Fescue. Cool season grass. Puts on massive growth in the spring and again in the fall. In the heat of summer it gets infected with fungus and is not a good thing for the cows to eat…at least not in isolation. It can make tips of tails fall off and cows can lose their hooves. Bad mojo. As part of a balanced breakfast though, it’s OK. We try to keep a good mix of clovers and warm season plants growing to dilute the worst of it. There is some thinking that cattle genetics play a part in fescue tolerance. Dunno.
But in the winter things really heat up. Fescue comes into its own. The last thing the cows would eat during the summer becomes the last thing available to eat in the winter but the first thing they graze out. And the protein goes up as the temperature goes down, though, obviously, the feed quality deteriorates over time. The cows are currently grazing orchard grass and the remaining alfalfa in the alfalfa field. We are strip grazing our way across 17 acres we started grazing in October. At that time the alfalfa was still fresh and proved to be difficult for me to manage so we took a few weeks off and grazed…you guessed it…fescue while we waited for a hard freeze to take the edge off of the alfalfa. Now we are trying to wrap up the alfalfa grazing by the end of the month…hopefully before it gets smashed to the ground by a heavy, wet snow. The orchardgrass isn’t faring poorly but it just doesn’t seem to stand up to the cold the way fescue does. (BTW, the fescue the cattle grazed in October has recovered sufficiently for another grazing. I may have gained a week or two of pasture.)
When the alfalfa field ends the fun begins. You already know the players involved, let’s take a look at the game board. Starting things off this year is the hill just east of the yellow house. This hill has been resting since summer and is ready to play. Well, maybe I let it sit a little too long.
Let’s look at it a little more closely. The green is good. The cows will eat all of the green and because fescue is waxy, it will stay green for most of the winter. A fair portion of the brown will be eaten too. In fact, if I would supplement their diet with protein (and I may) they will eat the majority of the brown too. Otherwise it will be shoved into the dirt in mass. How much mass? Here’s a bundled up, heavily layered, rubber booted Julie to show you.
Not our best fescue but not bad either. We have to get from here (at the edge of the alfalfa field where the cows are)…
all the way over to here (the clover field we grazed until October). We will do this by grazing from south to north in narrow strips from west to east. Hopefully we’ll have two months worth of grazing here supplemented by a bit of hay cut from the clover field I am standing in.
I want to pause briefly to talk about the clover field. This time last year it was corn stubble being grazed by my cousin’s cattle. I use “cousin” somewhat loosely on the blog. My cousin lives around the corner. I have other first cousins all over the place. Can’t swing a dead cat… This guy is mom’s cousin’s son. Or something. Nice guy. Anyway…clover field. Dad worked it lightly in the spring. Really, he just dragged a disc across it to knock down the high points and make a shallow seed bed. Then, with 15 mph winds blowing, he used the antique seed spreader to broadcast a mix of 60% legumes on the field. Turned out great. We got one cutting of hay from it (pretty good stuff considering how wet the season was) and grazed it once. After the grazing it looked a little like this:
Today it looks a little like this:
Good soil coverage. Good contact between litter and soil. Some amount of recovery. Some amount of residual feed.
If I get in a bind I could graze these 9 acres again but I would have to move the cattle quickly. It’s just nice to have insurance. Lots of rabbit trails in this post. Why stop now? You wouldn’t believe the deer in this field. Geez. They bent posts and knocked down fence every morning.
The hill to the east…um…this is getting confusing. See Julie standing in the shattercane several pictures up? (Look, I know I shouldn’t have shattercane, OK?) OK. She is south of me (Chris Jordan, photographer, farmer, gentleman, scholar). The cows are further to the south in the alfalfa field. On the left side of that picture, up on the flat, the cows grazed in the spring then dad and I cut some of the best hay we put up last year. Just wonderful stuff. It was hard to get there as the hills are steep and the valleys are deep but we cut the flat top. Oldest boy and I had to cut and drag brush ahead of dad when he was mowing. Not only was the hay wonderful stuff, I came back with I don’t know how many loads of manure and lime and covered the field. It recovered nicely and is now free of brush…like the thorny sapling pictured further up. You can see a line on the field where the mower ran. I think this is a practice we will continue. By taking a single cutting of hay and applying amendments from each field every few years I can mix up the level of disturbance in my fields…also it gives me a chance to manage things even more closely while also supplying me with the feed we need. Looks good on paper anyway.
OK. So. Now. How long can I keep talking about fescue and running rabbit trails in a blog post? Do you really want to know? It’s not just fescue out there. There are perennial warm season grasses growing out there too. Unless I am mistaken, that’s big bluestem growing in the center. I didn’t plant it. It just showed up here and there in this field. The cattle were probably never in this field when the bluestem was growing. How many years has it been since these grasses were allowed to grow?
We covered about 15 acres in pictures today. Some of our fescue looks a little raunchy so I’m worried I’ll have to feed more hay than we expected. There are places where the chickens manured that the fescue looks better. In coming years I need to leverage my chickens more completely but it’s hard to get them to some of the remote hills. Building a pond out there will really help with field access. (Someday…) It is encouraging to see the increasing diversity of plant material. Last spring this field was defined by bare places between plants. Almost no clover anywhere. No residue on the soil. No manure to be found. Just short grass and bare soil as it looked last April.
But that recovered to a thick carpet of fescue. Almost nothing but fescue. Yuk.
Then we went away for the summer and fall. Now I am relying on my savings. Will I be totally hayless? Nope. But the urine and manure will be delivered all over the farm without mechanical intervention. The cows will be harvesting the majority of their calories without mechanical intervention. They will have fresh greens to eat all through the year and the soil will remain covered. If things work out, I should have greater diversity, increased fertility and increased drought resistance in the upcoming growing season. And fat cows.
It looks good on paper anyway. We’ll talk again in April.
I had a hard time naming this post. Here were some candidates:
Fescue to the Rescue
Fescue on the Menue
Fescu on the Menu
Those are weak titles but the best Julie and I could come up with. Dive straight into the comments if you have a better idea. I think the “Strolling…” series should make a comeback in 2015.