Friday, February 06, 2009

Think on This...

"Visitors to our farm are often amazed when I tell them we haven't planted a seed in 50 years. No plow, no disk, no planter, no nothing. And yet 50 years ago we could walk the entire farm without stepping on a plant -- that much dirt was between the pasture plants. We grew thistle like a crop, picked buckets of dewberries, and could have cultivated broom sedge seeds as a cash crop. None of those plants can be found today in our pastures."
-Joel Salatin
That is a quote in an article by Mr. Salatin from my sample issue of "Acres U.S.A.". I'm pretty sure I have read the article (and posted on it) before, but I'm not sure if it was just on the Acres website or if "Stockman Grassfarmer" also ran the same article. Either way it is an interesting article about the move that Polyface farm has made towards high density mob grazing of taller pasture swards.

When I read the article this time though this particular quote jumped out at me. I know the reason that it did is because I have thought, and discussed with different people, about the possibilities of seeding in clovers or other things this spring to add to our pastures. But, I think Mr. Salatin would advocate just going with what we have, and by the sounds of it we have more than he did starting out.

What we have now is a mixture of native prairie grasses and switch grasses along with plenty of other invasives in the form of thorny bushes and weeds. Most of these things are warm season grasses and I am a little worried about how they would hold up under a managed intensive grazing system through the year. On the flip side, there was an area that we mowed and in that area I found a few plants of both red and white clover.

Anyone have thoughts on Mr. Salatin's quote and the way they built their pastures?


JRG said...

Back in the mid-80's when we started the process of converting a 260-acre crop farm with a good share of "abandoned" crop land (about as bad as Joel's place) to a grass farm, we left three paddocks as they were and just started grazing. They were full of weeds, dew berries, bare ground, and very little of anything else. They just went into grazing rotation with everything else. It took about ten years for them to become good pasture with no inputs other than grazing management. There were adjacent paddocks where we overseeded red clover and birdsfoot trefoil, but did nothing else, and they became good pasture in 2-5 years. There were other areas we limed, fertilized (P, K, & B, but no N), and seeded to a diverse mixture. They were good pastures in two years and for the most part weren't fertilized again for 10-15 years, and then only with relatively small amounts of P & K. We only used N three times in the 23 years we were on that farm.

At the time we started, some of the no-input pastures were treated that way because I didn't believe I could afford to do the "works". Those early eight years of high production we got from the seeded pastures then paid for everything else we did. Looking back on it, I wonder if not making the improvements is what I really couldn't afford.

Beginning farmers usually have to pay for improvements as income is generated. I suggest you think about doing the works for creating some very productive pasture on your best soil, maybe 15-20% of your total acres, and let that field begin to generate revenue to pay for other pasture improvements. The one improvement you cannot afford not to make is enough permanent subdivision fence that will then allow you to use temporary fences to operate with a daily rotation.


JRG said...

Something else I should have added.

We had some native remant prairie on our Missouri farm. It thrived and increased with MiG. Remember, it is management that is intensified, not grazing per se. MiG is a philosophy, not a recipe. Once you establish your goals, if you have a basic understanding of plant-animal-soil relationships, MiG is an approach that will allow you to accomplish whatever pasture goals you have set.

The MiG term has been bastardized in a lot of different ways and I think fewer than 10% of the people who throw 'MiG' around in their conversations really know what it means.


Mike W. said...

Ethan, Here is what I did when I planted new pasture on a field that had been in a corn and beans rotation when I bought the land.

Seed Finally Ordered

I am doing over-seeding on some of my established pasture to add variety and legumes. This is being done because I can tell a drop-off in production when that pasture is grazed.

We are also reading some books by Newman Turner and looking forward to applying his techniques to my land.

Four book offer on Newman Turner classics!

I would also recommend Reproduction & Animal Health by Gearld Fry.

One of his key concepts is that cattle who are born on your farm will do best on your farm because they are adapted to it.


John said...

My main pasture is 12 acres and was in bean stubble when we moved here last spring. I went to the local FS to have them suggest how to convert this to pasture based on grazing a few horses and some cattle. First, we did soil samples. Surprisingly enough, the soil came out good on the tests and needed no amendments. They then suggested a mix of grasses and clover. I used Duo Festulolium (an endophyte free fescue hybrid for broodmare safety), Red and White clovers and some orchardgrass. We spread it with a ATV and a food plot spreader, and I disc'ed it in lightly. With the huge amount of rain we had last year, the clover was knee high by June. I had to mow it once to knock back some weeds. The clover took over and choked out all the weeds for the rest of the summer.

This was expensive (approx $55 and acre). I was completely unknowing about this but was pleased with the results. I plan to bale some of it this year and rotational graze the rest. I only have 3 calves and 2 horses so not much pressure.

Rich said...

If you have a predominately native grass pasture, is it even possible to have clover present?

Most native prairie grasses should be grazed to a higher residual height than introduced grasses and these taller grass heights (both before grazing and after) will tend to shade out most clovers and make it difficult to establish new plantings.

Wouldn't overseeding with clovers be a technique better suited to recently abandoned cropland? The clover acts as a "pioneering" forage that helps build soil fertility and organic material while the grasses are getting established, then after the perennial grass is established it can take advantage of the fertility present in the subsoil, etc.

On the other hand, if you bale a portion of your pasture every year, won't that create the conditions needed for something like red clover to grow for one season and contribute enough Nitrogen to offset the hay crop and create a 'seed bank' of clover seed waiting for the next cutting of hay?

Anonymous said...


Joel Salatin rotational grazes not just cattle but multiple species on his pastures (chickens, sheep, pigs, etc.). This acts both to keep parasites in check but to fertilize and aerate the soils so different grasses and clovers can flourish.

Please, Ethan, if you can - visit Salatin's farm in Virginia. You can learn so much from him. We have taken his wisdom dealing with many of his farm techniques and applied it to a New England setting. Our pastures were once overgrown and scrub but are now flourishing just by rotational grazing sheep, cattle and chickens. I reseed with a good pasture mix once a year by hand (bare spots only). I buy a 50 lb bag of timothy, clover and trefoil seed yearly for 20 acres. It really works. You do need good fencing for cattle though. It is perhaps the best investment you can make on the farm (besides a good strong barn for shelter and storage of hay in the Midwest).

The one thing that I recommend for you and Becca is to start out small and work your way up. Think things through two to three steps ahead and keep in mind possible pitfalls.

We started our farm three years ago and only this year will our farm be open to sell our eggs, heritage poultry, Icelandic lamb and hierloom vegetables. Do not overdo yourself and do things too quickly as you will burn yourself out.

Best of luck!!!

Jena said...

I can't add much to what the others said as I'm still learning a lot myself. I can only share my experiences.

When I was a kid we converted over 10 acres of soybean stubble to a place for my horse. When I took the horses out of there a year or two ago the pasture was still mostly weeds but had no bare patches and kept the horses fat from May through snowfall without any hay or grain supplemented. All I ever did was brushhog it a few times a year and spread out the manure with a shovel from time to time.

Here at the new farm we started with broken ground in the spring. Brian planted a standard "horse pasture mix" and added in some extra alfalfa. We did bring the horses until fall so it had plenty of time to get established. Unfortunately last year the horses got greedy and kept breaking through the electric partition fences.

This year we'll be maintaining the fence better. I also hope to cut back from 4 horses to 2 and plan on supplementing them with a lot of hay. Then we can use our limited pasture space for the calves, chicken, and sheep.

JRG said...

Rich & others,

My experience with predominantly native grass pastures with interseeded legumes has been very good. Maintaining the desired balance is largely a matter of timing of grazing, adjusting grazing height, and use of fire when cool-seasons get to be more than you want.

Going back to the mid to late-80's again. We seeded some big bluestem and switchgrass and for the first several years we used fire and atrazine to keep it as pure as possible, per recommendations from conservation department. In those days we only got 90-110 cow-days/acre. After 7 or 8 years we decided the use of herbicides was not consistent with our goals so we discontinued that practice and allowed the cool-season invaders to be there. When we reached what I considered to be a very nice mixture, our cow-days/acre went up over 200. Our mid-summer grazings were still 60-70% native grass, but we had a much broader window of use. We burned every 3-5 years to rejuvenate the native grass and set back the cool-seasons as needed. Birdsfoot trefoil was the legume we found most compatible with native grasses. If the native grasses were beginning to dominate more than we wanted, we would stockpile the mixture and strip graze it short in the winter.

This was on prperty I managed, not our own farm. On our place we only had the remnant native prairie, no seeded native grass. We never used herbicides on our own place, but did burn periodically.


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