Helping a Pasture Reach its True Potential

“What? Did you sell your cows?!?” This was the response from my neighbor, who had stopped by several years ago after seeing my pasture covered with 2.5-foot-tall grass. “I have never seen this pasture with grass longer than a golf green in nearly 30 years; you must have sold the cows!”

This is a good description of where I started several years ago. I am the third generation managing this land, which is made up of 210 acres—80 in pasture and the rest tillable. We run about 90 head (30 each of cows, yearlings and calves) of beef cattle across the 80 acres. Before I took over, the pasture had been continuously grazed, and as a result was covered in golf course-like grass, with thistles everywhere.

I started out by transitioning the farm to rotational grazing with low stock densities. More recently, I have been practicing holistically planned, high stock-density grazing with much more frequent moves. Each season, I push myself to try something new and attempt to move our cool season perennial pastures in a positive direction.

Last season, one of the new things that I tried was inter-seeding warm season annuals into my cool season pastures to increase the amount of forage produced and to improve the diversity of the soil as well as the wildlife. Starting in mid-June this past year, I bunched the herd into very tight groups, working them across 15 acres of standing perennial pasture. I have been concentrating on soil health, so my goal was to harvest only about 40 percent of the forage and knock the other 60 percent down for a nice litter layer.

After moving the cows in a tight group, the remaining uneaten forage was completely knocked down, crimped over and browned. You can see roughly how much forage I was leaving in the foreground of the paddock here:

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And the amount at my feet here:

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My goal with the litter layer was to create a nice seed bed. Immediately after the cows were pulled off, we no-tilled a warm season annual mix that consisted of BMR forage corn, pearl millet, forage collards, sunflower, buckwheat, okra and mung bean. After no-till drilling the seed, we gave the pastures 60 days of rest. And the result is evident in the picture below.Image

And below is a short video of my cattle grazing the warm season annual mix:

Just for a comparison, I looked at the differences between 2015 and 2016 when it came to how much forage I was able to get off that pasture. It turned out with the introduction of warm annual forages I was able to gain around 420 AUD (animal unit days) of grazing, or about a week’s worth of forage for my herd. That week allowed my other pastures to rest longer and produce more, which lengthened my grazing time and reduced the amount of hay needed during the winter months. Below, I have calculated my costs and savings for the summer annual planting:

• The seed cost for the warm season annuals was around $500.

• The drill rental was around $200.

• Fuel/time/wear/tear to do the planting maybe around $100.

• Total: $800.

It is hard to estimate the cost savings, but if we assume seven days of winter feeding were avoided:

• Two 1,000 pound bales of hay @ $50/bale x 7 days = $700.

• Feeding two bales of hay in the winter takes me about an hour @ $25/hour x 7 = $175.

•Total = $875.

Based on the total costs versus the total savings, it is basically a wash. That said, there are all the intangible benefits that need to be accounted for when planting warm season annuals into cool season pastures. For example, I have seen more monarch butterflies on the farm this year than I have in the past several years combined. We have more pollinators, pheasants, deer and birds that I cannot even name, as well as native plants that otherwise would not be here.

Most importantly, although I don’t yet have the data to back this up, I believe that there is a tremendous Imageamount of benefit for the soil. I would much rather make long term investments in the soil by means of diverse life than pay for expensive commercial fertilizers that have the potential to pollute our waters.

Next season, I plan to again plant warm season annuals into some of our pastures. I have had success in the past with broadcasting seed into grass. I want to experiment with broadcasting seed into the paddock prior to the cattle graze period and then use their hooves to stomp seeds into the ground and litter layer cover.

By keeping stock densities high, I am getting hoof traffic on nearly 100 percent of the paddock surface. It works in nature, so I figured I would give it a shot, especially if it looks like we have a little moisture in the forecast.

Land Stewardship Project member Kaleb Anderson farms near Goodhue in southeastern Minnesota.