NRCS grazing update

This year marks the last year of our NRCS grazing monitoring program. This has been an excellent program where all we needed to do was to take before and after pictures of our grazing in strategic locations at least once per year. We then documented the grass growth and then consumption. When all the work is done properly, we get a check at the end of the year. Easy peasy.

So for the pasture closest to the golf course, here is the last grazing update.

Before grazing, the view in the paddock
Before grazing, the view in the paddock

Normally by this time of year we are dealing with hot and dry weather. And we do have hot, but we had some timely wet weather just before this week. The grass was vibrant and lush. The cool season grasses have just about gone dormant and the thick, warm season grasses are enjoying the combination of unlimited sun and some water when it is needed. The grass is anywhere from 10″ to 15″ tall and very thick.

We are only grazing about 14 cows on rotation right now. The rest are at our other farm. This particular paddock, due to leaving a gap for the pigs to be fed in the paddock system, was to be grazed two days.

Pasture with excellent grass stand
Lush grass as far as you can see

Johnson grass is popping up across the pasture as well. You can see some in the right of the picture (the patch of taller than normal grass). It never seems to be in the same place, but the cows absolutely love it and eat it immediately to the ground. Johnson grass is the bane of many row crop farmers but I love that it grows in our pastures, because our cows love it.

after grazing for two days, picture with grazing stake
After grazing for two days

The grass is definitely showing signs of having been grazing, but it is still 5-6″ tall and very thick. This is perfect for regrowth and for building topsoil. Also much of the brown stems from the cool season grass that has gone dormant is now broken off and therefore pressed down to the ground. Grass litter in contact with the ground is what makes topsoil. So we’ve fed our cows, and fed our soil, all at the same time.

A little better view of the after grazing conditions
A little better view of the after grazing conditions

After this picture, we pulled up this grazing stake getting a steel pole out of the middle of the pasture and marking the end of our NRCS program for this pasture. This allows us to mow easier, and it also allows us to get ready for our next usage of the pasture next year. 

Momma cows and babies move to our other farm

With the cold spring we had this year, we were late in moving our momma cows to our other farm. Normally during grazing season, we separate the moms/babies and the cows we are raising to eat. The eating cows stay here and are intensively managed, moving to fresh grass every day, and handled and inspected multiple times per day.

The momma cows, who are smarter than the average cow, are left to go to another farm where they have the ability to roam freely. They have ponds, trees, and grass aplenty. It is the cow equivalent of going to the spa.

Cows in the corral, waiting to be sorted
Cows in the sorting pen, waiting to be sorted

Step one of taking the cows to another farm is to get everyone into our corral. Miguel and Vicente took care of this for us. Then we back the truck and trailer up to the loading ramp and Miguel goes into the corral to begin sorting out who is who. Little calves are easy enough. Big beef cows are easy enough. But what about that 6 month old calf? Is that a male or female? Male? Ok, let’s cut him out and he stays here. There are a lot of decisions that have to be made on the fly, all while 1000 lb cows are pushing and shoving going in circles in the sorting pen.

As we are sorting out cows in the corral lane to walk through our corral, we are again sorting out who is going on the trailer and who is staying. We try to send groups of cows who match. If a batch of moms and calves get sent together, good, just open the cut gate and the trailer gate, and let them walk onto the trailer. But then a beef cow gets into a group of moms, or that 6 month old calf mentioned earlier. Now we have to cut them out again as they walk, trying to hold the beef cow up while we get the moms to walk forward. Except now they don’t want to walk so everyone bunches up. Heaven help you if a calf gets in the mix because they get beside or under larger cows and are next to impossible to get untangled. This doesn’t count for the fact that you get 5 cows on the trailer, then have a pause while another group gets sorted, or a cow who doesn’t want to walk stops. The cows on the trailer are like ripples in a pond. They walk onto the trailer, walk all the way to the front, then bounce off the front and walk all the way to the back where they hang out. That is fine, except there is a six foot gap at the front and the cows now finally walking onto the trailer are met with a wall of cows who don’t want to move. It takes some pushing and cursing to get enough cows on the trailer to call it a load.

Of course this doesn’t take into account the little calves, just born. They can get hurt jammed into to trailer with big cows. So we try to load them on their own load with just a few moms so there is plenty of room for everyone.

It takes three of us to do the job. Miguel doing the cutting and sorting in the sorting pen, Vicente encouraging the cows to keep walking forward through the corral lane, and myself controlling the trailer gate and the head gate, which is our final safety stop for the cattle should the wrong cow get to the wrong section. This is where if the wrong cow goes the wrong direction I can run and slam the head gate closed and keep them in the corral until we can get everyone sorted out where they need to be.

It isn’t anyone’s first time doing this job (except for some of the cows) and it only takes a few hours to get everyone moved. All the moms and babies are at their remote home for the grazing season, already lounging and enjoying their freedom. With the now warmer weather, and this weeks rain, we finally have enough grass on our farm. We also now have half the mouths chowing down on said grass. This means we can finally get ahead on grass and not be running on the ragged edge like we’ve been all spring. That is important because summer is coming.

Grass growth will slow, drought could hit us, any number of grazing issues could crop up. It is important that we have a good stand of grass in place to be ready to weather whatever comes.  Now we can finally start growing some grass.

This spring is killing us

It’s not April 27th. It’s February 86! What the heck is going on with this spring? This isn’t your normal rant about the weird weather. This is a farmer’s rant. We had beautiful pastures this winter. We built a road that kept us from driving on them so they didn’t turn to mud. We had warm weather in February, enough so that the grass started to grow, and we had more hay than we’d ever need thanks to some SNAFUs in getting our hay last year.

Early spring, good grass, and extra hay are a recipe for letting our pastures really green up and grow before turning the cows out onto them. We’d have grass up to our waists by April 15th. This year was going to be awesome for grazing.

We have had calves dropping left and right. We have more momma cows than we’ve ever had, and we have an awesome bull who is home grown.

#32 Boyd, and his mom #11 Curious
#32 Boyd when he was a wee lad, and his mom #11 Curious

He’s a gentle giant and he’s making for some beautiful babies. Yessir this was going to be an easy year.

Then March hit with its stupidly cold weather than never relented. Snow, sleet, freezing temperatures. The grass that had started growing in February immediately halted in confusion and didn’t budge again in all of March. Spring nearly always happens between March 15-25 here. Sometimes it is early, March 12-13, and sometimes it is as late as March 27-28th, but for planning purposes, I can count on Spring weather between the 15-25th. Yes we’ve had a snow in April before, but it was 70 the day before, and 70 the day after. It was still spring, with a freak weather system moving through.

So we made it to April, and still it is cold. Freezing temps at night many nights of the week, and relatively cold during the day. The grass that so merrily popped up in February was still sitting there, mocking me. We had cows that we munching away at our hay piles, which were rapidly depleting. By the second week of April we had no choice but to put the cows out on pasture, with the expectation and the hope that the weather would finally break and we’d see some growth.

It took the cows about a week to make it around the farm in rotation. The grass wasn’t that tall to begin with, and we have the entire herd here.

Grass four feet high, in front of John Deere Gator
This is what Spring grass is supposed to look like

Usually we’d take the momma cows and the babies over to our other farm and let them start grazing but their grass was no better than ours.

So this week, I did something I’ve never done, ever. I went and bought hay in April.

Loading hay the easy way.

One truckload of hay to try to make it till the weather breaks. When that will be, I’m not sure. We still have nights in the lower 40s coming up, with some FINALLY 80 degree days next week. Since we have about a weeks worth of hay, I do hope it finally turns warm.

Our plan Bs are to take some of our older moms and sell them at the market. To graze our wooded areas behind our houses which we normally save for the heat of summer (because there is so much shade), and to graze our back pasture which hasn’t been grazed in the past several years.

After those ideas are exhausted, it will be out on the open market (read Craigslist) to buy more hay, but hopefully it won’t come to that. All the hay listed now is horse hay, and I don’t want to pay for horse hay for cows.

I’ll be complaining about how hot it is before long, but for now I’d take some warm weather ASAP!

Grazing update #3

Our back pasture has not been grazed since the inception of our NRCS grazing monitoring program. While leaving it fallow has indeed helped the pasture, it was the victim of an issue with the drainage of one of our ponds for the past couple of years. The best part of the grazing pasture has stayed very wet because all the water from the pond ends up flowing into the pasture. Since we have to drive through that area, it ends up getting rutted which certainly doesn’t help the grass. Since there are no before and after shots of grazing, I have not included a picture of the grazing marker for this post.

Although we have fixed the drainage problem as of this fall, I doubt we will graze the back pasture in 2018 meaning that this pasture has stayed out of rotation for the duration of the NRCS program.

Whole Duck Now Available

Lucy here on the actual non- recipe part of the blog. We’re still having some internet issues here on the farm.   The store is open tomorrow 2-6 p.m. & Satuday from 8-5.  Erin & Crystal will be running the store while Dan gives tours. SWMBO & I will be off picking up our kiddos and hosing them down after a full week of sleep away camp.

Ninja Cow Farm has a  wonderful new product in stock. DUCK!!! Seriously, we now have Duck thanks to Blue Whistler Farm over in Bahama, NC.  Blue Whistler is a wife and husband owned 5 acre farm. It may not seem like much land, they work it and are producing some great products.

Last year I was introduced to Amy at Blue Whistler Farm. I followed her for a while,  light facebook stalking in truth. What drew me to her was the amount she loved and cared for her animals while they were on the farm. How she is able to provide with love and care yet realize this is a business and you must follow the rules of it to be successful.

Look at those happy faces!
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She has tried several animals on her 5 acre farm.  Amy shares her triumphs and successes along the way. Now we can share her ducks with you. Blue Whistler Ducks are pastured raised, while receiving conventional feed rations.

As you can see though they stay in the pasture not in a closed in cage on a factory farm.  Amy is hoping this winter to bring us Duck by the cut as well. Blue Whistler ducks are currently sold whole in our store for $8.45lb. Drop by and see us for a new flavor on your table.

Grazing update #2

This is our second grazing update of the year. This is rotation #2 around the farm. Grazing update number 1 covered our area near the golf course while this update will cover the area close to Old Stage Road, behind the lower pond.

Water has been plentiful this year and grass has been growing readily. It’s in the 10-15″ range with 100% ground cover. Regrowth from the first grazing has been quick and the cows have more grass than they can consume in one grazing allowing us a lot of flexibility. The brood herd is at our leased farm so again this year we are intensively grazing only our finish cows. (Update from the future. We had to pull our brood cows back to the main farm twice this year because there wasn’t enough grass at our leased farm. That pasture needs some work.)

before grazing, with grazing marker in view.
Before grazing, the grass is full and lush. 100% ground coverage and averaging 12″ tall.
A closer view of the grass before grazing
A closer view of the grass before grazing
After grazing
After grazing

We have a lot of trample in this field. There is a lot of residual material left, all of which will either convert into thatch of be part of the regrowth. This field was mowed after the cows moved off of it, as we normally do for all of our fields.

1st grazing notes from 2017

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.

Prior to grazing
Prior to grazing

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.

After grazing the first paddock
After grazing

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.

Grazing (not) the back pasture

Grass in back pasture, with grazing stake
Grass in back pasture, with grazing stake

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.

Back pasture is left fallow again for 2016

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.

Grass in back pasture, with grazing stake
Grass in back pasture, with grazing stake

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.

NRCS grazing update

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.

Grazing stake and green grass

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.

Grazing stake, post grazing
Post grazing, 4-6″ grass remaining

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.