A reader asked what I meant yesterday when I said, “We are currently moving the cows daily and rolling about four days worth of grazing with them.” Those words were, apparently, not as clear as they should have been. With the help of our trusty Agricola game pieces (and a few matches) I will demonstrate what I meant. We’ll start on day 4 and roll through day 7 with the help of some toy cows. First, a quick look at what the blocks mean.
And we’re ready to begin. The cows are in the corner of the perimeter fence in this illustration. They have been here for four days. For illustration purposes, each day they get a new row of three blocks. There are two watering troughs that move with the cows and a free choice mineral feeder. The lagging watering trough is allowed to go empty so we can simply carry it forward. The mineral feeder has to be dragged so we move it less frequently.
I want to point out that the cows spend most of their time on the freshest strip of ground. They get up to eat then lay down to chew their cud. What happens when a cow stands up? It manures. Cows like to lay down on fresh ground. They don’t like to lay in manure. So the cows are always moving to the fresh ground, leaving a path of muddy, manure-covered, hoof-printed destruction in their wake. The fresh ground is like couch, cupboard and toilet all in one. So they always need more.
So we move the cows. By day 5 we are beginning to fence out the first waterer. We want to let that go empty. There are times when it is entirely appropriate to dump 100 gallons of water on the pasture but not at the height of mud season.
The next day we move the cows again. They are always where the action is. The action is right up by the new fence. The back fence creeps forward one day at a time…rolling four days worth of ground forward. By day 4 new blades of grass are starting to peek their heads up. It would be detrimental to this year’s grass crop to allow the cattle to take a bite now. So we move them on.
It’s day 7 and you’re getting the idea. We have had to move the mineral feeder forward. Sometimes we fence them out of the mineral feeder for a day just to make it easier for us. The cows are always eating, stomping, lounging and manuring on fresh ground. They really only go back to get to the water. But right now I think it is important to give them the extra room, even if they don’t use it. They may face a choice. They could stand in the wet mud on a rainy day or they could stand under a tree on a bit of high ground. I would like to give them the option.
It is important for me to add that this is not our year-round strategy. It would work…ish. But it’s not what we do. This is this month’s grazing strategy. All winter there has been no back fence. We just allow the cows to move forward. Now that grass is growing again we are bringing the back fence along to protect tender young plants. When the grass starts to grow really fast we’ll start to move the cows really fast. Right now they may gain 1/16th of an acre/day. In April I anticipate giving our 11 cows 1/2 acre/day. The cows will just nibble the tips and select the choice morsels as they gear up for calving in May. When the grass growth slows the cows slow too. But that’s a subject for another blog post…or book.
Just a couple of other notes on the ground we are currently grazing. This ground was planned to be this year’s sacrifice area. The whole farm is a muddy mess, except the few South-facing slopes. To protect the rest of the farm we stockpiled fescue everywhere we could and planned to be on the flat bottom during the thaw. Next year we’ll find a different flat spot to graze in March. If it’s too wet we’ll just take the cows to the barn and feed them there but that creates an awful lot of work for us feeding, bedding and later composting and hauling the manure.
Finally, because of the amount of disturbance the cows are creating right now (which really isn’t too bad) we will allow this ground to have an extended recovery period. We will finish grazing this by April 1 and we may not return until June. Maybe even July. 60 days is a long time in the spring, keeping in mind what I said about offering the cattle 1/2 acre grazing areas while the grass is growing quickly.