Strolling Through the Pasture March 2014

The pastures are finally greening up and we still have a little stockpiled grass for the cows. Whew! Let’s follow the cows through the pasture over the winter and see what they did.

The cows started on the stockpiled pasture in January. This had been grazed in July and rested since August. The fescue was thick and tall and there was a good amount of sorgum, sudan grass, turnips and radishes in the stand. I was disappointed at how little clover came out but maybe next year. For reference, this is what it looked like when the cows grazed it in July

EarlyMorningMove

We bunched the cows up densely all winter and supplemented them with 6-12 pounds of hay each day from November first. Basically, we offered a single square bale of alfalfa in the morning and a single bale of grass hay in the evening most days, but just the grass hay when the weather was nicer. Otherwise, the cows were expected to push the snow aside and eat what they could find. It worked out great. The cows came through winter in great condition. This was suggested to me by David Hall who said he tries to feed 30 days worth of hay to his cattle, spread over 6 months. I didn’t do quite as well as that but my pastures are getting better and it won’t be long.

But this isn’t a post about cows. This is a post about pasture. You have to know the story so you will understand what we did. We put down a lot of manure. Like a lot.

March2014_1

Those manure pats have been frozen for 3 months but you can see the density. By taking the hay to the cows and offering the cows fresh ground at regular intervals we have an even manure distribution. I moved the hay so I don’t have to move the manure. You down?

Turn to the right and go up the hill and we get to the remains of a big patch of turnips.

March2014_2The manure coverage is not as dense here. We had a spot of wet, cold, windy weather so the cows tended to shelter and concentrate their manure under the trees. But still, it isn’t bad. Notice the little bits of green grass coming up here and there. More on that as we go.

March2014_3Further up the hill and a bit to the west the manure coverage is better. Here the forage was stronger. Still a few turnips (which make the cows loose) but plenty to eat and a good great amount of litter covering the soil. In fact, that’s kind of a uniform thing across all of our pastures. We have a thick layer of litter over all of our pastures. Here it is particularly thick. Much of it is stems from the goldenrod stand that dominated the landscape until July but the thick grass that grew here is still protecting our soil. A few pictures from now the real value of the litter shows itself.

March2014_4In the picture above, I have crossed the creek and I’m looking back toward where I stood in the previous picture. I was standing up to the left of that power pole on top of the hill. Notice how green the South-facing slope is already. Also notice the manure density and the soil litter. Pay no attention to the scrubby trees, the brush pile or the small pile of metal I haven’t finished hauling out.

March2014_5This is the cemetery hill and this is what I’m talking about when I say “litter”. The cows weren’t allowed to (or interested in) eating down to the dirt. We just kept them moving along as they dug through the snow for food. As a result…

March2014_6

the cemetery hill is several weeks ahead of the surrounding farms in terms of grass growth. That’s all well and good but what are the cows actually eating? I mean grass hasn’t grown here for nearly 6 months.

March2014_7They are eating whatever grew 6 months ago. They trample dried stalks of tall weeds, crop close to thorny trees and even nibble at tree limbs. Fescue is the main portion of their diet but they eat leaves and whatever else they can find.

March2014_8

With the recent freeze/thaw cycles we have about 2″ of mud on top of several inches of frozen ground so the cows are making a bit of a mess of things. The picture above is what things look like around the watering troughs. That’s some pretty serious cow impact and will require an extended recovery time. But that’s part of the plan. I have saved this bottom ground as a sacrifice area to preserve the rest of the pasture for later grazing. This will recover and, I believe, be better than ever. We just have to give it time.

March2014_9

If you are concerned that I’m pushing the cows too hard I want to say that my cows are clean, in excellent condition and their manure is perfect. My concern is with the land. Maybe I’m pushing that too hard. I don’t think I am but I don’t want to find out I’m wrong. We are currently moving the cows daily and rolling about four days worth of grazing with them. These are currently larger grazing areas than they would have in the late summer or even than they got in December and January but the forage quality is decreased and it’s pretty muddy out there. We also try to give them room to stretch their legs. Rolling four days worth of grazing forward seems to work well for us.

March2014_10This picture should give the reader an idea of how much space we give 11 cows. There is a line below the cows showing yesterday’s grazing line…that’s where the fence was. The white cow at the top right is almost up against today’s fence. I haven’t moved the water troughs in the picture above but generally, one 100 gallon watering trough stays at the new front fence line, a second trough lags behind. As the second is emptied I move it ahead of the first. We put a cup of apple cider vinegar in each as we fill them and the cows seem to appreciate it. We also drag their mineral box along every few days.

We have enough standing grass in the bottom to get us to April 1. At that point we plan to graze along the Eastern edge of the South pond. Then we’ll move to the draw East of the big alfalfa field. Dad doesn’t think that has been grazed in years. Decades possibly. That gives us time to establish our grasses before starting to graze in earnest. I suspect we’ll spend most of April grazing 1/2 acre per day with our 11 cows. A portion of our farm will remain ungrazed all year. A portion will be set aside for late summer and a portion will be used in the spring then rested later in the year. More detail to come. For now it is enough to celebrate that it is March and we have more grass than we can eat and hay left in the barn. It worked!

July/August Grazing Plan

Oh, how plans change.  If you look at this post, you’ll see the July grazing plan.  It worked well to shade the cows on days well into the 90′s with heat index above 100.  Right on schedule, on the 25th, we were grazing #25.  Happy days.

Now what?  As I started working on my next plan, things cooled off.  The pastures held more feed than I estimated.  We slowed things down.  I had been expecting to do this (Note this is turned 90 degrees so North is to the Left.):

IntoAugust

But the cows are on 1 and it’s the 14th.    I gained two weeks.  Where did it come from?  Some of it was grazing the slope East and South of 3 and 4.  3 days were gained from grazing the unlabeled areas to the right.  A big gain was grazing the edge of the pond.  So, I’m doing fairly well.  I gained 2 weeks because of the cool weather and the use of reserve ground.

But is this all there is to planning your grazing?  Just vague lines on a map?  Well, not really.  If we have to feed hay, where should it go?  Where are the cows going to calve?  What portion of the farm is set aside for drought?  Planning to cut anything for hay?  Will you allow a field to totally rest for a year?  How is that specific area doing?  Are we seeing increasing or decreasing plant diversity?  Good carbon litter?  Where will the cows find shade in hot weather?  Do you have a plan B in case something unplanned happens…like prolonged rain and flooding or prolonged drought?  How will you fence in the Spring, Summer and Fall and how will that change?  How will you winter graze the stockpile?  Where should stockpile remain to start the spring rotation again?

But the questions don’t stop there.  When was that family vacation?  When is that friend getting married?  When do chicks arrive?  When do we usually plant the garden?  When will we have to put up strawberries, blueberries, peaches, green beans, tomatoes or apple sauce?  How are we going to build fence so we can conveniently work around social events, family plans and other farm work?

I want fat cows and healthy pastures.  This won’t happen on its own.  I have to plan my way.  Right now I try to plan a month at a time but in the near future I’ll be better at estimating and can shoot further out.  One of the early chapters of For the Love of Land: Global Case Studies of Grazing in Nature’s Image reminded me of the pressing need to transition to year-round planning instead of just winging it month to month.

Let’s complicate things further.  How many pigs will we pasture this year?  Where will we run them?  How can we coordinate their grazing with that of the cows?  How about turkeys?  Or broilers?  Where do they fit into the rotation?  It’s nice to add all that disturbance and manure but we have to allow recovery.

One step at a time.

Strolling Through The Pasture July 2013

I enjoy documenting the changes in my landscape month by month but it’s difficult to find the time.  Time is precious.  More on this later.

A cold front has been rolling through and finally set in solidly.  We got 1/2 inch of rain last night and it got into the 50′s.  It was cool enough that, after hustling through the pastures taking pictures, I could see my breath.

Remember this from July 10th?  I am standing in the shade of a black locust tree in the late afternoon.  This picture is representative of much of the area we gave them that day.

LitterHere it is again, from a different angle and 3 weeks later.  No rain fell until we got half an inch last night.

PastureWalk1

There is an ancient walnut tree just to the right of the picture above.  It shades a large area.

WalnutThe plant density under the tree is low, in part because of the shade, in part because cattle have shaded themselves under this tree for …how many years?  and the soil is compacted.  I’m not going to eliminate the shade.  I do try to rest the grass and allow it to break up the soil.

PastureWalk2Down the hill to the West and we’re in the triangle (cleverly named for its shape).  What a weedy mess.  This is also compacted both from cattle and from the road that went through here ? years ago.  But it has recovered and is ready for grazing.

PastureWalk3Down the hill to the North I stop for a shot of Grandpa Tree…only I can’t seem to get far enough back to fit him in the shot.  What a massive old burr oak!  It would take three of us to link arms around it…you know…if you were inclined to measure a tree in terms of arms linked.  That tree has just always been here and has always been enormous.  Hope it is still standing when I’m not.

Grandpa TreeDown the hill from Grandpa Tree to the North and we’re in the bottom.  Last time we grazed here I was in Florida.  The water tank was overfilled making a muddy mess in a large circle around the tank from cow hooves.  That hasn’t recovered yet.  It may not recover for a couple of years.  Not much I can do.  Otherwise, the bottom is recovering nicely.  Dad is concerned about the broadleaf weeds out there.  I understand and kind of agree.  On the other hand, it’s nice to catch sunlight at different layers and put down roots to different depths.  It’s nice to mine nutrients differently and offer the cows variety.  It’s nice to not start the tractor.  As long as on species doesn’t dominate all the others I think I’ll let it go.  Maybe I’ll bunch up the cattle more tightly as we graze through this time and knock more things down.  I am going to have to do something about the thorny saplings down there though.

PastureWalk4The most interesting thing I saw across the creek was the damage the Japanese beetles had done to the multi-flora rose bushes.  Those poor bushes are just skeletons now.  Wow.

PastureWalk5Recovery across the creek looks pretty good.  Tons of forage down there, all recovered, all lush, green and ready to graze.

PastureWalk6It looks great, in spite of the fact that it’s a weedy mess full of thorny trees.  In spite of the fact that it’s July and we haven’t had any rain for 3 weeks.  In spite of the fact that my neighbors are running low on pasture.  For comparison sake, I took a picture across the fence (at my own property) a cousin runs cows on.  There is no rotation.  There is no recovery.  Every blade of grass is ragged from grazing.  If nothing else, compare the percentage of brown in the picture.  That is not to disparage my cousin but to show the value of plant recovery.  I should also point out that he is running 12 cow/calves on 40 acres, I am running 8+2 on 13 acres…and I can’t keep up.

PastureWalk7Remember looking at recovery earlier this month?  The grass should look like it has never been grazed.  We looked at this clump of grass as an example of incomplete recovery.  This may not be the same clump but it’s within 5 feet.  Pointed blades of grass?  Check.  Yellowing blades of grass adding to the litter?  Check.  We are recovered.  I won’t be grazing this plant for another two to four weeks but it’s ready if I need it.

RecoveryDisemmemberment hill is recovering slowly.  It’s a matted, tangled mess of goldenrod stems, grass, manure and whatever else was growing there at the time.  There are still some solid stands of goldenrod growing there.  I think I should go ahead and chop them with my sicket.  I don’t think we can mow this hill without having to repair the tractor tires when we are finished.  The whole hill is a thorny mess.

Disemmemberment HillThere is a good layer of litter on top of the hill.

ManureThe grazing plan worked out a little differently than we expected but we’re roughly where we should be.  If you follow that link you’ll see we should be on #27 today.  The layout worked differently in situ.  We have actually spent two days grazing an area somewhere between #26 and #27 and look how fat the cows are.  They wouldn’t even get up when I walked over to them.

HappyCowsThere is some sort of grass growing there I haven’t identified but I’ve always called “water grass”.  It’s nearly 6′ tall and has a thorny-looking seed head.

PastureWalk8The cows seem to like it.

PastureWalk9They also appear to like willow trees.

WillowBack toward the house the steep, south-facing slope is always a dry, hot area.  I don’t know if you can see but there are a number of cow paths cut on countour around the face of the hill.  That added compaction makes it harder to get forage established here…keeping things dry.

PastureWalk10Pastures change and it pays to watch your keylines.  Where the slope ends 10 feet downhill from the picture above we see lush forage.

PastureWalk11Wrapping things up, walking West through the chicory field, can you see where the fence was last time I grazed through?  We had a big rainstorm and a tornado nearby the night the cows were standing to the left half of the picture.

PastureWalk12We needed to service our well so we mowed a path through this pasture on the hottest day this summer.  It looks like a dead zone out there.  It will be interesting to watch that for recovery in the coming weeks.  I’m going to have to graze over that ground even though it has not recovered.

PastureWalk13Well, time for breakfast.  See you later.

Strolling Through the Pasture May 2013

I’ll start off by making a loop around the cemetery hill then we’ll head North.  Looking toward the cemetery I’m standing in grass that won’t be grazed for about 2 weeks…but what a difference two weeks makes.  Compare this picture with this one taken two weeks later with this one taken another two weeks later.  What a difference two weeks makes.  Closest to the cemetery is ground that was grazed two weeks ago.  Recovery is happening but it really didn’t get trampled as well as the pasture in the foreground.

MayPasture1The fescue is tall but the other grasses have a lot of growing ahead of them before I can graze them again.

MayPasture3Maybe this is a better picture.  The cows ate whatever this was right down to the ground.  That’s my fault, not the cow’s fault.

MayPasture4We grazed across the remaining bottom ground South of the branch then crossed the branch and grazed it out.  You can see the line where we put electric fence 2-3′ inside of the perimeter fence.  I really didn’t want my cousin’s Angus bull to get any opportunity with my Shorthorns.

MayPasture5Also notice the abundance of honey locust trees.  I’ll be busy next winter.

Cows grazed the best out of this, trampled quite a bit but we still didn’t have enough pressure on the land.  Too much fescue was left standing.  But there was a section in the middle that got missed in the grazing rotation.  The diversity of species there is amazing and shows where the above picture started.  A good stand of red clover and a mix of weeds including goldenrod, burdock and multi-flora rose but there was a total lack of chicory and dandelion.  Maybe because it’s wet, sandy bottom ground.  Who knows.

MayPasture6Notice none of the fescue heads were nibbled off.  Yup.  We messed up.  Oh well, we’ll trample it hard when we come through again in June.

MayPasture7The next area was grazed a little over two weeks ago.  Portions of it are recovering well, other portions are totally dominated by white clover and the recovery is slow.

MayPasture8Back to the South the bottom ground is recovering well.  A fair portion of the growing green stuff is goldenrod but this has been a weedy mess for years.  Two years ago (maybe three?) the 6 of us spent an evening with a tractor pulling hundreds of saplings our of the bottom then I mowed it (I mowed because I didn’t have cows).  Now I’m hoping to continue improving the stand by way of cows.  Check in again in a couple of years to see.

MayPasture9The stand is recovering well but there are a lot of hoof prints.  We got more than a foot of rain toward the end of April, several more inches at the beginning of May.  I would guess we have had 16-20″ of rain in the last 6 weeks.  Anyway, hoofprints…

MayPasture10Follow this link to see the flood water standing in the bottom.  This is the same area (side view) today (…well, Sunday).

MayPasture11Up the hill, my fallen tree is getting lost in the grass.  I thought the grass was tall last time we grazed here.  I have never seen this much grass here before and am anxious to see what it looks like in another month when the cows return to it.

MayPasture12Now we have made the loop and we’re back to the cows.  They have nothing to say to me and are clearly unafraid.  None of them want to snuggle with me but the dairy cows are nearly pets.  The others know I’m the guy who can move the fence forward, I mean nothing else to them.  Look carefully at the picture and you can see the next division we’ll open up the next morning.  Two fences behind the cows.  We just roll those two cross fences backwards then push the water and the back fence forwards leaving 2-3 days of grazing area under the cows at any given time.

MayPasture15A little further South, looking South I can see the few acres I have set aside for drought.  By my measurements I am actively grazing less than 10 acres with 8 heifers and two calves.  I have 4 acres set aside as a reserve along with odd patches of hilly, wooded areas I don’t care to pasture heavily.  Add to that 3 or 4 acres of alfalfa (well, mostly alfalfa….well, mostly alfalfa and orchardgrass…well, mostly alfalfa and orchardgrass and a few bare spots where the chickens killed the plants standing in mud during days of heavy rainstorms) that we’ll use for hay.  I hope to graze this pretty hard starting in July and again in November or December.  The plan is to set aside a portion of the farm each year for stockpile.  This gives my main pastures additional recovery time just when they need it and builds standing forage for winter grazing.  I’m not exactly making this up as I go along but I am playing by ear.  Stay with me as I learn.  Anyway, straight ahead of the brush pile is an old bridge.  The stream flows from right to left under the bridge.  Everything across is set aside for July.

MayPasture16Now moving West we come to the place the pigs were in March.  It’s hard to hurt fescue…

MayPasture13…but there are some spots where the pigs managed to set it back.  Those spots are dominated by chicory and dandelion.  I’ll need to work to get more clover growing here going forward.  There is always more to do.

MayPasture14We’ll just have to wait and see what the cows eat here in a few weeks.  Hopefully it’s not too stale.  I may follow Gabe Brown’s advice and sew in cowpeas, sunflowers and millet as the cows stomp through, then winter annuals when they go through again in the fall.  Who knows.  Again, playing by ear here.

In spite of my best efforts to build big grazing areas early and cover the farm quickly I fell behind.  It all got away from me.  Now I’m slowing down a little, trampling more grass with narrow grazing strips and just hanging on.  The plan is to double our herd size next year as our farm triples in size.  Yeah, I know…but you have to work within your budget.

How is your grass growing?

Strolling Through the Pasture April 2013

The pictures in this post are about a week old and are already out of date.  This week we have highs in the 70′s and good chances for rain each evening.  You can almost watch the grass grow right now.

I am grazing my cows on remaining stockpile.  Mostly though, I’m packing them into a small area and feeding them hay.  I’m pushing carbon into the soil mostly on countour to the hill slope.  Will it work?  Well…it should.  We’ll see.  Maybe you’ll see the difference in the pasture over the next few years.

Normally I start taking pictures as I leave the house.  I’ll start todays’ walk by the horse barn instead.  Last month I took a picture of a down locust tree in a sea of fescue nubbins.  We burned the tree then overseeded with clover, orchardgrass, timothy and two kinds of rye grass and here’s what it looks like now (though the camera is pointed more to the right).

AprilPasture1

The horses ate it down to the nubbins but it’s coming back well and it’s coming back with additional diversity.  The real miracle here was that the horses showed me around 20 or so honey locust saplings.  BTW, the picture above is almost the same shot as the one in this picture.  I’ve cut a lot of hedge in the last year.  There is a lot more to cut…and this is just one of my hedge forests.  Many of the stumps are sprouting so I’ll have an ongoing supply of thorns and firewood in 5-10 years.  Also, a pair of rabbits are living in the brush pile we built last year, though I only see them when I am out walking at night.

AprilPasture2

The plan is to allow this to sit idle until July or so.  Once the drought hits I’ll have a stockpile of grass for the cows to tromp and eat through.  There are about 2 acres here.  With luck, that will be just the bridge I need to allow my main pastures to recover fully.  Then we’ll graze this again over the winter.  Next year we’ll allow a different patch of land to go.  This builds up carbon over time, allows ground-nesting birds to have a home and helps us keep our cows fat.

AprilPasture3The top of the hill was also grazed by the horses but not as intensively.  It’s still a thick mass of fescue but was well pounded by running, playing horses and heavily manured.  Good enough.

AprilPasture4But there are still clumps of moss growing on the North face of the hill.  Where there is moss there is not grass.  Where there are hooves there is no moss.  I need more hooves…more pressure…to allow the grass to compete.

AprilPasture5On the topic of hedge, below the cemetery I cut out a single hedge tree that fell over and continued growing.  One tree, laying on its side, killing grass over a 40′ circle.  This tree was the source of the pile of wood featured in a recent Facebook post.  There is still an equal amount of wood waiting for me to cut now.  I have opened up more area for grazing and rid myself of a sick tree but cost myself small game habitat.  That’s why I build brush piles.  Quail and rabbits need shelter.  If I won’t allow dead and dying trees to create that shelter naturally I have to do it myself.  I also can’t continue cutting out undesirable trees without replacing them with something else or planning for their regrowth .  More on that in a future post.

AprilPasture6

The cows grazed their way through the bottom in January.  There wasn’t much out there for them to eat as it was a serious weed patch, as was most of the pasture before we began.  We spent an afternoon pulling sprouts out with a tractor last winter.  This year it was just graze and let it grow.  It’s growing.  But I’ll need some pressure to keep the weeds at bay and give the grasses a competitive advantage.  To be honest, I’m a little worried.  Goldenrod, ragweed and burrdock are clearly dominant down here.  I don’t want it to look like this:

AprilPasture7There’s a little wedge of pasture West of our house by the road.  When you come to our farm, this is what you see.  Looks great, doesn’t it?  I need to get a tractor in there to pull out the snags and rip out the sprouts but the whole thing is a thorny mess.  Just like the bottom used to be.  It’s an awful lot like work.  I try to let the cows do as much of it as I can.

AprilPasture8The pigs are in their final pasture position before shipping on Tuesday.  You can see the kind of disturbance they create.  That’s what we hire them to do.  Right now I’m not grinding their feed.  Among other things, they get cracked corn, roasted soybeans and whole oats.  The oats are still whole when they come back out.  In a few weeks I’ll have a rich, strong stand of oats on my slope for the cows to graze through…thanks to the pigs plowing, manuring and seeding.

AprilPasture9The layer flock is in the same fence with the broilers on the alfalfa field.  You can see an outline in the picture above showing where the chicken tractor had been moments before.  The layers rush in to scratch through the manure and to gobble up any feed the broilers wasted.  Both this and the neighbor’s alfalfa fields look purple right now from all the henbit blooms (and buzzing with bees).  The hens bit the henbit here.  None of it is left within the fenced area.  The alfalfa is nibbled back but recovers quickly.  Doing this may be risky in terms of the lifetime of the alfalfa stand but we not only get 4 cuttings of alfalfa here, we also get 500 chickens per acre and …I don’t even know how many dozen eggs, not to mention the fertility the birds put back into the soil.  Am I hurting my alfalfa stand?  I really don’t think so.

AprilPasture10Back to the cows.  Molly is chewing here cud in the sunlight.  Life is good.  You can see the distant hillside still recovering from the pigs who were there until October or November.  I see this less as a problem and more as a matter of time.  There is manure, carbon, seeds and living plant roots out there.  With help from cow hooves I’m sure the scars will heal quickly.  I present the grass in the foreground as evidence.  Those same pigs were there in August.  The cows aren’t scheduled to return to the cemetery hill until late May or even June.

AprilPasture11Mostly fescue but it’s growing.  There is a fair amount of clover mixed in as well.  We’ll get there.

Strolling Through the Pasture March 2013

These pictures were taken on March 11th though I was delayed in posting them.  These pictures were taken early in the evening the day after a heavy rain storm.

MarchPasture1A sea of oxidizing fescue.  I mowed a small portion of this hill in December for sledding.  I wish I hadn’t.  The cows grazed the hill to the left in November and again in February.  They won’t see it again till May.

MarchPasture2There are a few clumps of henbit emerging on the hillside.  The grasses the cows prefer are starting to sprout away from the clumps of fescue.  Not much else happening.

MarchPasture3This is the primary sledding hill by the cemetery.  The grass was pretty thin when we left the drought last Fall.  Pigweed stood in tall masses at the top of the hill, honey locust sprouts dotted the slope.  It was pretty nasty.  Hopefully we’ll use the cows correctly to push succession forward.

MarchPasture48-10″ tall fescue.  The cows aren’t interested.

MarchPasture5I invited dad’s horses to graze about 1/4th of an acre down to the nubbins.  This area is always a thick carpet of fescue.  The horses carpeted it with manure and pounded it with hooves.  It was awesome!  When they got to the bottom I could see a the bones of a honey locust I cut down a few years ago.  The tree (and most of its thorns) are now burned up and I have seeded the area with clovers and a variety of grasses.  Wait till you see the recovery picture!

MarchPasture7Nearer to the house the pigs have really made a mess of the pasture.  3 pigs above 250 pounds have to be moved frequently.  I want disturbance not destruction.  Where they dig I kick the clods back into place and overseed with grasses and clovers.  Please notice the pigs are clean and dry.  Trust me when I say they are happy.  They have room to run, work to do, fresh air to breathe, they can see the sun where most pigs are bored, confined, smelly and indoors.  The pasture will heal quickly.  The pork will be delicious.

MarchPasture6The alfalfa was just starting to emerge.  I do some crazy stuff…some of it out of ignorance, some of it because I just don’t have the time to get everything done.  I continued to move my layer flock across the dormant alfalfa field all winter.  If that damaged the alfalfa I can’t see it.  The emerging plant population does not appear to be diminished.  That said, I don’t care for the empty spaces between the alfalfa plants.  Nature will fill those spaces, probably with fescue.  I think I should beat her to the punch.

I’ll post my April stroll soon and will try to show the recovery that follows the pigs.

Strolling through the Pasture December 2012 Edition

I haven’t published my walks in the pasture for several months.  It got dry, hot and turned brown.  Where the pigs were we grew the most amazing oats, rye and turnips.  The pigweed was beyond belief.  You’ll just have to take my word for it.  Now it’s December.

The pasture was home to my neighbor’s cows for 8 months this year on top of years of constant grazing.  Beyond housing the neighbor’s cows, we rotated our goats, chickens, pigs, our own cows and even some hare pens on this pasture this year.  The pasture, though not worse for the wear, is ready for rest.  It looks pretty good from this angle but…

Pasture1

…if we walk South and look North you can see some of the battle scars.  Pigs.  I love pigs.  Truly, I do.  They are so much fun when they are little, so tasty when they aren’t little.  They dig, root, manure, eat, scrounge and play.  Look closely and you can see where the fences were this fall by the berms the pigs built rolling dirt with their noses up to the fence line.  Look for various piles of wood chips used to fill in everywhere the pigs made wallows.   But, in the aftermath of pig surgery we had the nicest stands of oat, rye and turnip you could ask for and the cows said thanks.

Pasture2

At my feet there is an area under the walnut grove that grows little other than henbit and chickweed.  Both of these are welcome as is the daikon radish that apparently isn’t going to make it.  Oh well, it will rot.

Pasture3

Around the hill a bit further South my oldest son and I have marked out a location for a swale.  A swale is just a ditch on contour.  It can be inches or feet deep, inches or feet wide.  But the point is, it holds water back so it can’t rush down the hillside.  Instead, it slowly infiltrates the soil and meters the water into (not over) the landscape below.  I’m really itching to get a swale established here as well as plant a number of trees above, on and below the swale.  More on that another time.

Pasture4

Down the hill further south and you get the slope featured in the July pasture walk.  The slope was entirely covered in chicory.  It still is.  Soon the freezing and thawing action on the hill will break the stems and the stems will fall over.  Next spring it will come back looking like dandelion leaves but with a red vein in the center of each leaf.  I can’t wait.

Pasture5

Then I spy a thorny nemesis.  If not for the thorns I would really like honey locust.  They are pretty, smell nice, make a useful seed, and are a legume.  But then there are the thorns.  A honey locust thorn went completely through my boot and foot one day last winter.  Those trees need to go.

HoneyLocust

A little to the east I have to stop and root for a little plantain plant.  Come on little buddy!

Pasture6

Crossing the bridge a little further East I find another tree.  I am less adamant about ridding the farm of Osage Orange than I am Honey Locust.  They are thorny, yes, but they make fence posts that will outlast me and awesome firewood.  I’m torn.  Well, not with this one.  It is in the wrong place and has to go.

OsageOrange

Wrapping up and heading home, I’m amazed at how much grass is left after the cows grazed the hillside a month ago.  At that time they wouldn’t touch the fescue.  I also notice how much clean-up I need to do on this hill.

Pasture7

Looks like the only things actively growing out there are the henbit and the chickweed.  Several grasses are still green but I don’t hold out much hope for growth for several more months.  April maybe?  Ugh.  So much to do…

Strolling Through the Pasture July 2012

Chicory, dickory dock.

We’re covered in chicory.

Overall the pasture is a dry, weedy mess.  It hasn’t rained for weeks.  Nothing is growing.  The corn isn’t filling out on the ears, the beans aren’t making.  It’s not a good year to rowcrop.  I haven’t fenced my cousin’s cows out so it’s still open grazing.  I need to get them fenced out soon so I can begin rotational grazing (even if that’s rotational hay feeding) my own cows and letting the pasture rest to build up something of a stockpile.  There is some pretty good pasture still available North of the cemetery in the bottom but for some reason the cows don’t head that way.  Maybe the grass is sweeter where the chickens have manured.

The raccoons have been eating wild cherries by the pond.  You can see where the whole raccoon platoon troops by every night.  There’s a group of four.  They march past the pond, down the hill by the road, scoot by at the end of my driveway, then needle their way through the logs and brambles to an old collapsed culvert where they sleep all day.  Yeah, I have scouted them out a little bit.  Yes, I missed.

The alfalfa blooms were really pretty.  I took these pictures several days before we mowed hay.  I didn’t see any sign of my bees working the alfalfa but the bumblebees and japanese beetles were out in force.

Then there’s the thistle.  Always the thistle.  We cut and salted thistle until it got so hot we couldn’t stand to do it anymore.  The seed dispersal will overtake our efforts.  I’m counting on high-density planned grazing to win this battle for me in the long term.

Ah, poison ivy.  If only you were a cash crop.  I’m getting itchy just looking at it.

Next month we should see the goldenrod come in bloom.  Goldenrod honey tastes terrible but it does feed the bees.  Here’s to hoping for another hay crop.  Rain would sure help.  How is your pasture doing this month?

Feeding the Pigs

I was asked recently how I feed the pigs…or what I feed the pigs in since round pig feeders are not exactly cheap.  It isn’t a question I had given much thought to as we just solved the problem and moved on.  Our primary motivation is keeping the soil healthy.  After that we work to keep the animals healthy.  Within those constraints we work to find the best combination of durable, local, inexpensive/free and suitable.

If you give your pigs free access to eat throughout the day they will, unsurprisingly, gain weight faster and put on more fat.  If you feed them twice per day they tend to be leaner.  Many, if not most, farmers provide enough feed to last several days and go do other things.  We keep our pigs near our chickens and feed them when we open and close the hen house each day.  We give them roughly 3% of their bodyweight each day of the Fertrell grower ration as well as a little garden waste, some apple drops, acorns or whatever else is handy.  Really, we want them all to be satisfied and have a little feed left in the trough for a snack later.  This would be unrealistic if we were raising more than a few pigs as 4,000 pounds of pork need to eat 120 pounds of feed each day and I doubt my dainty wife is going to lug feed out to the pasture in that volume.

I took some slab oak lumber from my sawmill to the tablesaw and built a durable feed trough.  It works well for 8 small pigs or 4 larger pigs but, again, forces us to put eyes on our pigs twice daily.

We water them with a nipple on a garden hose.  It’s not exactly ideal having  three lengths of garden hose stretched across the pasture but it certainly has a light footprint and is easy to install.  It was also fairly cheap.  There is some concern about the pigs having access to cool water so, on hot days, we disconnect the hose and spray the hogs or their wallow to cool off the water again.  Honestly, I haven’t noticed that the pigs care.

The nipple is on a 3/4″ galvanized pipe.  Actually, it’s 2 pipes and2 elbows.  I use hose clamps to keep the pipe on an old, broken t-post with an elbow pointing over the perimeter fence.  The hose clamps allow us to raise the nipple as the pigs grow.  It’s pretty easy to move when we move the pigs.

Check your hog water several times daily in case the nipple clogs, the hose gets pinched, someone disconnects the water, etc.

Also, be sure to move the hose before you take the mower out to clip the thistle.  I really thought it was 10 feet over!  What a day Saturday was.

Strolling through the pasture: May 2012 Edition

All the grazing books emphasize the need to walk your pastures regularly.  See what’s going on out there, take notes and really pay attention.  Today I noticed something I hadn’t seen before.  Pigs are hard on clover.  Let me show you.

We had pigs on this spot in March.  The grass is recovering well and has been grazed once but the clover is almost non-existent.  A good mix of grasses and weeds but no clover.  I’m not too surprised as it had little clover to begin with but there is none now.  None.

Continue with me to the cemetery gate.  Here the grass is mowed regularly and the clover grows thick.

Now, look to the South with me.  The pigs were on this slope starting in July of last year and worked their way around the hill over time.  One section at a time the hillside became a wasteland as the pigs worked their way through.  The grasses more than recovered from the disturbance, and did so quickly.

But while the grasses benefited from the disturbance, the clover is absent.

If I look around a little bit I can see new clover establishing itself out of the soil bank but not much in the way of old growth.

Now, wait a minute.” you say, “Mr. Head Farm Steward, didn’t you just have goats and chickens here?  Aren’t your cousin’s cows still roaming and grazing in the pasture?  Maybe they are eating the clover faster than it can grow.”  Well, I don’t think that’s the case.  Here’s where the goats and chickens just left.  Sure enough, not a clover leaf to be found.

But, if we look back at pasture that has had at least a week to recover we can see strong clover growth.  In fact, on the left in this picture you can see a line in the grass where the clover ends.  I believe that’s where the pig quick fence stood last summer.

So it appears my grass is strengthened by the presence of pigs but I sacrifice my clover stand.  Ah, tradeoffs.  Why can’t it be more simple?

Takeaways:
-Walk your pastures regularly
-Take notes
-Take pictures
-Reflect on changes you observe.
-Evaluate these changes to determine if it is really a problem and, if so, if your management has caused it.

It is possible that I just need to move the hogs more frequently to help retain some portion of the clover.  I’ll keep fiddling with it.