Organic Broadcaster

Pasture walks lead to grazing success in the field

By Robert Bauer, Southwest Badger RC & DC

Grazing networks are groups of farmers who organize pasture walks, which are educational farm tours that focus on managed grazing of livestock. By seeing each other’s farms, participants in grazing networks gain the confidence and support to try new things at home. Adding a farm visit from local conservation staff for each participant to discuss the design and implementation of their own grazing system helps farmers to find success in the field.

Rachel Borchardt, owner of Stoney Hill Jerseys in Brodhead, Wis., is a great example of a person who gained the confidence to implement grass-based farming on her land by attending pasture walks. Borchardt attended all three of the pasture walks this summer at the Fountain Prairie Teaching Farm in Fall River, Wis., where I guest instructed with Randy Zaugbaum, Agriculture Instructor for Madison Area Technical College.

Rachel Borchardt (right) learns about soil health from Randy Zaugbaum at a pasture walk hosted by Madison Area Technical College at Fountain Prairie Farm in Fall River, Wis.   Photo by Robert Bauer

Borchardt also used the information that I shared with her during a one-hour farm visit to successfully get started grazing. When I visited her farm after the first pasture walk, she had five acres of new pasture seeding and had to consider how to lay out fences and manage grazing. By the third pasture walk two months later, she had fenced her land and had started moving animals to fresh pasture once a day. The cows love grazing, and Borchardt is excited about what she has accomplished.

Borchardt owns and milks four beautiful Jersey cows on her five-acre farm. With her background as a veterinary technician as well as owner of a dairy farm, she understood the importance of getting cows out of the barnyard and onto pasture for hoof and rumen health. That’s why when she bought her current farm she seeded down the cornfield on the property to a grass and legume mix recommended by the local co-op.

She planned to fence and graze the land but wasn’t sure how to lay out her system. She wanted help deciding how to fence the paddocks, how large to make each paddock, how to provide water to the cows, and how to manage pasture production. The cows ate hay and grain in the barnyard while the pasture seeding got established and Borchardt planned her grazing system.

I met Borchardt at her first-ever pasture walk, “Basic pasture management: Understanding the design and layout of your system” at Fountain Prairie Farm. At that point, she was not familiar with the soils on her property. During that pasture walk, she learned to think like a soil scientist by considering the needs and capabilities of each acre of land. We looked at the online soil map for Borchardt’s property together using USDA’s Web Soil Survey and found that half of her property has moist soils with a seasonal high water table. I recommended that she delay grazing until the soil dried out to prevent compaction from hoof traffic.

Borchardt also learned to think like a botanist at the first pasture walk. We discussed that a diversity of pasture species, including sod-forming and bunch-forming grasses, spreading and upright legumes, and broadleaf plants takes full advantage of the sunlight, soil moisture, and nutrients available for plant growth. The local co-op had planted a mix of perennial ryegrass and alfalfa, which are a bunch-forming grass and upright legume, respectively. Those species are a good mix for high-quality hay, but the bare soil that will be exposed between the crowns of those plants after grazing would lead to germination of weed seeds.

I recommended no-till seeding in sod-forming grasses such as bluegrass or smooth bromegrass to increase plant density. I also observed that the total proportion of legumes in the pasture was about 30%, which is less than the 40-60% proportion of legumes recommended for high quality pasture. Because of the wet soils on the farm, I recommended inter-seeding alsike clover, which is an upright legume that tolerates wet soils better than alfalfa and would intermix well with the existing bunch grasses.

Given the needs of the soils and plants on her farm, Borchardt learned how to lay out her system based on her own needs and the needs of the animals. She figured that, based on her busy schedule, she could commit to moving the cows to fresh pasture once each day. That would also allow the cows to eat the best and leave the rest
if she sized the paddocks correctly.

Borchardt learned to start her paddock layout by determining the stocking rate for her entire farm, based on the dry matter needs of her herd and the productivity of her land. We ran the numbers and she has more than enough pasture for the entire year, assuming good production and taking into account the grain that she plans to feed the cows. The remaining pasture could be cut for hay, which gives her room to be flexible, take risks, and make mistakes if necessary.

Next, Borchardt learned to calculate the paddock size based on the periods of rest and rotation in each paddock. During the farm visit, we laid out the eighth-acre paddocks, knowing they would be 6,500 square feet or about 120 feet long by 50 feet wide, taking into account a 10-foot wide lane to get the cows back to water at the barnyard. We stepped off 50 feet to visualize a paddock and confirmed that the size seemed adequate for one day of grazing per paddock.

The second pasture walk really helped Borchardt gain confidence and solidify her plan to start grazing. The guest speaker was Todd Reitmann, Conservation Specialist for Columbia County Land & Water Conservation Department. Todd designed and provided financial assistance for the grazing system at Fountain Prairie Farm, including the livestock lanes that connect the pastures to the watering system in the barnyard. Todd led a tour of the facilities. He showed us how the livestock lane was crowned to shed water and we discussed the appropriate width for a lane to accommodate livestock and equipment.

I think that seeing and hearing about the practice from different people allowed Borchardt to learn in the way that worked best for her. She realized that she had enough details figured out to move forward. And if her temporary cow lane needed improvement, she knew she could contact her local conservation office for help.

The third pasture walk “Managed Grazing and Soil Health” affirmed the choices that Borchardt had made. She arrived excited to share her progress—she had fenced the entire pasture, pounding the pre-drilled composite PVC posts in by hand with a post pounder. And the cows were excited to graze as soon as she opened the gate, even eating some of the mature grasses and legumes that she didn’t think were palatable, while leaving many of the weeds. I reminded her to maintain 6” residual grazing heights to prevent germination of the seedbank in future years.

We were able to review her soil test results again with the group and confirm that the previous owner’s excessive application of manure had built up the levels of soil nutrients so she didn’t need to apply more. And we reminded her to follow-up with the soil testing lab to update her soil test recommendation to give a nitrogen credit for the legumes growing in her pasture.

Her current soil test report suggested adding nitrogen fertilizer based on the assumption of a pasture mix with no legumes. Given that the 30% legume content in her pasture will fix nitrogen biologically, adding nitrogen would have wasted money on fertilizer that she was already getting for free.

I recommend pasture walks to landowners and farmers to meet new people, build community, and see the world in new ways. Negotiating pasture leases or planning farm transitions can cause some people to close up to outside perspectives, but getting outside and using the senses of sight, smell, and touch open our minds.

If you are considering working with a farmer or landowner, invite them to a local pasture walk so you can develop your relationship in a supportive environment. You will build a shared vision of how you want to manage your farm in a low-pressure setting, away from the demands of your own properties. And for farmers, funding is available from the Conservation Stewardship Program of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service for you to host pasture walks—sign-up at the field office in your county.

Robert Bauer works for the Southwest Badger Resource Conservation & Development Council.

 

 

From the September | October 2018 Issue

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