Organic Pastures

Your livestock deserve a healthy well balanced diet.  This is why you provide supplemental minerals and grain during the hard months.  A pasture fed ruminant is as close to their ‘natural’ feed as possible.

The contrast are feed lot situations where these critters who are designed to break down tough grasses end up eating very processed silage, added corn, gluten, liquid protein and antibiotics.  I much prefer the grass fed type any day and hope that you continue using pasture to feed your cattle, horses, goats, sheep and others.

A pasture can be a desolate place if the natural balance is unkempt.  Nutrient cycling is something that is taught early in our schools in science classes.  Most of us are aware of the water cycle what with evaporation, condensation, and precipitation.  It seems that some farmers without a ‘crop guy’ like the big farms have to tell them exactly how much of this fertilizer to put where, we forget that nutrients cycle too.

A good indicator of pasture health is earth worm count.  Recent research suggests that 25 earthworms per square foot is a nice amount of worms.  From my own pasture count, this is high.  I suppose that I could buy some earthworms like research articles suggest helps but I am confident that if I get my other non-living portions of the pasture in a good balance then the earthworm population should increase.

Even from a digging worms for fishing standpoint, 25 per square foot seems high and something to strive for.  These insects digest plant material and pass soil through their digestive tract while moving and eating.  They loosen soil which helps with water drainage and rooting.  The higher the organic (dead plant) matter in the soil, the higher the likelihood of finding happy worms.

If you don’t already use the local Extension as a resource for your farm, I would highly suggest contacting them or at least checking out their website.  For little or no fee they will send samples of your soil to the state college for analysis.  This is what the big farmers have their “crop guy” come to the farm and do.  They analyze the relationship between grazing creatures, plant types, soil type, soil pH, and the size of the pasture in comparison to the number of critters on it.  With all of this in mind, they make an educated decision about what, if any, fertilizers to add to the soil.  They might suggest mowing or introducing a new plant species into the mix.  In a very abused pasture they might suggest tiling and sowing a whole new set of pasture plants.

If you have a pasture that looks green for at least a portion of the year, you are doing something right.  The possibility exists, however, that you could increase the productivity of your pasture by making just a few slight adjustments.

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Horse Pasture Seed

A large problem with horse pastures is that they are over used.  Many small farms do not have enough space for pasture rotation while letting seeds mature.  A rule of thumb is to let four to six months time pass before putting horses on a newly seeded pasture.

The last thing you want to do is spend money on seed and then have the horses ruin it.

There are plenty of resources for a farmer who is willing to start from scratch a new pasture.  The local Ag company will help identify soil type and pH and would love to sell you the seed.  For us smaller farmers, it is a challenge to upgrade an existing pasture without taking the horses off of it.

Snow seeding is my favorite way to get the seed to soil contact that is imperative for sprouting.  I find that the thaw has a way of pushing or pulling the little seeds down beneath last years litter into the soil.  Currently I am renovating one quarter of my pasture.

I have fenced off the area that had the least desirable plants and I am just waiting for a fluffy snow to broadcast my seeds.  I took soil samples the day I put up the fence and have determined that I needed some lime to raise the pH (or make it more basic) for the seeds I have purchased.

Being a relatively small pasture I broadcast the lime by hand out of five gallon bucket.  Perhaps there is a better way using a mechanical spreader, but I feel like there is a good evenness to it.  With the pH accounted for, I am just waiting to sow.  I did not mow the original plants because they have healthy root stock and I would like for them to hold the ground while my new crop is growing and sensitive.

By keeping my livestock off of this portion of pasture for six months, I can ensure that the plants really take hold.  I am imagining that once the new pasture looks great, the summer will be half done and it will be hot.

At this point I plan to introduce my heard into the pasture for a few hours per day.  I would hate for them to use this greener portion exclusively and harm the pasture.  If I can wean them onto it I will then fence off another quarter of the pasture for next years seeding.

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Starting a Bermuda Grass Pasture

When discussing pasture grasses and forbs with my friend at the Ag college I was amazed that he suggests Bermuda Grass so highly.

Having just re-seeded a portion of my pasture this previous spring, I was aware of the many grasses in the mix.  Bermuda was present, fescue, blue grass just to name three but the Ag college is now suggesting a planting of solely Bermuda Grass for some types of pasture.

I keep a small heard of horses and occasionally a rescue or whatever goat.  These critters live in a five acre pasture that was present when I bought the farm.  The previous farmer had over-used the pasture and I have been trying to bring it back to some respectable version of what I think a pasture should look like.

The reason the past farmer was so abusive to the land was purely financial.  He didn’t want to take time and space to rotate grazing out there and so I am dealing with compact ground and weeds that could have been managed earlier.  Oh well, in the past few years the beat down old pasture has become something that my critters love to be in.

My astonishment with the suggesting to use purely Bermuda Grass has prompted me to go 100% BG in my next rotation of fencing off an acre for rejuvenation.  Since I bought the place I have been rotating one acre out of grazing.  I have met success by fencing an area off, testing soil, balancing pH, and planting seed in the spring with no grazing until mid summer.  So far the horses love being turned back into an acre of un-grazed land and the entire pasture has benefited.

From what I read about Bermuda Grass, it requires full sun and does not do well in northern cold climate.  It has a deep root system that can help hold land on a slope and because of these roots, is more drought resistant than other grasses.

Of course, pasture management is a science and may produce some unwanted results, but I am very eager to see what my pasture looks like after ten additional years of my management.  Certainly giving a fifth of the pasture a break each spring gives it time to grow full roots and work on naturally balancing itself without my critters stomping around and eating the balance.

Time will tell if my Bermuda Grass pasture is as good as the mixed grass portions in my climate.  I hope to write about my success in the future.

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Pasture Raised Poultry

I am very excited about the prospect of raising broiler chickens here at home.  I have been wanting to do the chicken thing for such a long time and now I learn that I have every thing needed to raise a few dozen birds.  I’m excited.

My thought of raising chickens on my farm always started with building a chicken coop and constantly battling predatory critters.  From what I read there is a much easier way to raise the birds which will fertilize my pasture bit by bit.

What I am talking about is a movable area for the birds to live in which provides protection from harm and constant access to the ground depending on where I move their house.  I plan to begin construction soon with a spring move in date for my chicks.

From what I read, chickens can get nearly 20 percent of their diet from grains, worms, bugs, and other stuff they pick at.  The rest of their diet will need to be provided.  I am sure that my local Ag supplier can suggest a feed for ‘free range’ chickens.  I will need to keep in mind water when I build the house and move it.

So far I would plan to have enough chickens eventually so that I can fry or bake one per week.  That is a whole bunch of birds but not really that many when you think about how many are produced on a large corporate farm.  I saw a video once about how these factory farms are the best thing ever.  They did not show any sick birds or heaps of manure.  They did show women very gently handling birds into their new pen from the hatchery.  I have also checked out videos on youtube of the conveyor belt way of moving chicks from the hatchery to the pen where they will live until slaughter.

I would like to feed my family birds who aren’t necessarily named but certainly watched after on a more personal level.  For the price of a few bags of grain, I think that I can achieve my plan.

So, for now I will begin construction of a bird house.  It will have to sit directly on the ground so that the birds can not get out.  This plan plus being on skids for mobility are really my only requirements.  I suppose that the birds would like to be able to get off the ground and roost a bit.  This will require a bit more research but I am certain that my chicken experiment will be as well thought out as my others.

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Pasture Seeding | How To Seed Your Pastures

There are two fields of thought about pasture seeding.  In one field we tear up the existing pasture and start from scratch.  This is an especially good idea if the pasture was compacted or completely overrun with unwanted weeds.  The other is an additive seeding which keeps the original plants intact and adds just what is lacking.

I have experienced both types.  Once upon a time I had just moved to a rental property with my family and our horses.  The pasture was chucked full of crap grass that the horses would not eat.  I resolved to abandon the pasture with the landlords permission.  He even offered to plow up the ground.

Landlord also suggested Roundup for totally killing the existing plants but I had no interest in that.  Our plan of attack was to disrupt the original plants and sow some fast growing and slower growing plants.

I knew that the horses would not be allowed onto the newly seeded pasture.  Luckily we were able to keep them near without too much hassle.  Our plan involved keeping horses off of new pasture seedlings for an entire growing season but it was apparent by mid- summer that the more aggressive plants had taken hold and could use to be mowed (eaten) a bit.

We realized that there could be damaging effects to the non  aggressive plants emerging but we were confident that it would balance out itself.

From a nutritional standpoint I would suggest a mix of legumes and grasses.  The reason behind this has to do with natural cycling.  Pastures go through an annual progression and a much longer cycle of succession.

The constant pressure of grazers eating the most tender shoots means that the plants as a group are not equally nibbled during the season.  Some sprout earlier than others and some dry out earlier in the fall becoming undesirable.  To avoid chemical fertilizer one can apply heavy legumes when seeding in order to aid nitrogen fixation.

It is important to think of the pasture as an ecosystem.  If we were to cuss all of the ‘bugs’ living out there we would be shooting our self in the foot.

Of course there are critters who damage plants but there are also those who break down the horse manure and add air to the soil.  With a big picture view of the pasture you will be less likely to apply harsh chemicals in order to stunt or promote any one small part of the whole.

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Horse Pasture Weed Control

A well balanced mix of forbs and grasses will give your horses the best nutritional benefit of grazing.  Weeds can be a thorn in the side of any agronomist but can be dealt with with fair ease.

Tackling all of the weed problems in any size pasture is a formidable task.  From a botanical perspective it is easier to break the whole group of pests into three categories: annuals, biennials, and perennial.

An annual plant is one that dies every fall and drops seeds for self propagation.  A biennial has a two year life cycle.  Sometimes biennials can look very different between the two years which it lives.  Typically the first year is to establish roots and a small photosynthesizing unit above ground and the second year pushes up a flowering portion before dropping seeds.

Perennial plants live for years and often become woody.

To battle any or all of these plants takes consideration.  Which is the largest nuisance?  Can we take out the undesirables without harming the graze plants?  Am I to blame for their success?  This last question may not seem fair but a farmer who overgrazes an area of pasture is just as to blame as the horses.

Knowing the carrying capacity of your area and not overdoing it will considerably help your pasture.  Weeds are weeds because they grow where we don’t want them.  Often they are very successful because they are hearty plants.

If they are undesirable for your horse to nibble then they will have the advantage of not being damaged and therefore having healthier roots which leads to general and reproductive health.  With all of the benefits of not being grazed, they will set seeds and succeed.  A well managed pasture allows your crop to compete with weeds.

With a successfully started crop one can then battle the undesirables.  I avoid herbicides when I can and so I will only mention those methods of weed control that I support wholly.

My plan during the growing season is to keep the desirable plants as healthy as possible.  Sometimes this means removing my horses from the pasture during high stress times like low rain or very hot conditions.

I practice a mowing technique that takes the grazed down portion where my crop of desirable are nibbled down and the weeds are strong and I mow.  This sets back the weeds and gives my plants time to compete.  With luck and a little thought you can stay on top of your pasture weeds.

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Pasture Renovation | How To Renovate Pasture

Sometimes a parcel of land has become exhausted because of overgrazing or other natural/unnatural conditions.  At this point it may be necessary to make an educated guess about how to proceed.

An exhausted pasture will only make your livestock work harder to eat poorly.  There are two basic ways to go about renovating that are better than many other ideas that I have read about.

The complete re-do.  This would be if you have the luxury of time and can afford to beg borrow or rent a tractor, tiller, and seed.  I would warn that this approach should only be used if the pasture if so compacted that nothing will grow.

Even then, it is hard to get a nice bed of soil to lay down from disked up hard ground.  It can be done though.  Benefits of the starting from scratch method of pasture renovation are complete control over seed mix and this style of renovation is especially nice if you are removing fences or a lane or building and would like to incorporate that area with an existing pasture.  The result should be near uniform crops if done well.

The other option is far more likely, as there is no destruction (per se) just modification.  If your pasture is over run with weeds but has a healthy stand of clover or grass then you might try a less drastic approach.

Certainly a good way to start is to decide if your critters need to be taken off of the land.  If your favorite grazing crops are nibbled down, then the answer is yes.

If the critters have left healthy stands of weeds in the same area as the favorite crops, then it is time to mow.  Mowing will abuse the weeds while hopefully not damaging the others.

If the weed problem is small enough, go ahead with your sharp shovel and just cut them down that way.  Save the pasture the abuse of driving over it.

A third and compromise approach between the complete renovation and managing renovation would be to break the pasture into sections and try both approaches.  This might work well if part of the pasture is worse off such as the area around the water supply or where you give the animals attention.

Keep in mind that the area for complete renovation will need to void of critters for several months until the seedlings sprout and have a chance to take hold.

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Organic Pastures For Beginners

Ruminant animals must have access to pasture to be certified organic in the United States.  These pastures must be kept within a fairly strait forward set of guidelines.  If you are considering applying for organic certification, good for you.  This article may be of service.

Truly organic pastures balance the living and non living portions of your land.  A balance of bacteria, fungus, plants and animals co-exist to check and balance each other.  By putting horses, cattle, or other animals in this mix must be done with care to not throw off the balance.

Farming practices that dump soluble fertilizers into the soil ignore the needs of each member of the complex web of organisms present in your pasture.  This can kill off or greatly harm an organism who plays an important role in the farm.

Say we were to bale the pasture near the end of the season, there would be less dead plant matter to decay on the ground.  This would harm the worms and other creatures that live on dead plant matter.  In turn, the earth would not get the enormous benefit of the worms tillage.  For a few bales of pasture hay, the farmer would have inadvertently damaged next years pasture plants.

It is hard to know exactly how to interact with your pasture, as some of the unseen portions are very important.  There is are comprehensive guidelines for organic farming in the US.  If a small farmer wants to just sustain a pasture or try and bump up crop production a little bit; it is not an impossible task.  There is a local agency, probably attached to a local ag college near you for just this purpose.

Pasture plants have so much going on underground that we don’t really think about.  A healthy root system can ‘bounce back’ from most any catastrophe like over grazing or a burn.

Grazing rotation is an often used management tool.  Letting a portion of the pasture be un-grazed for months gives it time to feed the roots and prepare for a traumatic period (grazing).  With feeding comes natural bi-product fertilizer.  If your livestock tend to spend a lot of their time in just a few places in your pasture, consider luring them away to portions used only for grazing.  This will encourage them to make waste throughout the entire pasture which equally fertilizes (naturally!) the area.

These few practices could be enough to produce a healthier pasture in the long run.

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Controlling Weeds in the Pasture | How To

Pastures are a complex system of living and non living factors and you are trying to ‘use’ this system to your benefit.  I too rely on pasture for my horses and am constantly trying to keep balance while my horses compact, nibble through, and generally tear up what can be a lush garden.  A pasture will never be as neat as a farmers field but it can be helped so that your grazers have the benefit of a safe and comfortable place to live.

Some experts will suggest a heavy herbicide/fertilizer approach to pasturing.  I would argue that there is nothing great about this approach.  Certain unwanted plants can be overcome by planting competing plants or by wisely mowing.  My pasture management style keeps in mind the idea that any place will have a natural ‘succession’ after change.

This term ‘succession’ I learned from a biology book decades ago.  Say a volcano erupts and lava covers what use to be a forest.  The damage is complete and nothing survives.  Give enough time and this area will be a forest again.  This succession relies on wind, sun, and really tough species who initially move in.

Your pasture use to be something different than a gated community for horses.  It is trying to get back to that state.  If you have a problem with a certain weed it is probably because there is not a crop that you wish there.  If you can fill the niche that your weed is in, then there will be competition for the niche and weed may just get ‘weeded out’.

My ongoing problem is with gypsum weed.  It has nasty thorny leaves and reproduces a lot.  I have learned that mowing it only makes it more powerful but that harvesting the seed pods before they erupt will end the problem.

Of course there are neighboring farmers who do not take such precautions and let their water ways overgrow with the stuff.  I blame the birds for flying over and broadcasting the seeds into my pasture so every year I have a few plants to watch and collect seed pods from.  Luckily, these plants are annuals and if they do not set seeds, they are dead dead.  A note about gypsum weed is that you have to incinerate the seed pods or they will grow wherever you throw them.  I would think that you could put them in the municipal garbage if you want.

There is a better way to battle pasture weeds than to apply herbicides.  For bull thistle, I walk the pasture with a spade and simply cut them off at the base.  If this is done before they set seed, the job is done and is only a slight maintenance issue each year.  Maybe my most important pasture advise is to spend time in it.  If you are aware of what plants are where, then you can make decisions about how or when to manage them.  And it keeps the horses friendly.

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Fescue Pastures For Horses

Are fescue pastures good or bad for horses?

The short answer is yes.  Good and bad.  Fescue is a very successful pasture plant.  As most breeders understand, it can mean deadly complications for horses.  The long answer is about how to tell if your animals are at risk of a toxin produced by a fungus that grows mutualistically with fescue.

Fescue is an enormously popular pasture grass because of its heartiness in most growing conditions, long growing season and its good stand.  For non-horse owners, there is little confirmed risk of toxicity from fescue.  For horses not at risk of being pregnant also have little to worry about from the toxicity.

The way that the fungus lives involves production of a harmful substance.  The harm is not the the mare herself, but to the way her body communicates with itself and the gestational foal.  This substance blocks her bodies ability to produce colostrum along with some other slight birthing abnormalities (thick placenta).

To avoid toxifying the foal, it is recommended that pregnant mares be removed from fescue feeding three months before birthing.  My interest in the topic stems from an intervention that we had here locally.  A girl was keeping her first bred horse with some cattle on a small ‘hobby farm’.  Unbeknownst to them, there was a heavy fescue mix in the grass that the cows and her horse were grazing upon.

I had read bits and pieces about this toxic effect, but had never kept a pregnant mare so cared little about it.  Once the neighbor girl caught wind of the possible tragic event looming, she asked for my opinion.  I could not opine and did a bunch of homework.  It turns out that the toxic affect is not always present and there is a small body of research about why.

Apparently because the toxic fungus is carried on the fescue seeds and stems, so if a horse is in a lush field of fescue eating primarily leaves, she may be safe.

To help out the neighbor we ended up with a mare foaling right in our barn.  We allowed her to graze at our house until she and the foal were ready to move.  Three summer months is a long time to horse sit especially when new to the large animal birthing process, but we all learned a lot and are much more well rounded horse carers than before.  Both mother and baby are fine.

I hope that my research may help you find an alternative situation if your mother mare is at risk of toxic fescue.

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