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.



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.

Farmer’s Progress Chapter 7: The Management of a Farm

The first rule is that you must have sufficient capital, land and stock to ensure you will be profitably and fully occupied. If you have not, then you must arrange to work for others part-time, as a contractor or otherwise. Do not be tempted to think you can supplement your earnings by literary efforts, at least not in the agricultural sphere, for, by the queer contrariness of this world, that is reserved for those who have already earned their money in farming…

Well, so much for that plan. OK. I don’t have any real money to speak of, I don’t have much in the way of cattle or chickens and I’m currently out of pigs but I have a good amount of land. It gets worse.

…do not waste what should be productive farming hours on telling other people how to do it! Plenty of time for that when you retire.

Well. I…um. I really only do this when it’s dark out. Most often in the early morning…if the dishes are done. So. (This is embarrassing…) I try not to tell you, dear reader, how to farm. I just read, research, discuss, try things and write about the good and the bad. Not how-to, just the how-we.


That’s how it’s been reading Mr. Henderson’s books. I read. I learn. I accept correction. Some years ago dad and I read Marcus Aurelius. On the very first page he dives into his appreciation for things he has learned from others. (I’m quoting from my Loeb, not the link.)

From my Grandfather’s Father, to dispense with attendance at public schools, and to enjoy good teachers at home, and to recognize that on such things money should be eagerly spent.

I finished public school 20 years ago and have been practicing at learning ever since. Julie thinks I’m a little too eager to spend money on yet another book, electronic or paper. The closest thing I can do to inviting Mr. Henderson into my home to teach me is to buy his books and pay close attention to his writing. I’m not writing this series to rob you of the need to read Henderson’s works for yourself. I’m writing to record my notes and thoughts as I explore these books for the first time. And if I am choosing to invite Mr. Henderson to instruct me, I have to accept correction from him.

There is a difference, Mortimer Adler taught me, between reading for entertainment, reading for information and reading for enlightenment. I may be trying to get too much from my initial reading of Henderson’s works but I doubt I’m reaching the enlightenment stage. To get there I need to fully grok Henderson’s reasoning, be able to present his arguments and to respond to them. I can’t do that…yet but you know I’m going to try anyway.

If you are here seeking enlightenment I’ll let you down. I may have a little information but, really, the best you should hope for is to be entertaining as we talk about farm management. You know, ’cause farm management is such an exciting topic.

I have already noted Mr. Henderson expressed concern that I am wasting my time writing this post so let’s begin, instead, with the lack of capital. He suggests

where capital is limited, …keep as many poultry as the reserves of feeding-stuffs will maintain

Well. OK. But. You know. Then what? I mean, George, we have chickens. Lots of chickens. Feeding them isn’t our problem. Marketing them is. It’s not like I can take all the eggs to Mr. Olson’s store and trade for a plow, a few yards of gingham and a poke of salt. What do I do with all the eggs? Right now we are have long days, and lots of interesting things in the pastures for the chickens to eat and good weather so the girls are laying like gangbusters. Way, WAY more eggs than our regular customers need. But soon the summer heat will set in and laying will back off. Then we’ll transition to the new flock and be covered up in pullet eggs until we butcher the older birds. Hopefully, the new flock will lay enough eggs to get our regular customers through the winter…until we are flooded with eggs again next spring. We are selling our eggs right now but we also get a percentage of eggs that are stained, cracked or checked and can’t be sold. We can’t eat them all. What do we do with the extra?

Feed them to pigs…the next operation he suggests when you are starting out and money is tight. And I find that I agree with him. If I could have only one type of animal I would have a pig. Pigs cover all the bases. Meat and manure, they cycle nutrients like nothing else, if you need to dig a hole, get a pig. There’s bacon at the end of that rainbow! Henderson spends a fair amount of time in both books discussing the utility and value of pig manure over cow manure. But beyond any of that, I just like pigs. They are inquisitive and intelligent animals. When they are small, they are quite pleasant. There has to be some allotment for enhanced quality of life when evaluating choice of livestock. It’s not all marketability and utility.

Skipping ahead a bit, he suggests that we, as small farmers, consider pedigree livestock. Just a small herd of cows, for example, all related and purchased all at once can, over time, build to a consistent and improved herd. He emphasizes the need for patience, for culling and for more patience and more culling. Don’t go out and buy more cows. Just get that initial group of moderate animals, breed two generations to the same bull then change bulls (there is a whole chapter dedicated to this later). He was, apparently, very concerned about disease but the general outline I shared is basically the model he used to build his Jersey herd in his previous work, The Farming Ladder.

The first essential is not money but a love and understanding of good stock; and once you have set your heart on it, you will find the ways and means to buy that old cow, who can be the mother, suitably mated, of a great herd. A pedigree gilt, or a few registered ewes, may cost you little more than the commercial price, but you have the raw material. After all, it is not the buying of the paint and canvas that makes an artist, it is what he does with it.

There are only three cows in our beef herd that matter. Three didn’t breed and will be sold for beef. One heifer is a cull, the other is marginal. (I didn’t use any sense when I bought those two) and that’s where Mr. Henderson spends a lot of time. Be picky about your initial stock. Buy related animals that can be improved…quality animals but not show stock. Be picky.

To have to feed and water for two or three years an animal which is developing some fault is to learn a lesson which may never be acquired in a hundred visits to the show ring.

…management is all-important, for nine-tenths of the improvement in livestock comes from this source, since nearly all reasonably well-bred stock has the inherent capacity to produce, and it is management which brings it out.

It’s not all about livestock. You have to feed your animals too. He lays out directions and warnings for feeding your animals properly without overfeeding them as overfeeding both harms the development of the animal and the pocketbook. He gives directions for how many acres of root and grain crops are needed per head as well as suggestions on how to make the best use of waste potatoes. We don’t grow many potatoes. Not many at all. Maybe that’s something we should revisit on our farm. We do grow a lot of grass.

But of all the crops the stockbreeder grows, grass is the most important and the one which is most neglected and abused. …Any one pasture plant can be encouraged or reduced by over- or understocking at certain seasons of the year. …Poultry are the greatest improvers of a permanent pasture that I know. Stock it evenly at the rate of a hundred birds to the acre, and if it is also regularly grazed by sheep and cattle it will improve out of all recognition.

I have to say I agree. I can’t seem to get Julie excited at the prospect of keeping sheep but where we ran goats, cattle and chickens in rotation our pastures are dense, thick and healthy and the soil is soft. To the east where cattle were allowed year-round non-stop access to the pastures the grass is sparse, the soil is hard and the ground is covered in moss. Once we get the layer flock out there we’ll start adding in serious amounts of manure as well as scratching out the moss and making a nice seed bed. 100 per acre? 6,000 birds!?!? Geez.

He goes into several pages of detail about crops and crop rotations but the most important part (as of this reading) was this:

Chemical analysis gives no indication of the capacity of the land to produce. Samples taken from this farm, which has been worked on the market-garden level of 10 tons of muck to the acre per annum for a long time, show no significant difference from adjoining fields which have not seen a muck cart for a hundred years, but we will grow a better crop, with no additional manuring, than the other will with the recommended dressing. Chemical analysis shows the chemicals lying in that soil, but the humus content is so deficient that it does not hold sufficient moisture to enable the plants to take it up.

And that’s just what we need. I have slopes that have lost all topsoil, just brick-hard clay on top. I need to add organic material to that in the form of plant roots and with thin, regular layers of compost. I can tell from the grazing habits of the cattle that the grass there is poor. I would guess the base minerals exist in the soil but there is insufficient support for the transport mechanisms. I would bet the brix is lower in those grasses. The cows are very, very picky in the east pasture. It looks like a wavy sea of fescue. The grass itself is only 4-6″ tall, it’s just the seed head that stands up high. It may not look like it, but there are lots of places out there you could set a softball down without touching a plant.


But it’s not what they want to eat. Mostly they eat the white clover and plantain, leaving the fescue to do its thing. The cows grazed between the wavy fescue and the thistle forest, mostly knocking things over as they passed.


Henderson would set to work immediately improving these soils to improve the forage. He would probably also remove the fence that encourages and allows the thistle stand between the pasture and the alfalfa field…but only so he could till the flat areas of the pasture in rotation. Whatever he would do with my farm, he would have a plan.

The balance of stock and crop not only enables the farmer to make the best use of his land but to organize his labour to the best advantage. …The farm that can keep everyone usefully and profitably employed day in and day out is the farm that is going ahead.

The planning of the work is very important, and the getting in hand of supplies necessary for the work in slack seasons: gravel for concreting, wood and nails, paint and spare machine parts. The most tiring job I know on a farm is trying to fill in time.

I would quote the rest of the chapter if I could. You get to know the rhythm of your farm over time so you know how much light is left, what seasons are appropriate for what work and when you can count on rain and dry. The last two paragraphs are especially valuable as he deals with how the farmer himself should plan his time, not doing regular chores but filling in and helping out where needed. I think Julie and I succeed at this in the home but not as well in the field. The kids rotate chores on a weekly basis. Everybody knows their set of jobs. For example, when it is your week to wash dishes it is also your week to help make meals. We rotate through the entire house and the kids learn to manage the whole home without the burden of managing the whole thing alone. Julie and I don’t have regular house chores. And our focus is not on correction when the kids are slacking. We just roll up our sleeves and get the dishes caught up or help fold towels. Everybody lives here. Everybody works. Mom and dad keep it running. Henderson says the farm should be the same way. Our farmhands should be cross-trained and have regular work while we pitch in where needed. I’m afraid I keep an awful lot of the farm work to myself…some of that because the kids are still young, some because I’m something a perfectionist…and can be very critical. Very. I need to chillax and encourage the kids to step it up in age-appropriate areas so Julie and I can spend more time measuring and monitoring, less time on routine chores.

Henderson closes the chapter with this summary:

There are farms where all seems to go well, keeping time with the inevitable passage of the seasons, steadily going on, undisturbed by the distant mutterings of an unhappy world. Such farms are something to pray for, but are brought about chiefly by good organization, and are the product of the farmer’s own initiative, good example, enterprise, grasp of essentials, and long-term policy.

Long-term policy. Long-term. If things go according to plan, I will drop my silly title and hand it to a son, daughter, niece or nephew. Then…maybe then I can focus on cutting firewood and not worry if the chickens have food and water and if the eggs need to be collected or if the cows have fresh pasture, water and shade or if we have enough hog feed on hand to last the week or if the forecast will allow us to cut hay or…

You know what I really want to do? What I really, really, really want to do more than anything else in the world? I want to sit. I want to sit and listen actively and attentively to my wife. Offer her affirmation but not advice. Just the two of us. Then lean back in the recliner together and close our eyes and take a nap. Doesn’t that sound nice? It doesn’t happen. There isn’t time. There isn’t time because I need to improve my management ability. Mr. Henderson gave me a number of suggestions for just how to get it done.