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How I Adapted My Grazing When the Weather Made Things Tough

By   /  January 16, 2017  /  1 Comment

When the weather gave Don and Betty Ashford lemons, they worked with what they had to extend a tough grazing season anyway, which is a lot better than lemonade! Don shares this story as an example of how you can do things differently, and hopes that you’ll share your stories too!

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A view from an MH-65 Dolphin helicopter shows flooding and devastation in Baton Rouge, La., Aug. 15, 2016, where service members have rescued residents and provided relief. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Melissa Leake

This past year saw some crazy weather to say the least. Folks in our part of the country (Louisiana) were afraid that there would not be a sufficient amount of moisture to grow enough grass to make hay. And then it rained and rained and rained. From August 10 until August 17 it rained over 20 inches. South of our place it probably rained more than that and then the flood happened. This was well covered by the news people so it is not necessary to retell the story. But what this did was create a situation that really made the grass grow.

Then the weather turned. The ground began to dry out and the hay cutting started. Folks put up hay that would only be good to build hen nests or for bedding. (This reminds me of a story that Ron Morrow told once. He said that he bought some hay one year that wasn’t very good but it was cheap and he really did need some kindling.) As hard as it may be to believe we were in a drought situation after the flood. The temperature stayed over 90 and the ground began to crack open on the west side of the Mississippi from us. September was really dry and the first weeks of October saw little improvement. For most producers in our area Oct. 15 is the target date to have all of the winter forage planted. But this year it was so dry that most waited hoping for rain. By Thanksgiving some folks had not planted.

The Ashfords’ cattle in pasture.

Our goal for our farm is to be able to maintain a 20 cow/calf operation year round. Our challenge is how to plant and how to feed our herd without hay. And really this is worrisome to me because I am determined to eliminate hay totally. We are only working with 20 acres of grass in total and currently have 14 grown cows to feed, so keeping the cattle fed can be problematic as well as expensive if some planning is not done. When we ran a stocker operation we would just wait until we could determine how much forage would be available and then buy calves accordingly. With cows, the time between the planting of winter pasture and the day that it is ready to graze can be very expensive if we have to feed hay. We have a little place that belonged to my Daddy and Mother where we pay to have a few rolls of hay made and then we haul it home and we do have access to some woods and there is a lot of underbrush and the like but this will only last for a couple of weeks before it is hay-feeding time. But with our plan this year we were hoping to put off feeding hay for a few more days.

This is a recreation of the moment Kathy saw Don Ashford’s cows eating horse nettle. Sorry, no pictures. She was so excited she forgot to take pics for the first time ever! Click to read more about cows eating horse nettle.

To head in the “no-hay” direction, we came up with a plan to plant half of what we normally plant, with the hope that it would eventually rain, and to graze the other half until it had been grazed short enough that we could top seed some stuff in for spring grazing. We planted 10 acres with a mix of ryegrass, red clover, hairy vetch and turnips. We left out the radishes we used in the mix last year because they didn’t work for us, the reason being a couple of years ago we put our cows through Kathy Voth’s “teaching cows to eat weeds” program. Now when we turn the cows into a fresh paddock they eat all of the weeds before they begin to eat the grass. The grazing radishes we planted last year did not have a chance to grow because they were cut off at the ground or pulled up every time the cattle had access to them. The turnips we planted this year will last a little longer but if we want turnips for ourselves we will pick a spot in one of the paddocks and put a poly-wire around it. This is not a real problem and has worked to our advantage. Now when we put the cows in a paddock that does have weeds in it, and this is most of them, the cattle will clean it up to the point that clipping pasture is something that we do not need to do very much and the cattle seem to be in better shape.

Not planting but half of the pasture in winter forage gave us access to the other half for grazing now. As it has turned out we have gained more days of grazing and as of Nov.23 had fed no hay.

What we did is take a 3-acre paddock and divide it into 4, as close as possible equal parts. This division was not difficult. We used a measuring wheel and came up with 4 paddocks that were close enough to work with. Using a grazing stick we were able to get a good idea just what was available and this helped us to decide the size of the daily paddocks. The wires dividing the three-acre paddock ran from east to west so we then ran one poly-wire from North to south allowing the cattle access to enough forage to meet their needs for one day.

To move the cattle, we ran another poly-wire ahead of the first wire and then we removed the first wire when it was time to move the cattle forward. It is possible to do this with one wire but when moving the wire ahead, the cattle want to rush ahead along with us, so we have found it is easier on all concerned to use 2 wires.

Our water source is at one end of the paddocks so we cannot use a back wire. But with the siren call of new grass the cattle never spent too much time trying to graze over where they had grazed before. Using this method the forage in this 3 acre paddock gave us 35 days grazing and the cattle seemed satisfied and there was no lost in body condition.

The forage in these paddocks was what we call accumulated forage, if I understand the term stockpile forage this is a planned process. In our case this was just forage that had accumulated from lack of grazing. And it should be noted that all of the cows were dry cows, there were no growing animals involved, and minerals and fresh water were available at all times.

Now to make a point, most of the folks down here would have spent the time and money to cut and rake and bale this accumulated forage and haul it to the cattle. This made no sense to us it made more sense to let the cattle do the work for after all they do work cheap with a little managing. Using this method the forage in this 3-acre paddock gave us 35 days grazing and the cattle seemed satisfied and there was no loss in body condition. It is easy and very cost effective.

After the cattle had grazed these paddocks we spread and harrowed in ryegrass seed for late winter and early spring grazing.

What do you think? What’s your story of adapting when life gives you lemons?

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About the author

My name is Don Ashford and my wife is Betty and we live in Ethel, LA. It would be impossible for me to write a bio about myself without including Betty in it. We have been together since high school. I was in the senior class of 1955 and she was in the class of 1957. Do the math. We have raised cattle since 1959 except for a little time that I spent with Uncle Sam. We have grazed stockers, owned several cow- calf herds and custom grazed cattle for other folks. I worked as a pipefitter for more than 25 years. Until we went into the dairy business in 1977 we were as most people down here part-timers or week-end ranchers. Later after we had learned enough about MIG to talk about it so that it would be understood by others we put together a pasture-walk group to introduce it to our friends and neighbors. We belong to more farm groups then we probably should but we get great joy working with other people. What makes us most proud are our son and daughter, our 5 grandkids and our 7 great-grand kids. It has been a hell of a trip so far, but we are not done yet.

1 Comment

  1. Richard Jones says:

    Good stuff!

    I hope it keeps working out!

    -Richard

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