A Series of Reflections on growing grass for forage
I have been reminded to tell folks that this is a blog which is basically one mans opinions and that I have no qualifications whatsoever to give any advice. For real advice contact the Virginia Extension Service. They are the designated hitters.
Now that we have discussed how plants grow in general, we ought to talk a little bit about the other factors that influence plant growth and the general balance of nature.
Plants are widely varied in nature and over the millennia have adapted to survive in a wide variety of situations and climates. Giant fir trees grow in the Pacific Northwest United States. Coconut Palms and Bananas grow in tropical climates. The trees in a southern forest are not necessarily the same trees found in a northern forest. In the southeast United States improved Bermuda grass is the standard. In the North central and Northeast Fescue and or Orchard grass would be the standard.
There are wetland plants and dry upland plants. Cold tolerant plants and heat tolerant plants. Annuals Biannuals and perennials. We will discuss all of these in turn.
The point is that nothing occurs in a vacuum. People love to try to influence plant communities and exert their will, but every action in nature has a reaction. Sometimes the reaction is good and sometimes it is not. It is not nice to fool with Mother Nature.
One of the things that I deal with in my job is folks who wish to clear land for agricultural purposes. Sometimes it is land well suited for agriculture. Often times it is not. Wetlands don’t make good agricultural land and in most cases today wetlands are protected. Steep land which is covered in trees is covered in trees because people figured out years ago that trees were the best use for the land and that growing trees was easier than fighting erosion all your life. Forest that is managed in a sustainable manner can provide income over the years, but most people today insist that it must be clear cut and replanted on a shorter cycle. Sometimes all of our efficiency methods and improved management are not all that improved. Nature does not grow tress or most other plants in a monoculture.
Steep land without a very good cover will erode when it rains. Sometimes steep land with a very good cover will erode. Mother Nature is sometimes a very cruel mistress.
But people who have purchased land figure they own the land and as long as they pay their taxes they should be able to do what they want to do. This is true to some extent. Landowners should be aware that wetlands greater than 1/10 of and acre ( that is 4,365 square feet or an area 66 feet by 66 feet) are under the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers. If you want real trouble, just go fill in your jurisdictional wetland. Also erosion from your land which fouls public waters is actionable. But again I digress from the topic at hand. I can’t help it. I am from the government and I am here to help you. ( Please reread and repeat blog disclaimer above here.)
Plants help prevent soil loss. Plants and the soil are intricately intertwined. Yes there are plants that grow in a crack in a rock and there are plants that float but generally plants and soil have a dynamic mutual relationship. Even in those examples plants are involved in building soil. As we discussed previously, plants soil, water and sunshine and the magic of photosynthesis takes place.
If we are growing vegetables then the only thing else necessary is management to grow the preferred plant at the preferred time for the intended vegetable.
If we are growing grazing forages then in addition to management we may need to consider the livestock. We have identified the basic pieces of a simple puzzle. I borrowed this puzzle idea from Robert Shoemaker of Va. DCR. He kindly offered me the use of his slides but after talking with him, I found it just as easy to create a few that were easily customizable.
The soil contributes basic properties of fertility and alkalinity or acidity, productivity, leachability, depth to bedrock, water holding capacity, cation exchange capacity, organic matter, particle size and topography.
The plant community must be adapted to the environment and sustainable in order to stabilize the soil and produce a useful energy product. The plant interaction with the soil, its root penetration ability, Its water and nutrient uptake potential, its hardiness and its productivity are all factors.
Water and the water holding capacity of the soil and the depth to water table and annual rainfall will influence each particular plant species ability to survive in the given location.
Both of these factors influence what plants will survive on the soil. If the plant that survives is a cactus or a red root pigweed then the livestock business is going to be tough going. If it is a nice cool season grass mix with some palatable legumes, then things will be a little easier.
Similarly the livestock will have an impact on the soil and the plants. Consider our previous discussion on the impact of too frequent grazing on young plants. Different plants have different palatability’s and different animals prefer different plants. Livestock also impact soil fertility through their grazing patterns and hoof actions and returns to the land and this distribution varies widely by species of livestock.
Then there is the wildcard. Remember two of Mother Natures rules.
Nature abhors a vacuum. Every action in nature will create a reaction. You take something away and another thing will fill its space.
MANAGEMENT…..or lack of same…….this is the source of most problems. Nature left to it’s own devices will find the proper balance of all the other factors. Just as is the case in your and my jobs, unless you are self employed, that balance is usually not what is desired by MANAGEMENT. Not all MANAGEMENT is evil. Heck I have been a manager and even I am not totally evil. But management will influence the natural factors.
Too much lime applied by MANAGEMENT will affect the pH of the soil which will in turn change the survivability of the plant species and this will effect the livestock and possibly the erosion potential of the land. Eroding land will pollute the water.
MANAGEMENT with a goal of continuously stocking three cows per acre and maintaining Orchardgrass and clover better have a good plan B. MANAGEMENT with a goal of stocking fifty head per acre on mixed grass pasture and moving the herd twice a day with 35 days rest between grazing might have a workable plan.
MANAGEMENT that tends to focus too much on one segment of production will invariably do so at the expense of the other segments. In this example an over stock of livestock is at the expense of the plant, soil and water resources and MANAGEMENT is of reduced effectiveness.
In this example a reduction in water resources through a drought demands an increased level of MANAGEMENT to have any hope of salvaging anything like status quo in the other areas. Typically in a water reduction situation all segments will be negatively affected but effective MANAGEMENT will minimize the negative impacts.
This is probably a more accurate depiction of how a drought situation would be graphically depicted.
This brings to mind some quotes I recently ran across from a noted grazier and cattle producer, Kit Pharo.
“As I travel around the country, I have found that many producers try to run enough cows to keep up with their highest grass production. This forces them to feed hay when grass production decreases – often for several months. The most profitable producers that I know of have a stocking rate that matches their lowest grass production. For the most part, this eliminates the necessity of feeding hay. To take care of their high-grass production periods, they utilize stocker animals – often of their own raising.”
“Although it has been well proven for over 20 years that we can dramatically increase grass production through Planned Rotational Grazing and/or Management Intensive Grazing and/or Mob Grazing, I suspect less than 5% of cow-calf producers practice any of these grass management concepts. Why is that?”
Feeding hay is often the result of poor grass management and/or having too many cows. Jim Gerrish says, “The average producer inMinnesota feeds hay for 130 days. The average producer inMissouri feeds hay for 130 days – and the average producer inMississippi feeds hay for 130 days.” What does this tell you? Does it make sense?
“You MUST manage your land resources in such a way that you make the most efficient use of the FREE solar energy and rainfall that falls on it. Planned Rotational Grazing and/or Management Intensive Grazing and/or Mob Grazing have been well proven to increase forage production (and beef production) by 50 to 200 percent – while improving the land. WOW! Believe it or not, the cost to do this is minimal.”
I believe all of the above to have a high degree of truth to it and these are all elements of MANAGEMENT.
Or as I heard one farmer say a long time ago. “Heck man, I already know how to farm twice as good as I do now. I just don’t have time to do it.”
But as my mother used to tell me, “If you have time to do it over, you have time to do it right.”
I would conclude by saying don’t let MANAGEMENT goals get in the way of proper management and environmental stewardship. If it is good for the land and the environment, then it is good for you.