Definitely Not Just Grass

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.



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Just yesterday, at farmers' market, I discovered a local farm with community sharing, a mix of grass and varied grazing for cows, pigs, sheep and goats. They are counting on the localvore movement, and thus far seem to be doing everything right. I think I might have to point them to your blog next time I see them.

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. .

But, just think of the time you waste, when you could take fifteen soil samples from strategic places in your pasture, mix them together in a bucket, and send some of the mix to the Co-op elevator. Then ask the "soil consultant" to read the latest Monsanto chart about what herbicides to spray on this year, and how many thousands of pounds of what fertilizer mix to produce "x" tons of resulting weed-free pasture or hay. It worked several years, now, for my neighbor. Well, except for the bare spots where the desired bermuda grass won't grow, and the patches that only come up weeds, and the ongoing battles with thistles and nightshade and horse nettle. And then there is the mare's tails every other year. I do notice that his sons rotate the cows after the pasture gets nibbled down to less than 1/2 inch tall, to be left on the next pasture until whenever. I swear one son (over 40) claimed there was too much pasture to "waste" feeding hay, this spring, with grass about 1 1/2 inch high -- and the cows still eating the hay pretty regularly.

If Oklahoma State University, or the Farmers Co-op, didn't publish it, it isn't true for my neighbor. I am not sure what his sons (just returning to raising cows) use for 'truth'. It is sad to watch, sometimes.

Sharon - I loved that post, too! It's interesting that my pastures look so much like hers even though she is pasturing cattle and I am pasturing goats and ponies. I also overseed - every year in fact. I have noticed a very large difference over the course of four years, but then again, I was starting with severely damaged and depleted pasture.

"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. "

And there I am, right now. A serious thing for anyone "getting into" any animal husbandry; boy is there a lot of detail; and boy, is a lot of it ever hard to dig out. Just count on it.

Case in point; I'm trying very hard to develop a group of hens who are fully competent to sit on eggs, successfully hatch them, and raise the brood. You'd be astonished at how little info there is, how few chickens are actually capable of the full cycle, and how little guidance is around.

My current question; how long after a hen turns broody can you swap eggs on her? I haven't found any answers even close so far. I've got a hen that I just didn't realize was serious about it until she'd been setting for a full week. The eggs she's on are a mixed and questionable batch; I really want to swap a new set of known genetics under her. But. the new batch will take longer to hatch than she's expecting... etc, etc.

Boy, I wish I had a Grandma here. The fact is, though, that all "new farmers" will have to do it without Grandmas or Grandpas; and it's way harder that way.

Greenpa, I would love to hear your experiences with broody (or not) hens. I have had hens start to brood a clutch but then after 5 days or so they are on another box. I would also like to learn about which breeds still have that instinct to brood successfully.

Greenpa, I've swapped eggs on a broody hen when she's been sitting for more than a week. My girls don't usually get a chance to sit properly until I have eggs ready for them, as I take the eggs away so they just sit around acting stroppy until I move them to a separate enclosure. Otherwise all the other hens will just keep shoving more eggs in the nest box :)
All this talk of pastures takes me back to when I was working in an agricultural research lab. There is a huge amount of research done in New Zealand into pasture as so much of our economy depends on it. Lots of interesting things you can do regarding sowing a good mix of species for specific purposes such as surviving a drought.

By sealander (not verified) on 03 Jul 2011 #permalink

Greenpa and other folks: I've got some Dorkings and Partridge Chanteclers, and they're *very* determined when they go broody! I'm seriously beginning to develop as a "satellite breeding facility" for a flock of locally adapted, dual-purpose (and reaching show quality, though I'm not so interested in that) Ameraucanas--and they certainly haven't lost the knack, either.

My limited experience is that when one of my hens goes broody, it takes a looooooong time and a lot of effort to convince her to go back to laying and give up. One Chantecler spent over a month determined to hatch a pile of hay!

By Sparrowhawk (not verified) on 05 Jul 2011 #permalink

We're planning to develop into small-scale animal husbandry (goats, geese, ducks) in the next few years, and we're on an old, neglected horse farm. The pastures are really quite grassy--and because they've been so neglected (not even a horse on them in nearly a decade), the plant variety is pretty small. Can anyone point me to a source that suggests how to go about reviving pasture? I've never heard the term "forb" before, but it's clearly what we're lacking!

By Sparrowhawk (not verified) on 05 Jul 2011 #permalink

You know Sharon, you hit the nail on the head on one aspect out there that's been keeping me searching for info. How, when, why to rotate crops and livestock on a small farm. I cannot find any good references on what should follow what and why (so I can forecast other changes). Should sheep follow goats? Or clover then bees? When you introduce many diverse aspects of different plants and animals, the potential number of successions and/or rotations becomes almost infinite, and some base level, introductory guidance on it would be a very welcome bit of info. I'm just breaking ground, albeit slowly, on about 30 acres I want to turn into a mostly self sufficient very mixed farm, specializing in nothing. No monocrops, no single herd, flock or gaggle, and trying to plan for the eventual menagerie is daunting and has slowed my progress due to lack of knowledge. If you know of any resource for guidance, I'd be very appreciative. If there's nothing out there, maybe it'll be the catalyst for your next book!!