Field Experiment

Once upon a time, when I was about 16, I walked beside a wagon South of the white barn picking up straw bales for my cousin. Then I went into the barn to stack them. Then I thought I was going to die from allergies. I think some of those bales are still in the SW corner of the barn. This very field, 25 years ago:

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Our barn from the south.

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More recently that field has been planted to corn, sudangrass and, lastly alfalfa. A more distant cousin planted the alfalfa a year or so before we bought the farm.

I didn’t particularly want alfalfa but there it was. I find it is hard to dry for hay and tricky to graze. We ran chicken tractors over other fields but the field South of the barn remained untouched…other than being mowed for hay 5 years straight.


One day, a few years ago, it rained 6 inches while the chicken tractors were full in the very spot pictured above. The rain and chicken manure and pressure from chicken feet killed the alfalfa under the chicken tractors.

Then, last summer, the rain didn’t stop. Rain fell all spring. It rained an inch every day in June…or nearly so. It kept raining in July. Then it resumed again in August. We got a cutting or two of pretty bad hay and maybe one small cutting of fairly decent hay but the rain drowned the alfalfa on the flat land. It also drowned the clovers. I guess I thought I had mismanaged something in the wet that the clover all died but Steve had the same problem on his farm. The neighbor’s alfalfa field to the SE was planted the same day mine was and his alfalfa all died too.

Now, instead of an alfalfa field, I had a field of cheat and wild oats.

You know what cows don’t want to eat? Cheat and wild oats. They walk on it. They look at it. But they don’t eat it. This should be the best field on the farm. But it is not. It is cheat and wild oats. But for year after year, crop after crop, cutting after cutting, 4 cuttings of hay per year, we have taken from these fields. We have super-oxygenated the soil with tillage. We have burned through the soil bank account and have made no deposits.

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Moving the herd. #farmphotography #farmchores

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I baled a bunch of the cheap grasses up last summer for spare bedding in the barn. Seeds and all. We could not buy straw because the summer was so wet. Then I let it grow back to full maturity and grazed it through January, offering the cattle additional hay on pasture to encourage them to tromp that carbon down.

That brings us to April of 2016.

Let’s put together what we think we have observed about these fields.

  1. Rainwater does not soak in. It either sits on the surface or runs off. The whole field was a wet mess last year. This seems to indicate that soil organic matter is low and there is a hardpan not far down.
  2. Overall fertility is low, based on the absence of plant diversity. There aren’t even broad leaf weeds in the field. Just cheat and oats, clovers on the edges near the limestone roads. Clover at the edges where there is lime. Hmmmm.

So I guess I should check soil pH and soil organic matter. Let’s just assume the worst.

So now what?

If I can be disciplined enough to leave it alone and not mow it we will see what happens. I have a similar field to the East and a slightly better field to the West. Our pastures seem to follow a certain progression. There are a couple of years of heavy thistle infestation followed by a couple of years of heavy giant ragweed. Then the grass strengthens and white clover covers the compacted areas and dung beetles show up out of nowhere. That’s where most of our pastures stand today. We still have patches of thistle here and there but most of the thistle has been crowded out by grass and the cows eat the ragweed where it grows.

I’ll just follow the pattern. There is no real shade out there so the cows stay away for the summer. Maybe I could graze the field at night, taking them back to the barn and offer hay during the day. Maybe. Otherwise we will graze fall, winter and spring.

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The white barn.

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We will continue to frost seed red clover. We will spread manure and lime everywhere. The only difference is this: I am not going to mow this field. 3 acres of ground going fallow for the summer. Probably next summer too. At some point I should treat this like a real experiment. I should measure pH and soil organic matter and compare the before and after. I should measure the brix of the forages in each field. And that would satisfy the part of me that has a degree in biology. But mostly I want to grow lots of grass then invite the cows to press it into the soil. Rinse and repeat.

And since I tend to believe that grass is better off with cattle than without it, and since I tend to believe that tall grass is healthier than mowed grass, and since I tend to believe more wildlife can hide in tall grass than in short grass…well, I feel somewhat OK about leaving 3 acres grazed but un-mowed and messy for a couple of years…just to see what happens. The grass will grow, the cows will tromp and manure. Earthworms will incorporate new materials. Chickens will eat earthworms. Mice will make colonies, coyotes will dig them up. The hair I don’t lose will turn gray. Should be good times.

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