A startling lesson in pasture farming
From Gene Logsdon
Garden Farm Skills
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.
See also Garden Farming: The Best Investment
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 just released: Small-Scale Grain Raising, Second Edition: An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing, and Using Nutritious Whole Grains, for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers.