Running cows on a tired hay field

The cows have spent the last two weeks in Colorado, a big paddock next to the house. It is called Colorado because it is the highest point on the farm, with the ridge that runs from our farmhouse west across to the next farmhouse (as yet unoccupied). We’re using American names for our paddocks. We haven’t decided on all of the names yet, but we do have a Nebraska (former cornfield), a California (it’s the big vineyard), a Sleepy Hollow (it has a sunken abandoned road on it) and a Detroit. 

A decade or so ago most of Colorado was a vineyard. The sellers left a couple of big old aerial photos of the farm on the wall and these show the vines. Then for the last 8-10 years it has been a hayfield. The lucerne (alfalfa) is very old now and is maybe about 30% of the dry matter in the field, less in some patches. So we decided to put the cows on it and see how they like it.



[The Salers in the background is Twistie, and she’s very wide.]

At the start of the season there was a lot of bare soil and very little leaf litter in there. All the lucerne had been taken away in hay bales for the last decade. As spring came on we saw a lot of volunteer grasses, first some meadow grass and then later brome. Now the brome is tall with seed heads out but not fully mature.

We want to see how Colorado responds to animal usage. The soil hasn’t had cows on it in decades. How much leaf litter can we accumulate in a cycle? How does this improve the soil fertility for later in the year and for 2012? What plants regrow best after one grazing? My bet is that by June the alfalfa in Colorado will look a whole lot better than the grasses.

With so much long grass we’re getting a fair bit of trampling of material into the soil. The neighbors think we’re nuts for not harvesting it all for hay, but I keep reminding them that we have a small herd for the farm and have more need to build up soil fertility for the future than we do for feed now. The extra material on the ground will also keep the water in and the temperature down in summer, helping the soil life to survive a little better.



One of the good things about having the herd in Colorado is that the cows are by the house. It is good to look out the mess window and see the herd munching away.

7 thoughts on “Running cows on a tired hay field

  1. Duane Keys says:

    We had a WWOOF volunteer from France stay with us for about a month. He got a kick out of the fact that I follow a blog about farming in France. He enjoyed your photos and your site.

  2. bc in France says:

    Susan, we’re hoping so. That area was looking sparse so we put the herd on as an experiment to see if it improves with the extra cow fertility. I figure we’re going to run the cows on it three times this year and leave it with a fair amount of material over the winter.

    I’ve been watching cow condition and they look great so far. The Mirandaise are getting hugely muscled (the breed were originally plow cows) and the Salers heifers look like Ewoks.

    They’ve been on there for two weeks and the grasses are growing back well on the first part. It is fun, you can walk along the route the cows have taken and see how the regrowth is going over a two week period. You can also see where I allocated too much grass where there are sections much longer than the surrounding ones, or too little where there’s not a lot left. Ah well, we’re always learning.

  3. Susan Lea says:

    Hey, I’m learning from you while you’re learning! I’m interested to hear that you’re planning on putting the cattle on it 3 times this year. I’ve just been wondering how often we can re-graze an area (of course, depending on rainfall and grass conditions). How long do you let an area regrow before grazing it again? And do you bushhog or harrow first?

  4. bc in France says:

    Susan, I should post something on this, but I will brain dump what I can. Basically we are trying stuff out to see how it works. Because we have sufficient grass we have the luxury to take some risks.

    The first challenge is the pasture is overgrazed. There is not a lot of good long grass. So we’ve been resting the pastures by running the cows on an old hayfield for the last few weeks. The paddock in the worst condition is called Detroit, and it is recovering well.

    We haven’t had much rain at all this spring and this is retarding the growth a little. On the plus side, out here is warm and grass grows early in the year.

    I don’t have the full year’s rotation set but I figure we can run through the paddocks once in about 100-120 days and then do that cycle three times. We’ll know more in a couple of weeks when we turn the cows out on Florida, a large paddock in good condition with grass up to my hip (and I’m 6’1″).

    We’re trying out the tall grazing idea, mostly because we need the material from the trodden down grass to rebuild the soil fertility. There are obvious places where the soil fertility is good and the grows grows early, fast and thick. We need to get the whole farm like that.

    I picked 3 cycles because that seems to work with the herd and land we have. I want the grass long and material trodden in. I might graze the lucerne paddocks in summer and then let them regrow in fall to be strong for the next spring. That would give us a free month of grazing when nothing is growing. Lucerne does well here in summer.

    The grass grew very slowly over winter, but spring has been fast despite the lack of rain. Summer should be dead and fall should be slow to medium. But we will see. Grazing longer residuals and putting more matter into the soil should help deal with the hot dry weather.

    I haven’t bushhogged or harrowed. We’ll see on Florida after the cows go through. I might harrow. I don’t own a bushhog (gyrobroyeur) but I do own a killer broyeur marteau that could take out small buildings. I wasn’t planning on using it for anything except to turn the blackberries into mulch once or twice a year.

    I’m also trying to time the paddocks with the weather. My south facing paddock I’m using in the spring and late fall when it is wettest here. My wetter paddocks I’m saving for summer. Of course Spring has been bone dry and summer will be wet!

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