Clipping is one of the top ten topics discussed at any pasture walk. It’s basically the concept of using mechanical equipment to deal with out of control forage growth, get the grass back to a vegetative state, thwart weed proliferation or keep the place tidy. When it comes to the practice of clipping, bush-hogging or pruning pastures, I have waffled more than a politician.
To say there’s an easy answer in wielding this tool would be an oversimplification. A tool is often characterized as a device or implement used to carry out a particular function. In the grazing realm, clipping means many things to many people, and can be a benefit or burden depending on the goal and demeanor of the user. I’m finally coming to terms with this contradictory practice.
Why would I suggest that this clipping idea be contrary? There seems to be some disagreement on “getting ahead of the grass.” If you choose iron and fuel over animal management you can be labeled as a “conventional.” Reactions abound: “Mob grazing is the answer. Hay-making is the answer. Multi-species is the answer. No, horses grazing behind the cows are the answer. No, pre-clipping with a disc-bine is the answer. Yeah, my batwing mower solves the problem.” You can see approaches are tied to specific farms.
In a 43 inch rainfall area, my opinion is to fill your grass management toolbox with many tools. Ian Mitchell-Innes got it right when he said, “We are trying to manage chaos.” Coincidently, it is Mr. Innes’s holistic grazing training that has me in such a quandary over the application of mechanical clipping.
Upon learning the nuances of the animal-impacting, mob grazing tool years ago, I significantly curtailed mechanical clipping with tractor and bush-hog. I was euphoric in being part of a new soil health building club and was heralded as a team player for making the switch to a mosaic of plant heights and “wasting” grass through trampling. But nature has had a funny way of unbalancing my progress in my environment. Whether climate change, lack of phosphorus, too much rest for fall stockpiling, 2 other outside jobs or mediocre grazing management, my swards are needing some timely mechanical mowing.
My grazing plan and camera don’t lie about the conditions when you have cattle out-wintering, deluges of rain, soil compaction, weed propagation and keeping a sustainable, balanced amount of ruminants on the land base to make a profit. You have change! The mower, however gross in its capitalistic overtones, fits the bill in leveling out the unevenness in my land and animal management. It’s been a hard pill to swallow that grazing practice tools alone have not improved the land the way I had envisioned it, in the time frame I thought it would take.
The decision to use our rotary mower is fraught with juicy memories. I once wrote about my vanity mowing and the adverse cost of maintenance. I poo-pooed destroying wildlife habitat in an essay and I waxed poetic about the virtues of ruminants over steel. But here I am lining up the pasture for a hypocritical haircut.
The thing that’s different about engaging the PTO and billowing some diesel smoke in the quest to tame the massive solar/water collecting panel is knowing why, and what the impact is, in using this tool. For me, mowing is about timing. And timing is everything. I’d have to say that it’s purposeful clipping after all these years.
We clip to reset the plants to a vegetative state going into the stockpiling phase for winter grazing. We clip to build fertility and put biomass on the ground to feed the soil and cover it from the August sun. We clip mostly after the wildlife have fledged their young. We clip after the pollinators have had a chance to harvest the pollen from the weeds and flowers and thwart weed-seed set. We clip because we didn’t have enough animals to use all the plants and couldn’t keep plant senesce from happening. We clip to add to the seedbank and finally we can use clipping heights to guide our plant diversity.
There’s another factor in the decision of clipping that many grazing purists have failed to come to terms with. We just like doing it! Happiness is a tangible reason to fire up the tractor, (I think the ole tractor loves it too). Since my dad does a significant portion of the mowing, he finds it enjoyable and a good way to support our farm. And since his labor rate is low it also helps the bottom line.
I’ve come to appreciate the tractor seat and mower again for one very important reason: As a monitoring tool. Because I partake in evening mowing when the coolness makes for a relaxing enterprise analysis, I see round after round, the effect of my management. From my vantage point, I can see plant diversity, fertility needs, and trends in how grazing management is working to bog down the mower or having me shift to a higher gear. And sure, there is a bit of mowing for vanity’s sake too.
I can gauge the scope of wildlife activity, water infiltration, predict future decisions and ponder life. I’m uninhibited in singing to my favorite rock song or coming up with the next grazing topic to discuss in the media, such as clipping is the new monitoring tool.
Clipping is not all sunshine and daisies however. Any mechanical tool needs attention. The tractor needs fuel, oil and maintenance. The mower with its whirling blades need constant sharpening and gear boxes and bearings need consistent lubrication to perform for the least amount of horsepower. The price for breakage can be steep and allow for a colorful explosion of expletives of why you would use such a tool.
In the final act of deciding which tool makes sense for you in managing your pastures, your farm or even your life, it helps to have goals, a plan, some monitoring protocols and benchmarks to guide your direction. Oh, you’ll get plenty of input from everyone on “how to do this or that” without knowing your financial, environmental and social priorities. I’ve been there, done that. Its why I always have plenty of tools in the toolbox.