Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Pasture Renovation

With so many thoughts running through my head with our hopefully impending land purchase I have decided to dedicate this week to blogging about it and shamelessly asking for input! Today I want to focus in on the pasture. The picture on the right gives you a close up (you can click the pictures for a larger view) of what most of the grass on the land looks like. The pasture is about 26 acres in size and is most a South facing slope. You can scroll down to the past to posts to see an aerial shot. Also, there are two water ways running down the pasture that will need special attention so we don't have a couple of Grand Canyon's on the place!

One of the questions that we are facing is exactly how to get rid of the grass that is there right now. I don't mean we want to kill it all off, but we need to clip it down to size for various reasons. First of all there are huge ant hills everywhere. As you can tell from the picture on the left they are pretty tall. That is Caleb standing on one that is over a foot tall! It wouldn't be so fun to hit those all day long as you were cutting hay. So, we need to make the grass shorter so we can knock down all of those ant hills. Secondly, starting the spring with new growth is probably a good idea for our cattle and for the hay that we will make.

We have two options. Option number one is that we mow it down. I have the wonderful fortune of having a father who test drives lawn mowers. He could come up for a while and knock it all down and find the ant hills (by running into them). One problem with that idea is that you will have a lot of grass clippings on the pasture ... that may or may not be a good thing. The other option is to have the rural fire department come out and burn in off. That would expose the ant hills and give it a fresh start this spring. Right now I am leaning towards option number two, but would love any thoughts on the subject.

The second question I am thinking on is whether or not we should attempt any seeding this spring. For quite awhile the land has been in the Crop Reduction Program (more on that tomorrow) and at some time I believe it was seeded to some sort of switchgrass (not sure on the variety). The stand of grass is pretty strong and there really aren't many weeds in the pasture except for some brambles and berries pushing in on the edge of the woods. But, I am wondering if I should or shouldn't try and inter-seed some sort of clover. Also, I really have no idea how the switchgrass will stand up under Management Intensive Grazing. I have done a little reading on switchgrass as a forage and it sounds like it is good as long as you keep it clipped at about six inches, but I haven't found out how well it does with grazing.

I really can't wait to see things green up this coming spring as the pasture comes to life. I can already image our Dexter herd out grazing on the pasture!


Rich said...

Iowa used to be covered in native tall grass prairie, (which is why it is so suitable for growing corn now) so it has a history of native prairie grasses. Most of the native prairie grasses can lie dormant for decades and will sometimes unexpectantly reemerge with high stocking densities due to their adaptation to the prairie ecology of burning and short intense grazing.

Managing your pastures like a tall grass prairie restoration project might be the easiest way to improve them. Patch burn a portion of it each spring right before greenup, then graze it at an ultra high density, the higher density will take care of the anthills, and you could establish a tall grass prairie on your property.

Restoring a portion of Iowa's tallgrass prairie with your grazing operation could be an effective marketing tool when it comes time to start selling your products. Potential customers could be exposed to your product when they come by to see the wildflowers in a tallgrass prairie, etc.

Steven said...

Just yesterday I read a really cool article about a guy that has a grass-fed dairy. One thing that he does different than most grazers is that he doesn't hurry through to try and keep his grass at a manageable height. If it gets to tall in some paddocks he just mows it. He is working with no-so-great soil so the extra organic matter really helps in situation.

Yeoman said...

Why not throw your herd on it and graze it?

Dave_Flora said...

I think Rich has the right point of view with the burning and letting the cattle take care of the anthills for you. The carbon in the ash could be just the kick-start the field needs to get back into operation. Remember though, there's no need to go whole-hog if you have doubts, and some of the fun in growing things is experimentation. You can always burn off a portion of the field before spring grazing and see how it reacts. Then, you can plan better for next year. Since this is a new "relationship" between you and the land, you'll need a few years of watching it closely to understand it's particular quirks.
From a marketing perspective, Rich is right on the mark again. Connection to the land and the history of the land is very important to potential customers. Might be a good idea to trace the deed of the land to come up with some actual names to attach to it.
Great Blog, Ethan!

Mellifera said...

My brilliant thought is "That's a great question." So burn some now, burn some later, do some lawnmower test-run on some other parts, and tell us how it works out. : )

Anonymous said...

First CONGRATULATIONS on the place. Jumping right in. Switch grass is awesome native warm season grass - I'm turning pastures over to it as soon as possible. Good summer grazing. I wouldn't sew anything this year unless you're fencing and putting animals on it right away in which case you may want to start with a smaller area than 40 acres! Instead, cut it hard or burn it and see what comes up. You may be surprised. If you cut it hard, use a mulching mower and leave the cuttings for fertilizer. You may want to get a little nitrogen on there if rain is coming just to get an even clearer idea of what you're already got growing out there because some stuff will really respond right away to that. It's almost getting too late to plant clover and I wouldn't bother until you get it cut or burned. IF you cut it and it snows get out there and sew clover seed though. Seed is expensive so be sure you don't over do it like I have. I'm so fired up for you!
Linda/Clover Bell
P.S. I put a link to this site on my new website. Check it out

Ethan Book said...

Thanks for the great comments everyone. I guess I should also add a couple of more details. We intend to fence in the entire 26 acre pasture this spring and hopefully make hay off of the entire area. Right now our Dexter herd is up to 19 including calves, steers, and cows ... so, they will need a place to graze and live. We will get going on MiG as soon as we get them on the farm.

Part of the reason to get rid of the ant hills asap and get it short is so we can make hay ... I want to be ready for next winter!

Thanks and keep the good ideas coming if you think of anything...

Rich said...

I forgot to ask in my other comment, but what kind of ants make anthills that are a foot high? I've never seen or heard of anything like that.

Aren't you going to have to find a way to get rid of the ants to stop them from just rebuilding their anthills after you flatten them?

Its interesting what you can learn from a blog like this because I just assumed that all anthills were more or less the same.

Ethan Book said...

Rich - I guess I'm not sure what kind of ants they are, but to say they are just regular ants :) You do have to remember that these ants have had about 14 years to make their homes so they are pretty big! We run into them quite often in CRP ground or areas that haven't been mowed in a long while. You should see a sickle bar mower hit one!

As far as them coming back. Well, yes after we knock them down they will try to rebuild, but they probably won't get anywhere size wise because of the cattle and the hay making.

You are right about the learning thing ... I have learned so much from this blog!!!

Anonymous said...

We had some big anthills in an old fence row years ago, and when we took the fence down and started mowing that ground the ant problem went away.

Congratulations on your property


Yeoman said...

On anthills, at some point somebody is going to suggest "burn them out".


Anthills (including ones that look like this) are often interconnected. Pouring gasoline down them and lighting it can set a whole field ablaze in seconds. You'll strike the match on the hill and flame will shoot up a dozen feet behind you.

Anonymous said...

To some, brambles and berries are weeds. To others, they are locally harvested/organic berries selling for upwards of $3 a pint (with a little care). Could these help you diversify one step further?

Ethan Book said...

Oh yes, we plan on saving the berries and helping them spread! But, some of them may have to be moved to better places so we have room for the livestock.

Thanks Yeoman ... we won't be burning out any ants!

Kramer said...


If I were you I would first do a soil test. See what kind of soil you have as far as PH, Nitrogen, Phosporous, and Potasium levels. Go ahead a pay to have micronutrients analyzed as well. This will help you know what kind of work you will be getting into in the spring.

As far as burning goes, I wouldn't do it. When you get new growth, you will get weeds coming up you didn't know you had. Your switch grass is an awesome warm season grass that will do well with MIG. However, just as in bermuda down here, it is dormant. You can't turn your cows into eat it because they won't. It is rank at this stage. No nutritional value. I would simply bring a shreader in and mow it several times. Not only will you mulch the grass, very good for organic matter, but you will also knock the ant hills down. This will allow your switch grass to come up fresh for summer. I wouldn't interseed anything for your first year because one of the main benefits of MIG and HSDG is that more of your native grasses will naturally come back. Wait a year and see what happens. In the fall, plant you some oats, rye grass, and legume mix if you like. Experiment. This is going to be your labratory for a long time.

As far as the ants go. Get some dry molasses and put it out in your pasture via a spreader. Start off putting about 100# acre which will cost you about $24.00 acre. Might seem like a lot but it works 3 fold. Natura., Runs fire ants off, and feeds micro organisms in your soil. Watch what happens to your plants. Also, when you do MIG, your cows will kick those beds over several times and ants hate disruption. They will eventually give up.

I am fixing to do a post on fencing so keep checking. It might help you when you go to fencing.

JRG said...

Here's another.

Putting cows on this stockpiled forage and utilizing it is the best option. That will put all your manure right back where it needs to be, break the surface thatch so other plants and come up, and brak down the stemmier stuff. All of this at a fraction of the cost of mowing it. Looking at the picture, I'd say it about 60 CDA grass (cow days/acre = CDA) That means one acre could feed 60 cows for one day. If it is predominantly switchgrass, they will probably need a protein supplement.

I would broadcast clover seed out there right away and let the cows tromp it in. Too bad you couldn't have started on this project in January.

Implement MiG and you'll likely have very good pasture in a few years. Switchgrass will thin out and there will be some cool season invasion, but I think that diversity would be an improvment.

Ethan Book said...

JRG - Thanks for the advice. A couple of questions. In my research I had found that switchgrass was most palatable and full of energy when it was 6 inches or less, if I were to burn/mow I would graze when it gets to that point (which also may come at the same time as the fence being up). Do you think it would be better to start of with something better for the cattle instead of having to supplement?

Also, I raise Dexters (short cows with tiny calves). Do you think having them in grass so tall could be a problem (pinkeye, etc.)?

I am waffling back and forth about whether or not to seed the clover right away. I guess I could just wait and see what the precipitation is like ... I would hate to waste seed if we don't get much rain.

And finally, I don't always throw all of the details out there, but this one could factor in. When it comes to the mowing vs. burning debate it could actually be more profitable to mow. My dad is a mower test driver so he could come and mow and get paid for doing it. I just don't know if it would be good to have so much mowing residue on the pasture?

Anonymous said...

Please don't underestimate those anthills!!! When I saw the picture of your child standing on one, I got cold chills. Fire ants (if that's what they are.....and fire ants do build HUGE anthills) can be deadly! Talk to your county extension agent about how to get rid of them ( a fight that will probably be ongoing). My nephew, here in Tennessee, was hospitalized and almost died from numerous fire ant stings.

Anonymous said...

what is MIG & HSDG?

Steven said...

MIG is Management Intensive Grazing and HSDG is High Stock Density Grazing. Both come down to placing cattle on a relatively small area to graze for a short period of time 1/2 day to 3 days. Then moving them off that ground for at least 20 or 30 days. In some places the rest period may be much longer. The basic idea is that the pasture will perform better if it's given plenty of time untouched for regrowth.

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