August 12, 2014

Pasture Woes

Trying to learn something through trial and error is a tough way to go, you know it? Especially if it's something that can only be observed seasonally, like pasture. When we first bought the place it was very overgrown and we knew we'd have to work on establishing pasture/forage areas. Then I learned we'd have to maintain them as well; forage areas deteriorate over the years and must be tended to if they are to continue in their intended purpose.

There is a principle in permaculture called succession. Basically this means that no ecosystem stays the same, it continually changes over time. There are theories about this, and arguments over theories, none of which I subscribe to because none of them fits what I observe on our own homestead. No matter. Simply knowing that things change on their own means I'm not necessarily doing anything wrong. That's a relief. It also defines my place in the scheme of things; my job is to work with the principles of nature to maintain an ecological balance on our homestead. Easier said than done!

The biggest challenge to doing this is that it is impossible to simply read a how-to book, follow the steps, and get the same results as the author. There are just too many variables: soil type and content, local climate, and weather, for example. Add to that personal goals, the type and number of animals one wishes to keep and what they prefer to eat, the type of plants one wishes to grow, plus local availability of these things, and each homesteader is basically starting from scratch no matter how successful others have been. It's tough.

Pasture and forage have been at the top of our list of important things to do; almost all our critters depend on it: goats, chickens, pigs. My goal is to have year-round forage; our climate is mild enough that we should be able to do that.

We knew our soil was poor so after reading Hands-On Agronomy, we set about to have our soil tested one forage area at a time, remineralize it, and then plant a mix of grasses, legumes, herbs, and vegetables. The following posts chronicle that:

The first year we had beautiful pasture:
but then the challenges began. I had done my homework regarding warm and cool weather grasses and legumes,
and planted accordingly. Last winter, however, was exceptionally cold and everything went dormant, including the cool weather forage. We bought and fed a lot of hay. About the only thing that seemed to survive and grow the following spring was the clover and chicory. Early this spring I spot seeded with a pasture mix. Then we faced two months of high temperatures and no rain. Only the ground ivy didn't mind and took the opportunity to take over.

Even if the weather cooperates, another challenge is that even perennial forage plants don't last more than several years. Of course, other things begin to grow from seeds dropped by birds or blown in on the wind, plus tree seeds dropped at pasture perimeters. But standard pasture forage seems to simply poop out after several years, whether it's perennial plants or reseeding from annual grasses. Eventually it simply isn't there anymore. Weather has it's effect as does what the animals choose to eat. 

Having to buy pasture seed every couple of years doesn't fit in with our sustainability goals, not to mention that my local choices are limited. In spring, Tractor Supply begins to stock pasture seed mixes but upon examining the labels, I discovered that recommended planting time was autumn. Plus not everything in the mix is recommended for our area. I eventually found a warm season deer forage mix and used that. Also I have since learned that one of our local feed stores stocks pasture/forage seed in season and will sell by the pound. That means I won't have to mail order it. 

Even though purchasing seed is not my preferred option, I'm willing to do it for our critters' sake. I have a stewardship responsibility toward them. I haven't yet found a lot of information on sustainable pasture, however, so I've been doing some experimenting. 

The gist of this experiment is to spread the goat barn litter over pasture areas. I usually compost this and seed inevitably ends up in it, as evidenced by where I spread my compost in the garden. Why not spread it out on the pasture itself? I chose a pasture being rested from the goats and did just that. And it worked. Next time we'll use a better quality hay, which I think will improve results. Eventually, I hope we can do with with only our own hay, and simply return our own seed, manure, and straw waste to our soil. That's the goal.

Rainfall at the end of July was a welcome relief, but our pasture areas haven't recovered as I hoped. Nothing grew during the dry spell and what was there got eaten down. I'm tempted to think that all of this makes my pastures a fail, but then I remind myself that the soil is certainly better than it was several years ago. The investment of the minerals is a long term one. Currently I've been thinning our goat numbers, with a view to learning how many our land can support. That varies depending on the season and the weather! Soon I'll be looking at planting for winter pasture again. Perhaps I need to look at what tolerates dry versus wet conditions and plant both! It's all a learning process. 


Michelle said...

Your comments make me wonder about some areas I've lived where the ecosystems DID seem to stay the same – the buffalo grass prairie in the Panhandle of Texas, and the Konza tall-grass prairie of SE Kansas. Some of the latter had never seen a plow, and was very stable pastureland. Typically it was burned in the spring.

Anonymous said...

I have zero experience with this but saw a clip a while back from Geoff Lawton. You do have to subscribe to his free mailing list to see it BUT he doesn't bomb your mail box too often. He posts short films (usually around 15 minutes) as advertising for his online Permaculture Design Certificate but there is a HEAP of info in those clips and it's the one on Cell Grazing that I thought of reading your post. Here's the link. :)

Harry Flashman said...

When we had horses up here they lived in our meadow, but there was never any way we could have fed them just on the grass year round. We had to buy feed and hay to keep them healthy. Fortunately hay is grown in the county but the feed was expensive.

Leigh said...

Michelle, interesting comment. I wonder if those grasses make nutritious grazing! Interesting about the burning too. I've wondered if that could help us with our pasture as well.

Rabidlittlehippy, thanks for the link! I'm familiar with Geoff Lawton and have seen a couple of videos by him. Never thought to sign up but I just did. The best way to learn is by the experience of others and I have to say that Australians are in the forefront.

Harry, you're describing something that's been a question in our minds since we bought the place. How many animals can our land support? It's a slow process to figure out sometimes because it's the health of the animals that is the determining factor. And it's tough when feeds are expensive.

tpals said...

It all sounds so simple in theory, then pesky reality hits and it gets complicated fast.

Farmer Barb said...

I have been experimenting with a total grazing system. I have NOT tested the soil, mostly because there is very little to test. The grasses that grow are ragweed, fescue in the spring, crabgrass, plantain and dandelions. Palatability varies. A visiting child said, "Why don't they eat the LONG grass?" One answer: It doesn't taste good. I have all manner of weed and grass. The lawn-chair-in-the-pasture experiment shows me that each animal will eat a little of a thing and then move on to the next thing. My sward is one of its own choosing. This is also telling me that I am tapped out at six browser/grazers without additional feedstuffs. 2 acres and six little critters. Maybe with more sunshine and better rain, I could have more, but I doubt it. Nomadic herding was the only way to raise a whole flock of animals . After they ate down one area, you moved on to more tasty grazing. The notion of land ownership hampers that lifestyle.

Anna said...

I've only been reading your blog for a few months and didn't delve back to follow all of your links, but you don't mention anywhere about rotation. In my experience, leaving animals in the same paddock for more than a week will eventually lead to very poor forage (or bare ground) no matter what you plant. So, assuming you aren't already doing that, rotation is something to look into. Also, stockpiled winter grazing goes hand in hand with that notion --- with cows, it's very possible to let the plants grow up tall in the fall in certain paddocks for winter grazing. Hope that helps point you in some handy directions for research!

Theresa said...

I too went right to the native grasses of the plains
in those few untouched areas. Of course, the animals rotated, not the pastures, most wild grazers wander from place to place, when endless space was available. I'm no help of course, I keep my guys in a dry lot, feed hay and let the goats browse where they will. This dry year competition is stiff with the deer, who are on the front line for lack of nutritious browse.

Leigh said...

Tpals, so true! So true!

Barb, very well put. And I must give your approach a 5-star rating. Observation is so key to assessment, planning, and implementation. I think pasture rotation is the modern equivalent to nomadic herding, but it takes having enough land to keep some areas off limits to animals. There certainly are no easy answers to our modern ways of doing things.

Anna, you're right, I don't mention pasture rotation in this particular post. I agree it's key, and it is something we practice (the best that we can with what we have fenced so far). You'll see it mentioned more in my master plan and fencing posts.

Theresa, competition with wildlife is another good point. As both you and Barb mention, the more natural way of doing things is almost impossible with modern land holding practices! Still, there has to be a balance and that's one of my most important goals.

Michelle said...

Leigh, those native prairie grasses are VERY nutritious. It always amazed me how the cattle and horses thrived on the naturally short, curly buffalo grass. The Konza prairie is grazed by fat, happy cattle, but of course at an appropriate number per acre.

Leigh said...

Michelle, the key would seem to be finding native grasses for one's particular area. I'm guessing those don't grow in my part of the country because I've never heard of them (which may or not make it true because my state has long since sold out to industrialized ag). I know one thing that seems to grow well in the wild is Johnson grass. The goats love it but I read it's invasive, so hesitate. Still, with goats, invasive is not an issue for things they love.

Renee Nefe said...

this year our compost pile has a pumpkin and some chives growing in it. I do know how the chives got there, but no idea on the pumpkin as I don't remember tossing any on it. ???
I don't think that you'll ever stop learning new tricks or plans for making it work.

Nina said...

I don't see sustainability as negating the options to add items to bump up quality of soil, crops etc. I've been reading bits and pieces about early farmers and homesteaders who did have to sometimes purchase seed and other things to better their land. It happens sometimes because of all sorts of situations which aren't always controllable, like weather. In the end, if I can build up my soil, so that it's producing better and healthier foods, then purchasing additions once in a while fits my program. I don't see it necessary any different from buying an apple tree for future harvests. I can use my compost but when I need more than I can produce, I have to go to other options because sometimes going without is worse than those options.

Matt said...

Leigh, I agree with you. Observation seems to be the key to making it work. As I learn more from your blog and others, I am realizing that I'll face a few challenges along these lines as well. Books and blogs only help so much. The rest comes from the doing.

Unknown said...

Hi Leigh, thanks for this post, we are going through a similar process, trying to find out which species should grow in our area and which DO grow and how to buy enough seed. The conventional methods assume that you will re-sow your monoculture pasture and use chemical fertiliser and herbicide to keep it perfect, so its difficult to get good advice without your own trial and error. We have been told there's no way to get rid of certain less-desirable grasses in our paddocks without spraying them, but I have personally seen the better grasses take over as the fertility improves, so then you start to wonder if anyone knows what they are talking about! It sounds like you're on the right track though (wish I knew someone like you in our area who had already done the work!). I am hoping that using mob-stocking will help to control saplings, which are a problem for us and current require annual slashing of paddocks (quite an effort on 250 acres). Cheers, Liz

Quinn said...

Succession is not a tidy process by human terms, that's for sure. I think you folks are doing great stuff, and I follow your progress with interest. I also envy you the year-round forage-growing climate!
Do you follow Throwback at Trapper Creek? If not, you might want to check it out...she's been doing things a while and has a pretty darn good system worked out:

Velva said...

One of the things that I have learned with gardening is making peace with Mother Nature that the best laid plans can go west in a blink of an eye. All we can do is try, try and try again.

Looks like your land is taking you on an amazing journey and it will all be good.

Take care. I enjoying reading your posts.


Laura said...

The "conventional wisdom" is that 1 cow/calf pair, 1 horse or 5 sheep can graze 1 acre year round. I'm not sure if there is a metric for goats, since they really aren't grazers unless they're forced to be, but I would think they'd be similar to sheep.

Finding the species that will tolerate your climate, soil conditions, etc. is difficult in these changine climatic times. Also, there is the time that you leave your animals on any one spot of land. Joel Salatin advocates a higher stocking rate that's rotated every 2-3 days, but he has many, many acres to move them around. Even with smaller acreages, dividing your pastures into smaller sections (even in half) will help reduce the damage that the animals do. With sheep, you never want to let the grass get shorter than 3" - beyond that, it won't grow back well, and they won't eat it.

Chris said...

You're fortunate with goats, they can eat a lot of other things, not just pasture. And yet they also need some pasture, so its worth persevering with.

One of the biggest challenges as property owners, or just simple gardeners, is going to be climate weirding. That's when it becomes so unpredictable and swinging from one extreme to another, that planning in the traditional sense becomes an exercise in futility.

I would recommend planning for an automated system as a compliment to the pasture, for those times climate weirding throws out your best laid plans. I've had to resort to container planting and manually bringing water and nutrients to the plants, because our climate is just too extreme for land planting.

The more I attempt to garden on the land, the more I realise those back up systems are really the only way to garden in the interim. Its going to take a while for our land to improve, but intense plantings on a smaller scale have immediate results.

Instead of growing hay in a pasture, you can grow wheat grass in a shade house, stacked on shelves. It gets direct sown into nursery trays, watered with nutrient, lives in a controlled environment, etc. You take a tray of wheat grass out to the chicken coop per day.

We're trialing something similar with recycled polystyrene broccoli boxes, and silverbeet for the chickens. That way they'll always get their greens. I can make a tea by soaking their manure in a bucket and watering the silverbeet with it.

There's nothing like a hay shortage to remind livestock owners, how important their own automated food growing system is. It doesn't have to cost a fortune to set up either. Look for things to recycle to make a shade house with.

But I do think you're onto the right thing by spreading the goat manure back onto the pasture. A thick mulch filled with nutrient, helps the next seasons pasture to grow.

Leigh said...

Renee, those compost piles can really do some surprising things some times! And I hope we never stop learning new ideas and techniques. That's part of what makes it interesting. Too bad it's so slow and seasonal to figure out what's working and what isn't. ;)

Nina, good point. One of the things that first amazed us about permaculture is how folks would come in and totally rework and rearrange the land. What I'm hoping to get away from is having to buy all new pasture / hay seed every year. Also trying to figure out how to save an acres's worth of grass seed, LOL

Matt, I think observation is key. But I do love reading others' experiences; I learn a lot. In the end, though, it's all trial and error.

Liz, I always get such good input from you. The proper information is key but hard to come-by for goals like ours, I agree. The comments on native grasses, for example. Awhile back I tried to research this for our area but really had a hard time finding information. What choice but to roll up our sleeves and try to figure it out ourselves. Partnering with animals seems to be key, but I'm still struggling over balance. The number fluctuates according to conditions. I have to say 250 acres would be a huge challenge! All we've got for pasture areas at the moment is about 2 - 2.5.

Quinn, a sometimes year-round forage & growing climate. Last winter really knocked a hole in those plans because it was so cold everything went dormant! I learned I have to plan for the extremes.

Yes, I'm familiar with Throwback at Trapper Creek. I haven't read her blog lately (barely have time to return blog comments let alone anyone else). I'll have to take time to go see what she's up to.

Velva, very true. I finally figured out I couldn't get rid of wiregrass so now my best hopes are to stay one step ahead of it! And it is an amazing journey, both the successes and failures. All important lessons.

Laura, I think for goats it's about 4 per acre, but you're right that it isn't a pat formula. It's true that the changes in patterns add to the challenge. Sometime making the adjustment takes time to figure out! My goat situation isn't ideal at the moment, so I'm puzzling over what to do about that.

Chris, very interesting comment. I like that you are proactive in finding solutions to meet your needs. Dan has been talking greenhouse, at least for our food supply, because it seems every season has thrown something out of the ordinary our way. It's such a slow process, however, isn't it, because it's experimentation over the years.

Doug Pitcher said...

I'm constantly surprised about how much pasture animals really take. I used to think I could pasture our cow on one acre and that's all she'd need until snow flies. Maybe our cow is really a pig but she can eat up an acre of land in about 2 to 3 weeks and this time of year the pasture doesn't have time to grow back in any significant manner. We've read where you can spray diluted milk over land to enrich the soil. We have our chickens pastured with the cows to break up cow pies etc.

Irrigating is helpful for plant growth but we tend to keep our animals in one place for only a couple of days then move the animals to a different location so they don't eat EVERYTHING down to stub. The land recovers better and we can move them back onto the piece quicker. The second time around pasturing we can only leave them for a day or so and then move them again.

I don't like the seeding idea unless your trying to grow that type of crop. I like my grass to grow and whatever comes out of it I figure is best suited for the land. We have lots of so called weeds but the animals are mostly smart enough to only eat what they like\need.

Su Ba said...

I haven't managed to master managing my pastures either. During the last drought year, I managed to overgraze them. It's been two years and they still haven't recovered as well as I hoped because I still have to use them rather than giving them complete rest. Presently I have three large pastures to rotate through for one horse and a dozen sheep. I'd like to have my two pigs join the rotation schedule. Not enough good grass for during drought times here. I plan to cross fence the biggest pasture, breaking it into four. I hope that helps give me more time to be able to apply fertilizers without interfering with their grazing. My pastures are surely not the best, still containing far too much trash growth and trees.

One year I tried cutting grass elsewhere and bringing it to my animals. Didn't work out well. It took lots of time and labor trying to bring enough for a horse. If it had been just the sheep it might have worked. I ended up buying bags of hay cubes to get through the drought.

The Stay @ Home-Gardener said...

I would think that the clover is a blessing. Nitrogen fixing etc. What is in the forage mix? Do you grow alfalfa as well?

The Stay @ Home-Gardener said...

Renee, I would say that is a pretty good compost pile. :) Doing all the work for you!

Leigh said...

Doug, good to hear from you! Interesting about the milk. Somewhere I have a pdf file that lists uses of whey, one of which is that they're discovering it helps against certain plant viruses (need to find it considering my green bean post..

Interesting thoughts about seeding or not seeding. I'm guessing you have a lot of natural prairie(?) I would love to plant in all native grasses and let what may. Goats are browsers so that works well for us. It's frustrating that most of what wants to grow now isn't supposed to be eaten by goats: ground ivy, deadly nightshade, poke. Animals definitely change the face of what grows where.

Su Ba, overgrazing is so easy to have happen and with such long term consequences. It's tough when one is still trying to figure out the balance and makes a mistake! For management, drought is so much worse than too much rain. I've noticed that the weather makes a big difference in what does grow. When we had our 2 month dry spell the grasses died back and the clover was too, but the ground ivy took off! The goats won't eat that though. Balance is like an intricate dance with nature, except I'm the one always making the wrong step.

Cloud, yes, the clover is a good one to see in our area. The forage mix contained a lot of clover, also bluegrass, fescue, and and orchard grass, which in our part of the country are all cool weather forage. Supposedly it's too hot to grow alfalfa here, at least no one does it so alfalfa is imported from the north and very expensive. Somewhere on my computer I have an old cooperative extension pamphlet about growing alfalfa. I've tossed out alfalfa seeds randomly, but have never seen it grow.