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

Starting slowly with pasturing

Choosing livestockMany of us get so excited when we learn about multi-species grazing and about rotational pastures that we want to create a vibrant ecosystem overnight.  But Greg Judy cautions us to slow down.

If you already manage a pasture, he recommends not increasing your stocking rate or expanding into multiple species for at least two years.  It will take you that long to improve the quality of your soil so that it can handle more feet.

Meanwhile, Greg recommends that you figure out what your centerpiece animal is and learn the intricacies of its care before bringing new animals in.  Yes, adding more species can make the patsuring system work more efficiently, but so will focusing on what's most important rather than scattering your attention in five different directions.

Meat animals make much better starter livestock than dairy animals do.  Making milk requires a lot of energy, and it's tough (although possible) to keep dairy animals healthy on pasture alone.  In addition, a quality milk cow is worth a lot more than a meat cow, so there's less financial risk as you muddle your way up the learning curve.

Finally, Greg recommends that you pay as close attention to yourself as you do to the pasture.  If you work a full time job and plan to pasture livestock in your spare time, don't start with a complex dairy cow rotation where you need to move animals seven times a day.  On the other hand, if you're unemployed and are willing to put in the time, you can feed many more animals on the same acreage if you're willing to rotate often so that high quality food is always available.  Maybe in a few years, you'll be able to run half a dozen different kinds of livestock on that same pasture.

Learn how to get started with backyard chickens in my 99 cent ebook.

99 cent pasture ebookThis post is part of our Mob Grazing 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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Mother Earth News is looking for "Homesteader of the year" and I thought that you would make a great candidate.
Comment by cheri dyer Wed Feb 1 12:57:22 2012
I would love it if someone wanted to nominate us as homesteader of the year. The rules at make it sound like we could nominate ourselves, but that just feels a bit uncool... On the other hand, if someone wanted to nominate us, I could definitely choose some good photos to go with your 500 word summary.... :-)
Comment by anna Wed Feb 1 13:47:23 2012
So, if one does not yet have livestock but wants to improve pasture for future animals, what do you think would be the best way to start? We really want to focus on low-input breeds, and I'm very interested in Highland cattle, Ossabaw Island pigs, and St. Croix sheep (not necessarily all at once), all of which supposedly thrive on a mix of forage and pasture. I surmised from another blog that the method would be: bush hog/mow the grownup area, apply lime if needed, plant new forage such as clover, chicory, and birdsfoot trefoil, and continue rough mowing until animals are introduced. This all assumes that our pasture needs help in the first place, which I have no idea whether it does or not (it hasn't been farmed for the past 20+ years, to my knowledge, so I'm assuming it does). I don't want to introduce animals before we're ready, but I also don't want to let renovated pasture go to waste because animals aren't grazing it yet. The Type A side of me wants to plan this out to the last detail, but since I've never done it before, I realize that it will definitely be a trial and error experiment!
Comment by Sarah Wed Feb 1 13:49:29 2012

First of all, I'm jealous of your pasture. :-) How many acres is it? My advice would vary a lot if you've got say, two acres vs. two hundred acres. (I know you don't have 200 acres, but can't remember how much you actually have.)

I think that if I were in your shoes, I'd start out by figuring out exactly what I have. I'd make a map that shows existing shrubby areas and open areas, and would overlay a soil survey over that to figure out whether there are rich and poor areas. I'd pay attention to streams and consider fencing in riparian buffers. (The Soil Conservation Service often has grants to help with the latter.)

Then I'd take soil tests in various spots to see where you're starting. Don't lime anything without testing the pH! If your soil is low in organic matter, animals are the best solution, of course, but you can also mow the ground a lot to simulate grazing, letting the cuttings rot into the soil. If you're very low in any micronutrients, it might be worth applying rock dusts to even things out.

I'd also spend some time out in the pasture looking at plants. Is the grassy area mostly grass, is it growing up in goldenrod and blackberries, does it have lots of legumes mixed in? Legumes are what will add richness to the pasture, so one of your first goals might be to help them make a comeback. That can involve mowing an area in the late summer before the weeds go to seed, then spreading a bunch of clover seeds (white if you're going to be doing Voisin style grazing; red if you're going to be mob grazing.)

As long as the trees don't get too big for a bushhog, I don't think you'll hurt the pasture by letting it grow up. Some combination of sheep, pigs, and bushhogging would open it back up pretty quickly. So I might choose a small area and focus on it rather than trying to improve the whole pasture all at once. Perhaps just enough land to keep three sheep happy if that's the type of animal I wanted to start with.

If you want to plant trees that will help your livestock, now is a great time to get them established so they won't be destroyed by livestock when small. Persimmons, mulberries, oaks, and chestnuts are good for pigs --- see the book Tree Crops for more information.

It's also worth starting to think about fences. That's one of the most expensive and time-consuming startup costs, so if you can make a bit of fence every year, you'll be much happier than if you buy sheep and then struggle to start fencing.

Finally, remember that I'm an armchair pasturer and take everything I say with a grain of salt.... :-)

Comment by anna Wed Feb 1 14:51:16 2012

Using the Google Planimeter tool and cross referencing it with the TN Assessor's website (which also has a distance/area calculating tool), I estimate we have a little over a half acre that is currently finish mowed (the area around the cabins and sheds), another half acre where the old farmhouse used to sit, a little less than 1.5 acres adjacent to the barn that is grownup but no trees (I haven't had a chance yet to attempt to identify what is growing), and about 1.2 acres above that that is grownup with young trees. If you don't mind, I've provided links to a couple pictures that show what we've got. It looks like mostly grasses with weeds to me, but I know little about botany.

July 2011

July 2011

December 2011

Our water source is a stream that does not bisect or edge any pasture areas.

Legumes are cool-season crops, so that is why we would mow the summer weeds before going to seed to allow the legumes to grow during cold weather?

We have a big ol' Chestnut tree - maybe that would be an ideal spot to start some pigs in.

Definitely plan to do at least some fencing first. My hub, Justin, wants to try to do a permanent perimeter fence using the existing tree line and then cross-fence/paddock for whatever we end up getting.

Here's an aerial image of our land with my really anal-retentive markups:

I think it will be a least a year or two before we actually get any animals (we're not actually moved out there yet either - hopefully this summer). Baby steps for sure. In the meantime, I can't help but gobble up anything homesteading-related. And I second Cheri's comment about the MEN nomination!

Comment by Sarah Wed Feb 1 15:49:06 2012
That's great Anna, I'm glad you would like to participate. I feel you two deserve to be Homesteaders of the Year, and it would be my pleasure to nominate you. I'll get to work on the 500 word summary, if you could email me some of your favortie photos: My email is:
Comment by cheri Wed Feb 1 15:57:38 2012

Sarah --- I think you're not the Sarah I thought you were.... :-) The Sarah whose blog I read lives way down south, but it sounds like you're closer to our neck of the woods.

Your first photo, with the troubled barn, looks like it's got a lot of Queen Anne's Lace and probably goldenrod, which is actually probably a good sign --- less fertile soil would have other plants.

In your second picture, with the lawn, I wonder if that plant in the right foreground is a sedge? That might mean that area is damp.

The pastures actually look quite good to me --- not so grown up as I'd expected. Of course, your lawn is prime pasture, just waiting to be grazed.... :-)

The reason you'd mow before planting legumes is because legumes aren't very good competitors. They depend on livestock to cut back the taller weeds or they'll get shaded out, but you can simulate that by judicious mowing of your own.

Your chestnut tree is definitely an asset! You might plan to graze pigs there in the fall to fatten them up before slaughter --- that was the traditional approach.

It looks like your farm has a lot of potential! I'll look forward to hearing how your experiments go.

Cheri --- Thanks so much! I'll email you some photos this evening or tomorrow morning.

Comment by anna Wed Feb 1 16:12:01 2012

Yea, it's a common name for sure! Coincidentally, my middle name is Anna. But I go by Mitsy on my blog. Maybe I should change my login to reflect that... :)

We're in Hancock County, and our property is actually just one parcel over from the Virginia state line!

The spring is near the area with what you think might be sedge, so that would make sense. We were thinking of using the lawn area mainly for gardening since it's closest to the cabin, but I might keep the chickens in that area, too.

Anyway, thanks so much for letting me pick your brain!

~ Mitsy (aka Sarah)

Comment by mountainstead [] Wed Feb 1 16:59:32 2012

I'll have to start reading your blog now that you included a link - then I'll at least remember there are two Sarahs commenting. :-)

My brother's living in Hancock county at the moment. I think we're about an hour or two away from your new homestead.

Comment by anna Thu Feb 2 08:09:55 2012

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