The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Turning old fields back into pastures

Whole Systems Design pastureWhen Ben Falk first moved to his farm, much of it was pasture, but he felt it was "crazy to use fossil fuel to mow down the field every year, and I let it go."  At the time, he believed that allowing succession to take place in the field (with grasses giving way to taller herbs and finally woody plants) was the best way to heal his troubled soil.  However, when he finally got ready to add animals to his farm, Falk discovered that neglect had been a severe mistake since "abandoned poor-soil fields have a stubborn inertia."  In other words, reclaiming the grass was a tough process.

Falk's first impulse was to scythe the old fields in hopes of returning them to quality pasture, but he soon discovered that mowing and scything don't have the same effect.  While mowing patchy fields increases stem density of grasses (filling in the gaps), scything actually tends to retard grass growth unless you cut the ground very often.  Infrequent scything drops tall stems to the ground, where they form a mulch on the surface and shade out new growth.

Grazing geeseNext, Falk figured grazing might do the trick.  Unfortunately, grazing a poor pasture with no mechanical cutting stage afterwards just selects for the plants your livestock don't like, so his pastures weren't getting any better.  However, once Falk began grazing, then coming behind the animals to mow and spread grass seeds, his pastures began to provide more food for his sheep and poultry.  Recently, he's also been experimenting with burning as a way of jump-starting this process.

All of this isn't to say that Falk is no longer a fan of scything.  He's found that once burning, grazing, seeding, and mowing have set back succession, he's able to keep the pastures in check with grazing followed by scything.  Just like with his earth-moving, Falk believes that it's worthwhile to use fossil fuels during the early stages of reclaiming his land, but hopes to move away from machinery as his farm improves.

Permaculture Chicken: Pasture Basics walks you through the nuts and bolts of rotational grazing from a chicken's point of view.

This post is part of our The Resilient Farm and Homestead lunchtime series.  Read all of the entries:

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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I recently bought 30ac of abandoned pasture in Central WI. It was a weedy mess, with very little grass- mostly "wild flowers, if you're an optimist. At the end of the first season with 20 hd of free-ranging cattle on it, it's already well on it's way to being restored to grassy health. They even like eating the young wild rose shoots and have stopped it's invasive encroachment. Nothing improves a pasture as well as just putting grazers on it. They're naturally adapted perfectly to each other.
Comment by doc Fri Nov 8 05:42:38 2013

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