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.


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.


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.


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…


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.

12 thoughts on “This Week in Grazing

  1. Fescue – So I pretty much anticipated that this day would come and here it is… I need an Infected Fescue for Dummies 101 crash course – the Illinois version– I have no experience with fescues. Mr Google tells me there are dif fescue types not sure which species you have, the growth cycle and grazing management other than what I picked up from your posts.

    In my pastures, trampled forage does not get eaten. Forage at this time of yr will soon start to head out and complete it’s growth cycle so trampled forage is mostly game over, go to jail, do not pass go or collect your $200. Six months of snow buries the trampled forage so not really winter pasture and it’s only use is in spring when the snow has melted and some of the trampled forage will be consumed while devouring through to the spring fresh forage.

    In the case of fescue from what I have gathered from your blog and what you indicate others in your area do, fescue should not be grazed in the summer as it creates too much heat and breeding problems so the cows are not missing a thing. In the fall/winter though this is excellent as stockpiled forage that does not affect the cattle. In a nutshell that is my very basic understanding of your situation. So my Q is as your fescue is heading out and is ?only partially ? trampled what will happen to it next? Will the cows still go back and eat this in the winter?

    • In the heat of the summer they select around the fescue eating other plants instead. Maybe a little fescue gets eaten but there is no pressure forcing the cows to do it. There is some recent work that indicates the mature fescue seed head may help limit the negative effects of the endophyte. Some fescue gets trampled and adds to the litter.

      I don’t care what goes to seed. I care that there IS litter. Where my soils are healthy and my plants are recovering fully we are seeing increased diversity, not fescue dominance.

      Some cows don’t respond well to the small portion of fescue they eat. Those cows need to leave the farm. I’ll have better luck finding genetics that withstand fescue than I will keeping fescue out of my pastures.

      So the cows eat around the fescue, trample a fair portion in but some remains standing. The trampled material is not my stockpile. We try to keep the whole farm stockpiled year-round. When freeze hits the broad leaf weeds die back. The leaves fall from the trees. The clovers disappear. But the fescue magically transforms itself from our worst forage to our best. It’s a cool-season plant and spends the wet part of the fall going through a major growth period so as winter begins we have a tremendous amount of highly nutritious growth just when we need it. In spring it’s quick, durable forage that you can’t kill with mud. In summer it’s biomass and a protective layer over the soil. In fall fescue grows like gangbusters so we can spend the whole winter grazing it. The cows know what to do. We just have to accommodate for the cows’ needs as we graze.

      Our snow load is very light in comparison to yours. The real concern, for us, is grazing clean pastures so the cows aren’t cornered into eating dirty forage all winter. That’s why we hire chickens.

      If we get a couple of inches of ice we won’t be grazing. We’ll be at the barn eating hay.

      Jeremy Engh had some strategies for grazing fescue in pastures when he was on the Agricultural Insights podcast. That episode is now subscriber-only.

      • Thanks for all this info. I realized what a big part of my lapse in understanding this was… my Cdn Prairie hard wiring that I was not thinking outside the box of. Yes we have the same calendar as you showing the first day of Fall ~ Sept 22 only that day to us means you have about an average of 15 to 30 days before it snows and stays, not a whole other growing period!

        Can you tell me more about this plant cycle start to finish?
        Spring – Does the perennial start a new plant in the spring and at that stage is palatable to the cows initially so is grazed somewhat then abandoned by choice as other forage comes up?
        Summer – in summer you say it becomes biomass – in your pastures does it crowd out re-growth of the grazed clover and other forages? Does any of it die off before the major fall growth period?
        Fall – Where does the major growth come from? Does the plant itself just fill out more and/or are new plants starting from the seed heads developing right now? If a mix of both old and new plants alike is it all palatable to the cows during the cooler weather? How tall does it grow? Any lodging?
        Winter – is grazed down and the perennial dies off for winter and starts anew in the spring?

        • Fescue seems to be fine until the fungus gets a good hold as it warms up. In the early spring it puts on serious growth in a hurry and is hard to overgraze. But you can see the cows’ attitude about it change when the temperatures rise.

          There are places the summer grasses dominate over the fescue but the fescue always comes back. By the cemetery there is a good mix of clover and fescue in the spring but right about now the whole area gets crushed under a mat of bermudagrass. I could probably graze that bermudagrass once/week without hurting it. The fescue will return in time for the fall flush of growth and the bermudagrass will be trampled.

          I don’t really care what grows out there as long as several somethings are growing together. If there is too much of one thing the cows need bigger pastures to balance things out. You’ll know by looking at the remaining forage and looking at the cow pies and gut fill. The biomass comment is all about protecting and insulating the soil while slowing rainfall in the heat of our summers. We will be dry from early July until November except for a short but massive rain event around the first of August. And we often see triple digit temperatures in July and August. I have to soak up whatever rain falls, catch whatever dew I can collect and shade the soil to keep it cool and moist. To do that I need biomass. The cows are turning the fescue into mulch right now.

          I have mismanaged my hogs and torn up whole hill sides into a muddy mess. The fescue came back. It always comes back. Always. Spring and fall you’ll find healthy fescue stands that are 18″ tall with wide, dark green, waxy leaves. That waxy coating helps maintain forage quality in the frost and freeze early on. It really seems to stand well. Would the cows rather eat hay? Sometimes. But I think they are better off getting even a percentage of their feed that is live and green as much of the year as possible. I also think I’m better off if the manure is spread by the cattle and if I don’t have to put up hay. I know it’s not possible everywhere but we should be doing it here. (BTW, we should have at least one cutting of hay in the barn by now but it has been too wet.)

          Gabe Brown east of Bismark, ND has a few strategies for grazing year-round that may be helpful where you live…as I’m fairly certain you’ll never have to deal with fescue. Or read up on Neil Dennis from Wawota for a Canadian perspective. Among other things, Neil sets out bales before the snow flies so he just has to move fence in the winter.

          • For 10 yrs now I have been strategically placing all my bales out in the fall. Fenced off in the pastures to target manure and litter where I need it and it is a great tool. There are areas of fescue including some infection in my province; neither are issues on or around my quarter though. Thanks for the closer to home leads I will read up on them, and thank you for taking the time to explain fescue and your grazing program. There is a big dif btwn just reading something and understanding it and I appreciate it – thanks!

  2. Tree Planting – wow I wish my soil were that loamy as the video when I planted my trees. I used to work with a guy would planted trees like that for fun as his summer job when he was young and in fact broke the world record planting 15,170 trees in ONE DAY!

    Meanwhile back at the farm, I pain staking planted about 200 trees over about 4 days, when I first bought my farm. The marginal soil was hardpan, break out the axe pick and spend 15 minutes digging a hole with a spade-not fun. Finally just drilled fence postholes with the tractor and that was a time saver in my case.

    What type of trees would you use? I remember you posted back in 2012 looking at hybrids – still thinking about that? I am fortunate in having what everyone considers a weed tree – the Siberian Elm. They self-seed, are hardy and grow fast. They have a shorter life I think 20-30 yrs so people snub them. I planted mine 10 yrs ago and within about 5 yrs there were already about 7-8′ tall.. Within 3 yrs they were about 3-4’ tall. I need a tree that performs and this has been good for me. They say we should all plant trees we will never sit under and I subscribe to that, but I love Siberian Elms as in their 10 yrs so far I have sat under them, they have provided wind breaks to the farm, shade for the animals, and a bonus – my heart sings to see a few bird nests in them!

    Back to the weed factor –as they self-seed, they grow anywhere the seed lands so they cost me zero for seed stock. If these grow in your area and you don’t have any, find someone who does and they will likely be happy to pull a few “weeds” for you to try. I did not baby them that much, I gathered from throughout the yard (usually up against a bldg where the wind stops them) in the first yr to create a nursery area in my gardens so I could water them a bit and nurture them along which did not last long with never enough time to do all the things in a day… The next yr they were dug up at ½’ -2 ½’ trees (variable as I did not plant them in consistent soil and dif spots/exposure, etc). They were dug out with some having their roots cut as they were way too long already 4’+ down, planted, given an initial watering, and wkly water for about 5 wks and I don’t recall doing anything since to them. A few did not make it thru winter and were replaced. Oh yeah had to fence them off so they were not instant scratching posts and kept that way for a few yrs until they were about 6’ tall. A few of the trees got broken branches due to this on some of the non-fenced trees, my bad.

    How does that work with your treed loafing area? Is that a central spot they can frequently access daily or specific to a few days grazing cells? Will you plant the 10k trees throughout the open pasture to offer more loafing areas or what would you do? Years ago I thought about the portable shade shelters to keep up with daily pasture moves, but also like your plan of keeping only the cows that fit your environment rather than cater to them!

    • We are on board with the idea of portable shade and plan to make one soon. We want trees for more than just shade. I have a few hybrid poplars planted out but would rather have a tree that makes more than just shade and wood. We are finding a lot of burr oak and walnut sprouts right now. I think a little transplanting here and there would be welcome. If we plant trees on contour we could fence along contour too and keep the cows out while the trees get established.

      This morning I took feed to the chickens and stopped in the fence line to eat mulberries by the handful. This afternoon I took a different route to the chickens to gather eggs and, again, just about foundered on mulberries from a different tree. How do I value that?

      When I was a kid (from 3 to 8) my folks had a little house in a little town a couple of hours South. The gate from our back yard to the alley was guarded by a mulberry tree. I remember sitting in the tree eating berries frequently. The next lot over was owned by an elderly woman with three cherry trees lining the south side of her garage. I picked a lot of cherries with my folks (something I haven’t been able to do this year). I am planting to build those memories…beyond just shading and feeding my livestock. Mulberries are a lot more stock-friendly than cherries.

      • Field Founder I can relate to- lol ! We don’t have mulberries but Saskatoon berries instead (tarter but somewhat similar to a blueberry) and it just ain’t summer without coming in from the fields as often as you can with purple stained fingers and faces! Good on you for planting those priceless memories too!

  3. TALONS – Coming full circle back to noodle on your original comment about needing claws/talons – it seems that you would need talons for the job of following the cows through this pasture! Are the chickens in fact in that pasture with the cows? The pictures look like the standing fescue, with seed head, left behind is about 6-12” tall so doesn’t ?seem? doable at this stage to run the chickens through due to fescue height and fast pace of the cows? How do you get the claws in there? Roughly how many acres is that 120-Day pasture?

    • We are grazing 30 acres this year. I need more mouths to feed.

      The only issue with the tall grass is getting the netting secure and in place. The cows do a good job of knocking the grass down but we usually go ahead and mow the fence line with a push mower. (I know, right?) The chickens do one heck of a good job of trampling grass. Those fescue seed heads are more like 3′ tall.

      • Wow – 3’ tall seed head – judging from your hotwire height in the pics I originally thought it was close to that but then was thrown way off when you said that the fescue grows a few inches. I totally underestimated just how tall a seed head it could throw.

        So the old mow the line trick… at 3’ tall with a push mower, please tell me that is not Julie’s job, and if it is you had better not forget date night this month lol!

        More mouths – what’s happening with the B&W giants you mentioned as a possibility? Are the reinforcements coming?

        • Yeah. The grass blades in many cases are no more than 4-6″ tall but the seed head goes up into the sky. I think those plants are particularly weak and stressed.

          Julie doesn’t mow.

          We are looking into picking up some steers in the fall but budgets being what they are…

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