September 19, 2018

Soil Building Experiment #2: Pastures

Pasture improvement is one of our homestead goals for 2018. Actually, sustainable pasture has always been a goal, but there's been a huge learning curve to go along with that goal, and so far I haven't seen the results I hoped for. In fact, I admit that this year I was discouraged because of our lack of progress in growing good forage. We seem to grow more weeds! Finally, my recent research into carbon and soil building has given me information, answers, and the motivation I needed to tackle this year's goal with new hope. 

We have five subgoals for pasture improvement:
  1. Build the soil.
  2. Establish a polyculture of predominantly perennial forage.
  3. Subdivide large paddocks for better grazing rotation.
  4. Trim low tree branches shading our pastures. (I've observed that our forage does best with filtered sunlight from a high canopy.)
  5. Develop a management plan to keep it in the best condition.

The first two are interdependent and since September is the month we designated for fall planting, that's what this blog post is about. I'll share more about subdividing, rotation, and our idea for a management plan in upcoming posts.

It's going to take a several weeks to get it all planted, but I thought I'd make a blog record of the first two we did, outlined in red below.

This first photo is of the "buck pasture."

It's been tilled twice in the nine years we've lived here. The first time was to remineralize and plant corn the other time to plant pasture. I've used my modified Fukuoka spot seeding method here for several years, so it has some nice grasses, herbs, and clovers growing. But they are scanty, which points to problems I'm trying to correct.

The first isn't so much a problem as part of my learning curve. When I first started working on pasture improvement, the only seed available was tall fescue for winter and Bermuda for summer. Both are popular, because they tend to dominate an area to make a good monoculture pasture. But tall fescue has problems with endophytes, and Bermuda is too invasive (AKA "wiregrass!"). So I did my first pasture planting with deer forage mixes, which are annuals.

Theoretically seasonal annuals should work if one can coordinate planting with their life cycles and so have continual forage. But somehow it never worked out that way, and every year we had long stretches with little for the goats to eat. 

The other problem is weeds which tend to grow fast, shade out forage, and completely overtake grazing areas. Hopefully we can choke some of them out, but the weeds are one of the reasons I need a management plan implemented. More on that in an upcoming post.

This second photo is labeled "Front pasture" on my little map.

It's called "front" pasture because it's closest to the house.

It's never been tilled, nor had organic minerals applied. Yet it grows more forage and has less weeds than any other place the goats graze. Like the other paddocks, I've spot seeded with manure and mulch from time to time, but it lacks forage diversity, so that's a goal here. 

As with Soil Building Experiment #1, we started with soil samples.

Buck pasture soil sample

This one is very similar to the samples we took near the fruit trees, isn't it? On the surface it's a little darker, but otherwise there is no organic matter and it's pretty lifeless looking. However, it contains roots! You can see them peeking out at the bottom of the sample. Roots are important for soil building, because (1) soil microorganisms need roots to live, and (2) as plants die their roots leave organic matter in the soil.

Here's the "front pasture" for comparison.

Soil sample from front pasture.

It is darker in the top couple of inches which indicates more organic matter, but other than that, the sample doesn't look much different from the other samples we've dug. I had hoped it would look better because it's never been tilled. What that tells me, is that the soil biology on our property is severely lacking.

How do we fix that? By adding carbon. Remember my soil biology summary from Soil Building Experiment #1?
  • Soil bacteria break down compost and mulch into organic matter
  • Soil fungi build organic matter into new soil
  • Both feed on carbon provided by
    • the plants
    • the mulch
  • Conclusion: Feeding soil microorganisms = building the soil

To facilitate that, our experimental pasture planting method is no soil preparation, just broadcast the seed, then mow. The clippings mulch the seed, providing protection and carbon.

My seed mix has been the most diverse I could manage, a combination of both perennials and annuals: wheat, oats, winter peas, perennial rye, hairy vetch, chicory, radish (both garden and Daikon), turnip, timothy, orchardgrass, non-endophyte fescue, alfalfa, birdsfoot trefoil, rape, small burnet, sanfoin, kale, buckwheat, phacelia, sorghum-sudangrass, and a variety of clovers (red, crimson, sweet, and several kinds of white). In all of that, growing conditions should be right for at least some of it to grow!

So that's the plan. We'll plant the other pastures the same way. We've had nice rainfall so these first two are just starting to show new growth. Hopefully I'll have nice forage photos to show you soon.

Next - Developing a Pasture Rotation Plan, Part 1


Kathy said...

Some weeds have deep roots and can draw nutrients up to the surface in areas that have been overgrazed/overused and sparse, so weeds aren't all bad. =) Enjoying reading about your soil journey.

Leigh said...

Kathy, that's absolutely correct. And a lot of "weeds" are goat edible, although I would consider those forbs. The weeds I'm having problems with are inedible woody plants that overtake large areas and shade out forage, also toxic weeds like horse nettle and ground ivy (which also chokes out forage.) These kinds of weeds are dominating our pastures and are the main reason I'd become discouraged, even though I've worked hard to get better pastures established.

Cockeyed Jo said...

Leigh, I'm sold on our method. 6"-12" depth of new soil in 2 years. 18" in 3 years. In 4 years, 2'. I agree with the other two. not all weeds are bad. In fact, livestock find it tasty. Vary your methods between Lasagna and back to nature. Use hay or straw in place of peat moss in lasagna. If it's seedy, so much the better.

Ed said...

I am definitely interested in seeing your results. In all my years, I can't think of a single instance where someone set to improve their pasture other than let it sit idle for a period of time. The pasture next to my parents house has been a working pasture my entire life and other than a few trees here and there getting bigger, hasn't changed. One could blink and see if forty years later and it looks the same.

Leigh said...

Jo, but those aren't the kind of weeds I'm talking about here, LOL. I would definitely take advantage of the lasagna method on our pastures if I could find three acres worth of lasagna materials for free. We were able to do something similar in the area around our fruit trees, but that was the extent of our supplementary materials. For us the lasagna method is more feasible in the garden. In our pastures this experiment is to see how Gabe Brown's method works, i.e. building soil biology by supplying carbon through cover cropping, mowing, and leaving residue.

Ed, I just wish it wouldn't take so long. But our soils haven't been getting any better by doing nothing, and as you can see from the samples, we've got a lot of work to do. Pasture rotation is key, and I'm working on some blog posts about that.

Rain said...

I think your goals are wonderful Leigh, lots of work ahead. Good luck with the pastures, I look forward to hearing the results! I love the map you posted!

Donna OShaughnessy said...

As always Leigh, your posts are so well detailed and full of great info. For us having the pigs year round and rotating them from one area to the next has helped our soil life a hundred fold. Last years pig pasture became this years sorghum sudangrass pasture which our single cow now gets a section of every day. We need to do some deeper soil sampling like you have though.

Cozy Thyme Cottage said...

Hi! Good luck on your soil management and improving your soil. Since I reuse some of my potting soil I am wondering if I should pull out the roots in the pots or leave them in as from what you say I think I understand the roots to be beneficial. Nancy

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

You encourage me Leigh. Perhaps I will take a shot at the mess I call my backyard and see what can be done.

Leigh said...

Rain, thanks! I have to say that mapping out our place has been invaluable for planning and brainstorming. Most importantly, it helps ensure we're on the same sheet of music, so to speak. Plus it helps us remember what we've decided on. When ideas fly, so does the memory. :)

Donna, animals are absolutely amazing partners in soil building. One of these days we'll have pigs again, and I'm looking forward to that. I'm also looking forward to periodically rechecking our soil with new samples. We were told, "if you plant it, they will come," meaning the soil organisms. If we can build that, we can build the soil.

Nancy, I reuse potting soil too, but what I've been doing is to dump the contents of all my pots into a big bucket (roots and all), adding fresh compost and soil, chopping the roots with a trowel, and mixing it all together. Dead roots do decompose and add to the soil, but you know how it is with pots - they can get crowded in just a season!

TB, thank you! I have to say that the Gabe Brown and Ray Archuleta videos, plus Joel Salatin's books have been our encouragement. They've seen the results, so they know it works. That's been like an answer to a prayer for us.

Kendra said...

I am loving your adventures in soil building! I am wondering how you choose what species that you want to use to improve your pastures? I am particularly interested because you mentioned birdsfoot trefoil. Half a lifetime ago I learned that it was an invasive species when I was an intern learning about prairie restoration. Perhaps it is a different story where you live?

Also curious what you have learned about the different grass species and if there were any specific benefits for any of the different grasses? (For example I understand that you would choose root species like radishes to help break up and aerate the soil.) I am looking forward to your updates on your progress in soil building!

Leigh said...

Kendra, excellent question. I've been aware of polyculture versus monoculture pastures for awhile, but didn't realize how the various species played different roles in plant communities. I first learned about that from the Gabe Brown videos I mentioned in my first post on the subject, Carbon: What I Didn't Know, plus others like this one, "How to Design Cover Crop Mixes".

SARE has good resources on this subject. Their Cover Crops webpage gives an excellent overview. They also offer a book that has become invaluable to me, Managing Cover Crops Profitably. It's a free PDF download here or can be purchased as a paperback. After looking at the PDF, that's what I ended up doing, because it discusses various species of grasses, legumes, and forbs, where they grow, when they grow, the role they play, and what to mix them with. I'm going to wear that book out!

I'd not heard of Birdsfoot trefoil as being an invasive species, but in the context of pasture, I'm aware that many of things are considered invasive in some states, the native grasses for example. The Birdsfoot trefoil in particular has come to the attention of livestock folks, because it is one of a number of forbs that promotes internal parasite resistance in ruminants. I have to say that so far I haven't had success with it, probably because I'm too far south and it doesn't like our heat.

Ed said...

Pasture rotation is a key component and one that has been becoming more popular during my lifetime. Up here they call it "Intensive Grazing" and I can visually see how much better things look on top of the soil when comparing to those who don't rotate their grazing. I don't know how it looks below the soil line though.

Leigh said...

Ed, that's what we're working on here too, a more intensive rotational grazing system. The reports seem to be consistently in favor of how the soil and vegetation respond. Most of what I've read on it seems to reference cattle, so there have been some things to figure out for goats. But we're working on subdividing pastures right now, so it will be a first step. I'm working on a blog post about that too.

Cockeyed Jo said...

I loosely base our organic 1/4 acre orchard concept after the Masanobu Fukuoka's Natural Farming and Permaculture method. Which is why we mix plantings of grains, grasses, and clover in this large area. We work with nature. The first year, we tilled it all into the hard packed clay and now we are in the second year. After spreading the straw/hay and compost this will be it. No more tilling. The grasses, clover, and grains will self sow. Weeds even now are minimal. The good stuff chokes it out. We cut the hay, straw, and grains as we need them leaving some to self sow.

Leigh said...

Jo, that's pretty much what we did for our fruit trees this year too. And like you, last year was our last tilling there. I'm glad to hear you've already had such good success combating weeds. I have some doozies in our pastures, and I'm hoping my multi-mix of seeds will help us make progress.