A Startling Lesson In Pasture Farming


From Gene Logsdon

If you look closely at the rather nondescript photo above, you will discern two strips of grass much greener than the pasture between them. This photo was taken on July 6 of this year (yesterday as I write). Sheep grazed this pasture for a week in late June and I just shifted them to another paddock five days ago. They had grazed the greener strips right down to the ground. The other grasses between the strips had matured past the most palatable stage before I could turned the sheep in and were not grazed as well. The green strips are already growing back rapidly; the other grasses and clover more slowly.

Can you name the greener grass? I’ll give you four guesses.

There are a few little ragweeds coming up there, and some red clover struggling to establish itself. But the bulk of that growth is volunteer crabgrass. Where did it come from?  Crabgrass is everywhere around here, especially in our lawn, but why it grew  particularly well in these strips I’m not sure. Last year the strips were in corn like you see in the background of the photo. Last year was a miserable year for us. It rained so much I could not get the corn weeded (I won’t use herbicides) and then it dried up so the corn never made much of a crop. The crabgrass just took over in a solid mat late last summer. I couldn’t turn the sheep in then because of the corn and didn’t know that it was good grazing anyway. To put it mildly, I was not at all pleased. I disked the strips this spring and planted red clover. Ha ha.  The crabgrass loved to be disked and roared back, making life miserable for the little clover seedlings. I shrugged and wrote off the strips of crabgrass as a failure… until I turned the sheep in.

I’m not quite sure how to work this discovery into a permanent part of a pasture rotation. But if crabgrass takes over the soil under my corn strips this year, I will not shed even one tiny little tear. Crabgrass is obviously delectable for sheep and it likes dry late summers, the very time pasture is short in this region.

I don’t know yet how to work this fortuitous happening deliberately into my pasture rotation. I think I should encourage crabgrass to grow in the corn by skipping late weed cultivation. The dratted weed doesn’t seem to hurt corn growth at all after the corn is knee high.  Another point worth pondering: had I used herbicides in my corn, I would never have learned about crabgrass. This is not the first time I have noticed that getting locked into factory farming sometimes locks out new discoveries.

I know only one other person who in his lifetime was aware of the benefits of crabgrass— Bob Evans of fast food fame, now passed away, who was also a pioneer pasture farmer and a close acquaintance friend. Unfortunately I didn’t pay much attention to his enthusiasm over crabgrass because of the plant’s notorious reputation as a lawn weed. I remember thinking that sheep like poison ivy too.

By the way, the corn you see in the background of the photo, is shoulder high (on July 6) and has a deep green, healthy color. I’m not bragging. All the corn in the neighborhood is like this—a good year so far.

But here’s the interesting part.  I did not apply one speck of fertilizer of any kind to my corn, while most corn in the neighborhood  has the “benefit” of at least $150 worth of nitrogen, phosphorus and potash per acre. My “fertilizer” was five years of grazed grass and clover sod preceding the corn. If farmers reverted to an agricultural system where most of the land was in pasture and only a little in grain, look at the millions of dollars that could be saved just in fertilizer. Yet when agribusiness compares the profitability of grain farming vs. grass farming, such observations are conveniently ignored.
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21 Comments

Thanks for the book reference Kerri, and I’ve got the same spare time issue right now too. Yep Gene, I’ve got soil issues, that’s why I started looking around at what grows where on my property and how to understand what nature is telling me and how (if) she’s trying to correct it and methods I can use to help things along. I don’t think I have any giant rag weed, but we have a lot of work to do restoring this place after many years of abuse and neglect.

Monica

Actually, I think weeds are better indicators of poor soil than rich. Weeds can tell you what’s deficient in the soil, if there’s hardpan or not, clay vs. loam, etc. For instance, yarrow grows prolifically in soil with very little organic matter and not nearly so well or so tall in loam with good tilth.

On the other hand, chickweed will grow anywhere and thickly no matter the soil composition. So don’t decide to use chickweed to tell you anything (except, perhaps, that it’s time for some weeding).

An excellent book on the subject is _Weeds and what they tell_ by Ehrenfried Pfeiffer originally published in 1946 and then again starting in 1970. My only quibble is that the region he studied was, I believe, eastern Pennsylvania. Not all that helpful up here in Alaska beyond the common stuff like plantain, dandelion, chickweed, lambsquarter, pigweed and such. Nevertheless, I can now know that soils have different compositions/issues just by looking at what weeds grow on them. Don’t know what those compositions/issues are exactly, but should I ever examine and observe the soils more closely, I’m certain to gain the details. In my copious spare time, of course.

Kerri in AK

Monica, I doubt that purslane example very much, but what do I know?
I’ve never seen much advantage to looking at weeds as soil indicators. So my giant ragweeds grow taller than the corn. I’ve got rich soil no doubt about it. What’s the point. Should I look for some so poor giant ragweeds won’t grow in it? Gene

Gene,
My husband and I just bought 40 acres up here in mid-east Michigan and we’ve been reading your books repeatedly. Thanks for all the information!
Anyway, we’re going the grass-fed belted galloway route, and in one of those books, they discussed weeds as soil indicators. Researching on the internet, I found a site (http://journeytoforever.org/farm_library/weeds/WeedsToC.html#contents) for a book that talks about all the BENEFITS of weeds. I know it sounds a bit nuts, but the guy actually showed how purlsane growing in his corn crop improved the corn because of the greater depths the corn roots were able to reach and the increased water brought up by the roots.
Just wanted to share that,
Monica

Out of curiosity, how often do you get rejected lambs and do you bottle feed anymore? thanks. Paul

Paul, if the ewe is of good pedigree (out of a good ewe) I would keep her another year. Sometimes a new mother gets better with motherhood on the second time around. Otherwise, it’s a tossup. I surely agree that bottle lamhs are rarely worth the effort.

Gene,
Last spring one of my ewes (a new mother) did not take to her lamb. Result was a costly bottle baby (now sold)and much aggravation. Is it generally better to sell the mother or take the risk of the same outcome again with twins? thanks.

Spencer Says:
“In respect to minerals if you are not having any problems with your flock you might be ok. 1 winter my family lost almost all of our lambs because we were lacking a mineral and the lick we got from the feed store was not the one we asked for. Costly lesson. Some areas are lucky enough to have the enough mineral content in the ground that your flock will be ok. We aren’t so lucky here. Greg you should be able to get a Lick that will cover all your needs it would be cheaper in the long talk to your local farm supply store or look for a sheep breeder association in your area. ”

I went to the farm store and they have mineral licks. Cheaper than the bags of mineral that I have been buying.

Thanks, Greg

Gene, here is a link to an article from Auburn University about crabgrass as a forage crop http://www.aces.edu/dept/forages/crabgrass.html

In respect to minerals if you are not having any problems with your flock you might be ok. 1 winter my family lost almost all of our lambs because we were lacking a mineral and the lick we got from the feed store was not the one we asked for. Costly lesson. Some areas are lucky enough to have the enough mineral content in the ground that your flock will be ok. We aren’t so lucky here. Greg you should be able to get a Lick that will cover all your needs it would be cheaper in the long talk to your local farm supply store or look for a sheep breeder association in your area.

Anyways good luck guys.

Gene said: “I don’t feed any minerals. Are you sure you need to?”

Some sheep people around here feed it to prevent, well, I’m not sure. It has Ca, Phos. Mg, etc. I had been told to have it for them. I wondered about it since it is another expense. I’m new to sheep, had horses for years and just put out $10 mineral block in the barn that they licked now and then. It would last for a long time. The sheep mineral lacks Cu since it is toxic to them.

The sheep (and 2 steers) eat it. But I would think like you they get everything from the grass and “weeds”.

The local food coop will pay $3-$4/lb for lamb after slaughter. They butcher and do the cuts they want. The local USDA slaughter house charges $60/lamb.

I make round bales on extra pasture that I feed for winter and sell if I have any left over. Our pasture is drying up, no rain for a month here in my corner of Maryland, they got some to the north and east from the storms that went thru last week. So, I’ll be feeding some hay soon.

Thanks!

Ian, the corn was planted the first week in May. I weeded it as soon as first appeared above ground, being careful not to bury it, then weeded it again about a week later, and a third time about the middle of June. Roto tilled between rows and then “shuffled” that is, rolled dirt into the row with our feet to cover weeds the tiller can’t reach. I have no idea about stuff like heat units. You should probably weed again. You must be patient in learning about farming. You can’t totally blueprint your way to success ahead of time. And the more you learn, the more you will say “it depends.”
Spencer: I am so glad to hear of someone who knows about crabgrass. Thanks for commenting.
Greg: Most of my lambs are 90 to 100 lbs. when I sell them, all gain from pasture without grain. I don’t try for “lite fats” or Easter lambs or for 120 lb. lambs although sometimes when the grass is good, I get them that heavy and they are the most profitable in my experience. Bags of mineral? I don’t feed any minerals. Are you sure you need to? The only extra cost I have is for extra hay which I could make from surplus pasture in June but am getting too old to get that done anymore. As a rule of thumb I figure I make $70 to $75 per lamb in pasture farming when the price per hundred weight is around $90 to $100.

Hi Gene – just wanted to let you know I’m reading and loving all your posts over here in Crawford Co.
It is a good yr – our pastures ( for 2 jersey cows and a steer on 6 acres) are doing well and our garden looks better than ever.

Gene, how much profit do you make per lamb? What weight do you like them to be at? We are going to sell ours to a local food coop, a little better price but a little more effort. There’s a big push for local food now-a-days.

One big expense for us is the mineral supplement, it’s $25/bag.

Thanks.

Crabgrass is amazing that way. If it is there add a little water and it will grow. We fed our sheep off it for 20 years just add water and it grows like a weed.😉

Gene, when did you plant this corn crop now (July 6) shoulder high?
I’m trying the grow your own open pollinated field corn experiment on my cottage farm here in S ON (zone 5b). Lots of weeds, it went in June 7th, weeded it July 1st, still only 12 inches high. Used 3200 Heat Unit seed corn.
Weeds are mostly lambs quarters and crabgrass. Should I leave or weed again? I know, ‘it depends’ but on what?

Ian G
new pasture farmer

Sounds like a win win win – now if only you could get them to pull a sleigh…

Kyle, We sell a few lambs every year— have 30 to go to market in Oct. without one speck of grain in them. Only a couple will hit the top of the market, but most of them will be profitable. Actually the lamb price is quite good and has been for about five years now. I presume if a whole bunch of people got into sheep, the lamb price would go down but maybe not. What is keeping the price good is the influx of Muslims and other similar groups into the US. They like their lamb. What is even more enticing about sheep is producing milk from them— just as good as cow’s milk. Then you have an animal that gives meat, milk, cheese, and wool. I tend to explain or try to explain lunacy as a cultural thing. Your typical farmer still looks down his or her (mostly his) cultural nose at sheep. When will we get an economy that allosw for more pasture farming, smaller dairies etc.? As soon as government quits subsidizing the dinosaur agriculture we have today. The government likes grain— it can be stored and shipped around the world— coin of the realm.

Gene,
– Another great article. I’ve been feeding my son prairie dock seeds and violets, so I think these ideas have some application to humans too😉
– Do you market meat. lambs, milk and/or wool? Sheep seem like an ideal livestock in need of a better market. It’s amazing that farmers are out there raising genetically cloned pigs in high-tech warehouses when there’s an animal that turns weeds into food and fiber.
– A related question: You’ve mentioned your friendship with the late Charles Walters. I’m a big believer in his (Carl Wilken’s) ideas on parity and tariffs for farm products. Do you think it’s a catch-22 that parity depends on storable commodities like corn, wheat and soybeans? How can you achieve a strong rural economy that allows for more pasture farming, small dairies and meat-raising, vegetable-growing, etc? I guess corn and wheat aren’t going anywhere soon, but do you see the concepts of “the proper farm” and “the proper farm economy” as being in conflict?

Aaron, could be. I have also read somewhere but now can’t find, a report that suggested some sort of symbiotic relationship between corn and grasses like crab and quack.

There is something very satisfying about making discoveries like this. Reminds us that nature knows best, we just need to follow.

“Crabgrass is everywhere around here, especially in our lawn, but why it grew particularly well in these strips I’m not sure. Last year the strips were in corn like you see in the background of the photo.”

Maybe the crabgrass is doing so well because of the corn that preceded it. Corn is nitrogen hungry (as I’m sure you know since you planted clover) so probably the crabgrass does better with a lower nitrogen soil than other competitors. Just a guess…

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