Pasture: The Foundation of Garden Farm Success

From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills

A sure way to tell the direction you should take in garden farming is to watch the trend in commercial farming and then do the opposite. Commercial farming has de-emphasized—and all but ignored in the corn belt—pasture and tree crop farming because these types of agriculture lack the ability to return quick and high-gross profits. But quick, high returns demand quick, high costs, so profit, if any, is possible only in large-scale enterprises.

On a small garden farm there is no question that pasture will return more per dollar of cost than any cultivated grain crop. A pasture needs to be mowed, but there are no heavy fuel or machine costs from cultivation or planting. The grazing animals do all the work of harvesting and much of the fertilizing. There is no erosion. Hail and flood cannot really hurt grass. One of the saddest sights to see is an eager new garden farmer plow his 10 acres and plant it to corn because that’s what the large-scale farmers around him do. He’s going to make that 10 acres pay, he declares. He grows the corn just like the pros do and nets very little. But he’s out there on the tractor, tearing up the soil. He’s a farmer now.

Developing a worn-out field into a good pasture is somewhat a matter of patience. If the cover on the field is nothing but weeds and brush, it might pay to go in and cultivate up a nice seedbed to plant to rye grass together with permanent grasses and legumes. But usually, and certainly in hilly terrain, it is far better to plant down through the existing ground cover with a no-till drill like a Tye, or to ruffle the ground up slightly with the disc set very shallow, and then broadcast with no tillage at all. In any of these cases, do the work in early spring when vegetation is dead so the seed has a better chance of coming into contact with the soil.

But before planting anything, apply 2 tons of lime per acre. You can take soil tests to determine the need for lime, but if nothing much is growing there except weeds, poverty grass, and scrub brush, you need lime. (If the soil was of the proper pasture pH, about 6.5 to 7, in all likelihood there would already be a nice growth of grass on it.) After liming, a heavy application of fertilizer will bring on both heavy grass and weed growth, if the soil has any latent fertility at all but this application is not to the garden farmer’s advantage. It is expensive, for one thing. Usually it results in more grass than the garden farmer really needs at one time. And on really barren, gullied hillsides, it may be mostly wasted.

Controlling Weeds

To control weeds, mow pastures in late July just as Canadian thistle and wild carrot are heading out, and then again about the last week of August, if necessary. Some weeds I cut by hand—sourdock, which can grow very thick, and burdock, whose big leaves shade out grass and whose burs get in the sheep’s wool. Grazing sheep will eventually control such pesky weeds as wild carrot, and rich, fertile, well-limed heavy grass pastures tend to crowd out taprooted annual weeds, too. At any rate, a variety of weeds are desirable in the pasture as part of a healthful diet for the animals.

If pastures lie marshy and wet, tile drainage is necessary. Good legumes and grasses can’t grow in wet ground, and the moisture could aggravate foot rot in sheep.

When we moved here, my pasture had hillside areas totally devoid of any growth except for a few stunted weeds. In desperation I tried a quick fix of chemical nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash. Then I planted clover. Nothing happened. So I went back to garden methods. I spread manure and seeded again. On the worst part, I spread over the manure a layer of red clover hay a farmer friend had given me because rain had ruined it in the making. The clover seeds in the hay germinated after rain, and within a year all the bare spots were marvelously covered with clover. Eventually the fixation of nitrogen by the clover (and the manure) enabled bluegrass to grow. This generally happens through the northeastern quarter of the United States, if not elsewhere—bluegrass and little Dutch white clover will eventually become the dominant plants. The clover fixes nitrogen for the bluegrass, and this symbiotic relationship continues, so long as mowing and grazing keep down taller plants.

On less problematic areas of the pasture, after liming, I lightly disked the soil surface and broadcast ladino clover, which looks just like little Dutch white clover but is twice as tall. The ladino covered the weedy, partially bare soil the first summer and was a solid lush stand the next year. I had no animals yet, fortunately for the soil, and all that growth rotted down into the ground. The next year bluegrass emerged, and in a year made a heavy sod that continues to this day.

On other sections of the pasture I broadcast orchard grass for late summer grazing (it also makes good hay). On one plot I broadcast bird’s-foot trefoil and red clover without any soil preparation. Some of the seeds found their way down through the soil cover and sprouted, just as seeds in nature do. Now, every spring I sow more clover and try other grasses like timothy, which results in a very mixed herbage of legumes and grasses. Even wild strawberries and flowers like blue-eyed grass have grown there.

I find endless pleasure in walking the pasture in summer when a rainbow of butterflies settles on the various clover and weed blossoms. A meadowlark nests in the pasture, as do several ground sparrows and bobolinks. Even if I had no animals, I’d keep a nice pasture just to walk in.
See also Gene’s In The Fields Of Home – What’s The Best Farm Fence?
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author of
The Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming
Illstration Credit: Barbara Field |
Gene’s Posts

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Gene, your original Small Scale Grain raising is at our local library in Oshawa, Ontario. I had been trying to find a copy for years, but the only ones to be had were priced at over $100, sometimes considerably more. I had the book out on loan, and as I tend to do, forgot to return it. Eventually, the library sent me a letter saying if I did not return it within 7 days they would bill me the replacement cost of $ 9, which I guess was the original price. I had to chuckle and was more than slightly tempted to pay the nine bucks and put it on ebay for several hundred. But, I thought better of it and returned it to the library for future farmers to read (or more likely some else to do as I considered). It will be good to be able to purchase a revised copy. I hope this one will have modern photos of you manually harvesting grain so that in thirty more years you can look at these photos with the same smile I am sure you look at the originals.

Deb Bennett: I have said so many things in print in the last 50 years that I beg everyone not to hold be accountable for every word of it. Heaven only knows my mood or the context in which I said all scientists are stupid. If I said that, I meant it in the same way that I say, with a grin, that all human beings are crazy. We all are. There are some scientists that I believe are extra stupid however. Like the ones who make plutonium. As for your book on pasture plants, a good one is certainly needed and I commend you for writing it. I know just enough about pasture plants to know how little I know, which is twice as much as almost anyone I know knows. Now there’s a sentence for you. But I do not have high speed internet and to download even short stuff drives me into fits. I am going to cheat. When I need to know something specific, I will ask you personally. Thanks for writing. Gene Logsdon P.S. I hate horses—-I’m grinning!!!

Greg: I will have that revision on Small Scale Grain Raising finished by October. The publishers will probably wait until spring to come out with it, but I will try to speed them along. The revision is really pretty much wholesale rewriting, because much of it is out of date, some of it is beside the point, and some I have a different take on since 1977. Gene Logsdon

I have heard that chicory reduces internal parasites in livestock.

Gene, when will you be republishing your book on small grains?

Dear Mr. Logsdon: I have your ‘Better Soil’ and ‘Contrary Farmer’ — from which I gather you’re a reasonable guy, even if you seem to call scientists ‘stupid’. I can only sigh when I read inflammatory blanket categorizations condemning the category to which I myself belong — even if they are merely the product of the kind of irascibility that sweaty old men on tractors are sometimes prone to. In case you care, I’m a KU graduate with degrees in geology and vertebrate paleontology, and I make my living mostly by teaching carcass dissection and writing about all things equine. I left academia better than 20 years ago for much the same reasons that the guy who founded the Land Institute did; and like him, I founded my own Institute, in which I teach mostly “lay people”.

I find a good deal that is of interest in your books. One comment you make is that you used to keep a riding horse or two, but that this was a mistake. You didn’t explain that any further in the two books I’ve read, so if you’ve expounded on the subject elsewhere, I’d appreciate you pointing me to the right book or article.

I might, however, be able to guess at least some of your reasons for giving up riding horses, for increasingly we find that they cannot be kept on the same feeds or pasture that you produce and use for your cattle and sheep. You say in ‘Contrary Farmer’ that you don’t know all the kinds of grasses in your pasture and perhaps don’t want to know. For my part, though, I have recently taught myself the grasses and a good deal else of which I had for a long time been ignorant, and found it not only fascinating but crucially important to my ability to keep horses well.

What I would really like, Mr. Logsdon, is to receive a mailing address where I might send you my latest opus, which like all my more recent books, is published by my own Institute on CD-Rom. If you’re not fond of reading on-screen, sections can be downloaded to print. The work is close to 1,000 pages long, and it is titled “Poison Plants in the Pasture: A Horse Owner’s Guide.” Necessarily I do some comparisons between the needs of cattle and horses. I also, as much as I am able, review why alfalfa and other legumes, especially red clover, are detrimental (can even be fatal) if fed to horses. Most of the length of the book is created by the fact that I include really big, really good, really diagnostic photographs of every plant reviewed — far better than any field guide in print, and I mean this includes grasses. Took almost all the photos myself, and had enormous enjoyment out of that.

You may not have much time, but if you’re amenable to receiving a copy, you might find it useful. If you read some of it and find that I am in need of correction or amendment, I’d appreciate the load of fertilizer. One thing I’ve learned in my time is that there is no person you should pay more attention to than a farmer or rancher with real long experience.

Deb Bennett, Ph.D., Director
Equine Studies Institute
Livingston, California


Garden farms are under attack! Check out the CSPI news conference on Food Safety aired on C-Span on July 3rd. Such regulation will shut down all small producers. Its like NAIS for tomatoes.

Respondent: be careful about assuming goats and sheep will take care of established weeds. Given a choice, they generally won’t touch thistle, nor should you expect them to deal with poisonous weeds, like buttercup.

Goats can be extraordinarily picky eaters. Make sure they have some woody browse. They’ll help control woody invasives that often take over pasture from the edges, like wild rose and blackberry. But they’ll leave lots of weeds they don’t like, which will thrive in the lack of competition.

To Greg, Ryan, and alan from Gene Logsdon: Sheep will actually eat Canada thistles! I have a post coming next week that touches on this. Sheep like the blossoms of the Canada thistle just before they open. They will eat them off as they graze the other grasses and clovers. Then when I move the sheep to another paddock, I mow off the thistle stems remaining and other weeds the sheep didn’t eat. When that paddock comes around for the next grazing, the Canada thistles have regrown a little and are rather succulent and then the sheep eat them right down to the ground. Honest. Regrowth of clover then blots out most weeds from late July on. Eventually, after about six years of not plowing, the thistles sort of dwindle away. Yes I have had much experience with ragweed. When it is young and succulent, the sheep will eat it if nothing more tasty is available. Then when the sheep move to another paddock, I mow off the old, tough ragweed, and when the sheep come back to that paddock they will eat the new more succulent ragweed quite well. As your better grasses and clovers strengthen, the ragweed will diminish. Actually the herbals say a little ragweed is good for grazing animals. Both ragweed and Canada thistle are signs that the soil has been disturbed by cultivtion or rooting hogs. On permanent pasture, that is pasture never plowed for another crop, both eventually disappear, try to make comebacks, and dwindle again. Incidentally, giant ragweed, somewhat different from and much taller than regular ragweed is loved by sheep and probably goats and cows. That is why you rarely see it in a pasture. Gene Logsdon

Can’t say on sheep, but goats and cows do a pretty good job covering all the growing things in a pasture. I’ve found very few things that our mob wont clean up. Having the chickens following them probably helps. My goats have done a pretty good job on the thistle. The only place I still have it is in the garden (they don’t rotate through there often enough. I am hoping that mowing, weeding, and adjusting the soil chemistry will eventually help in that space.)

Hi Gene, long time fan. Do you have any knowledge/experience with sheep or cattle grazing ragweed? We have a field that was previously in corn, then abandoned that has an incredible crop of ragweed and birdsfoot trefoil. I am wondering if just turning the animals in will solve it? Or if they think as much of ragweed as we do.

We are thinking of trying goats, sheep and some smaller breed of cattle on our pasture/hay fields. I have heard that goats and sheep will eat the weeds and cattle tend to eat the grass – diversity. Our neighbor has only some cattle and the Canadian thistle is taking over. Maybe I can talk him into some goats. 🙂

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