Regular

Solving the permanent pasture puzzle

By Nathan Weaver, Canastota, New York — Slowly the puzzle of proper grass production from semi-permanent pastures appears to be pieced together.

In the last decade we removed our farm from a forage/grain operation to a forage-only farm. We placed a heavy emphasis on forage harvestable by grazing cows.

Initially we looked at the new varieties of seed that had become recently available. These grass and clover seeds took us a long way beyond what we thought were the perimeters of grazing at that time. Quality feed and good summertime production were the standout improvements over the traditional forages available to us previously.

We loved what the forages did for us. And they served quite effectively as the revealing of the happy truth that cows can be kept well fed, and that there is money to be made from pasture.

But on our farm we also learned that after three to six years, these forages seemed to deteriorate in production, and maintaining stands was becoming difficult. These forages wanted frequent applications of nitrogen to retain quality and quantity. This was especially true the farther away we went from the date of last tillage.

So we saw that if the production and quality of our forages were to be maintained, we would need to renovate our pastures periodically. However, that involved doing two things I don’t especially care for: plowing, and spending money. Plowing, because in all but recent agricultural history it was reserved for grain production only, and spending money because I’m naturally tight-fisted with cash. I was lately accused of being tighter than the bark on a beech tree. I took it as a compliment.

Hence, our search for long-lasting, high-quality, high production pastures. Low-maintenance pastures that have the ability to provide balanced diets for dairy cows without much supplemental feed from April 1 to December 1.

We discovered that the No. 1 inhibitor of both production and quality of native forages is low organic matter in the soils. Unfortunately there is no quick fix to this problem. Fortunately the solution does not cost money. Pulsed grazing over a period of time is the only effective way of accomplishing this.

Also, when we finally understood the importance of maintaining a complete cover on the soil at all times, we no longer overgrazed or over-clipped our pastures. In the first years we thought our grazed pasture should have the appearance of a just-mowed hay field. It was not until we finally got rid of that stigma that our pastures were on an upward scale of performance.

As the organic matter in our soil increases, the water-holding capacities increase greatly as well. We can now go a lot farther into a drought than we could with low organic matter. We also found there is a more even release of nutrients needed for plant production from the high-organic matter soils. In earlier years we could sustain good growth throughout the growing season only by making frequent applications of fertilizer, especially nitrogen.

This synthetic plant food, while supporting good production, promoted poorer-quality forages. We experienced thinner cows, greater reproductive problems, and occasions where I let cows into what looked like fine pasture, only to have them sniff around, turn up their noses, and try to beat me back to the gate.

The second discovery is a recent one: compost. While we had heard a lot about the virtues of composting livestock manures, we had dismissed it as impractical on a large scale. And doubly so for me, who dislikes the machinery necessary for the turning and aerating the pile. I also watched huge piles of raw, straw-laden manure being reduced to a few wheelbarrow loads of the stuff bait shops sold night crawlers in.

However, the last few autumns we had some manure left over from the previous winter’s bedding pack that had largely turned to compost by the time we got it out on the fields. Eureka! Here it was – a perfect plant food that could be applied anytime during the growing season, with no animal refusal, that had a very sustained release of perfectly balanced, stable nutrients, that did not threaten to pollute streams, and did not stink up the neighborhood. Soil microbes live for it, the manure spreader thinks it’s on a gravy train, acres can be covered with a few loads … plus there may be some good points to it as well!

We think this may be one of the missing links for great summer production. Yes, raw manure can be used for good summertime production, but applied too thickly there is greater chance of animal refusal. Applied in the fall there is a chance of wintertime leaching from a more unstable product. Plus the rapid release of this fertilizer triggers an explosive spring growth that peters down by mid-summer.

With the advent of the composted bedding pack knowledge, we now have a double incentive to create compost. Not only will it keep cows clean during the winter housing periods, it will save (although only slightly) on bedding costs. By stirring the bedding pack daily during the winter, come spring you have compost ready-made. On the fields that were cut for hay, we then mix compost with feeding area scrapings, and apply this to compensate for the nutrients we removed as hay.

We have the luxury of having access to chicken litter, which we are applying in ever-lessening amounts as the soil fertility arrives to where we would like it to be. We hope to back off from this even more because the potassium levels in the forages are creating milk fever in our freshening cows.

And finally, on our march to self-sufficiency, we discovered we could make more money unencumbered with a bunch of numbers that supposedly reflected what was going on in our soils. Farmers should be able to observe what macro-nutrient is lacking in perennial forages.

The micro-nutrients always come in about the same anyway. In North Central Ohio we are naturally low in copper, zinc, boron, and sulfur. We might do well to add these minerals to our soils. Then again, until someone can come up with solid, convincing evidence to prove that these additives will improve plant and animal performance over what we already are experiencing, we will refuse to look at them on our farm. No one has yet accepted this challenge.

We have also discontinued liming our soils. We know our soils to be naturally sweet, high-lime soils. Why should we be adding lime on soils that naturally maintained an ideal pH for eons? This theory does not apply to tilled soils, but our own experience, plus that of well respected grass farming neighbors, has left me with some confidence in this deduction. We may be headed for a train wreck, but why is the train gaining speed?

As our pastures revert back to more native species, we find we can do with these what we thought could only be accomplished with short-term, exotic grasses. The whole difference lies in that in our pursuit for low-input, environmentally friendly solutions to production problems, we discovered that a great many of these solutions could be found in our own backyard. For too long the American farmer has taken his advice from people with products to sell. That must change if we want to change our fortunes.

There are three things I want you to know. One is that we will still on occasion renovate our pastures, and when we do we will use the improved varieties. Mostly for diversity on the farm, the white clovers we can purchase are an improvement over the native clovers.

The second thing is that it takes a lot of time to earn the right to operate like this. Until you do so, you can create some very good pastures with improved varieties of seed, and with fertilizer.

The third is that buying in relatively cheap feed to supplement your animals is the fastest way to get soil fertility to a higher plane. Right now we have the unique ability to make money on purchased feed, while improving labor efficiency and increasing soil fertility to boot. But that phenomenon could rapidly be coming to a close. Act now.

Nathan Weaver milks cows near Canastota, New York.

August-September 2006

Solving the permanent pasture puzzle

By Nathan Weaver, Canastota, New York — Slowly the puzzle of proper grass production from semi-permanent pastures appears to be pieced together.

In the last decade we removed our farm from a forage/grain operation to a forage-only farm. We placed a heavy emphasis on forage harvestable by grazing cows.

Initially we looked at the new varieties of seed that had become recently available. These grass and clover seeds took us a long way beyond what we thought were the perimeters of grazing at that time. Quality feed and good summertime production were the standout improvements over the traditional forages available to us previously.

We loved what the forages did for us. And they served quite effectively as the revealing of the happy truth that cows can be kept well fed, and that there is money to be made from pasture.

But on our farm we also learned that after three to six years, these forages seemed to deteriorate in production, and maintaining stands was becoming difficult. These forages wanted frequent applications of nitrogen to retain quality and quantity. This was especially true the farther away we went from the date of last tillage.

So we saw that if the production and quality of our forages were to be maintained, we would need to renovate our pastures periodically. However, that involved doing two things I don’t especially care for: plowing, and spending money. Plowing, because in all but recent agricultural history it was reserved for grain production only, and spending money because I’m naturally tight-fisted with cash. I was lately accused of being tighter than the bark on a beech tree. I took it as a compliment.

Hence, our search for long-lasting, high-quality, high production pastures. Low-maintenance pastures that have the ability to provide balanced diets for dairy cows without much supplemental feed from April 1 to December 1.

We discovered that the No. 1 inhibitor of both production and quality of native forages is low organic matter in the soils. Unfortunately there is no quick fix to this problem. Fortunately the solution does not cost money. Pulsed grazing over a period of time is the only effective way of accomplishing this.

Also, when we finally understood the importance of maintaining a complete cover on the soil at all times, we no longer overgrazed or over-clipped our pastures. In the first years we thought our grazed pasture should have the appearance of a just-mowed hay field. It was not until we finally got rid of that stigma that our pastures were on an upward scale of performance.

As the organic matter in our soil increases, the water-holding capacities increase greatly as well. We can now go a lot farther into a drought than we could with low organic matter. We also found there is a more even release of nutrients needed for plant production from the high-organic matter soils. In earlier years we could sustain good growth throughout the growing season only by making frequent applications of fertilizer, especially nitrogen.

This synthetic plant food, while supporting good production, promoted poorer-quality forages. We experienced thinner cows, greater reproductive problems, and occasions where I let cows into what looked like fine pasture, only to have them sniff around, turn up their noses, and try to beat me back to the gate.

The second discovery is a recent one: compost. While we had heard a lot about the virtues of composting livestock manures, we had dismissed it as impractical on a large scale. And doubly so for me, who dislikes the machinery necessary for the turning and aerating the pile. I also watched huge piles of raw, straw-laden manure being reduced to a few wheelbarrow loads of the stuff bait shops sold night crawlers in.

However, the last few autumns we had some manure left over from the previous winter’s bedding pack that had largely turned to compost by the time we got it out on the fields. Eureka! Here it was – a perfect plant food that could be applied anytime during the growing season, with no animal refusal, that had a very sustained release of perfectly balanced, stable nutrients, that did not threaten to pollute streams, and did not stink up the neighborhood. Soil microbes live for it, the manure spreader thinks it’s on a gravy train, acres can be covered with a few loads … plus there may be some good points to it as well!

We think this may be one of the missing links for great summer production. Yes, raw manure can be used for good summertime production, but applied too thickly there is greater chance of animal refusal. Applied in the fall there is a chance of wintertime leaching from a more unstable product. Plus the rapid release of this fertilizer triggers an explosive spring growth that peters down by mid-summer.

With the advent of the composted bedding pack knowledge, we now have a double incentive to create compost. Not only will it keep cows clean during the winter housing periods, it will save (although only slightly) on bedding costs. By stirring the bedding pack daily during the winter, come spring you have compost ready-made. On the fields that were cut for hay, we then mix compost with feeding area scrapings, and apply this to compensate for the nutrients we removed as hay.

We have the luxury of having access to chicken litter, which we are applying in ever-lessening amounts as the soil fertility arrives to where we would like it to be. We hope to back off from this even more because the potassium levels in the forages are creating milk fever in our freshening cows.

And finally, on our march to self-sufficiency, we discovered we could make more money unencumbered with a bunch of numbers that supposedly reflected what was going on in our soils. Farmers should be able to observe what macro-nutrient is lacking in perennial forages.

The micro-nutrients always come in about the same anyway. In North Central Ohio we are naturally low in copper, zinc, boron, and sulfur. We might do well to add these minerals to our soils. Then again, until someone can come up with solid, convincing evidence to prove that these additives will improve plant and animal performance over what we already are experiencing, we will refuse to look at them on our farm. No one has yet accepted this challenge.

We have also discontinued liming our soils. We know our soils to be naturally sweet, high-lime soils. Why should we be adding lime on soils that naturally maintained an ideal pH for eons? This theory does not apply to tilled soils, but our own experience, plus that of well respected grass farming neighbors, has left me with some confidence in this deduction. We may be headed for a train wreck, but why is the train gaining speed?

As our pastures revert back to more native species, we find we can do with these what we thought could only be accomplished with short-term, exotic grasses. The whole difference lies in that in our pursuit for low-input, environmentally friendly solutions to production problems, we discovered that a great many of these solutions could be found in our own backyard. For too long the American farmer has taken his advice from people with products to sell. That must change if we want to change our fortunes.

There are three things I want you to know. One is that we will still on occasion renovate our pastures, and when we do we will use the improved varieties. Mostly for diversity on the farm, the white clovers we can purchase are an improvement over the native clovers.

The second thing is that it takes a lot of time to earn the right to operate like this. Until you do so, you can create some very good pastures with improved varieties of seed, and with fertilizer.

The third is that buying in relatively cheap feed to supplement your animals is the fastest way to get soil fertility to a higher plane. Right now we have the unique ability to make money on purchased feed, while improving labor efficiency and increasing soil fertility to boot. But that phenomenon could rapidly be coming to a close. Act now.

Nathan Weaver milks cows near Canastota, New York.

608-455-3311