In 2009, Jane Hansen received a North Central Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) grant to see if she could renovate a long fallow pasture by intensively grazing feeder lambs and goat kids along with pastured poultry. She had found that, while there was a lot of information about how rotational grazing can be a profitable part of a farming operation, there was much less research on converting brushy pasturelands back into productive pasture with intensive grazing. She had heard stories of good results, but found nothing documenting changes along the way. With her project, she added to the knowledge base to help her fellow farmers.
A Little Background
Jane and her husband, Chris Wallner farm 40 acres near Prentice, Wisconsin. Thirty-two of those acres are enrolled in Wisconsin’s Managed Forest Law program, a sustainable forestry program that reduces taxes for participating landowners, and even parts of the farm not enrolled in this program are managed to preserve wildlife and insect habitat. Jane and Chris work hard to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels, and they gladly share what they do and how it works for them with others interested in doing the same. Their house has been featured on a number of solar home tours to help folks considering remodeling existing homes to take advantage of the sun. They raise and direct market pastured poultry, vegetables, herbs, garlic and greens. For this three year project they raised 24 – 40 lambs and goats per season.
The Research Set-Up
Jane began her project in Spring of 2009 by setting up her electric fencing to keep the livestock in and the predators out. (“We even got a bear stuck inside the fence boundaries while the fencing was being installed – but that is another story…” Jane said.) In late May, Cindy Banh, a plant biologist, did a plant survey so they would know what they were staring with. She repeated surveys in late May of 2010, and June and September of 2011.
Once the animals were grazing, Jane tracked paddocks grazed, and grass height when animals started and left. This is a lot of work when you consider that sometimes she was moving the animals twice a day. She also collected forage samples in 2009 and the summer of 2011 and collected soil samples twice during the project.
Difficulties With Research
On-farm research is not just hard, it’s very hard. As Jane says, “The realities of farming, sick lambs, vegetables needing harvesting, marketing, record keeping, etc. make on-farm research quite difficult to accomplish.” I’ve even said what Jane said after my own difficult on-farm experience: “It might have also been helpful if I had kept better records of exactly how I collected the samples to make sure they were collected in a consistent manner. Two years was a long time to try to remember (with sketchy notes) what I gathered and when I gathered it.” And then of course, there’s the weather. Accoding to Jane:
“Weather certainly had an impact on workload and data results. 2009 was basically the last of a long series of mildly droughty years. We are on fairly low heavy ground, so mild drought didn’t impact us in an especially negative way, but rain certainly can, as we learned in 2010. We received nearly twice as much rain during the growing season in 2010 as we had in 2009.
“I can’t determine exactly what effects this extremely wet season had, but am certain that a pasture that varied between ‘squishy’ and ‘splashy’ nearly all summer must have had a negative impact on the pursuit of my goals.”
These are the kinds of things I think of whenever I hear someone say that laboratory research doesn’t apply to what’s actually happening on the landscape. I’m even guilty of having said that myself in the past. But it’s true! Thank goodness we have folks running experiments that can control for the variables of weather, sickness, and busy schedules, or else we producers may not have all the great information we’re using today to make our lives better. (Just a thought from Kathy. :-))
Jane’s experience, similar to everyone else’s, is that “three years are not enough time to see real dramatic changes in pastures through management intensive grazing with limited inputs.” But she did see some improvements. The plant survey data showed that preferred grasses (reed canary grass, timothy, Kentucky blue grass and quack grass) were beginning to increase and compete effectively with the undesirable red fescue covering most of her pasture.
Her stock didn’t graze the brush down as much as she had anticipated because it was too large and mature. Because of concerns about coyotes in the area, a neighbor cut the tall brush in one pasture for them. Afterwards, both the chickens they were raising and the lambs ate the smaller willow shoots. Jane notes that, “they have done an effective job of weakening the root systems of these small willow plants and each year fewer of the willow plants emerge in the pastures.”
Jane did not lime her pastures during the project because she was trying to control the number of variables. She also had anecdotal information that the pH might increase through rotational grazing and this was an opportunity to see if that could be observed. What her test results showed is that the average pH dropped from 5.55 in 2000 to 5.11 in 2011 and the average organic matter went from 7.21 to 3.69. Her conclusion is that, “the anecdotal changes in pH through grazing might be really minor and I would strongly advise other farmers with extremely acidic soils like mine to make the investment in liming one of the first priorities on their farm.” Based on her results she applied 3 tons/acre of lime on her pastures and frost seeded alsike clover because it has the best chance of thriving in an acidic environment.
Jane is still committed to renovating her pasture with low input methods, but notes that this requires a lot of patience and that you need to prioritize some inputs to improve your chances of success. At the top of her list is increasing pH and introducing legumes. She adds that while using animals to improve pastures has the upside of requiring less cash and fossil fuel, “the decision to use this method of pasture renovation would require that the farmer or rancher enjoys animal husbandry more than machines, is willing to spend time moving animals and observing nature, weather conditions and animal behavior.”