On April 21st we grazed the first grazing stake paddock of the season. This is the one by the golf course. The cows were in their winter sacrificial paddock until April 16th as we let the grass get established from winter dormancy. We had an unusually dry and pleasant spring so although the grass has certainly greened up, it wasn’t really jumping in height due to the lack of water.
The grass is just coming up and showing signs of life. It hasn’t had a chance to thicken, or to start covering areas that were cleared during the winter or late fall. Basically the seed heads are tall, but the grass itself is still rather short.
One really great thing to see this spring was that the thatch from last years grazing is still somewhat present. In previous years, the thatch layer decomposed into nothing by spring. Thatch is what makes topsoil so the soil was able to use more than we could provide. This past winter, there was enough thatch to cover the ground, be food for all the little critters, and still have some left over.
The grass itself was only about 6-8″ tall whereas the seed heads were the normal 15-18″ tall. We had about 85% ground coverage and the beginnings of solid coverage for this season.
We are flash grazing the cattle across the pastures for this first grazing. They are getting triple sized paddocks each day allowing them to only browse and not really graze the grass back. By the time we finish the first rotation, the grass should be well into growing and we’ll shorten up our paddock sizes so that they graze more heavily and more importantly, they trample grass into contact with the ground building more thatch.
Here you can see the bare areas still recovering into grass. The grass was about 50% eaten leaving plenty to continue to grow. We mowed the pastures post grazing to bring all the missed grass down into contact with the ground and prompt the next round of growing.
We rarely graze the back pasture. It doesn’t fit our rotation easily. The stand is pretty bad overall. And the pasture is prone to flooding, both from the lake and from overflow of the pond located uphill.
Instead we mow the pasture once or twice a year and that has to be the equivalent of grazing. For 2016, we again did not graze the pasture.
For 2016-2017 we are trying out not mowing a part of the pasture so that we can compare mowed to unmowed and see which area fares better.
Our back pasture, located at the bottom of our property, isn’t something we graze very often. Maybe once per year, on the off year we do graze it. For 2016 it was not grazed at all.
The back pasture is prone to flooding. It also has a poor stand of grass. It would benefit from more grazing than it gets, and I think it would improve the stand, but because of the location on the farm we simply don’t graze it very often. What we do instead is mow it once or twice a year and that has to do.
Here you can see the grazing stake as well as the mowed areas behind the area with the stake. We left the area with the stake unmowed as an experiment for 2016-2017 to see if it does better or worse.
The pasture nearest the golf course continues to be the best field on the farm. This is despite the traffic generated by feeding the pigs.
Driving the tractor over there every day has severely compacted the path we use. Combined with the area the cows lounge in that is now devoid of grass and we have our work cut out for us along that narrow strip. The rest of the pasture looks awesome though. Topsoil continues to build and is now reaching about 2.5 – 3″ of rich topsoil.
Pre-grazing grass. About 14″ tall.This picture is well into October and the grass has begun to go dormant but there is still lots of grass available.
Because this was the last grazing, we grazed this area more than normal.
The area where we drive the tractor has begun getting treated with large amounts of wood chips. I’ve given up on recovering the grass that we had. Instead I’m focusing on absorbing the water that is being trapped and adding organic matter to break down and help with the compaction. We also added a new trailer to our plan which allows us to only make one trip vs. 4-5 each day. This really cuts down on the traffic.
When it’s time to recover this area, it will be very rich with broken down chips, heavy with topsoil, and prime for turning back into grass. We also expect dirt to come from a jobsite in Garner, 26,000 yards of it. We’ll use it to shape our swales and get the water to go where we want it. We’ll also raise the areas where we drive so they no longer hold water.
This is a picture of one of our ponds. The past few years, I’d noticed that a green algae had started growing on it. This started after we’d fenced out the cows, a requirement of Wake County Soil and Water. I figured something green growing was progress, so whatever. Plus after at least 80 years of cows dipping in the pond daily for a bath, the pond was due to cycle through a few versions of itself before it settled down.
This year, the green algae was back in force and again, I didn’t pay it that much mind. But then this summer, I noticed the algae had developed some depth, or better said, some height. While on a tour I took a closer look at it and was shocked to see that grass had taken root and was growing on the algae, floating on the pond. Now I’m all in favor of growing grass, and Lord knows it was a great year for grass, but floating grass?! I’ve never heard of grass growing on water.
The grass has spent the last 60 days merrily floating about, drifting from one end of the pond to the other, riding its algae life raft. It hasn’t gotten very tall but it has certainly stayed green and vibrant.
I guess I need to start looking for some Jesus cows so they can graze it.
If you aren’t a farming, grazing, soil building dirt nerd, probably better check out now. If you want to know how we put the sustainable in sustainable farming, this is a post for you.
Back in 2013, we identified some major problems in our operation. We had poor grass coverage, nearly non-existent top soil, and poor animal performance on our forage. We also had some serious erosion issues which were the result of over grazing and over stocking.
Above you can see a ditch that has formed over 30 years from water flowing across our pasture. Having water on your farm in awesome. The more the merrier. However having it create what amounted to the Grand Canyon across the middle of our pasture wasn’t so welcome.
We contacted the Wake County Soil and Water Conservation group and they began working with us on a plan to repair this erosion. But just fixing the erosion wasn’t enough. We needed to keep it from happening again.
To keep the erosion from coming back, we had to fix the drainage, but we also had to improve our grass coverage, which at that time was about 40%.
We adopted new management techniques, mainly changing the way we graze our cows, and also composting directly onto the fields with produce, chips, or whatever else we could get with as little effort/cost as possible.
We did seed the area above just after this picture was taken, but mainly the seed didn’t take. The fill dirt was basically useless and wouldn’t grow weeds, much less grass. After 2013, we began spot treating the worst areas with compost to help control erosion and also to improve the soil.
Here is an example of how we’d treat an area. You can see some red in the lower left. All the area covered with beans was exposed, red dirt. No topsoil, no organic matter, no grass. By controlling our grazing, and treating the problem areas over the following years, we’ve taken these problem areas from what you see above to this.
This is basically the same view as the fourth picture. All this growth is not from seeds we planted. It’s also not been left fallow. It has been grazed every single rotation of the cattle since 2013. We now stock at a very dense level, less than one acre per cow (the standard is 3 acres per cow). This was after destocking in 2013 to about 12 cows total on our farm. We now have about 50 to put that in perspective.
Here you can see our heavily traveled critical area. We put boards down to create a more solid footing. We also limit our movements to crossing in this area on the boards
. The grass you see here that is so tall was bare dirt this spring. I believe it’s actually the area covered in beans I showed you two pictures back. Again, we planted no seeds. We applied no chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, etc. All we did was manage our cows, and manage the organic matter in the soil. Easy right? So why doesn’t everyone do it? What’s the catch?
It took us three years to get this spot to this growth. That’s three years of an area not producing grass for our animals. In our modern world of quarterly returns and high production, this is simply too long to be acceptable. Better to apply fertilizers, seeds, and get grass to growing. Then spray for weeds when they come up, because they will. For me, I’ll move on to the next area and leave this area alone. It won’t generate weeds because it’s rich in organic matter and the grass is now dominant. I’ll just graze it and mow it like I do everywhere else and the soil will continue to improve. As the soil improves, so will the grass. That’s what sustainable is, making things better as you go through your normal system, not applying band-aids to the problems instead of fixing the root cause.
The first of August we moved our finish herd into the paddock near the pond and near the road where we keep our NRCS grazing stick.
The paddock had received plenty of rain and was doing well with the summer heat. We’ve had very few truly hot days this summer and plenty of rain and all the pastures show it. This paddock had been accidentally grazed about a month prior so this was actually a regrowth. The grass was about 8-10″ tall as it’s base layer, with the shoots running up to 14-16 inches.
We pulled the cows off after a couple of days. We were combining herds (the new red angus cows arrived) and we needed the cows behind solid fencing while we got everyone used to hot wires and each other.
After grazing, there was a lot of trampled grass and plenty of material to build thatch and soil.
Leaving the cows on the paddock longer didn’t seem to have any negatives but we are sticking with our daily moves as our overall plan. However when the need arises, I don’t think I’ll be as quick to move them as I would have been.