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Converting conventional ag to polyculture pasture  RSS feed

 
Posts: 10
Location: Zone 3b
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So I recently bought 15 acres, central Minnesota, which I will begin working on come late winter. The current state of the soil is compacted and overall dead; what else is to be expected after decades of non-sustainable methods. Been in a corn/soybean rotation for decades with some years of hay. I am looking for advice, criticisms, or any thoughts in general on my current plan. I am going to take the back 9 acre field and plant it in polyculture pasture with the intentions of mob grazing sheep, goats, cattle, horses ect.. More importantly I want to convert it to a pasture to allow time for the soil and it's biology to recoup while accumulating carbon in comparison to letting it sit bare dirt(hurts enough knowing it sat bare dirt all winter long). I am looking for a perennially based system; minimizing the amount of annual species input each year.
This is my current species list:
Grasses-
    Sod- Kentucky Bluegrass & Smooth Brome. Reed Canary is a possibility however I am more interested in saving that for a wetter area hence creating more zones, plus in my experience with Reed Canary it is generally more invasive than I prefer.
    Bunch- Orchard, Timothy, Crested Wheat, Perennial Rye.
Other available warm season grasses to incorporate could be switch grass, big and little bluestem along with indian grass.  I am not educated on the nutritional or behavioral attributes of these.

Legumes-
    Red, white and crimson clover. Possibly sweet clover. Birdsfoot Trefoil.

Forbs & others-
   Plantain, Chicory, Dandelions, Sunflower, forage turnips(for first few years), rape, kale, comfrey along with chives and other onions, garlic?, and hints of the Lamiaceae family ie mint, basil, sage, rosemary.

Overall thoughts? The more diversity the better. I am interested in ratios as well. Why does a majority of the populous not plant more chicory and plantain > grasses for livestock forage. I've seen mixtures suggest as low as 5% for chicory dandelions and plantain which just doesnt compute in my mind given the option of having chicory as a foraging staple.

I am also all for planting willows and poplars for coppicing.  My topography would benefit from keylines or swales but im not sure how necessary it would be and that is something that can also always be done after establishing pasture species?

I will be getting a soil test and posting results here. Am leaning towards amending the soil with minerals depending on how tests come back.

The front 4 acre field will be planted in sorghum sadangrass along with a legume for the first year in preparation to plant a 4 acre fruit tree food forest the following year.

The middle portion will be left low, more likely than not partially dug out into a pond and used to take advantage of some more wetland species like creeping foxtail, plenty of cattails, reed canary grass, alsike clover and whatever comes up to throw in there.

The back wooded section is still up for debate. Would like to run pigs through there next year for some disturbance. Consists mostly of 40+ year old Aspen growth with a mixture of red and white pines and a few other evergreens, oaks, and maples.

Any feedback is appreciated. Thank you.
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pollinator
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Location: Toronto, Ontario
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Congratulations on your land purchase. I am sorry to hear of the state of it, though.

I like a lot of what I am hearing with regards to your pasture seeding choices. I would like to see what your soil test results show, but it sounds like you have a firm grasp on things.

Bryant Redhawk has a great primer on soil science. It can be found in the following link:

https://permies.com/t/67969/quest-super-soil

Redhawk suggests compost extract applications as soon as the soil will feed the microbiota therein. I think this is an excellent tool for soil regeneration. If you have raw milk available to you, this has also been known to inoculate otherwise sterilised soil when applied to it, even diluted to 10%.

If you could provide more information about your land, like what your plant hardiness zone is, and what the orientation and topography is like, you would get suggestions better tailored to your specific circumstances.

In any case, I wish you luck, and that you keep us posted.

-CK
 
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Location: Fraser River Headwaters, Zone3, Lat: 53N, Altitude 2750', Boreal/Temperate Rainforest-transition
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Welcome to Permies Johnny. 

Good Advice, Chris K. 

My topography would benefit from keylines or swales but im not sure how necessary it would be and that is something that can also always be done after establishing pasture species? 

  Generally, in permaculture we do the Earthworks first, if possible, then build your plant systems.  That way the hydrological cycle and the natural needs of the plants merge so that you get a better ecological feedback. 

It's not that you "can't" do your earthworks later, but here's how I see it: 
Say you plant out your field with a diverse mix of stuff that you want, and it gets established.  Then a few years later you go drive an excavator over it, and start digging a long swale across your pasture.  That says compaction, where you might not want it, and disturbance where you are going to want/need to seed again so that you don't have unwanted volunteer weeds.  Also the plants that like to be on the dry (uphill) side of a swale might be on the wet (downhill) side of a swale and vice versa.  You can do your swales later, of course, and the consequences are not, generally, dire, but ecologically it is generally better to establish your water catchment patterns first, or at least plan out where they will be so that you are not going to infringe on them with further developments such as access roads/paths/trails, or structures. 

If I remember correctly, what Geoff Lawton recommends for prioritizing in design:   water, access, then structures.  Sometimes you have to fudge things, like for instance when you feel that you only have this one place that is going to work for a house site.  Then you have that as a fixed location, and then you go back to water and access, trying to make them work for that structure, but it is harder that way for overall design. 
 
Brick Johnny
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Location: Zone 3b
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Little more info-

Largest slope on the property is 6% max with most of the slope being at 1%. I am also ~30 feet to the water table at the highest point on the property which makes me wonder just how much of an impact water management systems will have.

On the topic of earthworks coming first. I agree with you and have heard similar things and also agree with the reasoning behind it. However, another suggested practice in permaculture is also sitting back for a couple years, if one can help it, and doing what I feel we all lack in more than anything else- observing. I would like to make minimal major impact in the first years and watch the property. Learn what nature has to show from/for this unique, like every other parcel, piece of land. Plus that takes off the stress of trying to do all these huge projects right away and regretting them 2 years down the line. Hence the idea of building soil through planting a perennial based system while we sit back and see what we see. Than possibly overgraze and over/re seed once the earth work decisions have been decided? I suppose there is no right or wrong way to go about it here. Thank you very much for your input Roberto!

I have read a few soil biology books however there is so much to remember that only some information sticks. Look forward to see what sticks when I get a chance to read through what redhawk was kind enough to share.

I've heard about using raw milk before and am definitely open to the idea granted there is a good local source.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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another suggested practice in permaculture is also sitting back for a couple years, if one can help it, and doing what I feel we all lack in more than anything else- observing. I would like to make minimal major impact in the first years and watch the property.

  You are very right, Johnny.  And you may be wise to do just that.  I would just suggest that you walk the field areas and see where you might want your swales, and other earthworks and then figure out if you want to have specific access points, so that you are driving into the fields at the same places, and driving in the same places on the fields, thus minimizing impact on the greater field/concentrating the compaction on places that will be designated as access paths.


I suppose there is no right or wrong way to go about it here.

So long as it fits your final design idea in the first place.  :)   More often than not, things will change/evolve over time anyway, but it's nice to have a game plan to focus on, and have an idea what might not be the best strategy so that you are not having too many regrets from making poor decisions.

I am also ~30 feet to the water table at the highest point on the property which makes me wonder just how much of an impact water management systems will have. 

  That depends on your rainfall ratio to your evaporation, and how deep your plants roots can get in a growing season. 

As far as advice for planting.  I would over-seed a crop of oats and alfalfa.  I know this seems counter intuitive when you want a polyculture.  But... This is a known mix that many farmers use to establish a field after disking or rotovating.  The oats quickly establish themselves, and provide an over story micro-climate to the young alpha seedlings.  The oats go to seed and will give you oats in the field for a few years where they can grow.  The alfalfa of course is the perennial that is very deep rooted and will tap into your water table, thus being the irrigation system for the field.  The next season, plant all the rest in the canopy of your alfalfa.  You will have much greater germination and success with all the other stuff if the alfalfa is already established for a season. 

Note: edited for a quote that I didn't set up properly
 
Brick Johnny
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My only fear with planting alfalfa is the cross-pollination with GM alfalfa as I know there are GM alfalfa fields all around my area. Maybe in 15 years I won't be so cautious, or maybe more cautious, towards GMOs. I think it's too early to come to conclusions so i'll stay clear for now. Otherwise the oats/alfalfa combination is a great idea. I am sure there are other alternatives as well.
I am excited to see what happens with the Sorghum-Sudangrass in the 4 acre front field. 8-10,000 lb OM/acre, extensive tap root system, when cut at 3-4ft tall back down to 6" the root system expands 5-8 times in mass. Sub soil aeration is ideal for all the compaction. How can one not be excited? I've never seen or heard of anyone in my area grow it before but hey, no harm in trying. 
I'll have to do some reading up on rainfall to evaporation ratios, thank you kindly for bringing that up. Your knowledge, along with everyone else, is more appreciated than I can express in words. Nonetheless- thank. you. In time this property is going to act as the platform for a non-profit with the goal of feeding the highest quality produce at no cost to under served impoverished Minneapolis(and other surrounding areas) families. The fact you guys are willing to give your time to help educate others along their journeys- I am humbled and genuinely grateful.

I must admit that I am but a hypocrite. I speak of not doing any "large earth work projects" for the first years yet I plan to build a strawbale house on the property next year. Different kind of earthwork but you get my drift. With that said the access points will be established to some extent.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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I must admit that I am but a hypocrite. I speak of not doing any "large earth work projects" for the first years yet I plan to build a strawbale house on the property next year. Different kind of earthwork but you get my drift. With that said the access points will be established to some extent. 

  It's not hypocritical.  What you are doing is your business and the order is not as important as the thought process (design process) that ensures that you have the house in the best possible place considering sun exposure to your sunward wall, water getting to the house for drinking and cleaning and fire protection, water shedding off the house and catchment/diversion strategies, wind direction bringing cold against your windows or against your doorways, wind potentially bringing fire towards your house, access to roads for ease of (short distance of) plowing, etc... you get my thinking... ?!  so, when you consider all the variables in the first place and balance one aspect to another and come up with the best location, then... you have the best location.  It's as simple (or as complicated) as that.  :)
 
Roberto pokachinni
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In time this property is going to act as the platform for a non-profit with the goal of feeding the highest quality produce at no cost to under served impoverished Minneapolis(and other surrounding areas) families. 

  Very noble of you.
 
Roberto pokachinni
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My only fear with planting alfalfa is the cross-pollination with GM alfalfa as I know there are GM alfalfa fields all around my area.

  Sorry, I'm out of the loop.  I wasn't aware of this aberrant alfalfa.  Perhaps this is what I have at my place.  I know the local Mennonites are not averse to planting whatever gets them the biggest bang for the buck.  I'll have to ask them what seed they use.  Could be my field has alfalfa seeded from their fields.  I don't have much alfalfa and my field is mostly grasses but has quite a mix.  I didn't plant anything; it was feral a long time since it was planted. 
 
Chris Kott
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In my opinion, there's nothing to be feared from GMO pollen.

In my opinion, the danger isn't in the science, meaning that there's nothing inherently bad about manipulating genetics that way. Some people don't agree, and argue that we can't know because nature never did it that way, and my response is that's okay, because nature did the same thing, but slower.

In my opinion, the way GMOs are bad is the fact that poison-resistant seed is being created to withstand the application of poisons for monocropping.

This practice would be just as bad if the seed breeding were being done in a field, spraying crop after crop with poison, then taking the ones it didn't kill and breeding them to produce a poison-resistant crop.

It's bad, again, in my opinion, because it perpetuates the idea that we should grow only one thing and sterilise everything else, even the soil.

That said, even if you care deeply about not being affected by errant GMO alfalfa pollen, just chop and drop or graze your alfalfa before it produces seed. You will have to reseed every time your alfalfa finally dies (it should just keep coming back, but the plants won't be contributing to the seed bank, so to get more alfalfa you will need more seed).

I think the benefits of alfalfa outweigh any perceived risk.

-CK
 
Roberto pokachinni
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meaning that there's nothing inherently bad about manipulating genetics that way. Some people don't agree, and argue that we can't know because nature never did it that way, and my response is that's okay, because nature did the same thing, but slower. 

  While I understand where you are going with those thoughts, Chris, I tend to think in ways that nature tends to work with genes in relation to how laboratory genetic company does.  They are, in my opinion, not at all similar, and are not simply a matter of a relationship of time, as you are indicating.  Upon looking into such manipulated alfalfa a bit, I found that what they do is force ecoli and soil bacteria into the cell's internal structure, directly effecting it's genetics.  This sort of thing doesn't happen in nature, and so it is highly improbable that such a combination would ever occur in nature in any amount of time, or that if it did it would be unlikely to find success enough to spread over tens of thousands of acres.

The problem is not only the horrific problem of the chemicals being overused (or used at all), it is that there is a high risk of eliminating all other alfalfa genetics in favor of those that contain this one genetic tweak.  That seriously limits the future of a once quite diverse species.  While natural plants tend to be effected in much the same way, by natural selection, when a new gene does manifest, it seldom completely eliminates the rest of it's genetic stock in the process.  Economically, this also eliminates many of the future possibilities of an organic alfalfa market, which is a significant part of prairie export economics. 

It is probably best to not continue to engage in the topic of such manipulations as it's not part of the site's recommended design patterns, if you catch my drift (genetic or otherwise).  There are threads relating to such topics where it would be best to engage further.  Rather than derail this thread further towards such ends, I would suggest that we, and others, allow the thread to benefit the OP with other thoughts and information related to the project at hand.    
 
Chris Kott
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In any case, if organic alfalfa is grown from the OP's seed and is chopped or grazed before seed sets, I don't think it's possible for any pollen to have an effect on the alfalfa genetics.

Correct me if I am wrong, but no seed means no transmission of GMO modification, right?

-CK
 
Roberto pokachinni
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Correct me if I am wrong, but no seed means no transmission of GMO modification, right? 

  True; theoretically.  In fact, I can't see how it would be effected in the least if there is no seed.  The problem is that grazing does not necessarily eliminate seeding, and chopping or mob grazing would have to be done when the flowers start in order to eliminate the possibility that cut or trampled plants would not continue to bolt to seed from flower (which I've seen in other species, like thistles).  Either of those techniques would boost alfalfa's nitrogen release in the soil, but would have to be done at least twice in a season to ensure that no seeds were produced, particularly with more mature plants with deep established roots.  Regardless, there is no saying that birds are not going to bring seed from those big ag fields anyway.  
 
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I believe you may be overthinking the alfalfa thing, gmo alfalfa would only be modified to resist some herbicides (which would mean why bother doing such an expensive modification process on a grass) so if you aren't using those chemicals there should be no harm to anything or any animal.

The manipulation of genes is a sticky wicket but when it comes to this one grass, alfalfa or Lucerne as it is known in much of the world, all it takes is cross pollination to start the reversal process.

I am rather surprised that there is such a product since most of the manipulations done are for crops not for pasture or hay products.

In any case, plant what you can get and if it worries you that much, look for an alternative grass to use.
In my neck of the woods you can't get alfalfa seed easily, it has to be special ordered and it is not cheep. I can get a pound of seed for 10 dollars, to much for me to even bother with it, I have a donkey and she can't have Lucerne since it is too high in protein for her system to manage.

Redhawk
 
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