The always-wonderful Matron of Husbandry has a lovely post about pasture diversity and grass-feeding that did better (and purtier – she always has lots of great pix) something I’ve been meaning to do – ie, explore what you learn from grass farming that no one else teaches. For all the books I’ve read about grazing, I don’t learn nearly as much by simply watching my animals and my pastures. I suspect this is true for everyone.
I think the single best thing I have learned from rotational grazing is I didn’t know what I thought I knew about grass and cows. Namely what I think looks good is not what they think tastes good. And the only way to learn that is to confine them to a small paddock instead of the entire pasture and see what they won’t touch. It’s a classic thought and I have voiced it to myself too under my breath when a cow is eating through the fence to get at what is on the other side. “That dumb cow, can’t she see she has perfectly good grass right there inside the fence!” Taste and vision are two very important senses, but it doesn’t matter how good the presentation is with a dish, if it tastes bad, you don’t care how good it looks. Right? Now with the grass all being fresh and rested when the cows get back to it, I no longer see anyone trying to reach through the fence. It’s all good, or at least improving.
My northeastern pastures produce bouquets not all that different from the one that the Matron is holding up in one of her photos. Watching animals grow fat on lush, well managed pasture is fundamentally satisfying. Watching overgrown pastures come back is pleasurable as well. We’re still working on renovating some of the pastures (we haven’t had enough livestock to keep them down and improve their fertility as much as I’d like – we actually need more animals) but they are improving rapidly.
At this season, every creature raised on the farm gets at least half their diet from pastures. Many of them get all or virtually all of it. That would be 26 goats, 2 bull calves, 8 mature rabbits and assorted young ‘uns, 16 ducks. 50 laying hens. A rotating number of of meat birds. 20 turkeys. 40,000 bees. While I grow a large garden, sell native plants and herbs and garden plants as well, the vast majority of our farm income derives from grass and forbs – the various plants that mix into a diverse pasture. In the past our property has also supported sheep and guard donkey – they aren’t here this year (our shared sheep arrangement seems to be winding up), but I’m hoping to add sheep and geese into the mix in the next year or two, not just because I get a kick out of looking like a Fisher-Price farm set ;-), but mostly because I can make the best possible use of my pastures by moving multiple species across them and producing multiple things.
Unlike the Matron, I’m not sure seeding doesn’t work – I’ve had moderate luck seeding some new forbs into my pasture during frost heave out here, and I think generally it is worth it. One of the things I’m working towards in the longer term is not just healthier and more diverse pastures, better soil, more carbon sequestration, healthier and animals and more habitat for wildlife (although all those things would be enough) but also adding new flavors to milk – goats that have grazed on particularly herbs do make particularly delicious cheeses, and so I have been gently adding plants I want to see in my pastures, with some degree of luck. That said, however, I see no need to replace what grows there well with things that I would have to work harder upon. Moreover, as soils improve and pastures are well renovated, some of those plants begin to appear on their own. Perhaps not very surprisingly, I do things but nature does them first and better.
Going out into a meadow to watch animals graze and bees pollinate, to watch grass grow and identify wild plants may not seem like work, but it is on a farm – the most pleasurable and also necessary kind of work – a conjunction which doesn’t always come together, but should be luxuriated in when it does.