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Plants for spring and fall grazing

Pasture productivityThe rest of this week's lunchtime series is an overview of forage plants that match the three pasture seasons --- spring/fall (this post), summer, and winter.  You should keep in mind that specifics like this are very location specific, so if you live in the Deep South or in another area where warm season (rather than cool season) grasses dominate, you should take everything I write with several grains of salt.  The closer you live to Gene Logsdon's home base in northern Ohio, the more likely his suggestions are to fit your pasture like a glove.

In Logsdon's (and our) location, spring is when pasture plants are at their peak, with a lesser peak ocurring in the fall.  You'll plan your meat animals to match these peaks and (if your operation is big enough) will also use the extra growth to make hay (or stockpiled grass) for the winter.  So what do you plant in those spring/fall paddocks?

Bluegrass and white cloverLogsdon makes a good case for not planting at all.  His experience (and mine) has been that if you open up the tree canopy and mow close to the ground regularly, bluegrass will eventually dominate your pastures.  You might or might not need to plant the white clover that works so well to round out the pasture polyculture.

A less permanent alternative is to plant ryegrass in the place of the bluegrass that springs up naturally.  Ryegrass is a bit taller than bluegrass, so it may shade out your white clover (unless you seed specially formulated clover varieties that can handle the more aggressive grass), and even the perennial ryegrass versions need to be reseeded at intervals.  On the other hand, ryegrass might make up for the extra effort since it produces more dry matter per acre than bluegrass does and establishes quickly.  Both bluegrass and ryegrass are among the most palatable grasses in most livestocks' estimation, but ryegrass is often infected with an endophyte.

Optimal grazing windowRyegrass and bluegrass are managed about the same.  As I learned the hard way last year, you need to graze or mow them hard and repeatedly in the spring and early summer so they don't go to seed, since fruit production makes the grasses less palatable and slows their growth considerably.  You can graze the pasture down to one inch, then let the grass regrow to four to six inches before turning your animals back in.  This happens pretty quickly in the spring, and is one of the advantages of short grasses.

Drought, more than heat, is what prevents bluegrass and ryegrass from barreling on through the summer, so Logsdon suggests that it might be worth your while to irrigate your pastures to keep them productive.  I noticed that the paddocks directly downhill from my oft-watered vegetable garden did much better last summer than grasses in other areas.

Although bluegrass and ryegrass aren't really winter grasses, you can let them grow in the fall to stockpile forage for the winter.  Logsdon notes that the dense root structure of the bluegrass/clover sod prevents major damage when smaller livestock are turned into the pasture in wet weather, and he finds that the disturbed soil in hoofprints actually helps clover gain more of a foothold.  Stay tuned for later posts detailing summer and winter alternatives to the bluegrass/clover pasture.

This post is part of our All Flesh is Grass lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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I feel so lucky that you do all this amazing analysis that I can put into practice someday. On another note, I might try to root some cuttings of the American Holly bush that sits in front of our cabin and try that for a living fence/hedge. It's native to our area, quick to grow, easy to prune/manicure, and the birds enjoy the berries. Fencing in the animal areas is probably impractical, but I thought it might work well as a future garden perimeter.

~ Mitsy

Comment by mountainstead [] Wed Mar 14 13:22:19 2012

Mitsy --- I look forward to seeing the results of your experimentation as well once you're on the farm! It's great to have people experimenting in the same climate zone as you....

You'll have to let me know how it goes if you try the holly hedge.

Comment by anna Wed Mar 14 14:45:13 2012

One very unique homestead, $1,500 per acre, the opportunity of a lifetime