Mending Pastures After Excessive Rains

Wet Pasture Cows grazing in wet, saturated pasture.

This summer’s rainy, severe weather has had quite a negative effect on pasture quality. Visiting several grazing farms over the last month, we have seen that many dairy herds have been periodically housed and fed in the barn or barnyard in order to help preserve pasture stands, soil quality and animal health. In some cases, as with dairy heifers or beef cows, herds have been moved up on higher ground with somewhat better drainage, to help manage mud and decrease compaction issues. Some farmers have chosen to run their herds through tall stands of grass that may have otherwise been cut for hay. Although, animals will waste a lot of this lower quality mature forage, the upside is that what they trample will form a mat that can help reduce pasture damage.

However, even with these tactics, it has been challenging. Animal traffic on wet soils can cause soil compaction; pugging (holes) from hooves, leading to rough surfaces; areas of bare soil; potential runoff issues; and reduced plant density and yield. If despite your best efforts, your pastures are showing signs of this kind of damage, there are some basic things you can do now that some sunny weather is on the horizon and soils dry out a bit.

If pastures appear to have less plant density, using the UVM Extension no-till drill to plant new seed may be an option to bump up the diversity and species composition. There are numerous options for this depending on your goals, system, etc. One option would be to drill in grass species such as perennial ryegrass or orchard grass mixed with a legume such as Ladino clover. Another option would be to try an annual crop such as oats, triticale, or turnip for fall grazing. In some cases, it may be easiest to broadcast the seed and then turn the cows in to help stomp the seed into the ground.

For pastures that are severely pugged (also called ‘ankle breakers’) you may consider running a harrow to help smooth out the soil surface, and then planting your choice of seed. For large areas of bare soil that have developed extending from gates, water tubs and other heavy use areas, consider a crop like tillage radish. It can be seeded alone or mixed with a grass such as ryegrass and seeded at 10# per acre. Last year, we saw success seeding tillage radish into a heavy use area at this rate, yielding both nutritious tops that can be grazed after 45 days and large tap roots that help break up soil compaction.

To sign up to use the drill or to discuss seeding options to help amend summer pastures, producers are encouraged to call the Middlebury UVM Extension office at 388-4969.


Millet: An Exciting Pasture Plant

Cow grazing Japanese Millet at the Beidler Farm in Randoph. Photo by Deb Heleba
Cow grazing Japanese Millet at the Beidler Farm in Randoph. Photo by Deb Heleba


Soon we’ll be coming up on the time of the summer where pastures really slow down and seem not to be growing at all. We are moving past the period of most rapid growth for our cool-season grasses (bluegrass, perennial ryegrass, and orchard grass, for example) and in late summer we’ll see that growth revive again. The thing about cool-season grasses is that they really slow down when the weather isn’t cool (surprise!). Longer rest periods for individual paddocks during this time can help prevent overgrazing damage, as plants will need longer (30+ days) before they will be ready to be grazed again.

One advanced management practice is to plant summer annual grasses such as millet. Unlike the cool-season perennials, warm-season annuals thrive when the temperatures rise. The optimal planting time for annuals such as millet is between June 1st and July 1st when soil temperatures reach at least 65 degrees. Unlike sorghum-sudangrass, millet does not carry the risks associated with prussic acid and it can tolerate wetter soils. It should be grazed at about 18 inches tall and can be grazed more than once.

Some farmers use millet when renovating pastures, plowing and then seeding down with millet for the season, before re-planting with a pasture mix in early fall. We know that farmers in other parts of Vermont have had success with this crop, but tilling up Addison County heavy clay soil in the window that is needed, can be a challenge. We are not sure how well it will do when drilled in to existing stands, but this summer we will be experimenting with no-tilling millet into perennial pastures on a handful of farms to see if we can get an increase in dry matter production in the late summer months. We are going to drill in a variety of pearl millet called ‘Wonderleaf’ as well as a mixture called ‘Summerfeast’ which contains both pearl millet and forage brassica.  The idea being that the brassica plants will also provide some forage later into the grazing season.  Stay tuned for some exciting results…

Ins and Outs of Livestock Fence Systems

Claghorn and Hunt 007

In early May, Dave Kennard at Wellscroft Farm and Fence Systems in Harrisville, NH hosted a fantastic full day workshop covering all aspects of livestock fencing. It was an information filled day with lots of helpful hints and tips on topics such as proper grounding, choosing the right sized energizer, locating it in the right spot, how to ensure lightning protection, and the latest and greatest types of fence and gates. There was really something for everyone, with a brush up on the basics as well as advanced tips to fine tune an existing system.

Here are the 6 most common mistakes with electric fence that Dave outlined for us that day:

1. Improper grounding: One thing that can help ensure your fence is well grounded is to have enough ground rods in place. The rods should be in a line and at least 10 feet apart. Galvanized rods are preferred. How many do you need? A rule of thumb is to figure 3-6’ of ground rod per joule of energizer. So a 3J energizer could require up to 18 feet of ground rods depending on soil moisture and fence resistance. Your ground field should be at least 40 feet away from utility grounds.

2. Having the wrong sized or type of energizer: Energizers are either 110 V plug-in, battery, or solar powered. Their effectiveness is measured in joules. The size of the area that is fenced, the type of animal, and type of fence used will determine what size energizer is needed. They increase from small 0.5 joule units to 50 joules or more (and so does the cost). Choose one based not just on where you’re at right now, but where you might be a few years down the road, so that you don’t ‘outgrow’ it and have to buy a new one. It is recommended to install the energizer outside of buildings in a protected three sided enclosure.

3. Improper livestock training: Since electric fence is a psychological fence, not a physical one, animals must learn to respect it, rather than run through it. Most livestock when shocked for the first time will instinctively back up. That is, except for pigs! They will keep charging ahead. For pigs, you’ll want to train them to electric fence inside an enclosed area (such as a barnyard) which will give them a physical barrier as well.

4. Improper lightning and surge protection: Lightning can cause a voltage surge and damage the energizer if the unit is a plug-in type. If unplugging the fence is not an option before a big storm, plugging the unit into a 1,000 joule surge protector can help reduce the impact if a nearby utility wire is hit. Also, lightning can damage an energizer if the fence or an object near the fence is struck. High voltage will be carried along the fence wire and through the energizer on its way to the ground. Lightning choke/diverters can be installed at the start of the fence. For areas of 5 acres or more, additional ones can be installed with their own ground rods. The surge protector and the diverter each cost less than $15. Not a bad insurance policy for a several hundred dollar energizer.

5. Not monitoring the voltage and condition of the fence: Use a volt meter or fence tester to monitor your voltage. If the fence is not adequately charged, you can start troubleshooting where the problem lies. Some volt meters are also fault finders and can point you in the direction of the problem – a definite timesaver! Monitor your fence for poor connections (snapping sounds) and keep excess vegetation off the fence which can ground it out.

6. Not choosing the right type of fence: How many strands of high tensile wire do you need on your perimeter fence? For beef, you might need 2 or 3 strands. For goats, maybe 50 wires would hold them in? Just kidding! For temporary fences when making subdivisions, a single strand of polywire can do the trick for dairy cows, while sheep and chickens do well with electric netting.

Keeping these tips in mind can help minimize problems and keep both the animals and the people happy during the grazing season.

Fact Sheets from the Grazing Symposium

Four separate fact sheets are now available from Sarah Flack’s presentation at our April 1st Grazing Symposium. Simply click on the links below to view them.


Grazing Resources


The Extension eOrganic site has some great grazing resources with a wide variety of topics – including general design and layout, fencing and other infrastructure advice, animal behavior, and management tips to maximize dry matter intake – along with much more. Click the link for a list of articles: Lots of great info for organic and non-organic grazing farms alike!

Champlain Valley Grazing Symposium – April 1st, 2013


Monday, April 1st   *   10:00 am – 2:30 pm

American Legion, Vergennes, VT

$20 registration includes a hot lunch and some great door prizes. 

Join the discussion and step up your grazing skills this coming season!  

Come hear grazing expert, Sarah Flack provide helpful tips to fine-tune your existing grazing system. She’ll also discuss the most common grazing mistakes and how to avoid them for increased pasture potential. Sarah has a diverse background in sustainable agriculture, which includes both on-farm and academic experience.  Her current work includes writing, public speaking and consulting with farms and organization to help farmers transition to new methods of farming including grass based, diversified, and organic.  She also works with several organic certification organizations as a consultant, and inspector. She received her master’s degree in Plant and Soil Science from the University of Vermont, where she studied grazing management with Dr. Bill Murphy.

Sarah Flack

Farmer Guy Choiniere of Highgate,Vermont will share his strategies for producing top quality forage, which allows him to maintain a 50-55 pound per cow production average on 6 pounds of grain per cow. Guy is passionate about soil health and building soil fertility. By making the soil a priority, it forms a foundation for him to build crop, animal and human health, as well. Guy says, “A successful farming system is a sustainable farming system.”

Guy and family

Farmer Brent Beidler of Randolph Center, Vermont will discuss his successes with annual crops such as millet, forage oats, turnips and others to increase overall pasture productivity. Brent will also cover the importance of variable paddock sizes and how he maximizes forages to minimize grain feeding. In addition to dairy production, the Beidlers have also ventured into growing grains and milling flour on the farm. Brent has played an important role in the formation of the Northern Grain Growers Association.

Brent Beidler

 Register at:

or call Donna at 388-4969.

See you there!

 Funding for this program is provided by USDA-RMA, USDA-NRCS, and UVM Extension

Pasture Management Planning for the New Year


Claghorn and Hunt 008

While it may not be a common New Year’s resolution, stepping up your pasture management might be an important one. After all, improved pasture management can lead to lots of other improvements on the farm, including improved profits. Winter is a great time to think about the grazing season to come and start making plans for what you want to achieve this year. What worked last year, and what didn’t? If you are thinking to make changes, how can those be accomplished? A good starting point is to write down some simple goals. Some examples might include:

  • Bring in more species to increase pasture plant diversity
  • Increase the length of your grazing season by a month (or more)
  • Delay the feeding of stored forages until later in the fall
  • Keep better records of the movement of animals on pasture

The next step is to plan how to meet these goals, and then of course try to implement them once the season begins.

Tall Fescue: A Problematic Pasture Grass

Tall fescue

Tall fescue is a pasture grass that is relatively easy to identify late in the season – just look for the grass that your animals have refused all season. Typically livestock will avoid tall fescue if given other options. That is because this tall bunch grass is quite unpalatable. The leaves, which are quite broad, are very coarse and leathery. The edges can be quite sharp as well. Rub a leaf between your fingers and you’ll see why your animals would choose not to eat it.

Besides the physical attributes that make it unappetizing, tall fescue can be toxic as pasture, hay or haylage due to endophyte alkaloids. Endophytes are fungi which live within the plant and produce alkaloid chemicals. Fescue toxicosis can result in various production-related issues ranging from foot problems to reproduction issues. There are endophyte-free varieties of tall fescue, but these have alkaloids as well, and although less toxic than their endophyte-infected counterparts, they still upset rumen function and therefore reduce animal performance. Toxicity is a measure of the overall percentage of tall fescue plants in the pasture and decreases if animals are in a diverse sward with many other grass and legume species.

Some producers have noticed this past year more tall fescue in their pastures than ever before. What is going on? The reason tall fescue is the grass of choice in the Southeast is that it is very drought resistant. It will grow when nothing else will. In a dry year like 2012, when our cool-season grasses went dormant in the heat of summer with little to no rain, tall fescue will take the opportunity to grow and spread.

Some tall fescue is seeded intentionally. For example, when ditches and roadsides are seeded with ‘conservation mixes’, these typically contain tall fescue as it will establish with little effort. The seed then spreads into neighboring fields and pastures. Interestingly, many commercial pasture seed mixes on the market also contain tall fescue. This is a sign that the seed mix was developed for other regions of the country where the climate is not conducive to the cool-season grasses we can grow so well here. We have so many better options for cool-season grasses such as bluegrass, ryegrass, and orchardgrass, to name a few, that tall fescue is a plant best to avoid.

If you are finding that tall fescue is spreading and becoming a problem what do you do? Unfortunately, tall fescue is hard to get rid of without an herbicide, so if you are an organic producer it will depend on how much of a problem it is. One option is to seed plants with high tannin content such as forage chicory or birdsfoot trefoil. When animals eat both the tannins and the alkaloids together, the tannins bind the alkaloids and reduce toxicity problems. For a real problem stand, plowing and tilling would kill most of the existing plants. Following with an annual crop such as a small grain, and then seeding down to a pasture/hay crop would increase the chances of eliminating the tall fescue plants.

Top Grazing Mistakes (and how to avoid them)


The Northeast Organic Dairy Producers Alliance (NODPA) annual field days recently took place in Brattleboro and while this event is a chance for organic dairy producers across the region to get together, many of the topics presented are relevant for any grazing dairy producer, organic or not. One of the great workshops was ‘Top Grazing Mistakes’ presented by three grazing experts – Sarah Flack, organic consultant; Dr. Cindy Daly,  California State University; and Kathy Soder, USDA Agricultural Research Station in Pennsylvania. This is a brief excerpt. A complete article from this workshop can be found by clicking HERE. 

What are some common mistakes made by dairy grazers?

  • Inadequately designed system/infrastructure (incorrectly sized paddocks, too few or too many acres, poor grounding for fencing, poor quality land used for grazing)
  • Pasture nutrition problems (overfeeding protein in the barn and lack of forage quality in the pasture)
  • Less than ideal grazing management (resulting in overgrazing damage, soil erosion, an increase in weeds, less productive plants, and internal parasite issues)

At this time of the year it is important that pasture plants go into winter with enough energy reserve for next spring. Remember that the plant height you see above the ground is an indicator of the root length below the ground. Sending plants into dormancy with 1 inch of overall height does not give them much energy storage for survival, as these reserves are generally stored in the first 2-4 inches of the plant base. Overtime this can result in weakened plants that die out and decrease the overall density and quality of the pasture. Keeping a higher residual height will allow plants to store more energy and get a robust start in the spring.


So what are some of the practices at this time of the year that can result in overgrazing damage?

  • Removing the interior fences and letting cows ‘clean up’ the pastures.
  • Letting animals graze the same pasture for more than 3 days.
  • Returning animals to a pasture before all the plants have regrown. At this time of year, that period is approximately 40 days.
  • Not adding additional acreage into the grazing rotation when plant growth rates slow down.
  • Using follower groups that graze close and do not leave enough plant residue.

If you have found yourself doing any of the above, don’t despair! Now is the time to identify any issues and formulate a plan for next year to ensure that pastures remain healthy and productive all season long.

Cows Need Water to Thrive, Not Just Survive

One of the key elements of a successful grazing system is having clean and abundant water available at all times. Just how much is needed? A lactating dairy cow consumes up to 25 gallons of water per day, while a beef cow requires up to 20 gallons. The total amount of water that must be provided is not just dependent on how many animals there are, but also how far animals must travel to the water tub, as well as the distance from the water tub to the water source.

In an intensively managed pasture with water 600- 900 feet away, animals will drink from the water tub individually as they feel like it. The flow rate should be such that the total water demand can be supplied within 4-8 hours. Water tubs should be sized so that 2-4% of the herd can drink at once. This is in contrast to larger, continuously grazed pastures where water is located at greater distances. In these situations, animals tend to go to water as a herd and therefore, the capacity and recharge ability must be greater to accommodate more animals at once.

Claghorn and Hunt 003

Here’s an example of how to calculate water needs:

Animals and grazing system: 75 dairy cows in a rotational system

Daily consumption: 75 x 25 gallons = 1,875 gallons

Distance to water in a paddock: less than 900 feet

Tank refill time: 4 hours (240 minutes)

Required flow rate: 1,875 gallons/240 minutes = 7.8 gallons/minute


The flow rate and the distance to the water source (well, pond, etc.) are used to determine the size of the black plastic pipe that will meet the water demand. There are charts and tables available that can help you determine if, for example, 1 inch pipe is sufficient or if a larger diameter pipe is needed. In our climate, water lines in pastures are typically laid on top of the ground, since they are not used in winter, so protection from freezing is not necessary. Lines above the ground are cheaper to install, easier to repair, and are portable. Lines can be buried where they cross vehicle or animal lanes.

When calculating water needs, it is best not to design the system on the absolute minimum requirements. Building in a buffer will account for circumstances such as hot weather, which can double an animal’s water requirements. There are several other factors to consider when designing a water system including topography, type of pump used, pipe layout, and of course, cost. There is a great publication called ‘The ABCs of Livestock Watering Systems’ published by Michigan State University Extension. It can be found at HERE 

UVM Extension is offering a 90% cost share program to install infrastructure to encourage livestock exclusion from streams in the Lake Champlain Watershed. If you are considering a water source development project including pipeline, water tanks, and fencing there may be funds available to help. For more information, contact our office at 388-4969.