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Julius..Pasture restoration help

 
Dave Hunt
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Location: NJ
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Hi Julius welcome to Permies, thanks for providing such great info.
My question is regarding restoring old pasture land that hasn't been touched for several years. Some background info: I have about 6 acres that used to be a cow pasture but has been left uncut, wild for probably 4 years. How or what can I do to repair, replant or otherwise get this section of my land back to pasture land? My end goal is probably a few sheep but I am also considering a cow or 2. I currently rotate a few flocks of chickens on other areas of my property.
Thanks again for your help.
Dave
 
Jacob Levin
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I'll post in here too as I'm in a similar boat. I have an opportunity to help restore an old horse pasture, with the hope of transitioning it to eventually transitioning it over to dairy animals (1-2 years down the road at least. I have some wild grass seeds on another part of the property I intend to put down, but am also interested in what else I can introduce that cows, goat, sheep and horses will enjoy (and maybe even pigs a long time down the road). I'm particularly interested in what I can plant that can help the owners of the property avoid buying grain to feed whatever animals they have milking. I'd love to hear any variety of grasses you particularly like. I'd also love to hear about any experience you've had letting cattle self medicate with medicinals. lastly, if there are species of trees you've noticed your cows enjoying. i recently learned from osker brown that basswood and mulberry leaves are extremely nutrient rich, with mulberry leaves containing as much as 20% protein. What other trees would you recommend establishing on the edge of pastures?

Thanks so much for all the research you've done on this topic. I look forward to checking out your book!
 
Cj Sloane
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Location: Vermont, off grid for 22 years!
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Jacob Levin wrote:... lastly, if there are species of trees you've noticed your cows enjoying. i recently learned from osker brown that basswood and mulberry leaves are extremely nutrient rich, with mulberry leaves containing as much as 20% protein. What other trees would you recommend establishing on the edge of pastures?


I've just planted about 350 saplings in an acre that isn't doing well producing pasture. I planted:
Willows, Poplars, black locust, Honey locust, European Mountain Ash, and Russian mulberry.

There are a bunch of threads here on this topic but they can be a bit tricky to find as they are all titled differently.

Try this, this, and this.
 
Cj Sloane
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Location: Vermont, off grid for 22 years!
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Also, my cows have eaten all the trees I've cut down for them, mostly beech which is not one I'd plant on purpose. You need to stay away from [wilted] cherry and some types of Maple, though Bill Mollison has recommended Striped Maple for cows which is great because it's such a junky tree. Make sure they've got a good mineral supplement and they'll be fine.
 
Allen Rutledge
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Location: Earlsboro, Ok
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Hi Julius,
Pasture restorations is on my mind as well. My family has about 150 acres in central Oklahoma with about 2 dozen head of cattle on it. Some of the fields are becoming overrun with weeds and produce poorer quality hay/forage each year. When my wife and I take over the day to day operations (in the not too distant future) the first thing we want to do is restore the soil. Over the past 30 years the land has never been tilled and has never been fertilized. So the soil is in no doubt suffering from having 30 years worth of cow food taken from it with nothing returned. Where do we even begin? Our long term plan for the farm is to move away from cattle and into vegetables, fruits and nuts. Perhaps after reading your book we will do both
 
Julius Ruechel
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What's the best pasture restoration technique for all of the different situations mentioned in this thread? It depends...

How much time do you have - how quickly do you want to accomplish the restoration?

A well-managed pasture rotation will, over time, rejuvenate anything. The bison on the great plains fixed what the ice age pulverized and created amazing soil that the bread basked of North America depends on even today. But the big ingredient is time - design a very efficient pasture rotation and then repeat, repeat, repeat, for years. In extensive rangeland, or on soils that are too fragile to disturb with tillage, the daily pasture rotationis the most powerful tool at your disposal.

Some of the fields are becoming overrun with weeds and produce poorer quality hay/forage each year.
Our long term plan for the farm is to move away from cattle and into vegetables, fruits and nuts. Perhaps after reading your book we will do both

The pasture rotation will also help to address some of weed concerns that Allen has as it creates the favorable conditions for grass to get the upper hand while creating conditions that makes weeds less competitive, it might also be a good way to start getting some manure in the soil in preparation for tillage later for your crops.

If you want to speed things up, addressing soil fertility imbalances and implementing a fertilization program will also make a huge difference. If it hasn't seen fertilizer for a while, then this is an obvious place to start. Don't just start adding compost or fertilizer - start first with a proper soil analysis and tell the lab or soil consultant whether you want recommendations for organic or conventional production. If you have compost or manure available, get that tested too - just because these are good fertilizers does not automatically mean they are the right fertilizers for your specific soil - only a lab test can tell if it will help or make the soil fertility problems worse. The Soil Fertility chapter of my book gets into this in more detail.

I have about 6 acres that used to be a cow pasture but has been left uncut, wild for probably 4 years.

Whether it is just weeds or brush and trees, cattle are affectionately known as "the poor man's bulldozer" for their ability to turn wild back into park - with a good grazing rotation. I've used them more than once in that capacity. With portable electric fences, it is also easy to briefly concentrate the cattle if you want them to pulverize brush and weeds so the grass has a chance to see the light of day again.

And now I'll get to some more aggressive pasture restoration techniques - get some steel in the field, so to speak - on soils that can handle some tillage.

Harrowing can help loosen up dead grass and begin rejuvenating the grasses, as long as there is a proper grass sod still in place.

Disking across a pasture - more aggressive - will help to loosen up root-bound soils, as will running a subsoiler through.

The most aggressive strategy would be to completely till up and replant, or to seed into a pasture using a range seeder. This is worth it if a pasture is very deteriorated, the soil is good quality, and you have the right conditions to be able to establish a fresh seed bed. Bigger initial outlay, but your land productivity bounces back very quickly so you can recover your costs and get the land earning money again.

Disking or tilling and replanting will also bring up a huge number of weeds. Yes the pasture rotation can eventually manage it, but unless you either have a mowing program ready to implement, or are willing to use herbicides, you could be facing quite a few years of heavy weeds to go along with your replanting/tillage. And if it gets out of control, they will choke out the things you seed. If you disk or till, your initial growth will be too vulnerable to let the cows onto - their feet will crush the young growth. That means mowing or herbicides are generally the only option if you use this kind of replanting/rejuvenation strategy.

However, regardless of the strategy used to rejuvenate, it is only as good as the long-term management plan you implement afterwards - if you are raising cattle, that means a good daily pasture rotation, preferably accompanied by a good soil fertility management program. You want to create the kind of conditions that encourages pasture plants to thrive so that whatever you plant, or overseed, actually flourishes and continues to grow more abundant. Discing, or replanting isn't going to do much good if you simply park cattle permanently on it afterwards without a good pasture rotation. However, once you have a good daily pasture rotation in place, and you see that the pasture plant species are starting to increase all by themselves, then you have the option of adding to the plant mix either with a range seeder, or - my favorite - by adding seed to the mineral ration so the cattle can spread it themselves. This method has a very low germination rate, but since you haven't had to start a tractor, you can afford a low germination rate. I've overseeded with alfalfa and clover in grass pastures with this method - it took several years before we saw a difference, but eventually both became a meaningful part of the pasture mix.

Grass varieties

Different plants will do best in different regions. Furthermore, it is about matching the right grass species to your particular grazing goals. Start by making a very clear farm plan for your cattle farm. The ideal hay mix is going to be different than a pasture mix for a summer grazing program, while a winter grazing program will benefit from adding yet other plants to the mix to provide plants that are strong to stand up through snow and are more resistant to leaching. And then go to your seed supplier to put together a mix that specifically caters to those needs. Also ask your neighbors what is thriving on their farms - and make sure you include lots of those species in your mix. No matter how wonderful a plant looks on paper, if it doesn't like your soil/climate/environment, it isn't going to be much use.

Trees at the pasture edge
- go with whatever likes growing in your area - if your ditches and fence-rows are sprouting willow, poplars, mulberry, seabuckthorn, or whatever your local bush is that likes to take over areas where there is little grazing, then that's probably the best place to start since you already have proof that this variety likes your conditions. The birds will be happy regardless of what you plant.javascript:emoticon(''); And your cattle will be grateful that there are more birds to reduce the bugs that bother them. Picking bushes that already like growing in your area means it will take less time before you can start attracting birds to you cow pasture so your cows can benefit from their bug control. I love seeing a pasture full of cows that all have half a dozen or so birds sitting on their backs and heads.

Self medicating cattle
Yes, cattle do seek out certain plants to "self-medicate". However it is not a reliable alternative for intervening by calling a vet when an animal is sick. And sometimes they will seek out plants that are poisonous and will die just because they are looking for a certain smell or taste while sick. Unfortunately I am not a specialist on what plants to add to the mix for general preventative measures like worm control and so on - Be careful what you plant - know exactly what you are getting into before introducing any medicinal plants into the pasture mix.
...

You can learn more about pasture rejuvenation and about using your cattle and electric fence grid as your most important farm management tool in this article series:

  • Part I - improving pasture yields, improving grass quality, loosening compacted soils, reseeding pastures
  • Part II - improving soil fertility, managing riparian areas, protecting sensitive areas
  • Part III - increasing soil moisture, drought management, erosion control
  • Part IV - eradicating pasture weeds
  •  
    Dave Hunt
    Posts: 68
    Location: NJ
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    Wow, Julius great info!! Thanks so much for such an indepth answer to so many different aspects of pasture restoration. I have a lot to think about now.
    Regarding the aggressive route of restoration with discing, subsoiler, reseeding would you recommend doing this in the spring or fall? I guess it depends on climate, I am in the northeast and we can get some decent growth in both spring and fall. If you do decide to reseed a pasture how long would you keep animals off that certain area?
    Lastly, are those last sections supposed to be links to additional info?
    Thanks again for such detailed answers. I am getting some great info reading your other answers as well!!
    Dave
     
    Allen Rutledge
    Posts: 2
    Location: Earlsboro, Ok
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    Thank you Julius for the great responses. We have time, so implementing pasture rotation seems like the best option for us. I put your book on my Amazon wish list and will be ordering it soon. I look forward to sharing the book with my grandpa, who is currently caring for the land.
     
    Julius Ruechel
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    Hi Dave

    Thanks for pointing out the problem with the links in my previous post!

    Regarding the aggressive route of restoration with discing, subsoiler, reseeding would you recommend doing this in the spring or fall?

    If you are reseeding, your seed supplier will tell you the best time for the mix you are doing. A lot of grasses can be planted spring or fall. Discing to refresh a pasture is often done in spring, but can also be done in fall - basically, you want to disc and then have some moisture on it fairly soon afterwards so the grass that has been chopped up keeps growing rather than getting dried out and killed by the sun.

    Subsoiling can be done most any time of year - some people even run a pass through a field with a subsoiler mid-way through the summer after grazing or haying.

    If you use a range-seeder to seed into existing pastures discuss it with the owner or equipment dealer that owns/leases the range seeder -they will tell you what the best timing is for your area - you need good seed to soil contact, good moisture after seeding, and a time of year when the sod is loose enough for penetrating with the range seeder - so it will depend a lot on moisture conditions and again is a spring +/- autumn event.

    If you add seed to your cattle's mineral mix to use them as a seed dispersal method (bearing in mind that germination rates with this method are very low (which is generally acceptable because you also saved the cost of fuel and labor of running a tractor), and only work at all if the pasture rotation is working very well with daily pasture moves), the the only time to add these seeds is when you know that a period of long wet weather is going to follow (spring +/- late fall), because not only do you want moisture to get the seeds to germinate, but you also need the cattle feet to physically trample the seed into the ground - and that only happens if the soil is wet - dry soil in mid summer means the seed will not get pushed into the soil no matter how many times the cows step on it, so even if it germinates, there will be no seed to soil contact and the germinating seed will dry out and die.



    If you do decide to reseed a pasture how long would you keep animals off that certain area?


    When reseeding from scratch, not into a sod, then you have to keep the cattle off it until sufficient sod and root depth form so that the fresh seedlings are not vulnerable to trampling, or to being uprooted by a grazing cow. That means, the first 1-2 "grazes" are generally skipped and done with a mower (not harvested!) instead to give the pasture time to establish before the cattle are let onto it (and keep the weeds in check). Reseeding also means that you will not get up to full production on that newly planted pasture for at least the first year since grass plants will still be smaller and weaker the first year (in addition to losing the first pass to the mower) . So you do need to count on making up that production elsewhere to avoid feed or pasture shortages during the interim. seeding from scratch should also be accompanied by a good fertilizer program to ensure that all the nutrients required by the grass are there so it has a chance to compete with weeds and establish quickly.

     
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