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Developing a Pasture Management Plan

This is the last part of my blog series on sustainable pastures. 

Pasture improvement was one of our 2018 homestead goals because good forage is one of the most important elements in my goats' diet. Good forage consists of grasses, legumes, and forbs or edible weeds. Forbs are herbs or other broadleaf flowering plants that add variety and nutrition to the livestock diet, as well as plant diversity to the pasture. True weeds are what I call anything that the goats won't eat! Here are some examples of true weeds I have problems with.

I don't know what this is but the goats don't eat it and it shades out the good stuff.

Grasses and clovers are shaded out beneath weeds like these and struggle to grow. Because the goats don't eat them, they tend to dominate.

Another serious problem is ground ivy.

Ground ivy is a real problem in one of the girls' areas.

The goats don't eat it either. It spreads vigorously and chokes out everything we want to grow. We have one paddock that we now estimate to be about 70 to 75% ground ivy. That same pasture once grew clover and orchard grass!

Another discouraging weed is horse nettle.

Horse nettle flowers

Horse nettle berries.

It's a nightshade, so it's toxic, and it has nasty little thorns that can pierce even garden gloves. The tips of the thorns break off in your skin and fester. It always leaves some root in the ground when pulled, so it's impossible to eliminate.

Weed problems like these point to several causes. One is mineral deficiencies or imbalances in the soil, the other is improper management. Grazing animals will eat what they like first to the point of killing it. That leaves the stuff they won't eat to take over.

So what's the answer? According to Joel Salatin in Salad Bar Beef the first step toward weed control is to start rotational grazing. By not letting stock eat the good stuff down to oblivion and giving it time to recover, he says the forage in a pasture will not only recover but can be completely changed. Other graziers confirm that, even though it seems incredulous to me.

So we've made a start. To plant, I undersowed the existing forage with as diverse a seed mix as I can, both perennials and annuals: wheat, oats, winter peas, perennial rye, hairy vetch, chicory, radish (both garden and Daikon), oregano, lespedeza, turnip, timothy, orchardgrass, non-endophyte fescue, alfalfa, birdsfoot trefoil, rape, small burnet, sanfoin, kale, buckwheat, phacelia, sudex, and a variety of clovers (red, crimson, sweet, and several kinds of white). Next Dan mowed the standing growth to mulch the seeds. Then, I started stringing electric fence.

So far I have one pasture seeded and subdivided into three paddocks.


The corral gate controls whether they can enter paddock #3,


or have to go down the corridor.

Corridor

An experimental gate controls whether they can enter paddock #1 or #2.

The wire runs through a makeshift pex pipe arch.
The baby gate directs which side they can enter.



After it runs through the pipe an alligator
clip fastens it to the wire on the other side.

So far the girls have been cooperating. They've all had their noses zapped so there's no trying to break through to somewhere else. Amazingly, no one has tried to break through or jump the baby gate. They love the fresh forage and know that's where I'll lead them, so they follow willingly.

Ready!

Something I didn't understand at first is mob grazing. Joel talks about it in his book, but I had trouble grasping the concept. Now that we've started this rotation plan, however, I'm seeing the mobbing effect in action. Because the goats are in a relatively small area, they are competing for the best bites and aren't so choosy. Initially, they spread out.

Forage is pretty spotty right not, so it doesn't take them long to eat it down.

But soon there's competition. In trying to eat everything so no other goat can get it they create a "mob."


The result is something like this...

Before

After

The tops of all plants are eaten and the rest is trampled down. The eating stimulates plant growth and the trampled leaves and manure break down to feed the soil microorganisms. Folks who practice this say the land responds in a positive way and begins to produce more good livestock forage and fewer weeds. The other plus is that this management method sequesters large, measurable amounts of carbon in the soil.

The last step is to rest the paddock until the plants have had a chance to recover and new growth is shooting up. Then the girls can go in again. We started this in autumn, however, which means plant growth is slower. There are a number of days when they have to go down into my "sacrifice" area, i.e. the woods. But it's acorn season now, so they don't mind.

Browsing in the woods.

I plan to do a similar setup for the bucks.

If you've hung in there with me to the end of this post, then it's probably because you are interested in sustainable pasture too. Here are links to my other blog posts in this series.

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