diet and are in good health. The cows don’t get a balanced diet from fescue alone. There has to be enough energy and protein. Looks like we’re doing good (maybe a little extra protein but…)

TheResult

The fescue is the dominant plant in our pastures. No doubt. But as we decrease the amount of time animals spend grazing each bit of ground and increase the recovery between grazings we see an explosion of legumes…not to mention weeds. It happens over time. Gradually. Slowly. No diesel fuel required. I don’t need to buy seed. I don’t need to spray chemical death. I just need to manage for the resources I want.

And I think that last sentence is important. I’m managing FOR not managing AGAINST. Feel free to apply that to any part of life. Maybe there are better ways to get the kids to wash the dishes than to make yourself an adversary. Sorry to say, it’s the same with training animals. Manage for the positive. I want more than fescue? I don’t go killing fescue. I start allowing other species to compete…to go to seed. I allow the cattle to graze somewhat selectively, trampling what they don’t want.

FescueThe progression would happen faster if I had more hooves and mouths and higher density. We’ll get there. The cows are knocking down most of what they don’t eat currently. We will do better in time but this is a start.

RemainingGrass

 

This Week in Grazing

Maybe I should start a podcast with that title. (in my ample free time…lol)

It’s tough grazing out there to the east. The soil is dry and hard…not signs of health…not conducive to plant health or cow health. So the fescue grows a few inches tall and throws up a tall seed head and white clover grows where it can. There is a little red clover too but there is a lot of exposed dirt and moss. I need the hooves and claws (do chickens have large talons?) to break up the moss and manure and plant material to cover the soil with a protective blanket. Future grass will grow better and be sweeter.

GrazedAndUngrazed

You can see how much pasture the cows are just walking past in the picture above. The cows have grazed out the yummy bits in the left center of the picture, trampled quite a bit more and left the rest. I’m not running them at a high enough density to really impact the pasture at this time, I’m focusing on speeding them along about half as fast as when we were last here in April..55 days ago. I want the cows to get all the energy they can, leaving manure behind. At the current pace it will take me 120 days to cover the entire farm. That will be October 1. I can live with that.

EastPastureFescue

But there are large sections of my pasture where there is no shade. I’ll just skip those until fall, waiting for cooler weather. What I really need to do is add to my tree inventory. And paint that old barn. More on trees in a minute.

Alfalfa

There is a fence of questionable quality keeping the cows separate from the alfalfa field. I don’t particularly want an alfalfa field but you play the cards you were dealt. Complaining about the alfalfa field is a little like complaining about eating ice cream. Where the fence lies the cows can’t trample and manure so we have a nice forest of thistle. I could spray the thistle out. I could chop. I could do any of several things but I would prefer to move the fence north or south by about 10 feet and let animals do the work. There are only so many hours in a day and only so much I can do. If it would stop raining for a couple of days we could cut hay…but there I go complaining about ice cream again. Soon I’ll be wishing for rain…

Tomorrow

It has been hot out this week [Note: this post was written a week before it was published]. Not August hot but regularly above 90 with humidity above 70%. Some of our cows do ok with that, some pant and drool because they still have a winter coat. Those cows need to leave the farm. We have enough trees that I can section off a portion of a tree lot to give the cows a one-day loafing area in the heat. Then we open up new pasture for the cows morning and evening. The cows reminded me how important this is yesterday when it was 85 out and they were standing in full sun panting. I have to do better. On weekends I subdivide further but it’s not fair for me to ask Julie to roll up fence wire with all the other stuff she has to do during the week so we try to keep things simple.

Anywhere I stand on my farm I am surrounded by trees. Honey locust, black locust, a variety of oaks (shingle, white, burr, red, pin), shagbark and pignut hickory, hackberry, wild cherry, osage orange, redbud, walnut, cottonwood, black willow, sassafras, elm, mulberry, sycamore, sugar and silver maple, sumac, even a few pines and junipers, maybe a persimmon or pawpaw…all of these are valuable both for shade and as forage and many make great firewood and posts. The leaves are high in protein and tannin and the cows eat every leaf they can reach. The trees mine nutrients and water (I repeat myself) and contribute greatly to the available organic material in the soil. You would think I live on the prairie but there is a lot of forest in the river hills. Our goal is to maintain open savanna under a healthy canopy, not allow an overgrown tangle of fallen limbs, multi-flora rose and poison ivy to rule the forest. This requires managed disturbance (including chainsaw disturbance). The cows get in there, eat the good stuff, trample the rest and add a dose of bacteria to an otherwise fungal environment. Adding more trees to the open spaces and in greater variety will only make our farm more productive and help keep our cows happy.

This week in grazing I’m dealing with heat, rain, pasture health and tree planning. I know the time is coming when the heat will worsen and the rain will cease. I need to plant about 10,000 trees. That’s going to take a while…even if I could plant 1,600 trees in a day. But I have to be serious about increasing my tree numbers as my herd numbers grow.

Everything the Pasture Needs

This post is the direct result of a conversation with my father. In a way, dad encouraged me to clarify my thinking on pasture fertility and my strategy for moving it forward. If this post is too long for you allow me to summarize. You could simply feed the plants nitrogen and they would be tall and green (though high in protein but low in soluble carbohydrates). But the better long-term investment is to feed the microbes that feed the plants. The idea is that healthy soil grows healthy plants, healthy cows and healthy people. Like teaching fishing rather than giving a fish…except dirt doesn’t go fishing. You know what I mean.

Remember the breakfast scene in The Matrix? The group are eating breakfast and complaining about it a little bit. Complaining…as in they don’t like it. The scene wraps up with an exchange between Dozer and Mouse:

Dozer: It’s a single cell protein combined with synthetic aminos, vitamins, and minerals. Everything the body needs.

Mouse: It doesn’t have everything the body needs.

Mouse is right. Nobody would fuss if it had everything they needed. From here, Mouse begins to promote his digital escort service but that is not the direction I want to go. All of the dialogue leading up to that comment has already proven Mouse’s point. Nobody wants to eat a bowl of runny snot. What does the pasture need? Depends on who you ask. The plants are commonly boiled down to N, P and K. Just add 10-10-10 to your lawn and it will be green. No problem. And don’t forget Brawndo. It has electrolytes. It’s what plants crave! If you are familiar with that movie you know the electrolytes were killing the plants and the solution was to take water (like…from the toilet) to the fields to flush the salts out of the soil. (Click with caution if the kids are around.)

What does a healthy plant look like? …taste like? Can you taste the difference between a tomato that was grown from artificial N, P and K and a tomato that was grown in compost? Does it have a weak flavor? Can a cow taste the difference between grass grown from NPK and grass grown from worm castings? N is N, right? When I look at the dark green stripe in my pasture where the chicken tractor has been, all I’m seeing is N, right? ChickenStripesWell, no. I’m seeing a whole slew of things. But let’s start with what I’m not seeing. I’m not seeing dark green in most of the pasture. Why is that? Because there isn’t enough N in the soil. <sarc>No kidding</sarc>. Cattle have been grazing here for years. Why isn’t there enough N in the soil? (Flip your screen to see the answer below.) Answer What’s a farmer to do? Clearly my pasture is suffering from a lack of Nitrogen. Should I order a tank of liquid nitrogen? Well, that would certainly make it green. But I think that’s like giving the pasture a bowl of runny snot for breakfast. It doesn’t have everything the body needs. What happens over the years if I just keep throwing fertilizer at a hay field and hauling the hay off? That is essentially what has happened with the cattle moving nutrients from the open area to the shade. I’m not just trying to grow a large volume of green grass this season, I’m trying to build deep root systems and healthy soil ecosystems so my grass grows earlier in the spring and later into the fall for years and years. I am trying to make my farm better for next year…for the next farmer.

Nitrogen doesn’t have to come out of a sprayer. Nitrogen is fixed by living, breathing, dying organisms in the soil. What I need isn’t a sprayer unit. What I need is soil health…built over time. I have nothing to compare my farm with except my own farm. Fortunately, I have run livestock on the 20 acres around my house for several years. The cows, goats, pigs and chickens trampled and dunged on every square inch of it every few months for the past few years and have left enough plant residue behind to keep the soil warm, moist and well fed. The east 40 was all cows but had very little manure (the cows pooped in the shade) and zero plant residue (they ate it all because of continuous grazing). Let’s do this with pictures. I have done this for several years: Trample All that muck and manure and all of those hooves and all of those plant stems pressed into contact with the soil have, over time, built up a layer of organic material covering the soil like a blanket, holding things together during periods of heavy rain, limiting evaporation during periods of drought and keeping the soil life fat and happy. Everything from bacteria to grubs to earthworms have plenty to do and a safe, moist place to do it. Compare that to the condition my east pastures have been kept in: Every time the grass grows a little it is nipped off. Goldenrod is ignored by the cattle so it dominates the landscape…and shades out future grass growth. Since the cows are allowed to spread out over a large area they don’t trample in the weeds, stomp the saplings or cover the pasture evenly with manure. In fact, all of the manure gets concentrated in the shade…which is why there are so many dead trees…and the remaining trees are bushy, thorny monsters. The difference between the pastures is obvious but it does take a little time. That’s why you have to increase stocking density (animal units per grazing area) before you can increase stocking rate (animal units on the farm). You need to build pasture health before you can expect it to grow more forage. Bunch the cows up. Shorten grazing periods and extend rest periods. Things will start to change. CemeteryHill I think it is worth celebrating the little bit of life we have breathed into the pasture while also adding a little to the farm cash flow. The broilers, like the cattle, are tightly bunched up, grazing, trampling and manuring a small area. Sure, they put down N, P and K as they pass but they put down much, much more. And don’t overlook the value of the trampling action. It’s not just manure being fed to the soil, it’s grass stems. Not to mention the bugs, worms, etc that get eaten, adding value and nutrition to the pasture and not accounted for in the NCSU link above.

So, yeah N = N but N != Chicken Manure. The N certainly makes it obvious where the chicken manure went a few months ago. But in years to come we will still see the benefits to the soil biology. And that is worth crowing about…even if we work to blend the stripe in with pig bedding, cow manure and horse manure…a balanced, varied diet…everything the pasture needs.