More To Grass Than Meets The Eye

From Gene Logsdon

You can tell that the photo above is not a lawn because of the glob of sheep manure in the center. Unfortunately most people do not graze farm animals on their lawns. What you are looking at is mostly bluegrass and white clover, two plants that grow wild all over the United States. In our part of the country (Ohio) if you visit almost any plot of land with regular mowings as I have done with this field, in a few years you will end up with a bluegrass and white clover turf like this one without any cultivation and without planting one seed of either. Neither plant is native to America which knocks a big hole in the notion that “invasive” plants are  always ecological villains. In fact so rapidly did these two plants from Europe spread in our “new world” that bluegrass beat the American pioneers to Kentucky. No plant “invasion” could be any more beneficial.

There are several reasons why I am willing to stick my neck out with such a grandiose statement. First of all, guess what month that photo above was taken. Yep. Yesterday. November 11. If you are interested in pasture farming or are actually doing it, you know that’s significant in a northern clime. We have already had four hard frosts and two nights when the temperature dropped to 28 degrees F. Yet the grass is hardly affected. And I have not color-enhanced the photo one single bit.

New pasture farmers give scant attention to bluegrass and white clover because they have been told that these two plants do not produce as much forage as more exotic grasses and clovers.  When the weather turns dry in summer, bluegrass and white clover go into dormancy unless you water them which a few pasture farmers who realize the value of these plants are doing. But even counting in dormant time, these two plants produce nearly as much quality forage as any pasture plant without any expense at all.  I think that the real reason for disparaging them for grazing is that they come free from nature. Agribusiness can’t make any money selling the seeds.

Not much serious research has been done therefore (what agribusiness company would fund it?) into the fact that these two plants are the most palatable (my sheep tell me that over and over again) and in humid parts of the U.S., offer a protein-rich diet through April, May and June, and in the fall when rains come again, until about Thanksgiving. This fall growth after August drought is especially rich in protein, enough in many cases to sort of make up for the dormancy of the two plants during dry weather.  Shepherds and dairy farmers are well aware of this phenomenon and often console each other during drought by saying that what they are losing in their animals’ weight gains or milk production in August will be more than compensated for when September rains and protein rich grass come again.  This rich late pasture, with normal rainfall, stays lush, as you can see from the photo, into mid-November and will stay fairly green into December.  In fact, snow will actually lengthen the pastureability (how’s that for a new word?) of bluegrass and white clover by protecting them from frigid air temperatures. Cows and sheep will nose right down through a light snow to get the forages. Then very early in spring, bluegrass will send up fine new blades as soon as the weather warms up even a little. It will do so even in a warm spell in winter. I was surprised one January thaw when the sheep went eagerly to southern slopes of the pasture and seemed to be grazing. I got down on my hands and knees to study the seemingly dead turf. Sure enough there were fine little blades of grass coming up, enough to give the animals a few protein-rich nibbles to go with their hay in the barn.

The other reason bluegrass and white clover are sometimes denigrated as pasture plants is that they don’t grow as tall as most other grasses and clovers. Pasture science suggests that the actual quantity of bluegrass and white clover is more than what meets the eye of the human beholder. A cow can grab as much dense, short bluegrass and white clover in one mouthful as it can strip off of taller, thinner orchardgrass and red clover.

The other benefit from bluegrass and white clover is its permanency. Once established, it is nearly forever. As has often been pointed out, the two flourish in symbiotic relationship with each other. The clover draws into the soil nitrogen from the air. The bluegrass feeds greedily on that nitrogen, crowding the clover out a bit. When the bluegrass uses up what the clover has supplied, it tapers off and the clover comes back strongly, supplying another round of nitrogen. No added fertilizer is necessary, especially where animals are applying manure and urine as they graze.

The potential of bluegrass and white clover for nine months of grazing in the north, and a little grazing nearly year round, is best being demonstrated not by pasture farmers but by urban dwellers. Ironically suburbanites know more about how to grow really great pasture than most farmers do. I marvel at the green lawns I see in cities in winter. What we need are farmers as passionate about their pastures as homeowners are about their lawns. I like to joke about it but it may not be funny. If we ever come to our senses and realize that pasture farming is a more economical and ecological way to feed ourselves than industrial grain farming, it could be suburbanites, not farmers, who lead the way. Can’t you just see all those suburbs teeming with lamb chops on the hoof?


Great article, glad I found your site.

Teresa Sue Hoke-House November 17, 2009 at 7:16 am

Great article. What I like about farming/gardening is that there is ALWAYS something new to learn. So glad I found this site!

To Jan Steinman, Everyone has a parasite problem. The tannin in lespideza may help but by the same token it will not be as palatable to the grazing animals either. The fact that you can’t find lespideza seed in your part of Canada is probably a sign that it doesn’t do well there. Doesn’t do all that great here either. Lespideza is more often grown in the midsouth. Gene

Is there any legume which you like for hay?

Do you have a parasite problem where you are? Have you looked into Sericea lespedeza? It’s a legume that is high in tannins that helps keep the parasite load down. I’ve been trying to get some seed, but it doesn’t appear to be available in Canada.

David Veale, for using an old sickle bar mower and horses I would vote for some of the new white clovers like Alice. They are finer and dry better than red clover but are still tall enough to make some hay. I like red clover too. Graze the first cutting, mow it after grazing, make hay out of the second cutting. Or make hay of the first cutting before it gets real stemmy. Of course, it is hard to make any hay in Mich. or Ohio in May-June because of the weather. I don’t know how much hay you need, but it is easier, with primitive machinery, to make hay in late summers from second or third cuttings. Where alfalfa is short lived, it is usally because your soil is heavy clay and not drained well enough with tile. Or you may need lime. Remember that alfalfa is a heavy feeder of soil nutrients especially potash, especially if you are taking off three or four cuttings. If you don’t fertilize with manure or commercial fertilizers, the stand won’t last long. You probably know all that. Gene

Great post! I’ve learned so much from you as I’ve started my venture as a “farmer”. In Maryland we still have enough good grazing bluegrass that my bovine girl had bloat last weekend from all the melting frost. I’ve had a mind to stake her out in the “yard” so she could get more good stuff that just continues to grow this year. I just finished what I hope is my last mowing….I don’t think I’ve ever mowed the “lawn” in November! Yes we are rural suburbanites with two cows and chickens only 30 miles as a crow flies from dowtown DC and Baltimore.

I hope you’ll let us know if you do the radio show with Tim!

Hi Gene,
Having been inspired (by you in large part) to move from the northwest to the midwest to begin farming, I can attest to the wonders of clover/grass combinations on pastures. However, I’m having trouble with hay. Alfalfa seems to be very short lived here (SW Michigan), red clover doesn’t dry unless run through a haybine (I’m using horses with a sickle mower), white clover grows too thick and clogs mowers… Is there any legume which you like for hay? I know the best solution is to eliminate the need for hay, but I’m not there quite yet.

This is a really interesting concept. It is unfortunate that no one has studied this potential. Thanks for the great article, Nathan

Gene, the bluegrass/white clover suite is not working the same way in the northern intermountain region. Too dry I guess, and then there is the knapweed. By the way, we have a house frog too. I have not made notes about his communication habits but after reading your piece I will be thinking about it every time the singing starts, which is loud and often. Thanks, Michael Irving

A dandelion or two sure would look nice…

Oh you wascally wabbit…there you go again trying to make sense of things and offering beautifully consistent and logical solutions to the mess of corporate ag.

Gene, your phone is being searched for trouble!! It’s Tim here hoping to get you on the good ol’ radio one more time as Dan Imhoff and I are signing off from radio for now and want one more show from our favorite people before 2010. Looking for Nov. 23rd at 1 PM California time. I am catching up with your blogs and am halfway thru the Husbandmen. I’ve never blogged before…looks like fun! I will keep phoning until you “trouble” goes away. Can you do the show? Hope all is well. Tim Bates

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