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Intensive Pasture Management Pays – Everything Old is New Again

This article comes to us from Glen Murray* and the September 1962 issue of the Soil Conservation magazine. This was the monthly publication of the USDA’s Soil Conservation Service, today’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

The practices of the farmer described in this article remind me very much of practices that we advocate as regenerative grazing today. I’ve added notes and information to this article to help us compare what this farmer was doing almost 60 years ago to what we’re doing today.

Murray Webb, a cooperator with the Dixie Soil Conservation District at St. George, Utah, sets a pattern in pasture operations for many dairy farmers of his area.

Murray planted his first pasture in 1951, and, to put it in his words, “The mixture was a poor one containing about everything in the book.” The composition of his pastures has changed over the past 10 years, because of different types of grazing operations; but a good balance of grasses and legumes is now being maintained, and “it gets better each year. ” The principal species are Ranger alfalfa, ladino clover, Lincoln bromegrass, and orchardgrass.

Mr. Webb divided his 8-acre pasture into four 2-acre plots for grazing management purposes. The plots are grazed by the “strip” method. This is accomplished by moving an electrically charged wire “up” the 2-acre strip about 5 rods each morning and evening. This method has proved to be the best so far used by Webb, who is always looking for a better way to do things. He planted two of the strips to Latar orchardgrass, Liso bromegrass and Ranger alfalfa for grazing for the first time this year, and likes the new mixture better than that on the other two strips.

Webb’s 27 milk cows graze the 8 acres for at least 7 months each year. They are not just average cows. During 1961 they produced 370 pounds of butterfat per cow (15,034 lbs. of milk) on DHIA (Dairy Herd Improvement Association) test. In addition, the cows are followed on each pasture plot by a dozen bred heifers for 2 days before the pastures are clipped and irrigated.

[Note: Milk production per cow has increased dramatically in the last 50 years, and the U.S. dairy system has become one of the most efficient in the world. That said, Webb’s production compares well with the average 17,000 pounds of milk produced today on good pasture and was above that produced by other dairymen of the day.]

Webb gears application of fertilizers strictly to the needs of the pasture plants for maximum production of high-quality forage. He applies approximately 20 tons of barnyard manure to the acre annually, and this is often supplemented with commercial phosphate or nitrogen when it is needed to maintain a balance of grasses and legumes.

[Note: Research in the last decade has found that this application of manure to pastures dramatically increases long-term carbon sequestration in the soil, but it’s better if it’s composted first. Read more here.]

Irrigation water is available “on call” and is applied by the border method, in accordance with the needs of the plants and the soil. The soils are uniform in their water-holding capacity. The principal variable, insofar as soil, water, and plant relations are concerned, is the variation in temperature during the growing season. Irrigation water is generally applied twice between grazings, and the pastures always are allowed to dry out a couple of days after irrigation before being grazed. This precaution prevents excessive compaction.

The Webb cows have free access to water and shade, and he keeps dry hay available to them at all times. He pridefully says:

“With 20 cows and 12 heifer grazing these pastures in 1960, I still had more surplus forage to cut and bale when clipping than I had when I was grazing 6 fewer animals. This amounts to about 200 bales a year. My improved pasture is the best money-making crop per acre that I have ever grown, and that includes sugarbeet seed, alfalfa hay, small grain, and silage.

The cost-return ratio supports the soundness of Webb’s management program. It also is apparent that all basic management items are being considered in his pasture program. When you get this kind of plant, grazing, irrigation-water, fertility and livestock management, it pays off.

* Mr. Murray was an agronomist in Salt Lake City, Utah when he wrote this story. In my search for more about him, I found that he was still working for the Service in 1981 as the State Conservationist in Kentucky. Mr. Murray was a graduate of Harvard and a World War II veteran who served with the U.S. Air Force in the Pacific. He passed away in 2013 at the age of 91.

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Kathy Voth
Kathy Voth
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.

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