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?