Thursday, September 12, 2013

Serendipity in the Pasture

(post by Jason) After a spring and summer that was much below normal for temperature and much above normal for moisture we were really beginning to wonder whether or not our pastures were ever going to come on. This is going to sound weird for anyone in the northern US or Canada where cool season grasses predominate, but our summer pastures don't thrive on cooler and wetter than average weather.

As I've mentioned in previous posts we live toward the bottom end of what is known as the 'transition zone'. What this means is that we grow both cool season C3 and warm season C4 grasses with neither type predominating. In this part of the world, cool season grasses thrive best from late September through April. During the winter months they will go semi dormant for periods of time from December through February but they will green up and actively grow during winter warm spells. The brown grass that people see here in the middle of the winter is almost always a C4 warm season species. C4 warm season grasses thrive when the weather consistently gets up around 90 F. They form the bulk of our summer pasture during the months of June, July and August. This year it was cool enough and wet enough that they never did really come on but it was also hot enough that most of the cool season grasses more or less went dormant. Thus in spite of lots of soil moisture it was beginning to look like we were going to run out of pasture before the cool season grasses started to come on. Feeding hay in September after one of the wettest spring and summer periods on record was really looking possible and it really, really didn't make me happy.

About the last week of August our cool and wet weather pattern finally decided to change and for the past three weeks we have experience much more typical late summer weather featuring lots of sunshine and daytime temperatures reaching the low 90's. The warm season grasses finally decided it was time to come out to play and our pastures went from looking kind of sparse to calf high and so thick that you can't see your boots when you walk through them.

A long time ago when I lived up north I learned that it was entirely possible to convert a farm filled with junky grass species to something much better through managed grazing with cattle with almost no external inputs. I saw renewed proof of this when I visited my friend Bob Stannard who runs Vermont Natural Beef last fall. When I toured his farm I was very quickly overcome with extreme pasture envy. All the good grass species exist in the soil seed bank but they can and do get crowded out by junky, low quality pest species when the pastures are not managed properly. The neat part is that this pattern can be reversed quite quickly. In just a few years Bob has created some of the best, thickest and lushest pastures I have ever laid eyes on solely through grazing management. Honestly the trip was entirely worth the cost and time just to see his pastures. But it sure didn't make me feel better about the state of my own pastures when I came home. It was kind of the same feeling one gets when one first opens the door and walks into the cluttered mess of home after a pampered week at a super sleek, super clean five star resort.

As I've mentioned before it is almost impossible to manage a horse pasture in such a way as to promote an improvement in pasture species over time. More often the opposite happens and I wind up reseeding large areas of pasture with cool season grasses every spring. I'll reiterate that horses are *extremely* hard on pastures, especially during the winter months. In spite of that, through a combination of pure serendipity, heavy grazing pressure combined with several extreme and unusual weather patterns, our pastures have seriously improved their warm season grass species. I almost couldn't believe what I was seeing when I walked the pastures and really looked at the grasses this morning. I couldn't have done a better job if I had spent hundreds of hours and many thousands of dollars trying to do so. Thanks Mother Nature. For those not in the know, it isn't very often you'll ever catch a farmer saying that !


Fabrizzio, Walden and Thor heading out in the pasture on a foggy morning after breakfast. Thor and Fabrizzio have reached the point where the grass is up to their knees.

Silver and Gus

Flyer and Gibson

Johnny and Toledo grooming

Oskar and Donovan grooming

Noble, Snappy and Lightening

Wiz and Dutch

Merlin on the run

Levendi and Hemi

Lighty and Johnny

1 comment:

Laura said...

Interesting post - I'm glad to hear your pastures have come back with the warmer weather.

I would love a cow or two to graze my horse pastures... :-) I have a measly 4 acres that I use May - Sep/Oct (eastern ON) for 2 horses and the weeds are killing me. I can't keep up with them.

I guess bush hogging is another way to keep the weeds/less-desirables out of the way and let the good grasses thrive? I'm off to try and find a farmer to come out and do that for me. I so need a tractor and a few cows!! :-)