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Options for managing a large (10 acre) idle meadow?

 
pollinator
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I wrote in other threads about reforesting a ~10 acre meadow. Well, that will be a long process, extra long because we'll trade as many inputs as we can for time instead, e.g. dense planting seeds and seedlings with minimal irrigation, amendments or protection. Also, even after much reforestation has been done, maintaining some (much less than 10 acres) meadow would be useful for landscape complexity, opportunity for pasture, opportunity for building, annuals, etc.

What options are there for managing the meadow along the way? Here's a few that come to mind along with their pros and cons. I see huge meadows in some areas around upstate NY, how do folks maintain them if at all, how long can they be left as is before entropy scraps equilibrium?

1. Do nothing: price is right on this one, but won't it result in agricultural field succeeding to forest in potentially undesirable ways? Maybe combined with intentional reforestation with useful trees (mainly nuts and fiber as 'staples', fruits and support trees too), letting the meadow succeed could work out alright. In this case I'd envision a modified...
1.5: Do nothing until forest emerges, then manage that along with reforestation efforts to optimize forest health, utility, and longevity. This seems like a good option for much of the meadow, but I'm concerned the forest succession will be overrun with scrappy trees that stagnate the system and inspire future humans to deforest it (or at least clearcut and try to restore healthier forest, lots of energy better to avoid the need for). For example, there is European buckthorn, autumn olive, and black locust in the area which could get gnarly.

2. Mow for hay: as I understand it, that's been the current approach. Free exchange where a farmer mows it and keeps the hay, I think for horses. Awaiting more details. This seems like an okay option for humans, win-win for landowner and farmer, but a bad option for 'earth care' and maybe long-term fair share as the soil nutrients are depleted with each mowing.

3. Mow/push plants over for green manure: same as mowing for hay but leave the material in place. I understand this would require a tractor and brush hog and is unlikely to be free. Yet to hash out a budget for this. This is better for local earth care, maybe a kind of carbon farming, but the fossil fuel use required feels...ironic.

4. Graze: this seems ideal and there's a growing demand for grass fed meat and supply of silvopastoralists in my area. However, 10 acres seems like a lot to graze! I figure next step to 'spec out' this option is reach out to a few local herd caretakers and see if they do this sort of thing, if distance is okay, size and frequency considerations, pasture quality considerations (e.g. maybe mowing then planting would make this more enticing for them to maintain the meadow for livestock?) This is something I might do here or on a nearby farm myself in the future, but not for at least a year or two and even then not at 10 acre scale.

5. ???

How have you seen folks manage large, 10 acre lawns? Stating the goal simply, it's to do good by the planet, help strategic reforestation, and keep some herbaceous cover areas for landscape complexity and potential human uses.

4.
 
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I have been 'haying on the shares" as it is called. That means I get a farmer to come in and hay, and he keeps half the hay as he has the equipment, and I keep the other half because I own the land. Without him, I would have to have a lot of equipment, and without me. the farmer would have a lot less hay. So it works.

If I did not do this, farmers would just pay me what is called "stumpage"...or money to hay my fields. Under 25 acres is $25 per acre, and over 35 acres is $35 per acre.



 
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you might look into dept of forestry seedling program in the state your in most states sell trees for minimal $$
some states will ship out of state some won't, whats up indiana?, order right now and get delivery in winter/spring during dormancy
 
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Here’s my thoughts on the options you’ve listed. Taking into account the word managing is in the thread title, option 4 could be the best option for the soil and grasses already growing if it’s done on managed rotational grazing, which could involve simple single strand electric fence, on step in fiberglass poles, and the ten acres get divided up into quarter acre paddocks which are grazed by a dozen or so cows and moved into a new paddock every 24 hours during the growing season. This also requires water, which needs to be moved and accessible for the cows. Daily labor is required. Turning cows loose on ten acres will result in them eating their favorite grasses and forbs, and less desirable things can grow unchecked usually resulting in pasture worse off than before the cows were introduced. Unmanaged grazing often does a disservice to a soil.

I think option 2 is the worst if fertility is not added back to the soil. Those grasses grow and pull minerals out of the soil, and if those grasses are then cut, baled, and hauled off, those minerals have been removed. This will, with time, deplete a soil.

Option 3 is alright, actually pretty good, the soil minerals inside the grasses and other growth stay there on site, and as the grasses decay, the minerals will return to the soil surface and soil organic matter slowly increases. This is probably the best option that has the least amount of work involved, perhaps just bush hogging once or twice a year. This will slowly improve and build better soil.

Option 1 requires of course no management but also results in no more meadow. In your eastern great lake region, nature has a succession process almost the same as my state of Tennessee and most of the states east of the mississippi. It wants to be forest. If left to natures way, the meadow will rapidly become overgrown with low brushy and bushy plants, brambles, thickets, and tiny trees. Wildlife will move in - little burrowing ground critters, larger animals like raccoons and groundhogs, resident & migrating birds will find bugs to eat and nest in this nice habitat. Flowers will bloom, hosting bees and butterflies. This can appear unkempt and overgrown to some human eyes, and a bounty of life to other eyes, but in 10-20 years, the saplings are now getting tall enough that a young forest is just beginning. These trees are now shading the ground, and all that thick brushy growth dies out, except for the edge of the woods. The interior of the new woods will have some sparse low ground plant life, new saplings, and a forest floor of decaying leaf litter. It will have a natural balance, full of insect, reptilian, mammalian and avian life to name a few.
 
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A managed grazing system will build soil and fertility, so that would be my preferred option.  And 10 acres isn't really that large -- if you subdivided it into 40 quarter-acre paddocks by using electric wire, and you grazed your livestock (a couple of steers?) on it, you could move them every day and cover the land in 3 months before you'd turn around and start to re-graze it a second time.  

There is a ton of stuff out there on the interwebs about rotational grazing/mob grazing.  Your initial costs would include the cost of your stock, polywire/charger/battery, and some sort of system to water the stock.  Actually, not that expensive.  But it's late in the year and I'm not sure you'll want to start this up in October.  But you could have everything ready to go for spring.

I like the idea shared above about having someone swathing/bailing the grass for you and splitting the hay 50/50 with them.  Then you might bring in some weaned steers or a dozen sheep in early spring, feed them begin finishing them, and then as soon as you can put them out on pasture, you'd be set to go.  By haying the land now, you'd get 3 or 4 months fodder for them for next spring.

Also consider an egg mobile to follow your grazers, or some sort of chicken tractor.  Chickens sanitize cow pies and spread the fertility, and all that N in chicken poop will make the grass pop.

If you don't know Joel Salatin's stuff, youtube him and get a sense for his grazing systems.

 
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I also like the idea of grazing the land and adding to fertility in the process. That opens a whole nuther can of worms, of course - water, fencing, care of livestock. Not for the broke or faint-hearted.

But that’s just me - I shudder at the thought of reforesting an existing pasture when I am expending so much time and effort digging out stumps and trying to establish more pasture!  It is easy to underestimate the value of cleared land, and the difficulty of establishing lush pasture on formerly forested land.
 
R Spencer
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I added some info to OP about the possibility of me managing livestock. Probably not for a couple of years at least. How unkempt and hard-to-restore-to-pasture is a field after just a couple years? I imagine it takes 3-5 years for brushhogging to require some chainsawing or something first.

James Freyr that was a beautiful description and useful info, much thanks!

Artie Scott I see your point and will keep that in mind about difficulty to restore pasture after it's grown to forest. However I'm very interested in tree crops and agroforestry, and even if I did silvopasture I think I'd use animals to clear the land enough and not dig any stumps out myself or do more than forestry, logging, some brush clearing as needed. At least that's what I think, I could be wrong! Thanks for your insights
 
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Goats, especially, love browse, so a field left idle for a year or two would be delightful habitat for goats or some breeds of sheep.

Can the meadow be broken up into segments and each managed differently?  For instance, one section reforested, another as pasture, another for hay?

The amount of production from 10 acres in a moist climate is almost unlimited.

 
R Spencer
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Tyler yes, the meadow can be broken up into segments. Especially if someone is available to bring a herd in for grazing but not enough to mow the entire 10 acres, I'd gladly split it up to get as much grazing in as possible. Little bit of a science experiment and extra landscape complexity too!

Does anyone have a sense of how many years grassland can be left idle in the forest-inclined lands of the northeast USA, e.g. in PA and upstate NY, before it calls for more intensive actions to restore the grassland? E.g. a brushhog or goats and sheep can graze down a pasture back to its low ('stage 1') height up to 3 years, after that it takes hogs or after 5+ years maybe chainsaw or heavy equipment?

Also any sense of how it would be to 'steer' succession? As in letting meadow naturally succeed to forest but selectively logging and planting to try and steer it toward a food forest and not a scrub thicket. I've seen that in the tropics with indigenous agroforestry and similar techniques in the northeast so I will try that in at least a patch of pasture.
 
Artie Scott
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I would think you can still run a bush-hog (rotary mower) through after 3-4 years, especially if there are no coppiced stumps.  The longer between cuts, the more weeds will fill in and begin to displace the grasses, but it sounds like you are not bothered by that prospect. Bush-hogs vary, but can usually handle 2 - 3 inch diameter saplings with relative ease.   Mowing once or twice per year will add a lot of organic matter back to the soil and keep the grasses happy.  
 
Travis Johnson
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After about 3 years it gets hard to bushog. Trees in the Northeast grow pretty fast. My bushog has been busted for 2 years and if I do not get it fixed, I will be in a world of hurt if I do not get some places bushogged. Mostly, this is my gravel pit, and if I can, I will get some pictures today of what 2 years growth looks like in Maine. It will really shock people...and this is a gravel pit, hardly ideal growing conditions.

Keep in mind too, it is not so much what the bushog can cut in diameter, but that at a ceratin size those severed saplings puncture tires which is what the real problem is. Think pungi sticks, and it is impossible not to drive at some point where you previously mowed.

I have always said that a person should do what is in their heart because farming is so tough, so full of stress, that unless they are really into it, trying anything but full commitement will make them give up in short order. I am like Artie Scott and converting acres of forest into farmland because I believe that is a better strategy, but if you want agroforestry, then I propose you get really creative in obtaining trees.

Trees are everywhere in the Northeast, and many times start growing where they are not wanted. Fall is the IDEAL time to plant trees (not Spring believe it or not) and so you just need to find some free trees to plant. I got a gravel pit full of trees ideal for transplanting. Do you like hackmatack, white pine, spruce, willow, or fir? Can you make a trip to Maine?

That may not work for you, but do you see what I am saying? Maybe somewhere closer to you there is a place where you can dig up small trees and replant them on your own land. That is what I mean by being creative.


 
R Spencer
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Thanks for the tips Artie and Travis. Sourcing trees is not as much of a challenge as establishing them and figuring out how to maintain however much of the meadow we decide is preferable.
 
Travis Johnson
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R Spencer wrote:Thanks for the tips Artie and Travis. Sourcing trees is not as much of a challenge as establishing them and figuring out how to maintain however much of the meadow we decide is preferable.




Establishing them is no problem as long as you can get free, or very cheap bare root trees. For $20 you can get a planting bar, and plant about 600 trees an hour. In a weekend you should have 10 acres planted easy enough. (I made my own planting bar, but it is kind of heavy I admit).

To maintain them, you do not need a tractor and bushog. Just rent a sickle bar mower, or a DR Brush mower at a rental place. I think they are like $30 a day. Get them for a few days because walking behind them for 10 acres every 3 feet gets kind of tiring, but you could easily realize your silvopasture dream for very little cash outlay.

If 10 acres of trees is too much, do 3.3 acres this year, 3.3 acres next year, and 3,3 acres the final years: within 3 years it would be all planted. But honestly even at full stocking with 8 foot on center, it is only like 600 trees to the acre I think. This only looks daunting, it is completely doable with very little cash outlay.

 
Marco Banks
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Are there others in the area who would be willing to put their stock on your land and graze it for free?  If there were an established farmer who had, for example, 25 head of cattle, could you contact him and ask if he'd be willing to graze his cattle along with a few of your own?  It would be no more extra work for him (if you ran a few more cattle in with his), as running 25 or 28  is basically the same thing.  He'd get a lot of free fodder, and you'd get the benefits of having the herd graze the land.  

At the end of the year, he'd have moved his herd over your land 3 times, and you'd have meat for the year (or you could send those fattened steers to the sale barn).  

That would hopefully keep the land from re-foresting and would build soil.  Win-win for everyone.

If farmers don't have to put their cattle in a trailer, it's best.  If you could just herd them down the road to the new location, that's slower but easier on the animals.  As a kid, we'd frequently have to move cattle from one pasture to another.  I loved that.  We'd get up early, saddle up the horses, pack a lunch, and move the cattle down the road, letting them graze the ditch from time to time.  So if you "borrowed" a neighbor's herd to graze your land, I'm sure they'd love it if you helped them move them.  


Here's a formula for figuring out how much land it takes to graze cattle.

https://www.nrcs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/stelprdb1167344.pdf
 
Marco Banks
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Great article on small-scale land-holding and grazing cattle.

https://rethinkrural.raydientplaces.com/blog/how-many-acres-do-you-need-to-raise-cattle
 
Travis Johnson
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I took some pictures down at my gravel pit yesterday. This is what 2 years of tree growth looks like.

Unlike a forest, this would be similar to a meadow growing in because it is open, and barren, so the regrowth (called encroachment) would be very close. It is also close in size; my gravel pit is 8 acres which is important because if it was like 30 acres, it would take longer for the tree seeds to get to the center,

I put my tractor and myself in the pictures so you could get a sense of size. As I said in another reply, if I do not bushog this next year (the thrird year), I will not be able too.

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R Spencer
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Thanks for the info everyone. Really helpful stuff!

At this point I'm envisioning sectioning off areas for different management and experimentation.

For example:
- Densely seed 2 acres no protection, maybe follow with sticks/1x1 posts to mark the tree locations and potential future support for tree tubes. Use stratified seeds from overwinter, planting out with spear and seed pouch in spring.
- Fence off individual trees or a small area to plant and protect some seedlings and young saplings (hazelnut, locust, mulberry, hickories, oaks, chestnuts, fruits and early successional trees). I'd like to keep a small modular tree nursery on site, so I'll probably setup the nursery beds in the fenced area I start some trees on. A first mini & loose orchard that will migrate in the field
- Minimal management for the rest: mow once every two years at minimum leaving residue on site, work with local farmers to have them graze it as much as benefits all.

Gradually planting more saplings and high value trees with individual protection, while continuing to seed out broader areas. Scythe sensitive spots and mow minimally, while growing out tree nursery to continue reforestation and tree crop enterprises.
 
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