December 3, 2018

Developing a Pasture Management Plan

This is the last part of my blog series on sustainable pastures. 

Pasture improvement was one of our 2018 homestead goals because good forage is one of the most important elements in my goats' diet. Good forage consists of grasses, legumes, and forbs or edible weeds. Forbs are herbs or other broadleaf flowering plants that add variety and nutrition to the livestock diet, as well as plant diversity to the pasture. True weeds are what I call anything that the goats won't eat! Here are some examples of true weeds I have problems with.

I don't know what this is but the goats don't eat it and it shades out the good stuff.

Grasses and clovers are shaded out beneath weeds like these and struggle to grow. Because the goats don't eat them, they tend to dominate.

Another serious problem is ground ivy.

Ground ivy is a real problem in one of the girls' areas.

The goats don't eat it either. It spreads vigorously and chokes out everything we want to grow. We have one paddock that we now estimate to be about 70 to 75% ground ivy. That same pasture once grew clover and orchard grass!

Another discouraging weed is horse nettle.

Horse nettle flowers

Horse nettle berries.

It's a nightshade, so it's toxic, and it has nasty little thorns that can pierce even garden gloves. The tips of the thorns break off in your skin and fester. It always leaves some root in the ground when pulled, so it's impossible to eliminate.

Weed problems like these point to several causes. One is mineral deficiencies or imbalances in the soil, the other is improper management. Grazing animals will eat what they like first to the point of killing it. That leaves the stuff they won't eat to take over.

So what's the answer? According to Joel Salatin in Salad Bar Beef the first step toward weed control is to start rotational grazing. By not letting stock eat the good stuff down to oblivion and giving it time to recover, he says the forage in a pasture will not only recover but can be completely changed. Other graziers confirm that, even though it seems incredulous to me.

So we've made a start. To plant, I undersowed the existing forage with as diverse a seed mix as I can, both perennials and annuals: wheat, oats, winter peas, perennial rye, hairy vetch, chicory, radish (both garden and Daikon), oregano, lespedeza, turnip, timothy, orchardgrass, non-endophyte fescue, alfalfa, birdsfoot trefoil, rape, small burnet, sanfoin, kale, buckwheat, phacelia, sudex, and a variety of clovers (red, crimson, sweet, and several kinds of white). Next Dan mowed the standing growth to mulch the seeds. Then, I started stringing electric fence.

So far I have one pasture seeded and subdivided into three paddocks.

The corral gate controls whether they can enter paddock #3,

or have to go down the corridor.


An experimental gate controls whether they can enter paddock #1 or #2.

The wire runs through a makeshift pex pipe arch.
The baby gate directs which side they can enter.

After it runs through the pipe an alligator
clip fastens it to the wire on the other side.

So far the girls have been cooperating. They've all had their noses zapped so there's no trying to break through to somewhere else. Amazingly, no one has tried to break through or jump the baby gate. They love the fresh forage and know that's where I'll lead them, so they follow willingly.


Something I didn't understand at first is mob grazing. Joel talks about it in his book, but I had trouble grasping the concept. Now that we've started this rotation plan, however, I'm seeing the mobbing effect in action. Because the goats are in a relatively small area, they are competing for the best bites and aren't so choosy. Initially, they spread out.

Forage is pretty spotty right not, so it doesn't take them long to eat it down.

But soon there's competition. In trying to eat everything so no other goat can get it they create a "mob."

The result is something like this...



The tops of all plants are eaten and the rest is trampled down. The eating stimulates plant growth and the trampled leaves and manure break down to feed the soil microorganisms. Folks who practice this say the land responds in a positive way and begins to produce more good livestock forage and fewer weeds. The other plus is that this management method sequesters large, measurable amounts of carbon in the soil.

The last step is to rest the paddock until the plants have had a chance to recover and new growth is shooting up. Then the girls can go in again. We started this in autumn, however, which means plant growth is slower. There are a number of days when they have to go down into my "sacrifice" area, i.e. the woods. But it's acorn season now, so they don't mind.

Browsing in the woods.

I plan to do a similar setup for the bucks.

If you've hung in there with me to the end of this post, then it's probably because you are interested in sustainable pasture too. Here are links to my other blog posts in this series.


Michelle said...

I am fascinated and love learning about this even if I can't even contemplate such a thing here (my husband would scoff, to put it mildly).

Leigh said...

Michelle, scoffing is the typical reaction. It doesn't make "sense" because it isn't what we're accustomed to. It isn't the way we're taught and so we aren't used to doing it that way. I didn't believe it either (actually the jury's still out but too many others have had success so I trust my sources!) Pasture rotation first made sense to me as a parasite management tool. We have a terrible time with barberpole worm here. I lost a nice buck several years ago because I didn't realize the parasites had become resistant to my wormer. Then I found books and videos by folks like Joel Salatin, Allan Savory, Greg Judy, Gabe Brown, and Ray Archuletta. Soil science is a fascinating topic anyway, but they absolutely changed how I few view my place in and responsibility to Creation. Anyway, I'm glad I can share my experiments and am happy for people like yourself who find it interesting. Thanks for that!

Cockeyed Homestead said...

Having followed you along on this journey, in large areas like you are doing this makes sense and cents.

Leigh said...

Jo, I agree. If I'm going to be a good steward of my financial resources, then I need to manage my natural resources in the most sustainable way possible!

Ed said...

Definitely interested. I hope you post some pictures in the future showing how your pastures are doing.

The Wykeham Observer said...

Your ground ivy looks a lot like what we call creeping charlie, such a pest. This fall in the bare spots where I dug out a lot of creeping charlie, I planted red clover in hopes it will take hold first. We'll see. Phil

Leigh said...

Ed I will. It makes a great record of success and problems. Hopefully, this method will resolve some of those problems!

Phil, yes, ground ivy is the same thing. There are several names for it, so I suppose we all know it by what it's called locally. I hope your red clover does indeed take over instead of the creeping charlie! One year we scraped off an entire half acre of it, but it still came back. :(

Sam I Am...... said...

I love learning anything about 'farming' or self-sufficiency...I keep the dream alive that maybe I will still get an acreage again but if not I can 'hang' with people that do!

Mark Shaw said...

We have so much to learn, those horse nettle berries look very much like tomato’s

wyomingheart said...

Fascinating! Once again, Leigh, your knowledge and willingness to share is truly noble! I retired from a career of growing turf for sports fields. When we retired, we decided to get out of Florida and bought a little farm in ridge country. While we do not tend to animals, I am very keen to grow vegetation, and that clay soil at the farm is completely different from the sandy soil of Florida. Last summer we spent most of our time on the farm house, as there were many things let go with a property sitting idle for 4 years. My intention for this summer is to celebrate the rich soil of the ridge and find things to grow with hopefully some profit in the future. Your enriching the soil is right up my ally, and I think we are close to the same growing zone as you. So, I hope to make some immediate amends to the fields when we get out to them this spring. Thanks again for sharing your knowledge and what you have been successful with.

Leigh said...

Sam, it's a hard dream to let go of! :)

Mark, they are cousins to tomatoes! Smaller and all seeds, no flesh. And fortunately, tomatoes don't have thorns!

Wyomingheart, thank you! The video I absolutely recommend in one by Gabe Brown. You can see it on YouTube here. Or any of his presentations, really. His entire concept of regenerative agriculture was a huge eyeopener for us and the foundation of everything we are trying to do now.

Amanda said...

About pasture rotation. Take a look at nature. All those great herds, whether it's the American bison or the wildebeest and zebras in Africa, migrate. The animals leaving an area gives the plants time to grow back up before the animals come back and graze it again. It also gives time for their droppings to get into the soil and fertilize it, and the seeds that were in the droppings to sprout. All of this helps push things in favor of the desirable food plants. When you take your animals out of a pasture and give it time to recover, you're mimicking this natural process.

Leigh said...

Amanda, that's exactly right. The natural patterns are absolutely our best models.