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.


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!)


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


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…)


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.



4 thoughts on “Reap Your Wild Oats

  1. So what do you do with that perfect cow pat? Do you till it under or just let it decompose in place or move it to a composting area? What are the preferred pasture grasses/or mix for the cows?

    • We leave it. The chickens will spread it around or the bugs will tear it apart. It will be gone before we return in the fall.

      Preferred pasture mix depends on where you live. I don’t mind the fescue as it saves our bacon all winter. Really, I don’t much care what grows so long as a variety of things grow. When it is hot and dry we watch out for johnsongrass. Otherwise, we are shooting for a heavy dose of about 6 different clovers and alfalfa along with about 20 or so grasses, chicory, plantain and dandelion and in the fall we throw out a little turnip, radish and rape seed. Just for fun we throw sunflower seeds ahead of the cattle and end up with big sunflowers all over the farm in the late summer. That list is less than exhaustive but it’s a start. Seems to us the more variety we have out there the more life we can support.

      • Thanks for the close up shots of your fescue and other forage species – good to see what you have. Yum you planted a salad bar of turnip, radish, rape and sunflowers! Do you literally broadcast those seeds too and get a good catch?

        I must say I am very jealous of your productive Dung beetle. On the Cdn Prairies we have a very lazy Dung Beetle that will take WEEKS to break down one pie. That is if you are lucky to live in sandy soils they prefer (I don’t) and only expect them to work for a short period in the summer. Researchers have tried to bring in faster dung species but they don’t survive our winter.

        So instead on my chicken-less farm I run harrows and think happy thoughts like … that’s nice that Mother Nature left us the dung to blot out our pastures, because then the Pioneers could burn “Prairie Coal” instead, not to mention provide toys for the children with the petrified cow patty Frisbee and sports! Where would hockey be today if we did not have all those frozen dung pucks lol!

        • The dung beetles do a good job of drying things out but it’s the flock of chickens that do the most to spread things out. A healthy earthworm population utilizes the manure most of all.

          I broadcast seed in front of the herd at each move. Most of the seed gets stomped into the soil. A little seed is left where the chickens can find it but we see good germination. Too many turnips makes the cows runny in winter so a little goes a long way. I believe the tenant had a calf choke on a turnip too so we exercise a little caution.

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