Grass Farmer

You may boast of your amber waves of grain, but today’s progressive livestock owner is really a grass farmer. And, of course, we’re talking much more than lawns!

There’s the old-school playpen method to pasturing, where animals are given a large area to roam at will, returning to the same space day after day. What happens with this method is that the animals pick through the spacious pasture, eating all the “candy” and leaving the “spinach.” Eventually, the candy is overgrazed, the spinach all goes to seed, and the pasture is overtaken by the spinach, leaving it unpalatable for the livestock. Clumps of grass grow tall where manure piles, which they won’t eat either because of the smell, and invasives like spotted knapweed and burdock move in. After a while, that lovely playpen is a real mess! (And the farmer ends up having to feed hay all year because there’s no forage nutrition in the pasture).

Ruminants like sheep and cows and goats are meant to eat grasses as their main dietary source—that’s why they have that complex four-stomach system. Even other livestock like horses and poultry and pigs benefit greatly from the nutrition in fresh green forage. So, what are some ways we can defeat the playpen syndrome and build strong, viable pastures?

First, we have to overcome the spinach/candy problem. This doesn’t mean eradicating the spinach (though you have to pull out those invasives) because we all know that spinach is packed with important nutrition, even if it isn’t everyone’s favorite. In essence, the livestock need a balanced nutrition that includes eating the candy AND the spinach. This can be accomplished through mob grazing, which mimics the tendencies of wild herds of bison or elk. The group sticks together on a relatively small space per animal (which offers safety from predators), eats down everything in that section, spreads their manure, and then moves onto the next plot.

All the forages have been trimmed evenly, hoof activity stimulates the root system, and the free fertilizer spikes the nitrogen. The animals are moved the next day to a new section of the pasture, and the cycle begins again. Topsoil is regenerated and the balance of forages is maintained. On our farm, the sheep are excited every morning to head out to a new paddock, formed of flexible Electronet fencing that can be pulled out and rearranged into new shapes by hand. In the spring, paddocks are small given the intense lushness of the forage, whereas by autumn, each pen is larger as the forages thin and overgrazing before winter must be avoided.

Belle, the guard donkey, follows in paddocks immediately left by the sheep, clipping any stalky bits left behind. If given lush pasture, she could founder or become obese, so the scarcity is good for her overall health and keeps her near the flock she is protecting from predators.

The poultry pull up the rear, devouring bugs, scratching up the manure, and enjoying clovers and grasses with surprising voracity. They too spread their nitrogen-rich manure, leaving dense, green patches after a few rains marking where they had grazed in their chicken tractors. For stubbornly unproductive patches in the pasture, we’ve even used the pigs to build new topsoil, disking and replanting after their tenure.

Really, the best thing for the farm is the animals, and the best thing for the animals is the grass. Together, they’ve strengthened the pastures and our ability to graze more sheep on the same acreage. But we’re certainly still learning.

Last week, Woody Lane, who is a nutritionalist and grazing specialist from the state of Oregon, joined us with a number of UW Extension agents and other livestock producers for a pasture walk on our farm. The group looked at the different species growing in the field and sword (leaf) density. They pulled out chucks of sod to look at the nitrogen-fixing nodules on clover roots. The value of grazing multiple species and the start of our silvopasture project were also key points of interest.

Our next hurtle on the farm will be balancing the pH and potassium levels, both of which are low and cannot be regained just through grazing technique. Woody Lane was able to give us some helpful pointers with regards on what to spread, when, and how it will help improve the pastures. This is especially true of our southern hayfield, which is in dire need of revitalization attention and is next on the pasture project list (along with continuing the development of the silvopasture).

But having pasture walks with nationally known guest speakers like Woody Lane or Joel Salatin also helps affirm that we are on the right path with intensive, rotational grazing of multiple species. It is certainly more labor intensive that freestall barn loafing and feeding pre-processed TMR (Total Mixed Ration) that is meant to “bypass the rumen”—what? Let them go and pick their own food today. It’s much healthier, and they want to do it!

If you were a sheep or cow, would you rather have pulverized fermented grain, brewer’s waste, and chicken manure? Or would you rather be out in the sunny pasture munching on mixed salad? Well, it wouldn’t take me long to decide that I’d rather live with a grass farmer. See you down on the farm sometime.