Racing the Forage

It’s really happening. Finally. The cows are on the move. We are covering ground at an almost unheard of pace…11 animals covering an acre each day divided into two sections. At first they grazed everything away from the repugnancy zones. Soon the grass got ahead of us and the cows could begin to graze very selectively. They go into each paddock fat and come out even more fat. And fat is what we are after.

This is the time we have all been waiting for. The world is green again. The grass is growing fast. As much as I want to put some pressure on certain portions of the pasture this is not the time. It’s just time to run. Right now we are concerned about cow condition. I want the cows to have a big area, a big variety and a big volume of feed. But we are also concerned about future pasture. We don’t want the cows to eat the grass down to the dirt. There is not enough grass out there to knock it over and leave a covering on the soil so we just try to graze the tops off of the plants and move on immediately. The pasture in the picture below was grazed over the course of a week about a week ago.

Grazing1

The idea here is that we sprint across as much of the farm as we can. Realistically, I’ll only cover 2/3 of the farm before it begins to go to seed…at which point we’ll return to the first pasture. The ungrazed area will be left in reserve either for drought or for winter stockpile…or both. The starting point changes each year, the drought reserve changes each year, the pasture changes each year. It’s fun to plan and manage and as the forage quantity and quality increases I’ll have to increase the size of my herd. For instance, on the half of the farm we have managed for several years we have grazed once with cattle and once with chickens and the forage is at least 2 weeks ahead of the new 40. The goal is that the soil health will continue to improve and we’ll gain a month of grazing at each end of the season…then 6 weeks…then…well, then we will solve other problems.

Keep in mind we just took possession of the 40 east of our house. We are building fence on pasture we have never walked before. Certainly we have seen the ground but fencing and grazing gives us more intimacy with the land than does a casual stroll. We have lots of places on the farm that are remote and rough…beyond zone 5. There is no reason to go there so we don’t. But with the cattle on rotation we are covering the whole farm. It’s amazing what we are finding. Everything from evil, thorny trees to the neighbor’s trash from decades ago.

We do better some days than others. It’s hard to read the forage through the remaining weed stalks from last year. Sometimes the cows seem to fatten on nothing. Sometimes they look empty but there is standing forage all over behind them. I can only assume they are ignoring forage for a reason and it’s better to try to learn from their selectivity rather than to force the issue. Maybe I need to amend the soil there. Maybe the chickens need to sanitize the area. Maybe it just needs to rest.

Grazing2

Sometimes we just open a fence and let the cows through. Sometimes we take the cows on a bit of a walk. Sunday morning we took a rather long walk. When the cows got there they went bananas running, rubbing on trees and playing around. We didn’t realize until afternoon that they were probably looking for the missing steer…that we didn’t realize was missing. We walked them through a draw and he stayed behind to get a drink and a bite to eat. He was looking pretty lonely (but fat) when we found him later in the day. He flat refused to go over or under that horrible electric fence so we had to walk him all the way to the end of the line to rejoin the herd. I’m feeling pretty good about the new fence charger.

One thing I am constantly aware of is the poor condition of my south-facing slopes. Our pastures have been set-stocked for decades. By grazing the hot south-facingn slopes in the middle of summer the grasses have been set back. The soil organic matter is low. I’ll have to hustle to correct this…and it will probably take several years. Matron talked about the same problem in a recent post. The main corrective action will be to use care when grazing the farm over the summer, preserving tall forage on these slopes to heal the grass. Tall grass catches more dew and puts down deep roots.

CowPaths

The other problem we face over here are the cow paths. There are deep ruts cut into the hillsides by the cows over time. I need these to heal over. In short, we are seeking to prevent travel along these paths and increase the rest periods so forages can begin to establish here. Also, we are trying to slow the flow of water along these ditches. One thing at a time. The cows are looking pretty good. The pastures are thickening up and we are allowing rest. That’s what we need. Our half of the farm has no visible cow paths remaining outside of the creek crossings. A couple more years for those…

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4 thoughts on “Racing the Forage

  1. Anytime they pass up forage it is because of either palatability issues (feed back loop or tastes horrible) or it’s foreign to them. If you’re worried about condition I wouldn’t force the issue. They won’t touch it unless they get hungry or you push them tighter and the “mob effect” takes over.

    I’ve been experimenting with spraying “problem areas” with AACT (Actively Aerated Compost Tea) to see if it helps. It could help for numerous reasons (molasses, nutrients, probiotics, who knows?). But they do eat the grass down to the nub where I spray it. And the hoof action and dunging don’t hurt either. But like you, I really don’t worry about it too much.

    Have you looked into Keyline design much? The best way to stop the run off and erosion on that hill is to decrease the volume and speed of the run off. I really don’t buy wholesale into the Keyline idea like Mark Shepard preaches. But when it comes to erosion control there really isn’t an easier, cheaper and/or faster method. Luckily for me over my entire property the total elevation change is maybe 10 ft. So I haven’t really spent much time on it.

    Your pastures are looking beautiful btw….so you’re doing something right….. 😉

    • There is a lot to respond to there. We are encouraging the cows to be selective right now. Most of the skipped forage is in a repugnancy zone. Once I get the birds out there those will be dispersed. There are also weeds the cows obviously don’t care to sample. No big whoop. They will either eat or trample it on the second trip around the farm.

      I’m all about the keyline but there are only so many acres I can shovel as I don’t have a loader of any kind. For now our plan is to enable and encourage plant recovery and, when it is seasonally appropriate, invite the cows to bulldoze and remodel the landscape. That’s just not a good spring strategy.

      I have all kinds of ideas for living fences, shelter belts, etc. on keyline. Just takes time. The big push right now is to remove fencing that has been swallowed by the pasture and pull the old fence posts…along with pulling unwanted thorny trees and burning mountains of brush. Let me know if you are available for a few days and I’ll put you to work! lol

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