In relation to running a grassfed dairy, pasture is our bread and butter. Similar to most of our grassfed friends, we move the milking herd to a new grazing paddock every 12 hours. On the bright side for our situation, we landed on a dairy farm that was already set up with pasture and above ground water line to several paddocks around the farm. I’m thankful for the resources that the previous owner built, but they hadn’t been maintained for several years.
Nearly every corner posts of the five-strand, high-tensile fence needs replacing, and much of the water line and its fixtures had to be excavated and/or replaced from the earth swallowing them up over the years. Even still, it wasn’t too much work to fix the water lines, and dairy cows have the highest reverence for electric fence, so we landed with a pretty nice set up.
To my dismay, this seemingly supreme pasture set-up didn’t automatically manifest a ‘happily ever after’ grazing situation. Pasture regrowth was shockingly slower than I’d predicted due to a number of factors. Spring yielded a record-breaking amount of rain on an already soggy farm, and the overgrown swale running down two sides of the pasture further waterlogged the soil. All the fields could use fertility, and we didn’t have machinery to either spread manure, clip down the weeds the cows didn’t eat after grazing a paddock, or anything to drag behind the paddock to spread the manure patties. I was quite familiar with rotational grazing, but I hadn’t the wherewithal to conjure up a concrete plan of how many days to rotate per paddock or to track how many days rest between grazings.
When I realized that we lacked experience on that piece of land and the machinery to try some of our ideas, I didn’t hesitate to ask for help. First, we invited two representatives from NRCS to lend advice. The dairy nutritionist advised us to start clipping behind the cows, even clip ahead of them and let the overgrown hay wilt a day or so, then feed it to the cows. Thus far we’ve only tried feeding the cows after clipping, hoping what they’d left behind the first time would be more palatable after being cut and wilting a little. It felt like feeding the herd an empty field, and they didn’t much touch what had been mowed. Next, a representative from Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative (GLCI) produced a map of the fields, showcasing many options to break down and rearrange the paddocks. Unfortunately, GLCI is in danger of losing their funding, and those of you who have benefited from this service are encouraged to share your story with Jason.firstname.lastname@example.org, and your State Conservationist.
We’ve also had a couple grassfed dairy farmer friends walk the pastures with us. Adam Wilson of Bread and Butter Farm in VT supported us in tightly grazing the hayfield—though it was of low enough quality to hurt production in the meantime, the action of the cows trampling the soil would aerate and improve the land in the long run. Steve Martin, another 100% grassfed dairy farmer, noticed that we’re grazing a very well established pasture with a thickly-matted dead layer which stunts new growth from flourishing. Though I assumed clipping behind the cows would be good for adding organic matter back to the soil, it seems like it would exacerbate that problem. He pointed at grazing as the solution—since its difficult to thoroughly trample an area with such a small milking herd and we’re not in a position to sacrifice production for pasture quality, he suggested mob grazing a herd of heifers or beef. Steve closely monitors his pasture for regrowth quality calculates new paddock sizes and rotations every 10 days. I’m looking forward to indulging in winter research of the New Zealand approach to paddock-size calculations.
Now it feels like the pasture is our oyster. We’re looking forward to implementing grazing plans and using a simple tracking system next year. Instead of clipping by hiring neighbors with the mowers, we’re considering what it would be like to use chickens. The benefits would be extra fertility, spreading manure patties, reduced parasite larvae, clipping the grass, and fresh eggs which are higher in demand than supply in the local market. My partner Steven wants to build a coop that’s light enough to move by hand, and our pastures are flat enough to accommodate a coop in any corner. Any chicken experts out there know if there a calculation for how many chickens it takes to effectively follow our 15-20 milkers?
The last thing I have to squeeze into the fencing portion is another innovation from my partner Steven. If you’ve done much electric fencing, you know how much time you’ve wasted walking back and forth to turn off or on the fence. Steven plugged in the “WeMo” device where the charger plugs into the electrical socket, downloaded the app into our smart phones, and now we can turn off and on the fence from anywhere we have cell phone reception. Yesterday we took our first day off the farm, of course got a message that our devious little calf Elephant was outside the fence—3 hours away, on a lake in the mountains, I checked my phone and the fence was off. So I turned the fence back on so the other four calves wouldn’t follow, and called around for help coercing Elephant back inside. If only there was an app to herd the cows back in too!