October 11, 2017

The Challenges of Sustainable Pastures

When I signed up for the slow life I didn't dream that it would be this slow. I can accept that a learning curve requires some experimentation to figure out. But when one is working with annual cycles, such as pasture management, that trial and error can mean it takes years to figure something out!

Luke in the buck pasture in September.

One of our goals is to feed our livestock from our land. That sounds pretty straightforward, doesn't it? But learning to go from modern animal management practices to the simpler agrarian model has been extremely challenging. One of the things I have learned in our attempt is that humans are a whole lot better at complicating things than simplifying them!

Of course, trying to focus on too many goals at once makes a slower go of it. So once the barn is done (our #1 priority), Dan's and I are going to turn our focus on our pasture and forage areas. This post will review our novice attempts to work toward that self-sufficiency goal, including what we've done right, what we've done wrong, and what we need to improve.

Same pasture in May of this year.

One of my "mistakes" (quotes because it wasn't a wrong decision, just a decision that hasn't helped me work toward my long term goals) has been to plant annual pasture forage every fall and spring. I've done this because of local seed availability. My local perennial pasture choices are bermudagrass (wiregrass planted on purpose) and tall fescue (which has recently earned the label of "toxic fescue," because animals do so poorly on it). Rather than buy expensive mail order perennial pasture seed (shipping often doubles the cost), I've worked with more economical locally purchased annual.

Annual pasture and hay mixes (such as deer and turkey forage mixes) are available, economical, grow well and are tasty and nutritious. But since I often can't coordinate the planting and growing of warm and cool mixes, I'm often left with minimal forage in between the seasons, and bare spots where the annuals have died. No good because something always volunteers to grow in the bare spots and it usually isn't what my goats need and will eat. The weather is key too, of course, and our seasons are unpredictable. Our climate is supposedly mild, but it's the extremes we need to plan for. For example, we've had winters that were too cold and snowy for forage to grow. Some summers we get enough rain, but sometimes summer is too hot and dry for anything to grow.

Anna and Cinnamon in the doe pasture in June.

Remineralizing, is something we've done right. Healthy forage needs the right balance of soil minerals to grow. Animals need minerals too, so it's much better in the long run for them to get their minerals from forage. Otherwise I'm constantly have to buy all their minerals. Detailed testing and purchasing organic amendments is expensive, so we've only tested and amended some of our forage areas. But this is an excellent investment in our land and heading us in the right direction.

Planting a variety of grasses, legumes, and forbs has been something else we've done right. Dan has been reading Joel Salatin's Salad Bar Beef and I'm going to say it's a must-read for anyone who wants to pasture animals. Dan also found an video by Gabe Brown on this topic, "Cover Crops for Grazing." Excellent! We're realizing we're on the right track, we just need to plant a greater variety with more perennials.

Doe pasture in August.

Keeping the chickens from gobbling up newly seeded areas has been a huge fail, and it's an expensive way to feed chickens! I clip their wings and we keep them in their yard after seeding areas, but there are always one or two escapees anyway! One chicken can do a lot of damage on a newly seeded quarter acres. The ducks have been bad about his too, and they are harder to contain.

This year's young chickens (and squirrel) on pasture.

Soil building is another badly needed goal. My modified-Fukuoka method of planting has been encouraging, but it's slow going.

Rotating grazing livestock is another must for maintaining healthy forage plus animal parasite control. From my observations I've come to the conclusion that we need more paddocks and we need to rotate more frequently. We're looking into intensive rotational grazing, similar to what Greg Judy describes in this blog post. That would address both rotation plus the soil building goals. Goats are a bit different than cattle though, so we have to keep that in mind as we fine tune any plans.

Because of all this, pasture improvement has been under much discussion and research for awhile now, and we are working on a specific plan, with specific steps to accomplish our goal, including moving some fences and gates (much of our fence is in need of repair anyway). As we get ready to make the shift from barn building to pasture renovation, I'll share specifics with you in a upcoming post or two, along with an updated Master Plan. Stay tuned!

It's true, the grass is always greener on the other side
of the fence (even though it's the exact same thing!)


Chris said...

Can you imagine the knowledge former generations had, to keep their animals healthy without buying inputs in? I've read that weeds in pasture is good for animals, as they contain vitamins and minerals, grasses don't.

I've been focusing on forage/mulch plants, which can also act as windbreaks. Trees which can be turned into a hedge, creating microclimates - as like you, the summers can be hot and dry. We have too much "exposure" on our land. So more trees have to go in. Finding the right ones, is a matter of trail and error. Which means, it often takes years to find the right kind!

Sometimes I lament the time it all takes too. I'm counting at least another 10-15 years good health, to get everything done. After that, we have to let the system take over and take care of us - and the animals. ;)

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

I wish I would have known you when I had my little farm....pasture was something I was a novice about and needed to learn. Very interesting topic.

Leigh said...

Chris, that's it exactly. And I'm experiencing the same thing with my permaculture hedgerows as you are with yours! I figure - at least we're in route. :)

Sam, well, I probably didn't know much more than you at that time. Most of this is what we've learned through research and experimenting since we got here in 2009. Nice to know someone else can relate!

Ed said...

There is quite a bit of intensive rotational grazing up here as well mainly for cattle. Once, a couple decades ago, I helped a fellow try to patent an idea for movable gates that would work with electric fence to allow a farmer to easily move animals from one paddock to another. In the end after a couple months of research, we decided it was too expensive (and perhaps impossible) to patent and definitely not practical to enforce so we dropped it.

Cozy Thyme Cottage said...

So much to learn and so much to do. I am challenged trying to grow in my courtyard! Here is the link for the bar lotion recipe. If you can't get it, let me know. I am sure you are familiar with her. Melissa K. Norris.

Kev Alviti said...

Grass grows well here, I keep my sheep moving every two weeks in the summer with a month before they come back on to the same patch of land, I'd like longer but it's not too bad. The pastures need no real input from me, they have plenty of rain, the sheep do well on it and manure it and I top it if it gets too long, leaving the cut grass to rot back in. The rain, temperature and sunshine is perfect for grass here, no complaints!
I am going to start moving my pastured chicken pens over the fields during the winter so their nitrogen rich poo will give it a boost.

M.K. said...

We are on a much smaller scale than you, but much of what you say rings so true -- trying to amend the soil to give the yield we want, trying to manage just our chickens' eating and ranging. And how true it is that, with all things on an annual cycle, it's such SLOW learning. We do get 2 crops out of some things (like peas ... well, we can try). This year I succeeded in finally getting a crop of green beans the second time around. Your goats are so cute!

Harry Flashman said...

When I had goats up here, they had the whole meadow to eat out of and they wouldn't touch the grass. They wanted goat feed, pure and simple! They did eat the sides of our log buildings and the brake lines on my truck though.

When we had horses, they were in the meadow and it's only just over an acre. We just bought them oats and feed to keep them going, I figured it was about the only option.

Having read your post, I realize now that trying to keep animals on my own land would be a tough proposition if I didn't just buy the feed at the feed store.

Unknown said...

Same here, and its so frustrating waiting for a whole year to correct any mistakes. And we don't have reliable rainfall here, so growing opportunities can be every couple of years.... can you get rhodes grass or creeping blue grass? Those are the ones we try to plant, neither are native to Australia.

Leigh said...

Ed, the movable gates sound like a great idea! I understand about patents though. It seems that many inventors have had ideas stolen, even with a patent.

Nancy, thank you! I love the idea of the lotion bars. I'll have to make some myself.

Kev, you are so lucky to have good grass and plenty of rain! Our rotational plan pretty much went out the window when the old pine trees started falling on our fences and smashing them. But it's helped us make the decision to do some rearranging, so that's a good thing.

M.K., it's just the way things are! Makes me wish we'd been able to start our learning and experimenting earlier in life. As it is, by the time we figure it all out we'll be too old to do anything about it. :o

Harry, that is so true about goats! They'd much rather have grain than grass. I liken grain to candy and grass to vegetables. What kid doesn't prefer candy to veggies! I'm really hoping that we can make some good improvements to our forage over the next year. I buy feed as needed, but would rather them eat what we can grow here.

Liz, I'm not familiar with either of those grasses so I looked them up. The rhodes grass has been introduced here and sounds promising. The info I read says it doesn't tolerate much cold, so I wonder if it would survive our worst winters. Nothing on the creeping blue grass. Thanks for the suggestions!

Theresa said...

As always an interesting post. Since I keep my horses and two wethers on dry lot and feed only quality hay, I have often wondered about pasture rotation. There are many companies that do extensive modeling on this BTW, some even on ticks and cows. Anyway, I digress. I think pasture management becomes much more problematic because we simply know more about animal biology. Land was more plentiful, the soil healthier with native plants, fewer animals and there were fewer people. We ate less and we ate healthier in many instances. Factory farming has tapped into animal biology and used it in a way I don't think we ever expected. Same goes with most big agricultural operations. While not speaking exactly to your post these two articles were of enough interest to me to save. You might find them interesting too.




Kathy said...

This is a question, not an answer. Have you considered sain foin
(sp)as a pasture crop? It is a legume and is supposed to be bloat free. Also is supposed to be a good honey crop. I have not tried it, but it does sound good.

Leigh said...

Theresa, excellent articles. Yes, this is exactly the kind of thing I've been researching. The key is to get carbon sequestered in teh soil and keep it there. It's exciting to see that farmers are beginning to catch on and work toward this. The results speak for themselves. Right now it seems a huge task for us, but it's the direction we're heading. Work smarter, not harder!

Kathy, I've been researching pasture plants and have sainfoin on my list! Not sure if it will grow well here, but it would be great if it did.