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Great Gobs of Gargantuan Grass

By   /  June 29, 2015  /  3 Comments

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Tall grass grazing with dairy heifers overlooking the Mohawk Valley

Tall grass grazing with dairy heifers overlooking the Mohawk Valley

I’ve got too much grass. Did the grass whisperer just say that? Is there any such thing as too much soil-covering grass?

Let me rephrase. I’ve got too much grass that won’t be harvested in a timely fashion and meet industry standards (8 to 10 inches), for proper grazing management. How did this happen? It’s simple. Three days over 85 degrees and several deluge rainfalls around May 10th propelled the cool season pasture into a growth frenzy. Such is the life of a Northeast grass farmer now turned prairie farmer.

If you’ll remember just a short time ago (and according to my grazing planning chart), we had a cool, dry spell around these parts of 14 days from April 25th to May 8th. Because of this, I was cautious in not taking the early pasture down too low with too many bovines. This knowledge was also suggested to my grazing clients at the conservation district. It was a good strategy against a wreck if it didn’t rain in the near future.

The reward for this conservative, sage advice? A flourishing sea of seed-heads waving like the prairies of yesteryear that fed millions of buffalo on the plains. Suspicious farming neighbors look at this phenomenon and ask when I’m gonna make hay or get the bush-hog out. Surely the gross gobs of over-growth would not be acceptable for a grazing animal of any prowess. It may even be construed as pasture mismanagement to some.

034In the past few years, I’ve learned that this tall grass with its cohort understory of diverse forbs and legumes could actually be beneficial to animals instead of just being a jungle of rank forage. Some call it tall grass grazing, others call it mob grazing and still others identify it as holistic planned grazing. Personally I’m glad there is a selection of nice names and grazing techniques to work with, in covering up the reality that basically the paddocks got away from me.

I’ve indicated in the past that on my land I would like to emulate the prairie ecosystem as a standard so the thick, five foot high sward plays right into my hands. Wayne Fields wrote in Lost Horizon: “The prairie, in all its expressions, is a massive, subtle place, with a long history of contradiction and misunderstanding. But it is worth the effort at comprehension. It is, after all, at the center of our national identity”.

Since this condition of grass explosion happens every year on my farm against my futile attempt to corral it, I’m ever intrigued by what Mother Nature is trying to teach me. Author Dave Showalter said, “A passion builds inside anyone who spends time on the prairie”. To understand this dynamic of plant and animal interaction in a tall-grass grazing setting, I try to spend some time observing the subtleties of how it all works.

I notice how animals select from the vast array of plants as they nip off some seedheads, tear off a big burdock ear, bite off some dandelion flowers and bury their noses in the cool abyss of young clovers and bluegrass. Somehow they have figured out what they need in the diverse quantity for a healthy diet. The key to animal performance is giving them plenty of choice and fresh feed and not forcing them to clean up like a haybine went through unless you have dry stock that is more appropriate for this action.

The plant’s aura is showcased by the hue of a yellow pollen storm in the air and the shattering of seeds as the cows move through the biomass. This brushes off insects which call the many birds into a field for feeding their young. I’ve noticed the manure has more “body” which actually attracts more dung beetles than the high nitrogen squirting kind from much shorter swards. The trampling effect also creates habitat micro-chasms within a field for wildlife and for earthworms/microbes.

The pasture plants appear to be smoking from all the pollen released.

The pasture plants appear to be smoking from all the pollen released.

I just don’t see as many profound synergies with using mechanical mowing tools even though we keep them in our toolbox. As I get older, my appreciation for seeing the benefits of planned tall-grass prairies is outweighing the distinct need to mow for hay or keep the place pristine and tidy for the passerby that judges my management by how manicured the grass is.

This notion of grazing taller forage with maximum selection is starting to catch on among my peers. I have several friends who are garnering more milk and components from these older non-native swards which if you looked at them, it would leave you scratching your head. The plant and animal biology interactions are seemingly trumping the science. It’s pretty complex figuring out what a bite of milkweed, grass and clover actually does for an animal. A recent pasture walk showed the highest brix (sugar) readings came from the “weeds” that the animals were consuming.

Alas this gargantuan, prairie-like growth spurt is usually over by Independence Day and the paddocks rarely see the seed-heads again after whatever harvesting technique diminishes the mass into something more manageable. So take heart that you will eventually gain control of your grass again and start to recognize the fence-lines without cutting a path first.

An orchardgrass plant ripe with beneficial seeds and pollen.

An orchardgrass plant ripe with beneficial seeds and pollen.

Know this:

“Grasslands challenge our senses, calling us to open our eyes to impossibly broad horizons and then, in the very next breath, to focus on some impossibly tiny critter hidden in the grass.” ~ Candace Savage

 

Previously Published in Lee Publications

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About the author

contributor

Troy Bishopp, aka "The Grass Whisperer" is an accomplished professional grazier of 27 years, grasslands advocate and media guy who owns and manages Bishopp Family Farm in Deansboro, NY with his understanding wife, daughters and parents. Their certified organic custom grazing operation raises dairy heifers, grass-finished beef and backgrounds feeder cattle on 180 acres of owned and leased organic native pastures. The whisperer routinely asks customers, Is there any grass in the animal products you buy? Beef grazed on the farm has been served at President Obama's inaugural dinners, restaurants and to diners as far away as Japan. Troy also works for the Madison County Soil and Water Conservation District and the Upper Susquehanna Coalition as their regional grazing specialist and is a free-lance writer, maintaining a website presence at www.thegrasswhisperer.com

3 Comments

  1. Kristin says:

    I tried this for a couple years. I do not have large herd……family milk cows & associated calves as well as a small flock of sheep that swells to 25 or 30 in late winter with lambs. I’m in Tennessee. My pastures are mostly fescue. I had poorer and poorer performance when I grazed tall grass as well as less and less clover….presumably due to shading. And I don’t get the trampling with this assortment of animals. My pastures are certainly thick & lush and withstand drought remarkably well. But I am finding that I have to mow behind grazing to knock back the fescue & allow the other forages a chance. So this might work with non dairy animals and larger flocks. It has not worked for me, much as I would like it to.

  2. Paul Nehring says:

    I’ve been doing this for years, as well, and have seen pastures improve dramatically, because we are adding back so much biomass to the soil. Nitrogen is no longer a limiting factor, because, from what I understand, their are bacteria in the soil that feed off this organic matter and provide plenty of nitrogen as a by-product. The stomped forage mat protects the soil from heat and conserves moisture.

    Also, as you show in the photo, many bird species can successfully nest before the cattle arrive in their paddock. Additionally, I can stockpile the tall grass well into July and still maintain decent gains, though I’ll give the cattle more selection as the grass becomes more mature in order to maintain animal performance.

  3. Dave Scott says:

    Troy, I am discovering the benefits of tall grass grazing this year too. We set our wedge up to do so by delaying spring turnout 5 days on our irrigated pasture. We have grazed very tall vegetative and headed out grass for 30 or more days now. The lambs are much cleaner butted than when we grazed shorter(24″) all vegetative grass in previous years. We are grazing 50% and feeding 50% to the soil bugs, as measured by a NRCS hoop. That amounts to 2500 lbs DM to the 190 ewes and 330 lambs and about about 2000 to 2500 lbs of grass dry matter fed daily to the soil microbes. I used to think of that as a horrific waste of good grass, but I am now astounded that the grass is largely keeping up with the sheep. Further more, the trampled, headed out grass tillers often produce to two new leaf shoots per tiller. You have to wait 7-10 days for this to happen as opposed to new leaf growth the next day in a purely vegetative system. But just look at the benefits: all that carbon put down into the soil and two leaf shoots where you previously had one–fair trade? I think so.
    Plus, way less N fertilizer applied. We are gradually cutting back. Last year we used 50 % less N than previous years.. We will see how that unfolds this year.
    We took a forage sample of what it looked like the sheep were selecting as their diet from the headed out grass; about 70% leaves and 30 % stems. It came back 66% TDN, 18.5% CP. Pretty exciting stuff.
    Yours, Dave

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