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VT Pasture Network

Grazing sequentially vs. pasture skipping

Posted: November 14th, 2014 by VT Pasture Network

Juan P. Alvez | Pasture Technical Coordinator, Center for Sustainable Agriculture – UVM Extension

Sequential grazing via strips or paddocks

Sequential grazing via strips or paddocks

 

For many livestock farmers, grazing pastures and paddocks in a simple, sequential order may be tempting.

It can be an uncomplicated way to keep track of where animals have been. It is admittedly easy to set up a large pasture and to move those fences, strip grazing as they go from start to finish, especially during early spring, when forage growth is so hard to keep up.  During this period, sequential grazing may be an acceptable approach, especially if animals are able to graze the top 20 to 50% of the plants and move quickly, staying for very short occupation periods.

However, in some cases this approach may mean missed opportunities to maximize forage efficiency, soil health and animal growth, which are key goals of optimal pasture management.

Livestock producers deal with an array of interacting variables: seasons, weather, soils, forage types, animal categories and management. Their cycles of resting, feeding and reproduction happen dynamically, mandated by seasons and weather, and affect pasture growth.

    Cows grazing on a paddock. To the right, previously grazed paddock; to the left, paddock to be grazed.

Cows grazing on a paddock. To the left, previously grazed paddock; to the right, paddock to be grazed.

But, why might following a sequential rotation not be the best approach in rotational grazing?

Sequentially rotating livestock means moving animals in a static sequence throughout pastures, either via fixed paddocks or by strip grazing. While rotating animals using electric fence and smaller paddocks has been practiced since the end of the last century, some grazing cattle producers still graze their animals following fixed rotations. Arguably, sequentially moving animals throughout a pasture is similar to establishing a fixed rotation, allotting animals fixed areas. Sometimes this leads to fixed occupation and rest periods. If a sequential rotation is repeated too often and without doing grazing math, it may compromise mid-to late season pasture production because it takes away flexibility regarding seasons or forage availability.

Grazing wherever forages are ready sometimes means not following an orderly sequence

Grazing wherever forages are ready sometimes means not following an orderly sequence

Forage production tends to slow down and shrink over time along the season. To make up for the scarcity, some either graze for too long or even too close to the ground (thus overgrazing), producing u­nfinished animals or causing health problems.

Paddock Skipping

Pasture skipping: cows move where forage is most ready to be grazed rather than sequentially. Observation, measurements and grazing math are key to master this skill.

Every inch of forage that is unnecessarily grazed weakens the photosynthesis capacity of the remaining leaves and pastures can take weeks to recover. Recovery of overgrazed forages forces the plants to draw from stores of carbohydrates (sugars) stored in the roots. If this practice is reiterated, the root structure becomes depleted, and the risk of soil exposure to the elements can ultimately lead to the erosion of the soil that farmers work so hard to build.

Skipping pastures where forage is ready to graze may entail more labor by moving animals to the right place, a few times a day. However, it is a no-cost opportunity to enhance both soil and animal health as your livestock is able to harvest more forage in its optimum stage, while also extending the grazing season. (Plus the answer to a need for a bit more labor can even be easily solved remotely, pre-setting a few Batt-Latch automatic gate openers.)

 

 

Life and soil minerals

Posted: October 2nd, 2014 by VT Pasture Network

Juan P. Alvez | Pasture Technical Coordinator, Center for Sustainable Agriculture – UVM Extension

Since the onset of agriculture, successful farming has meant the extraction of minerals from soil as plants grow. A relatively small world population and a vast agricultural frontier made this seem a problem of minor consideration and until relatively recently, Planet Earth seemed infinite!

Image by: http://www.healthylife-healthyplanet.com/essential-minerals.html

Plants may look the same, but some depleted agricultural soils may lack important minerals.

However, today many health professionals agree that even human health relates to the minerals present or, lacking in the soil. Depleted soils can exacerbate metabolic diseases that may unlock an array of health consequences. “Animals and humans are the biochemical picture of the soil”, said Andre Voisin, in his “Soil, Grass and Cancer” book. This approach shows us that an imbalanced equation, with foods grown in poor-quality soils, cannot produce positive results in living organisms.

Minerals and other micronutrients become available in the soil very slowly. It takes millions of years for rocks to break down, generations of animal carcasses to decompose and return their constituent elements to the soil. But what takes millions of years can be depleted in a geologically relative instant.   This happens because crops and animals that grow every year in our farmlands, draw upon the minerals for their growth (present in carcasses and grains), and these “withdrawals” are rarely re-deposited. In the last 150 years, the rate ­­­of extraction of soil minerals, from crops to livestock, has been far greater than what has been put back in. To complicate this scenario even more, most agricultural soils are back on production shortly after a new season starts, extracting yet more nutrients from an already depleted system.

It’s true that soil amendments are frequently applied by many farmers.  But when amended, soils usually receive tiny, effectively homeopathic amounts, and these are frequently in the form of synthetic fertilizers or raw manure, compared to the considerably large quantities removed. These applications mainly replenish macronutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium) and are usually catered to a given crop. This is far from enough. Micronutrients such as, calcium, iron, magnesium, boron, zinc, etc., are as important or more for diverse life functions, (included human health), but they are usually the first to be neglected.

Ideally, minerals should be processed -ingested and digested- by soil microorganisms (e.g. bacteria, fungi, nematodes and earthworms), and aggregated into organic matter before they can be healthily absorbed through the food chain. Most soils contain micronutrients, but they are considered healthy, when living organisms are present. All these creatures need water to mobilize minerals, and water is more successfully held in soils that remain covered.

What can farmers’ do?

To promote a healthy cycle in your farm:

  • Perform a soil test, consult with a soil professional and see what is missing.
  • Avoid practices that disturb the soil. Revolved soils burn organic matter, hold less water and become inhospitable for soil life.
  • Retire the plow. Paint it, make a decoration reminding the times when we did not understand how aggressive this tool was.
  • Use minimum or, no-till practices; they will preserve, soil structure and function.
  • Use composted manure or any reliable compost.
  • Amend compost piles manually, by sprinkling micro minerals -to the pile or row-, before turning. This can be easily done as the pile grows and it will avoid operation costs of spreading them separated. When composted, spread it in the field.
  • Adopt grazing, no-till cropping and fallow periods, in adequate sequence.
  • Rotating high-stock density grazing animals for short periods is among the most efficient and effective way to incorporate nutrients back overtime. Grazing animals can do most of the work themselves but, they won’t open the gates.

Organic matter will buffer and catalyze mineral absorption. In the end, a living soil plays an essential role, enabling important ecosystem processes and functions such as, creating structure, binding the soil together, helping mobilize minerals and producing benefits from nutrition, health, climate regulation, yields and pleasant landscapes.

Batt-Latch: “Set it and forget it!”

Posted: July 14th, 2014 by VT Pasture Network

Juan P. Alvez | Pasture Technical Coordinator, Center for Sustainable Agriculture – UVM Extension

A Batt-Latch automatic gate opener

A Batt-Latch automatic gate opener

Being a farmer is simply one of the busiest human activities so, what grazing farmer wouldn’t benefit from an automatic gate opener?

We recently learned about this useful device with the ability to automatically open gates. It is called a ‘Batt-Latch.’ A Batt-Latch is an electronic locking device (developed by NZ company Jenquip), that incorporates a timer that can release the gate latch at a specified time to open a gate into another paddock. It’s a solar-powered all-weather device that releases an attached spring-gate or tape-gate at a preset time, and is especially suited to the release of grazing animals in pastured and feedlot situations.

With the addition of an optional pipe gate adapter, the Batt-Latch can be used to open almost any type of farm gate. Besides grazing stock applications, it can be used for release of free-range chickens and almost any application that can be initiated by a mechanical switch or release.

Once trained, animals quickly learn to move themselves onto the next paddock. A series of Batt-Latch units can be set up increasing animal moves daily, enhancing grazing efficiency and saving farmers’ precious time.

How does it work?

Once you know how many animals will graze a given area and you have calculated how much dry matter per day is available for their needs, preset paddocks can be established in sequence. Batt-Latch devices are placed to secure the gate of each paddock. Once the timer completes its cycle the latch opens, releasing the gate, allowing animals to walk into the new paddock. Animals will learn quickly and will move themselves as many times a day as the Batt-Latches are set, increasing forage efficiency and animal gain..

This way, farmers can have time to do other chores without worrying that animals won’t have enough to graze. This video, by David Nortunen at Hidden Vue Farm in northern WI, shows how the process works.

With a Batt-Latch device, livestock producers have the convenience of relying on an electronic device to automatically move cows to the next pasture. It can be set up the same morning or the day before.

What doesn’t it do?

There is no electronic device that can monitor pasture’s growth and development and make management decisions for the grazing farmer. For that reason, farmers still need to walk their pastures in order to keep the best sense of their animals’ and forage availability. A Batt-Latch will be very good at doing what is programmed to do: opening the gate at the pre-set time.

Have you explored different successful forage management ideas? You can share them dropping us a line at the UVM Pasture Program:

Juan Alvez (jalvez@uvm.edu); Kimberly Hagen (kimberly.hagen@uvm.edu) and, Jennifer Colby (jcolby@uvm.edu)

Developing Vermont’s Swine Industry

Posted: June 27th, 2014 by VT Pasture Network

Snug Valley Farm's Ben Notterman and the Pasture Program's Jenn Colby.

Snug Valley Farm’s Ben Notterman and the Pasture Program’s Jenn Colby.

Great news to announce! The Pasture Program was a recent recipient of a Working Lands Enterprise Grant focused on support and expansion of profitable, environmentally beneficial and well-managed swine production.  This partnership with NOFA-VT will work on creating greater connection between existing experienced and new swine producers at all sizes and stages of growth; offering educational opportunities for producers to learn more about swine nutrition, health, housing, and value-added products; and developing further tools and options to help future expansion be successful.

To learn more about the 2014 Working Lands Enterprise Board Entrepreneur and Service Provider awards, click here.

Some of the farm partners we are very excited to continue working with are the Nottermans.  Helm, Nancy, and their son Ben (right) selling grass-fed Holstein beef and pastured pigs.  In the past three years, their pork business has grown by 900% and represent a new wave of Vermont farms using a direct-market approach to bring high quality meats to restaurants and farmers’ markets.

Pastured pigs at Snug Valley Farm

Pastured pigs at Snug Valley Farm

To learn more about the Nottermans’ Snug Valley Farm, see their Across the Fence television program from 2013, featuring Michigan State Swine Specialist Dale Rozeboom, or read this article about them in On Pasture.

The project will really get rolling in July, but if you are a swine producer (or know someone who is), feel free to visit the Pasture Program’s swine page to learn more, or contact Jenn Colby.  One of our first orders of business will be to gather a database of as many interested folks as possible for targeted outreach and educational events.

 

Pasture management: Rhizobia and Nitrogen

Posted: May 28th, 2014 by VT Pasture Network

Juan P. Alvez | Pasture Technical Coordinator, Center for Sustainable Agriculture – UVM Extension

Nitrogen is undisputedly, one of the most important macronutrients for plant growth, and a process invented by Haber-Bosh (Image 1) made it possible to produce nitrogen out of “thin air” and bag it to be applied in farm fields. Manufacturing fertilizer via Haber-Bosch requires vast amounts of energy (up to 3,600 psi of pressure and up to 1,022 ̊F). This is required to sever the nitrogen triple bond and combine it with hydrogen to form ammonia.

haber-bosch

Image 1. Fritz Haber and Carl Bosch

You must be speculating how plants did to obtain nitrogen before this ambitiously engineered process was invented. If you thought ‘germs or microbes’ have anything to do with it, you got it very close. Although, you certainly remember your mom asking you to wash your hands (to avoid contamination with germs) before dinner. Microbes can also be great allies!

Soils also have many allies. For example, a soil bacterium genus Rhizobia, synergistically associates with legume roots to form a mutually beneficial partnership where rhizobia infects legume roots looking for the necessary energy (stored in plant sugars or carbohydrates). In return, rhizobia is able to sequester nitrogen from the atmosphere, making it available to plants for free. This is equivalent to having a nitrogen factory right in you farm!

To obtain this benefit, if specific soil bacteria is not present in the soil, it is necessary to inoculate legume seeds. Each legume seed has its own preferred rhizobia (e.g.: Clovers like “Rhizobium trifolii”).

The inoculation process

Rhizobium nodule Vicia_sepium

Image 2. Symbiosis between rhizobia and legumes roots cause pinkish nodules. Rhizobia benefits from sugars exudated by roots. Plants absorb nitrogen captureed and processed by rhizobia.

To inoculate, proceed by placing legume seeds in a bucket in the case of small quantities, or in a flat surface (it could be a swiped barn floor or on a tarp). In a clean container, mix warm water with inoculant and sugar to activate the rhizobium. Sugar will provide the stickiness to glue inoculant and seed. Next form a mound with the legume seeds. Open a “hole” in the middle of the seed mound and slowly start pouring the warm sweet gooey mix of rhizobia inoculant. Gently mix it with a shovel. Lastly, sprinkle lime over the mound until seeds get a whitish dry coat. This will also prevent the gooey stickiness from being transferred into the seeder forming clumps. When the mix is dry and loose, seed it. For more information, check this factsheet.

In general, establishing forage species can be as simple as broadcasting them in a pasture strip (by hand or with a spreader) just before animals are to be moved to a new strip or pasture. Use animals to briefly walk around the strip or paddock to promote seed-to-soil soil contact to stimulate better germination rates. This is the most inexpensive way to get legumes and nitrogen in your pastures however, be aware that rates of germination could be lower than when compared to no-till or tilling methods.

A good way to determine whether your legumes are infected with good nitrogen-fixing bacteria is to dig its roots to find round “pinkish” nodules (Image 2). Inoculated legumes will show a darker green color compared to non-inoculated ones, indicating the presence of nitrogen fixing bacteria.

The Haber-Bosh process granted its inventors two Nobel Prices, and was arguably one of the highest contributions to humanity in the last 200 years because, it enabled the production of nitrogen fertilizer which helped increased food production, allowing population to rise to a current 7 billion.

Rhizobia on the other hand, naturally fixes atmospheric nitrogen in the soil at a room temperature and everyday pressure. It is by no means a simple process and it is free.

Have you explored different successful forage management ideas? You can share them dropping us a line at the UVM Pasture Program:

Juan Alvez (jalvez@uvm.edu); Kimberly Hagen (kimberly.hagen@uvm.edu) and, Jennifer Colby (jcolby@uvm.edu)

Pasture management: perennial or annual forages?

Posted: May 19th, 2014 by VT Pasture Network

Juan P. Alvez | Pasture Technical Coordinator, Center for Sustainable Agriculture – UVM Extension

One of the questions grazing farmers often ask are, what type of forages will grow well on their farms or, which will best suit their livestock?  It’s probably no surprise that the simple answer is “lots of them!” as oppose to one or two annuals. Thus, most grazing farmers should aim for as much forage diversity as possible, trying different arrangements and combinations. When several species are present, the diversity and competition among them will build pasture’s resiliency.  Different species will be able to thrive under different conditions and animals will be better able to withstand unexpected events such as an extended drought, or heavier than normal rains. In general, the highest benefits come from perennial species, because they are able to re-grow after being sheared by a machine or grazed by animals. When well-managed, perennial pastures can and will yield excellent production. To set up your pasture rotation you can start with this pasture worksheet based on Bill Murphy’s research and prepared by Lisa McCrory). In general, the greater the variety of perennial pastures, the better the nutrition that will last along the growing season, helping diversify your herd’s diet without significantly increasing costs.

Benefits of well-managed perennial pastures

An unturned perennial pasture sod will not only feed livestock through forage that will be further converted to dairy, meat or wool, but also provides many valuable ecosystem services, including: erosion control, nutrient cycling, soil formation, carbon sequestration and sink, prevent nutrient runoff, catch soil sediments and water quality. 

What species to use?

An ideal forage pasture sward should include three main categories: grasses, legumes, and forbs. In general, legumes provide proteins, (which are the building blocks for animal growth), and increase total digestible nutrients (TDN). Grasses mostly deliver energy via carbohydrates (sugars). Forbs (some known as weeds), provide vitamins and vital compounds. Be careful with poisonous plants animals might not be aware. Establishing forage species can be as simple as broadcasting them in a pasture strip (by hand or with machinery) just before animals are to be moved to a new strip or pasture. That way, animals can briefly walk around the strip or paddock to promote seed-soil contact and stimulate better germination. Remember that legumes need some special preparation (i.e.: inoculation) for maximum benefit (see next post, and check this factsheet). Annual or biennial forage species can provide feed supplementation for grazing animals in times when some perennial pastures decline production. A practice that can be adopted is deferring or reserving sections of perennial pastures for later in the season and take advantage of the bulk energy and nutrition provided by annual forage species. In general, in the Northeast, annuals are best provided during mid to late-Summer, to help overcome dry spells and during Fall, to extend the grazing season (see Fig. 1 and previous post).

Forage growth chart

Figure 1. Common NE forage species growth chart. Click image to enlarge. (Forage growth chart by Virginia Tech University)

Common forage species for the Northeast

Annual, warm season forage species that work well in the Northeast are pearl millet, Sudangrass and Sorgum. Brassicas can be also added to the mix. Annuals can be seeded down around mid-June –weather permitting-, and grazed or cut 30 to 45 days later, providing bulk feed (sometimes two cuts) in times when not much forage is available. At the same time, this practice could provide a breather or further rest to existing perennial pastures which, may need extra time to fully recover for the last grazing in the Fall. Fall annual grain forage crops like, triticale, oats barley and wheat can provide grain and grazing purposes. For more information about annuals in the Northeast, please visit UVM NW Crop and Soils Program.

Cool season recommended forage species are: timothy, orchardgrass, brome, festulolium, rye grass, tall and meadow fescue (Table 1). An important reminder about tall fescue: Tall fescue can be infected with an endophyte fungus that will release an alkaloid that would protect the plant. However, it may cause animals’ to suffer fescue toxicosis making them susceptible to heat stress. Heat stress will cause animals to find a cool spot in the paddock (e.g.: shade, pond) reducing their grazing intake and producing less. To minimize this, you may not want to give your animals just fescue but, a good mix of forages. A great deal of information on species characteristics, management and adaptation can be found at UVM Crops and Soils page.

Table 1: List of some common forage species suitable for the Northeast.

Grasses Timothy (Phleum pratense) Tall Fescue (Festuca sativae) Rye Grass (Lolium repens) Brome (Bromus inermis) Reed Canary (phalaris arundinacea) Festulolium
Legumes White clover (Trifolium repens) Red Clover (Trifolium vulgaris) Alfalfa (Medicago sativae) Birdsfoot Trefoil (Lotus corniculatus) Vetch (Vicia) Alsike Clover (Trifolium hybridum)
Forbs Dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) Plantain (Plantago major L.) Buckhorn Plantain, Plantago lanceolata L.) Bull Thisle (Cirsium vulgare) Milk weed (Asclepias)

The take-away messages?

  • Carefully walk and observe pastures and practice dynamic management under rotation, as needed;
  • Go perennial, go diverse. Encourage perennial pastures because they provide the most valuable resources and only need sunshine, water, nutrients and adequate rest after being grazed or machine cut;
  • Inoculate your legumes;
  • Avoid plowing.

Have you explored different successful forage ideas? You can share them dropping us a line at the UVM Pasture Program:

Juan Alvez (jalvez@uvm.edu); Kimberly Hagen (kimberly.hagen@uvm.edu) and, Jennifer Colby (jcolby@uvm.edu)

Pasture Management: Extending the Grazing Season

Posted: April 15th, 2014 by VT Pasture Network

By: Juan P. Alvez | Pasture Technical Coordinator

IMG_2741

Cows grazing on permanent pastures, following a tumble-wheel fence

UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture

Farming requires mental and physical involvement in the complex management of the soil, plants, animals, people, equipment, weather and markets. While this complexity is constantly changing, problems can sometimes become opportunities. Then, anything livestock producers can do to keep animals rotationally grazing for as long as possible, will return lower costs and higher benefits in general. Exceptions should be made during extreme cold and wind, of course.

A common challenge when trying to extend the grazing season is that, in northeastern United States, grazing does not last the entire year, but it can be extended if carefully planned.

Generally, it is safe to assume that we can count on a grazing season that goes from April until September (though grazing through October or early November may be possible, depending upon a grazing plan (see Troy Bishop’s grazing charts and planning resources), well-managed pastures, and the use of annual forage supplementation before feeding hay bales. ‘Well-managed’ means, rationally rotating high stock density through small paddock areas, for periods not exceeding 2 or 3 days, leaving these resting behind with about 4 inches of trampled forage residue.

Pasture is dynamic. While extending the grazing season and increasing productivity and net profits are common challenges, a recommended approach (other than encouraging as many forage-adapted species as possible), is to manage the sward dynamically and with flexibility because, pasture farming is dynamic. This flexible management must also be observed with the animals.

Beidler072309 036

Cows grazing on Japanese Millet (warm season grass) at Beidler’s Farm.

For example, strategically promoting long rest periods in some areas of the farm at times, may encourage natural seeding, root development, soil health and habitat for beneficial fauna. Or, heavily grazing down other areas of the farm may advantageously help re-balance forage species. Stockpiled forage for later winter grazing in fallowed areas or winter “bale grazing” must also be used with flexibility.

It is important to match forage quality and intake to animal needs because, certain animals that require higher nutritional demands must graze the best relative forage quality. For example, milking or breeding cows have different nutrient demands than dry animal or heifers thus, milking or breeding cows must receive the best pastures.

Moreover, a sustained production, will depend on full time dedication and constant access to reliable information. For this and other reasons, grazers must walk their pastures, observe their animals, take notesand if possible pictures.

Suggested Strategies for Extending the Grazing Season

Stockpiled

Permanent pastures stockpiled in May (left), and recently grazed in early December (right).

  • April to September: Graze most of the pastures normally;
  • June: Between the first and second hay cut, reserve a few paddocks for seeding warm season annual species to be grazed late in the summer when is dry. This bulk production can last through the end of August (high yields may need fertilization), providing one or two cuts or grazings;
  • August: Defer a few paddocks for winter, stockpiling forages by fencing animals out;
  • September: 3 weeks before the killing frost, seed winter annuals; the area left by the warm season species could be an option to use. Winter annual forages can extend the season another 30 or 60 days.
  • Strip-graze the stockpiled forages deferred in August; when finished, feed the hay bales harvested until the next Spring.

Have you explored different ideas to extend your grazing season? If you want to share them, drop us a line at the UVM Pasture Program:

Jennifer Colby (jcolby@uvm.edu)

Juan Alvez (jalvez@uvm.edu) and,

Kimberly Hagen (kimberly.hagen@uvm.edu)

IMGP2512

Winter feed

 

Conference Celebrates, Connects Northeast Livestock Farmers

Posted: March 14th, 2014 by VT Pasture Network

 

A low-stress livestock handling student practices what she's just learned.

A low-stress livestock handling student practices what she’s just learned.

Given the latest snow storm, January seems like just yesterday.  Sounds like a good time to share updates from the 18th Annual Vermont Grazing and Livestock Conference.  Over 350 farmers, feeder dealers, technical assistance providers, and environmental managers attended the two-day event held at Lake Morey Resort.  Workshops and events included live animal demonstrations, rainfall simulation (in January!), group discussions about climate change, forage quality, soil health, business planning, and much more.

Highlights of the conference were described by many as the keynote speaker Ben Bartlett, the ability to interact with other grass-based and livestock farmers, and “getting new and applicable information”. One attendee said: “Great gathering of people committed to the improvement of the

Three goat farmers smiling together and enjoying Strafford Creamery ice cream.  From left, Calley Hastings, Laura Olsen and Karen Freudenberger.

Three goat farmers smiling together and enjoying Strafford Creamery ice cream. From left, Calley Hastings, Laura Olsen and Karen Freudenberger.

environment.” Another said: “I always look forward to going home with a few new ideas to improve our efficiency.”

For a full conference writeup, check out this piece by Troy Bishopp, for Country Folks Magazine.

People liked the message of keynote Ben Bartlett so much that we’ve gathered additional articles about him to share.

And finally, we had some fun and surveyed the audience with clickers in real time.  Want to learn a little more about Northeast grass farmers? Here you go.

 

Nature is a Force to be Cooperated With, Not Controlled (or: Farming Practices in Sync with Natural Systems Will Always Keep You in the Green)

Posted: January 28th, 2014 by VT Pasture Network

By Kimberly Hagen
Grazing Specialist
UVM Center for Sustainable Agriculture

What’s in a crisis? Almost always there is a lesson to be learned. The trick is to pay attention, or make the observation about what is going on and make the necessary changes to move forward in a positive way. It could mean some slow slogging for a while to move out of the present situation, but it’s often the best, and sometimes the only, way out.

All too often when I am called to a farm, it is in a state of crisis. They might not realize it, but I can see

it. As a grazing specialist my eyes are trained on the status of the past, present and future of the livestock’s feed on that farm. So many times- by the time a farm has been recommended to me or a farmer has called me for a consultation, it’s because they’ve hit a hard place and not sure where to make the next move, except for one that has no immediate cost to it. Unfortunately there is a cost, it’s just not always so obvious.

Tired pasture

Looking for signs of life!

So what I am talking about here is pasture, of course. The most common practice, and this has been the case for more than a few generations, (in most parts of the world ) is to let your animals out of the barn onto THE pasture – the same one, day after day. Sometimes there are two, a night pasture and a day pasture, but still basically a continuously grazed piece of land.

So what happens? Well, the season starts out with promising lush growth, the animals graze and graze on that early spring/summer forage that bolts out of the starting gate racing to the sun. Milk production is high and other livestock pack on the pounds getting fat and glossy. But then the days get hotter and drier, and the forage slows way down. But still the animals graze and graze, and since the forage is not so plentiful, they scrounge, biting down on the same plants again and again, getting closer and closer to the ground. By early August, the pasture is nothing more than a holding pen and exercise yard, and completely void as a functioning viable part of the feed program.

Good pasture

Lots of life here! Healthy pasture; deep green color, dense forage, and a good 8” for grazing.

The greater the fertility in your soil, the longer you can hang on with this practice, but it eventually catches up. The plants turn into mini-versions of themselves and, lacking the energy or reserves to replenish, remain stunted in their growth. At this point the choices narrow quickly – any feed already harvested could be fed out, but that leaves nothing for the coming winter months. Purchased feed could be fed – but that has a price on it. Pasture could be rented at another farm – but that also has a price, including the inconvenience of transporting animals either by walking or by trucking. Not great choices by any stretch of the imagination. Animals can be culled, which will lower the feed costs, but might not be in the long term interests of the farm. An immediate fix will probably require some combination of all three options. But none of these options is a long term answer, and will become increasingly expensive as a management practice if repeated numerous times. The window where the pasture actually contributes substantially to the feed intake of the animal will decrease over time and depending on the circumstances, within a few years, may find that grazing is finished by the end of July or even June.

There is another choice – changing the grazing management – but it will not provide a quick fix, like the other options mentioned and here is the slow slog I was referring to earlier. As Allan Savory has so eloquently written – and spoken about as well – after his years of observing how it all works in the wild, observation is the key. This is not something you do once and are finished, but an ongoing deep conversation and connection with the animals and plants on your farm.

Good grazing management – as a colleague wrote a few years ago in a wonderful paper- is both art and science. It requires developing strong observation skills by walking through your pastures, observing how your animals graze, and how the plants are responding to being grazed. You really should get down on your hands and knees, push the plants aside and see how much bare ground there is between plants, how many insects there are, how much worm and beetle activity around the manure patties/pellets. How does it all work? Or for that matter, is it working? We have all heard from the master teachers – Savory, Ian Mitchell-Innes and many others – but there’s really no replacing the practice of observing what is going on with your animals, your forage, your pastures, and knowing about your soil and making note of how it all works together in your corner of the world. All of this requires a silo’s worth of patience and more, but the rewards are well worth the wait. And the funny thing is, you might find that all those jokes about how to lose a million dollars – “just keep farming”…..don’t really apply any more.

3/19/14 update: The paper referenced above, by Sarah Flack, is available at her web site: www.sarahflackconsulting.com, as well as many other articles and videos to help you achieve better grazing.

 

 

Ecosystem Services: Consider Wildlife Habitat for Higher Productivity

Posted: January 10th, 2014 by VT Pasture Network

by Juan Alvez, Pasture Technical Coordinator Learn why you should consider leaving some space for pollinators and beneficial fauna!

Monarch butterfly on red clover flower (Photo by: Native Pollinators in Agriculture Project)

Farming is an amazingly fulfilling activity that can bind families and communities around food production and rural way of living. However, this idyllic activity demands great knowledge, dedication, and perseverance. In an effort to make the most out of their farmland, and following a model that overall praises productivity, farmers try to be as productive as possible. By doing so, they sometimes end up occupying most of their farmland.  And you’re right if you think that land-owning farmers are entitled to do so! But there’s a downside with real costs.  When all the natural areas of the farm are occupied, little habitat remains for wildlife and, increases in productivity from occupying these areas are sometimes not significant or not to be expected.

So can we just leave them as is?

Habitats for wildlife can be compared to living pumps because they can boost overall ecosystem’s productivity: allowing wildlife to thrive and sustain itself, and also enhancing agricultural production. Habitat is the place in the ecosystem where wildlife flourish. That wildlife can include everything from microbes to insects to birds and other vertebrates.

In farmlands, wildlife habitat can be different things, including soil structure, perennial pastures, contiguous forest or riparian areas. These are where wildlife can perform the functions of regulation and balance, and the services of pollination and water quality, and more. But they’re best able to support these different processes and functions when their structures are intact.   That matters to people because these functions serve as the pillars for the benefits (or services) we –humans—derive from nature.

To picture this, imagine a pyramid where the base is constituted by a healthy soil (ecosystem structure). Right above are the (ecosystem) processes that this structure permits such as organic matter decomposition. Above this layer lay ecosystem functions which directly depend on a healthy, resilient structure and the processes that support it. This habitat would be able to provide the important ecosystem function of nutrient cycling to help create healthier soils, clean water, and assist with solid waste issues.  The top of the pyramid then is constituted by soil fertility, and the healthy food grown with this soil. It is all linked together and it all critically depends on a sound ecosystem structure. Hence, if a healthy soil is tilled, turned and plowed several times, its structure is disturbed or assaulted, and its ability to house soil microorganisms that make possible fertility, the resulting chaos will translate into lower fertility, higher labor needs, opportunistic weeds and pathogens, and undesirable costs. If this process is repeated over the years, soil organisms disappear and soil can potentially turn into a desert.

A great example of the importance of the benefits of wildlife habitats can be depicted by the work of pollinators (mostly insects but also bats, among others) and beneficial fauna. Pollinators lend a big hand in plant reproduction and by visiting several plants they provide variability and resiliency.  It is by now well known that fruits, forages, crops and berries (and others) can sometimes only reproduce by the action of pollinators.

According to a study done by French and German scientists, the worldwide pollination value was worth $216 billion per year (9.5% of the total value of world agricultural production according to 2008 values) meaning that, that is the cost it would require to pollinate all commercial crops produced yearly.  Of course, farmers could not possibly do this daunting task by hand anyway, thanks to the free service of pollinators.

Beneficial fauna also helps farm productivity in different ways, from keeping undesirable organisms in check -by providing biological control, through integrated pest management techniques, to physically moving manure into the soil, saving millions of dollars in treatments. What do these pollinators and beneficial organisms require to do their work?  Natural habitats with intact ecosystem structures that can allow them to thrive and help increase you farm productivity.

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