Just finished our third year of Holistic High Density Managed grazing on Judy farms. This past winter 2008-09 has been by far the best in our grazing operation. We are beginning to reap the benefits of the increased grazing density and long recovery periods. We have changed our mindset about how we winter graze as well. We are now building soil and winter grazing at the same time. I will go into that in a moment.
To give you some background first, we live in central Missouri where our average rainfall is 38” per year. Last year was the first year where we concentrated on trampling more forage and allowing the cows to select a diet out of the fully recovered sward. We stayed in animal performance mode the whole year. By allowing the cattle to select a quality diet out the dense sward, they performed wonderfully and never doctored an animal for anything.
The key here is selection, the cow can select a perfect diet if she is given the opportunity. We don’t give cow’s enough credit, they are the best at knowing which plant is best. They can select them at lightning speed by pulling them into their mouth with their tongue and ripping them off the stem. I love to watch a cow do this particular exercise. This past grazing season we approached the end of July with nearly all of our pastures recovered. We had a good growing season with lot’s of moisture.
The pastures exploded from all the animal impact, litter, manure and urine from the high density grazing. This was free grass folks, just from a change in management. By the time we held our Mob Grazing schools with Ian Mitchell Innes last fall, our farms were lush in fall stockpiled grass. In our grazing school we teach folks how to calculate out how many animal days of stockpiled forage they have on their farm for the upcoming winter. We did this on our operation.
We stocked our farm accordingly going into winter so that we had enough grass for the winter and 30 days of drought reserve insurance (extra stockpile just in case). Well, what we didn’t realize was how thick and massive our stockpiled sward was as a result from our high density grazing system. We immediately realized that we had underestimated the number of animal days that we had stockpiled for our herd as the winter grazing started.
Fully recovered pasture that was grazed in July 2008
During the winter, we normally only move the cow mob once per day unless weather conditions get extremely wet. We go to 12 hour moves in rainy periods to prevent extreme pugging. The huge eye opener right from the start of winter grazing was that the mob was not consuming all the grass, but trampling about 50% of it because it was so thick.
My first inclination was to tighten up the mob and make them clean it up better. After all, they were trampling 50% of it on the ground. I came to my better senses and stayed with the same allotment of stockpiled grass. My wife even voiced her concern over leaving so much stockpile behind with each grazing cycle. Her concern was that it would smother out the spring flush of new grass.
I calmed her fears by explaining to her that we would be paid huge dividends in our coming growing season by laying all this litter on the ground. With all this dormant quality forage trampled flat on the ground, we had a huge smorgasboard for all the soil life in the coming spring. The soil microbes would be in heaven! Not to mention the benefit of having all of our farms covered with a nice layer of mulch to hold moisture and prevent erosion during the non-growing season. Also by leaving 50% of the forage, the wildlife have a good food source to carry them through the winter as well.
My old mindset would have been to clean up the paddocks as much as possible so that we did not waste any forage. Thinking back, that was a huge mistake on our part. It is not waste, when you trample litter on the ground! The body condition score on our cows ranged from 5-6 on the whole mob. Our June calves are still on the cows and they are still putting on fat. The calves are as fat as ticks. Every day of the winter our mob got access to a fresh undisturbed sward of grass.
When reaching down in the massive sward and pulling it open, there was clover still green in February. It was protected from the freezing temperatures by the thick grass sward covering it. It is now the end of March and we still have 200 acres of stockpiled forage left to graze. Our pastures are greening up now and there is green grass and clover coming up through the winter stockpile.
It sure is a wonderful feeling having to much grass in the winter! We are going to have to buy some more cows to eat all the grass. Our cows are now getting a little of the new spring green forage with every bite of last years winter stockpile. The dry matter from the stockpile is balancing out their rumen perfectly. Their manure piles are perfect, no runny sheet cakes behind these cows.
Same pasture that was grazed in July 2008, strip grazing stockpiled forage March 30th, 2009.
Several people have asked us why we don’t go onto the pastures where we have the nice solid green grass/legume spring pastures. This is the last thing that I want to do. The cattle are content and our winter grazed spring pastures are setting themselves up for the entire growing season without being nipped off. If you nip off your spring pastures while they are trying to recover, you reduce the growing potential of the plant 40% for the entire growing season.
All the grass plant is trying to do is survive and we used to nip it off to keep the seed head from forming in April and May. A grass plant that has a healthy root system under it does not need to send up a seed head immediately. It is not threatened, so it continues to grow leaves. We are now starting to see a vast reduction in seed heads in the spring flush now that we are allowing our plants to mature.
That is the difference between having grass in July or having to feed hay because your plants are suffering from their short roots. Remember, if your plants are not fully recovered when you graze them, you are effectively grazing the roots off. When you hit the summer slump, your cattle, grass, and pocketbook all suffer.
In summary, we could have never imagined trampling 50% of our winter stockpile and still having to much grass left at the end of the winter. By concentrating on laying litter on the ground in the winter we are giving the pasture a good shot of fertilizer in the dormant season as well. Our spring pastures are now springing to life from the winter grazed trampled layer of fertilizer. We are beginning our fourth year of Holistic High Density “Mob” grazing and the results just keep getting better every year. We are increasing our stocking rate 20% this year. I have never been more excited about our grazing future than I am today. This grazing stuff is fun and very profitable when you don’t have to spend any money. We are going to take our money that we would have spent for hay and buy more cows. Go for it!