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  • Ian Thompson

Rotation Makes for Greener Pastures

Updated: Feb 17, 2021

It hasn't rained here in two months. This picture is taken in a pasture that is basically fine sand, with no dark topsoil at all. Why does it still have so much green grass? One reason is because our little heard has only been on it for about a week.

Our plan was never to graze the whole 160 acres at once, but rather to move the animals from the corral and onto one new pasture after another as we got the cross fences built. At some points this summer, we had to scramble to get the next pasture fenced in as the animals started running low on grass in their current pasture. However, the effort has paid off. As we look back on the fruits of our work this summer, we have 23 acres divided between 6 small pastures. This is letting us graze our animals for a fairly short time, move them, and still give the grass in any given pasture a couple of months to rebuild. On our old farm, we only built a three pasture rotation system. The difference with a 6 pasture rotation is already pretty noticeable. When we eventually get the entire 160 acres divided into 18 pastures, we'll be able to graze the heard for two weeks on any pasture and not bring them back for 6 whole months.

Our holistic pasture management class taught us that this amount of rest time is good for the grass, and it is. As we've continued to research, we've found that it is particularly good for the warm season native grasses because they grow pretty slowly. Through a continuous graze, or even a short rotation, these grasses get destroyed. That's why you often see tall prairie grasses growing between the road and the pasture fence, but not inside the pasture. In our region, rural roadsides get mowed a couple of time per year. The native grasses can tolerate that, but they can't tolerate getting nibbled on again and again and again inside the pasture. Long resting period are also good for legumes and some of the conservative tallgrass prairie species. Over the coming years, it will be interesting to see how our land responds as we are able to increase the grazing pressure by growing our herd, and to lengthen the resting periods by getting more pastures built. We'll keep you updated.

Note- Since this post was written, we've learned that the best way to have healthy soil is to foster a community of diverse native plant species. This is done by matching the size of our herd to the carrying capacity of the land, grazing them in a way that leaves tall and short patches, using range fire, and constantly monitoring and changing rest/grazing periods on the landscape. Cross fencing has become just one tool in our strategy. See posts on 10/31/20 and 1/30/21 for where we are now in our understanding of these issues.

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