Biodiversity in your pastures provides many benefits to pasture productivity, soil health, animal performance, and wildlife habitat. The table below shows typical composition of our home pastures on our old Missouri farm.
There were many other less plentiful species present that are not listed. Nine different plant functional groups are represented in these pastures with 40+ individual species.The main point I wanted to make was the functional diversity of the pasture. A good mixture of cool-season and warm-season species, annuals as well as perennials, and grasses and legumes.
Much of this pasture started out as predominantly endophyte-infected tall fescue. While we did overseed legumes into the pasture, all the other species appeared in response to our grazing management. Aggressive grazing in the Spring followed by longer summer recovery periods was the approach we used to change the composition. Fescue is an aggressive, dominating grass only if you allow it to be. Every third year we stockpiled one third of the farm for winter grazing and that allowed the legumes and annual grasses to go to seed.
We began doing daily rotation of both our cattle and sheep in 1988. Putting a heavy grazing impact on the tall fescue base in the Spring and early Summer is what allowed the pastures to flourish with diversity.
We relied on legume nitrogen-fixation, high stock density grazing, and building organic matter to provide the nitrogen required for grass production. In 23 years on that farm, we used nitrogen fertilizer on limited pastures a total of three occasions. Fertilizer with nitrogen is not at all necessary to have high producing pastures.
G’day, down here in Aussie,there is also strong resistance to the idea of not adding a “bag to the acre” of Super every two years to maintain fertility (plus the profits of the fert company’s).In the main, stock movement is controlled by “permanent fencing”,rather than electric due to the costs involved in hired labor,and ever diminishing margins from livestock enterprises.In 2008 we completely changed our management for our meat sheep farm,in one trial we subdivided a 40 ac paddock into 3 main paddocks and set aside a small area(about 3 acs) of a rocky outcrop which had “never” had the plough over it as it contained a large number of remnant Native and introduced species,both C3 and C4’s. The 3 main grazing areas all radiated from this central point.Allowing this small area to set seed for a number of years “without” grazing meant that seed was carried into the adjoining areas by wind,water and wildlife.We now graze this paddock at “non-critical times” to increase the overall fertility of the area.
Our approach and results have been very similar to that which Jim described. In addition, we have had to invest in pastures that are converted from cropland by spreading manure from our wintering backgrounding operation in order to catalyze improvement on that ground. Areas that did not receive manure application for various reasons just have not responded as well to the grazing management. Its important to note that the manure applications are an investment, not an annual expense.
One problem we have had is that the edges of our pastures that border other pastures that get aerial sprayed every year have noticeably poorer production. You have to search pretty hard for forbs in those areas.
I was struck by your simple analysis that “N fertilizer is not at all necessary to have high producing pastures”. I have followed a similar pathway as you have described here and my results have been much the same. Still, resistance to this kind of thinking is huge. Even though I can do the math (predicting the cost of dry matter produced per $ spent on N) or show the results of managed grazing (highly productive, diverse pastures), most folks just don’t want to see it. It would help if the Land Grant professors and Extension folks could look up from their industry-sponsored bibles or perhaps take a basic business or ecology course. My local agent recently told a group of producers that their pastures would just “poop out” if they didn’t add proper fertilizer each year. Smart girl, but 30 years at the university has sure made it hard for her to be objective.
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