I know… odd title, and it probably sounds boring.
When you have grazing animals, however, it becomes one of the most fascinating of topics. One of those topics where the more you learn, the less you know.
I know nothing about it. Except that other people are grazing their animals year round. In the Yukon. I want to know how to do that too. And so I study.
I was talking to a local rancher’s wife who told me that around here, the best grazing anyone can get is 5 acres per head (of cows). That was after I told her we thought we could get around 8 or 9 animals on our 10 acres of pasture. I think she snorted on the inside.
I don’t think my numbers were too far off though, based on the grazing we got from the lower pasture last fall.
These pictures are a progression of snowmelt over the last month of so. All the same section of the lower pasture.
The property, as it stands today, could not handle 8 or 9 head, but I think the potential is there in a year or two with better grazing management. There are patches of “grass” that haven’t recovered in the 2 years since they were overgrazed, other patches of mostly canada thistle, and areas with large burdock plants taller than me. I have another garbage bag worth of burrs to pick off the lower pasture, and then I can start on the upper pasture. The canada thistle is impossible to remove, so it will have to be choked out with lots of healthy grass.
The biggest problem I see with the traditional ranching methods is they don’t take into account what the grass does when it’s grazed. The first bite is fine. That’s when the roots “cut” themselves off to mirror the new size of the top of the plant and start decomposing, feeding the plant. The next bite, taken a day or a few days later, is detrimental to the plant’s health and it has a hard time recovering. If the plant is grazed to an inch high, the roots are only an inch long, making the plant susceptible to drought, trampling, or erosion. The plant needs time to recover between bites and restore the root system.
I’ve seen this principle at work everywhere. Have you ever noticed that ditches have the thickest, lushest, greenest grass, even in dry weather? They might get mowed once or twice a season, and the grass clippings stay right there. Compare that with a lawn. They get chopped once or twice a week, and they need plenty of water and fertilizer to stay green through the summer.
When we lived in the bush, by daily rotations we were able to graze 2 horses for the summer on just over 2 acres of grass that was pretty thin in places. We saw a huge improvement in the thickness and drought-tolerance of that grass over a few seasons. We did have to rotate irrigation daily the first year and probably could have grazed longer the following year if we’d kept that up. I spread composted manure on the main pasture every spring.
We moved here in the middle of August and set up a grazing rotation right away with electric fencing and step-in posts. We didn’t move the fence behind them, so they had a new patch of grass everyday but still had access to the whole area. We gave them a new strip the length of half the pasture every day, and once they were done one half, we let them into the other half and blocked off the first half completely. Not the ideal way to do it, but we didn’t have enough posts at the time to build them an alleyway to reach the water trough at the gate. Even so, before we moved them to the second half, the grass in the first half had started recovering and quickly grew to 6+ inches high before we started getting frost. That lower pasture is probably around 2 ½ acres. The second half was half thistle. We grazed the cow and horse from mid August to mid November. Three months.
If we never grazed the upper pasture, we could get a 3 month rotation from the lower, giving the grass 90 days to recover from the first bite. By year 2, we would need more animals to keep up with it all. Or we could hay it. But that causes other issues because you’re removing all those nutrients off the land. But that’s a whole other topic.
If we grazed 3 head, we could get a 60 day rotation. If we pretend the upper pasture has the same amount of decent grass overall (it has a few issues), that would double our numbers to 6 head. Next year the grass should be even better and the 6-ish acre upper pasture should allow us to handle a couple more.
There are other variables to consider. We began grazing in mid-august, the driest time of year, except that last summer happened to be a wetter year. We will get more posts so we can follow the animals with the fence and avoid that second bite before the grass recovers. There are more nutrients on it now thanks to the animals, and the thistles have had a good trampling.
I’m so impressed with the grass coming back this spring in the lower pasture.
The snow barely melted and it’s coming up thick and fast. Better than anywhere else on the property, other than right beside the house where it didn’t get trimmed last year and it gets water every time it rains. Last year’s grass is still there, protecting the soil and slowly adding nutrients as it decomposes.
We have lots of plans for animals this year, including turkeys and ducks and hopefully more cows. But right now we’re trying to keep as much water (and nutrients) on our land as possible. All the runoff is draining right through the property and going to the lake. And with the little amount of snow we had, it might be a dry summer.