Grass with a long rest

We’ve been running a system somewhat like Tall Grazing, where you give the cow herd a new section of grass each day and then let the pasture rest for a long while between grazings. Our original plan was to run through the farm each three months, and we’d see what happened.

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Well this wasn’t a regular year. This really isn’t news because each year we have been in France the locals have called the weather exceptionnel. Exceptionally warm, or wet, or dry, or cold or snowy. Every year is exceptional for something or other. I think people have a capacity to forget mundane things like the weather. But this year was a little different since we had a big drought.

The idea that the locals have for our weather is a wet winter and spring and then a dry summer. Now the climate numbers don’t seem to agree with them, but they’ve lived here longer than me so we’ll go with that. [You can see old weather data here on WolframAlpha.]

So it rained in the early spring then for a bit at the end of June and the start of July. But that’s about it. The data on WolframAlpha shows this:

image

Now the weather station the data is from is about 50km away so it isn’t altogether accurate, but it is close enough. It lists the rainfall so far this year at about 330mm. That isn’t a lot. In summary, we had little or no rainfall in April-May-June and August-September-October. The government is handing out drought payments to the farmers here. Don’t get too excited for us, we only get four hundred Euros or so and then we pay tax on it. The last time they received drought payments out here was only eight years ago so we aren’t talking something too exceptional.

We walked into this knowing the risk of drought, and we have organized our system of grazing to deal with the risk. Leaving residual on plants and plant litter on the ground helps the soil stay moist and cool and helps with dry conditions but this is still year one and it will take a few years to get the full effect. We have about 18ha in lucerne/alfalfa which is the best legume at resisting drought. Still, we learned enough this year to change our systems for next year.

Our first cycle through the paddocks went well and took a little longer than we expected. By the end of the cycle we had to skip some sections of the pasture because the plants had all gone dormant or died out from the lack of spring rain. The sections that we did not graze were of the lowest fertility which had suffered from decades of haying and overgrazing. Still, it was good to see that areas with higher fertility were more drought resistant.

The second cycle was where we had to change our plans. We were hitting grass paddocks that hadn’t regrown much in the rest interval, so they didn’t feed our cows for as long and this shortened up the overall cycle. So by the end of the second cycle we were grazing paddocks that had only had a couple of months rest in drought conditions with little regrowth. Where was the grass going to come for the next cycle?

Enter lucerne, which saved our ass. This is a legume known by various names throughout the world. Here it is called luzerne, in Australia it is lucerne and in the USA it is called alfalfa. In the middle of a dry summer it looks like this:

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Lucerne has deep roots and survives in a drought longer than other legumes or grasses. It also hangs about for several years so it is worth getting a good stand established as drought insurance. We lucked into a farm with a fair bit already sowed. Even though it grows well here with out limestone soils the neighbors are reluctant to sow it because it is harder to make hay out of since the stems take a while to dry and the leaves get over-dry. There is a ‘hay everything’ culture here to deal with weather problems which goes against our idea of having pastures ready to deal with varying conditions. So when the drought hit we had a lot of green lucerne to graze while the neighbors have been feeding hay since July.

I went back to the books to figure out what to do next year and found some interesting information in Allan Nation’s Grassfed to Finish. In it he spends a lot of time talking with Anibal Pordomingo about the Argentinian system and they do a huge amount of grazing of lucerne pastures for their finishing animals. OK, we say, we know we can grow good lucerne and we also have a risk of drought and now we also know that areas with a similar dry climate to us spend a lot of the year grazing lucerne. We know our Salers heifers grow very well on our lucerne pastures. So the obvious conclusion is to plant some more for next year’s increased herd size, probably in a mix with other grasses to reduce bloat risk. The grass that seems to do well with lucerne is dactyle/orchardgrass so we’ll go with that.

This gives us a rough plan of spring grazing the permanent grass pastures and then grazing the lucerne pastures as the summer hits. I want to do one faster rotation through all the grass paddocks in spring before slowing down and taking some out of the rotation for hay. This will let us give the permanent grass pastures plenty of rest through summer and be ready to take over the load in fall as the lucerne slows down. We’ll also do a first cut of the lucerne pastures since that is usually full of spring grasses anyway. The grass pastures will also hold the animals for winter with a mix of stockpiled grass and hay.

Now I think we can say the 2011 drought is broken. It rained a reasonable amount yesterday, which was a shock for our kittens. The fields will green up now and we should get some growth in the next few weeks that we can graze over winter. There’s still some lucerne left but we have to be careful with frosts to avoid the risk of bloat with newly-frosted lucerne. The heifers do like their lucerne!

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10 responses to “Grass with a long rest

  1. I’m interested to read what you write about lucerne/alfalfa. We suffered from the drought here, but I hesitate to plant alfalfa because I understand it is toxic to animals when it freezes, and we definitely get freezes in the winter. I guess we would have to do it in a pasture that we simply would not graze in the winter?

  2. Susan, alfalfa/lucerne gives a greater risk of bloat the week after it first gets a big freeze, then it is fine to graze. What folks tend to do is graze it until a couple of weeks before the first risk of frost, then leave it a month to build up some root reserves and get frozen, then graze whatever is left after the first freeze. If you leave to little energy reserves you risk damaging the plant over winter. It is a complex plant but there are plenty of materials about it online. Other folk (especially Canadians) do swath grazing which looks like fun to me – they cut the alfalfa into rows and let it dry/wilt for as long as they like – once the frosts hit it can stay in the windrow for weeks. I don’t think we get enough frost here to keep it edible but it seems to work well in Canada.

  3. Mark, there’s a former Microsoftie who is now a pig farmer who is an interesting guy to follow. He’s at the ‘meat’ link in the blogroll: http://ebeyfarm.blogspot.com/

    That cabin looks excellent. Although it seems more like a west coast craftsman house than a cabin!

  4. You should read more about building the house here : http://www.dreamchaser.org/garya/house/

    He replied to me in email :

    I’ve always thought fast rotations was a great way to go if you’re set up right. I’ve heard it can work really well for pigs and chickens, and we did a kind of in-between with our sheep on the ranch in Colorado. With alfalfa, bloat is a concern, as he says. But it sure is nutritious, and can have deep roots if it’s not sprinkler irrigated. A few trees help grass a lot in hot, dry conditions. The partial shade does wonders, but they are a pain in the butt if you want to cut hay in those fields. We have lost a lot of our trees to pine beetles, so there is more grass in amongst them, and I save it for late in the year when the feed out in the open fields has dried up.

    When we started raising sheep, we learned about everything from books. After about five years I began to realize there were two partially overlapping bodies of knowledge, one found in books and one found in old-timers. If you can absorb both you are a long ways ahead.

  5. Bc, thanks for commenting on my blog. I followed the link and found you have an interesting farm blog.
    I like your plan for summer grazing of alfala/orchardgrass. It seems we are farm dopplegangers!

  6. Hi, I would love to know how you are doing by now, 4 years later?
    Really interesting to see how an overseas farmers deals with our local practices. And yes, around here, everything is about haying. I’m hoping to find ways to graze year round or at least most of the year, instead of focusing on hay-able pastures.
    Sarah from Haute-Marne

  7. Hello Sarah, this is a really good time to write something up about the state of the pastures. In short we’ve now got so much grass we’re looking to expand the herd. It didn’t change that much until this year (2015) when a lot of good things seemed to happen. I’ll write a post, although I’m not sure I’ll have many good photos.

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