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pasture over wood chips  RSS feed

 
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Hi, we are trying to establish pasture on a steep, north facing hillside in New England.  The soil is very thin with ledge poking through all over.  We've pulled out catbrier and underbrush, and have put down a thick layer of wood chips.  (3-4")  We also have a high canopy of red oak and beech.  We are thinking of mixing our fresh cow manure with some sandy soil we were given and spreading a thin layer on the wood chips, then seeding. 
         We'd like to hear your thoughts on this.  We really want pasture fast.  (our only other pasture is 4 feet under water because of BEAVERS dam!)
Feeding hay to our homestead cow is really getting old.
 
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Hello!

Can you remove those woodchips? If you cover over those wood chips, they will rob nitrogen as they decompse, and you won't get a fast paddock. At this point it may be to late for anything else, as the thickness of chips will most likely stop germination of most seeds. The manure and sand may allow you to get some germination, but you will have nitrogen problems, and germination problems in fresh manure. At this point its to late, so my best suggestion is spread the sand. Then use legumes to seed your paddock that will make their own nitrogen. You may struggle keeping the germinating seeds wet enough, so larger seeds you can plant deeper may help. No bloat legumes are pretty limited, so finding companion grasses that can go with your first planting of legumes will be essential to utilizing the fodder, without bailing it up. You can fast compost the manure, and spread it on once its finished, maybe between cool and warm season plantings. You'll want to pick legumes known for doing well in nitrogen depleated soil, and to build soil stick with annuals. If you can find some companion annual grasses that also do well in poor soils. Give them a try in your warm or cool season mixes. You may also want to feed some nitrogen to that new paddock, to speed up the breakdown of woodchips. Unfortunately chemical fertilizer may be the only available option, unless you can make and spread worm casting/compost tea. Or have access to lots of goat and rabbit manure, since you'll want to spread and treat it evenly and continually while you're growing the crop. If you can get some more diverse mixed species annuals growing in there after the first planting mix, that would be the next step to building soil. How many seasons after is a guess. Since it could take a year or more depending on the type of wood chips, and how those woodchips interact with the planting.

Maybe someone else has a better suggestion, but unless removing those wood chips is an option. I can't think of anything else that may help achive your goals.
 
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Location: Graham, Washington [Zone 7b, 47.041 Latitude] 41inches average annual rainfall, cool summer drought
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Apply plentiful fungal compost tea with nitrogen to the woodchips frequently. Once a week may do.

During this time you can try sending some form of legumes into the pasture. I would go with the cheapest seed you can get for this phase because it's likely much of it won't take. Annuals are fine, you just want living roots and nitrogen fixation.
 
pollinator
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I wouldn't remove the chips --  just scrape them back in places and seed in those spots.

Commercial lawn seeding businesses create a slurry of water, paste made from newspaper, some fertilizer and of course grass seed.  They pump it out of a tank through a big nozzle (like a fire hose) and burp it out onto the bare ground.  All that cellulose makes a perfect medium for grass to get started in.  Within 2 or 3 days, it germinates and quickly grows up through the paper mulch residue. 

Perhaps you could so something like that yourself.  Mix grass seed with compost, finely shredded paper and a bit of very mild fertilizer (like 8-8-8) and hand-seed your pasture.  If you water it down into the chips, I'm sure that it would sprout.  The key is to keep it moist.

Once it finds a little pathway up through the wood chips, it'll thrive.  No, chips do not tie up nitrogen in the SOIL as long as you don't till them under.  As a growing medium themselves, chips would be lousy.  But as a mulch on top of the soil, they are dynamite. 
 
pollinator
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Realistically, I would look to any grasses, preferably local, that are adapted to the really thin soil conditions particular to your area. Getting a root mat down wherever it will take is crucial to encouraging the trapping of sediment and organic matter to create more soil, and to harbour the soil life that make it all happen.

I actually wonder if combining Marco and Kurt's ideas would work. I mean, if you were to brew a highly oxygenated, as in actively bubbling, balanced fungal/bacterial compost tea suitable for pastures, and added raw paper to it, and a seed mix near the end, and sprayed the resultant slurry onto thin soil and exposed rock, would it take, and would it work well enough to be worth the hassle?

I could see the paper mulch acting as a microbial hotel, as well as retaining moisture, nurturing the germinating plants, and accelerating soil development easily enough.

-CK
 
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E. Barker wrote: Hi, we are trying to establish pasture on a steep, north facing hillside in New England.  The soil is very thin with ledge poking through all over.  We've pulled out catbrier and underbrush, and have put down a thick layer of wood chips.  (3-4")  We also have a high canopy of red oak and beech.  We are thinking of mixing our fresh cow manure with some sandy soil we were given and spreading a thin layer on the wood chips, then seeding. 
         We'd like to hear your thoughts on this.  We really want pasture fast.  (our only other pasture is 4 feet under water because of BEAVERS dam!)
Feeding hay to our homestead cow is really getting old.



First off, many people still think that woodchips will some how suck up all nitrogen (I call this an urban myth), because it has been scientifically shown to not be true in surface mulch wood chips.
To seed on top of the mulch layer you will need to have something for the roots to get going in and that will need to contain a fair amount of Nitrogen.
The manure you mention, along with the sandy soil to spread either with or on top of the seed is a good start, adding spent coffee grounds to that mix would give a better nitrogen boost.
Since the idea is to get a pasture going fast, use a mix of plant seed types so you get as many roots going through the chips to the soil as possible.
Keep in mind that pastures need to be fully established before the animals start feeding there or they will rip out the plants by the roots and you will get to start over.
I give my new pastures at least three months growing before I put animals on them. 

Redhawk
 
R. Steele
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Just to clarify my statement for everyone, about woodchips robbing nitrogen. What I'm refering to is the well established science, that woodchips will rob nitrogen in the layer of decomposing woodchips, and also the woodchip soil interface. So what I'm trying to say is with 4 inches of woodchips, potentially an inch of sand and manure over that, plus the small measurable depth of the woodchip soil interface. You would have potentially over 5 inches of nitrogen robbing material, the plant roots must grow through. Any nitrogen fertalizer you're trying to leach into your soil beneath, will also have to leach though that nitrogen robbing layer. Chips make a great top dressing amendment over other amendment layers to help retain moisture, and prevent weeds in there long breakdown process.  However, once you cover woodchips, the constant moisture speeds up decomposition, which speeds up nitrogen consumption. Thats why I suggested legumes, because they will fix nitrogen in the preexisting layer of soil, that will become hard to fertalize through the decomposing woodchips. I suggested finding the right companion grasses planted with those legumes, since they will challenge the legumes to fix even more nitrogen, while changing the percent of legume to grass ratio, making the forage grazible without bloat.

I hope that helps!
 
E. Barker
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thanks for all your input!  What we ended up doing was leaving the wood chips, covering with 4-6 inches of freshish cow manure, 1-2 inches of sandy soil, seeding oats, field peas, and buckwheat  and covering with a loose layer of half rotted oat straw.   R. Steele- your comment about the amount of nitrogen the wood chips would need in order to rot down got us to beef up the manure layer.  we were going to save some for other projects, but put it on the pasture instead.  We also raked some mini contour swales into the chips to slow the water.  once we put them on it, they will probably mash them down. 
  I've always done something similar when I set up a new garden bed.  4-6 inches of wood chips, fresh manure, then 6-8 inches of soil.  It works great for veggies!  I only have to water if we don't get rain for more than a week.  Here of course. I don't have enough nice soil  to give it.

Next question:  should we chop and drop?  or let them on it when it is pretty grown in? or cut some and bring it to them each day?  I'd really like your input!

 
R. Steele
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E. Baker, if its not hurting your annual planting. I would say let the cow do the harvesting work for you; however, it's about what works best for you and your situation. Some annuals don't do well with recovery once grazed, and since you're trying to establish this pasture for forage. The forage may be at a stage of maturity that causes termination by trampling, which is fine if you're ready to replant.  If the plant's are at a stage where you can't get any regrowth, rolling or chop and drop is a decision of your personal convenience. Whats the easiest most effective way for you to harvest and terminate your crop? Heck if bailing it up works best for you to harvest and terminate, then thats your answer. Just remember the more of the forage biomass left flat on the surface, the better it will be to help shade the soil, feed the soil biome from above, and retain moisture. If things grow well, you could probably harvest/terminate your crop in mid july, and still squeeze in a warm season crop before your fall planting of cool season annuals.  Once you see everything is definitely growing well in your soil, you can seed in a good mix of cool and warm season perennials if you prefer.

Let us know how the planting goes, there is a lot to be learned here!
 
pollinator
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There is no question that wood chips (or woody debris for that matter) robs nitrogen from the soil. I have cleared far too much land, and seen too many acres of forest put into field to ever tell me otherwise.

But that is immaterial at this point. I think the wood chips was a poor idea and did far more damage then good. New England soil is thin, but it is known as the best pastures in the world due to our rainfall, topography, temperature swings, etc. We don't have a whole lot going for us up here, but good pasture is one of them. It is one of the reasons I got into sheep.

My farm spans the height of land, so literally it sheds into two different water sheds and faces both north and south facing aspects. At one time over 100 acres of it was plowed up into potatoes and 90% of the time the spring resets on the plow quivered because the plow shares were riding over ledge. That means a lot of my tillable land is less than 14 inches deep! Even then it still grows corn and grass well because water always sits on top of ledge.

Without seeing the land, and without a soil test, I can only guess, but would venture to say that the soil PH is the real culprit. Without getting the soil PH to at least 6.0, the soil will not uptake any admendments like cow manure, so it is not going to do a whole lot of good. Look for smooth bedstraw or queen annes lace. If you have that, the PH is very low. ALWAYS get your PH level to the crop you want (6.0 for pasture), then and only then, add your manures.
 
E. Barker
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Just a quick update:  The oats and buckwheat are doing great!  8" tall at this point. 

    To elaborate on the previous state of the land:   the soil depth was 0-2 inches except where the oaks had cracked the ledge enough to get through.  and there are a few pockets with more soil.  no ploughing for potatoes here.
 
pollinator
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Congrats on the success!

Barker,  my method for building up soil is to put their hay WHERE you want to build the soil. As long as its not a large round bale plopped in one spot, the ground will decompose it rather quickly. If it is a round bale (and not rolled out, it will be a thick dead zone as it decomposes. Many people use hay to seed pastures, placing a light layer over the seeds to hold moisture,  decrease erosion, etc. Its getting a second benefit with no additional cost or effort. .

I have a thread titled "permaculture hacks that work".  It has before and after pics of rolling vs plopping the round bales.
 
Marco Banks
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Great report! 

I wouldn't chop and drop if grazing is an option.  If possible, let the plants get tall (3 feet or so) and then let ruminants in to eat what they want and to knock down the rest.
 
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