Sunday, February 15, 2009

Another Busy Weekend - Pasture Preparation

Spring is just around the corner! Our grass is starting to green back up thanks to the 10 days of nice weather in the 60's and 70's. I got a bit grumpy yesterday afternoon and today as I had to put my coat back on. Jason spent the last few days working on pasture maintenance.

His first step was to spread the contents of our manure compost pile. Our only issue with compost is that we simply don't have enough of it! Since most of the horses live outside 24/7 we don't make huge daily contributions to the pile like most boarding facilities would. Composted manure (and shavings, hay, straw, etc.) is a beautiful thing and so good for your pastures and we wish we had more. Given all of the rain we've had over since the fall our compost pile has had plenty of moisture to help the composting process along. This was a two tractor job for Jason. He had the old Kubota tractor hooked up to the manure spreader and was using the Ford tractor to load up the spreader with compost.

Jason spent a good part of one day getting the contents of the manure compost pile spread. You would think it wouldn't take that long but you have to factor in all of the other steps aside from just driving around with the spreader. We don't use the manure spreader very often so it had been sitting for quite awhile and needed to be greased and serviced. He had to switch out the hay spear for the bucket on the front loader of the Ford tractor. Then he had to hook up the manure spreader. Then switch back and forth between tractors as he used the Ford to load the compost and then the Kubota to spread it. And of course when you are done you have to put all of the toys away!

Scooping up a big pile of compost to dump in the manure spreader; things were really cooking in there as evidenced by the steam
Emptying the bucket of composted manure into the spreader

Jason then spent another day harrowing the pastures. Harrowing is excellent for pastures. It loosens things up and breaks down and spreads organic matter. After Jason had run the harrow over the areas where he had spread compost you couldn't even tell the compost had been spread.
Dragging the chain harrows over the pastures

Our next step will be reseeding certain areas of the pastures using a no-till drill. We hope to get that accomplished within the next two weeks. My one big complaint about this farm is that we spend a lot more time and money than should be necessary on pasture maintenance. We only have one sacrifice area that we can use which makes it hard to rotate and rest the pastures. Since we keep our stocking rate very reasonable we still have beautiful pastures that are the envy of most boarding facilities but they could be even better. My dad will not let us use electric fencing anywhere as he is a big ham radio operator and he says the current from the electric fence interferes with his reception. The vast majority of boarding facilities rarely give their pastures any rest and make matters worse by having way too many animals per acre.

The ideal approach for pasture management is that any patch of ground should be resting about 90% of the time. The agricultural term for this approach is MIG, or management intensive grazing. By far the easiest way to accomplish this is to use a system of advancing electric tape where the livestock (horses, cattle, sheep, or any other grazing animals) are grazed intensively on relatively small areas of grass and moved to fresh grass every two to three days.

Before all of you horse people start jumping up and down and screaming about grazing horses on grass too rich or not having enough space to move and run we don't ever plan to implement a pasture management program as intensive as MIG. However when we do finally find a new tract of land to purchase (I fear the search will never end!!) we have very specific ideas about how our pastures will be laid out.

We do not plan to waiver on our current approach of allowing approximately two acres per horse per pasture. We intend to lay out each pasture with the run-in shed and water hydrant in the middle of the pasture. There will be somewhere between 1-2 acres fenced off around the shed for a sacrifice area and the pasture will be divided into four quadrants so the horses can be rotated through each quadrant. They will always have access to the sacrifice area to use the shelter and of course drink from the water troughs. Horses are notoriously hard on pastures because they are spot grazers. Instead of grazing an entire pasture efficiently they will graze the same areas down over and over until they finally just wreck those areas. Being able to rotate them around the pasture through four different fields will allow their "spots" to have some good rest from their destructive habits!

Jason also likes to point out that cows don't go charging through the fields when they are soaking wet after a hard rain and do sliding stops, grand bucks and leaps into the air, and roll back turns, tearing up the grass roots with every step they take as they have fun. This is where the sacrifice area will come in handy. When the ground is really wet and saturated they can just hang out in the sacrifice area for a day or two while the ground has a chance to dry up. The sacrifice areas would have footing in and around the shelters, the water troughs and the hay feeding areas. Ultimately this will not only make pasture maintenance easier from a time perspective but also allow us to control this cost area a bit better as well (so less cost that has to be factored into the board). Since prices of grass seed, fertilizer, and pretty much anything to do with pasture maintenance have gone up considerably the last few years this is a good thing! We won't eliminate the need for re-seeding or other steps but we hope to reduce the frequency of the need.

We also amend our pastures as needed according to our soil tests. Jason has identified that we have seventeen different soil types on the farm in various locations through soil testing. I have to say this drives him a bit batty as when he farmed over a thousand acres in Ontario he had exactly two different soil types that he dealt with! Certain areas of the farm need to have lime spread every few years. We spread lime in these areas two years ago and our soil tests have indicated that we have not needed to re-lime yet. We expect this will need to be done again in the next year or so. Liming is a BIG job! With 140 acres to potentially spread lime on at 2 tons of lime per acre, think truckload after truckload, day after day. Liming is also expensive, as you might imagine! The lime helps to raise the soil pH to make it much more friendly for nutrients to be uptaken by grass and much less friendly for many major weeds to grow.

In between all of our pasture prep work the last few days we managed to have fun hanging out with two of Jason's college friends. They were in Louisville for the big farm show and drove down to see us on Saturday. We always enjoy having the opportunity to host Canadian visitors! All in all we had another great weekend, very busy and very productive.


Kate said...

It's wonderful to see someone putting the thought and effort you do into pasture management - we do many of the same things and we do intensive rotational grazing as well - two herds of 5-6 horses each rotating through 10 pastures, with a week or less in each and careful grass measurements. We use two dry lots with round bales in the winter. To create our small pastures, we subdivide our big squares into long rectangles about an acre each - plenty to eat in a week and plenty of room to run. We also mow to keep most of the grass palatable. We save a lot on hay!

ezra_pandora said...

I'm with kate. Not a single one of the boarding places we've been to (or heck, none that I even know of) remotely come close to doing what you do and caring for your occupants. Heck, they put like 4 and 5 horses on one pasture. I KNOW they don't do any sort of testing. I do know two places have reseeded, but then they don't take care of it, so it wasn't worth what they spent on it anyhow.

~*~Amy~*~ said...

I only have 6 acres, but I have a wonderful layout for a small property. Mine is divided into 4 of which is my sacrifice area that they always have access to right around the barn....and they just go in & out of their stalls. My land was severely over-grazed when I bought it & just compact dirt. I am making very slow progress! I really need a harrow! Then I wouldn't have to constantly pick up manure from my fields!