Archive for the ‘Forage Management’ Category

Clearing the Land

When we bought the Flying T, we knew that one of our two pastures was “rough.”

OK, it’s really rough.  Half-forested, largely with poisonous [to livestock] pin cherry trees.  Not much growing in it but rocks and  goldenrod.  Fence falling down.  Steep slopes on a good portion of it.  Rutted with holes to the point that it was unsafe to let the horses loose.  Rough.

The book answer for a pasture that had been let go for that long would be to call in the bulldozer, then truckloads of loam, but that went against two principles we’re trying to follow on the Flying T: 1) go as natural as possible and 2) don’t go broke.

One of the principles I’ve learned from flying is that there are three competing characteristics in designing airplanes (or other machines, for that matter): light, cheap, and strong.  You can build something that has two of those characteristics, but it’s pretty much impossible to get all three.  So, you can make a wing that’s light and cheap, but it won’t be strong.  Light and strong? It won’t be cheap.  Cheap and strong? It won’t be light.

We’re finding similar principles at work in farming, one of which is the “natural, cheap, and fast” law.  So, when it comes to our pasture, while we’ve been doing OK with staying natural and cheap (relatively), it sure hasn’t been fast.  I’d been hoping to have the pasture cleared of trees by winter’s end – we got halfway there.

Burning slash from trees we cut in the back pasture.

We’ve moved a good passel of rocks from that half to the growing rock wall, but there’s still quite a bit to go.  The holes we filled with a mixture of dirt and composted manure.  Our attempt at strangling the weeds with a cover crop of Winter Rye has been partly successful (and partly not).

It’s all taken a lot longer than we’d hoped, and we still haven’t gotten around to the fence.

So now, we’re well-into the summer, and the weeds are starting to come back, competing against the Rye and other forage species we’ve planted here and there.  It’s time to release the goats on the pasture to get it eaten down, but goats without fence go feral almost as quickly as hogs.  The pasture is still too uneven to accept our portable electric net fence.

Then my wife says, “Well, when we lived in Greece, Dimitri [our local shepherd] just walked through the fields with them and didn’t have a problem.”  Well, that’s right.  He did.  And what’s more, we even have an official Greek shepherd’s cane in the house that we bought as a souvenir.

So, this evening after dinner, we played shepherd.  It was a bit of work getting them out to the pasture – goats don’t like new things – but once they were there, they seemed pretty happy!

Since they’ve been on a pretty well-grazed area for a while, we couldn’t leave them out too long the first day.  That’s an easy way to get into a bad case of bloat.  But, in the short time we did have them out, they got a pretty good start.

We even brought the horses out to graze with them for a while.  Zip and Jasper are pickier than goats and weren’t nearly as impressed with the available eats, but they found the largest stand of Rye acceptable.

What surprised us was how easy it was to get them back.  My oldest daughter just started back to the barn while I carried up the rear with the shepherd’s crook, and they followed her home.  I wish I’d gotten a clearer pic, but this is the best I could do as I jogged along.

Is this going to be a quick process?  Nope.  But it looks like it might be relatively natural and cheap!

Another Rock in the Wall

With the unseasonably warm days we had in the beginning of November, we put some of our other work (including some of the kids’ studies) aside and got to work improving our rear pasture.

The rear pasture is about 1.25 acres and “rough” to say the least.  Based on the size of the poisonous pin cherries throughout the pasture, we figure the pasture has been let go for a good 5-10 years.  We’d previously cleared about a quarter to third of it, and then broadcast spread winter rye seed on that area.  Despite the very suboptimal conditions, the seed has taken relatively well, though not nearly as vigorously as other areas on the property with better soil and preparation.

Over the past week, we got working on the next bit.  The easiest part was cutting down about 20 cherry trees and white pines of various sizes, cutting the larger stuff for the firewood pile while my wife and kids drug the slash to the burn piles.  I also cut up a large white birch the beavers had dropped a bit further down the hill.  More on them in a future post.

Meanwhile, as I was at work, my wife and kids got to pulling stumps, filling holes, and moving rocks.  We’ve got a lot of rocks – it’s not called the Granite State without reason.  Even with the help of the tractor, it’s a lot of work.

Moving rocks is hard work!

Teamwork is essential

A smile makes the work go faster

They're heavier than they look!

Notice the huge brush piles in the background that they've been busy with as well

I’ve helped a bit, but most of the work on the wall we’re starting to build at the edge of the pasture is due to their efforts.  It gives us a new appreciation for the sturdy farmers who built the thousands of miles of rock walls 200+ years ago without farm machinery.

It's a good start!

Our hope is to have enough pasture clear by next spring to have three 1/2 acre paddocks to rotate (two in the front pasture, one in the rear). That will still require some supplemental hay to avoid overgrazing, but will be a lot better than our current situation and make for healthier and more productive pastures in the future.  The seeding plan for the back pasture is to follow the Winter Rye with a good layer of manure and reseeding with Japanese Millet in the summer, then rotate back and forth between the two for at least one more year to break up the weed growth cycle before we move on to more traditional forages.  In a few years, I would like to have a solid Orchardgrass and White Clover pasture established there.

Poison in the Pasture – Pin Cherry

Wild Black Cherry (photo: Ohio Extension)

Both Wild Black Cherry and Pin Cherry trees are members of the rose family commonly found in Southern New Hampshire.  Pin Cherry is a common first-generation species after logging or forest fires create an opening (thus its alternate name, Fire Cherry) and is one of my chief concerns on our property.  We’ve cut several trees down from the margins of our primary pasture, but the back pasture that we’re restoring is positively full of them.

Pin Cherry

Cherry presents a poisoning hazard to all animals, particularly ruminants.  The hazard comes from cyanogenic precursor, prunasin, present especially in the leaves and bark.  When live, these precursors are not toxic, however when the plant dies the compounds break down, producing hydrocyanic acid (cyanide) which is highly toxic.  For this reason, fallen branches and wilted leaves are the most dangerous to livestock.  This hazard can be present in cherry-contaminated silage.  Once the leaves are allowed to dry, the cyanide is lost to the air.  Pin Cherry may contain less of these toxins than Black Cherry (reference). 

Back "pasture" is beyond the far fence... it's essentially a Pin Cherry orchard right now.

Cyanide blocks the body’s ability to use oxygen at the cellular level (the name derrives from cyan, referencing the blue tinge that can occur in tissue without oxygen-enriched hemoglobin).  In most animals, symptoms appear soon after ingestion and start with the body’s physiological response as it attempts to get more oxygen – rapid and labored breathing, anxiety, and stress.  If a fatal dose has been ingested, respiratory and/or cardiac arrest will normally occur within a few minutes to an hour.  First aid exists in the form of a cyanide antidote; however, as it must be given intravenously within a few minutes of the onset of symptoms, it is usually not an available and/or practical treatment (click here for a more extensive discussion on this from the Purdue extension office).

For that reason, prevention is the best cure for cherry poisoning.  We’ve been busy removing cherry trees from areas to which our livestock have access.  In addition, it’s a good idea to check the margins of fields/runouts/pastures after storms, frosts, and/or droughts to collect fallen, branches, and leaves before allowing livestock to graze.

On the plus side, these toxic compounds are concentrated in the leaves and bark, and the fruit itself is edible.  Black cherries can be sweet (watch out for the pit) for eating or processing.  Pin cherries, on the other hand, are quite sour and are best in a sweetened jam or to add tartness to sweet recipes.

Black Cherry wood is also prized for woodworking, though again, Pin Cherry falls short here.  Not only are large diameter specimens rare, but my woodworking friends tell me it is prone to splitting.  However, we’ve found several uses for the copious amounts of wood, and much of what is too small to be good for firewood is in a separate stack to be used for smoking meat next year.  In addition, we’ve been burning all the slash too small for either purpose to use for ash to bring down the acidity and bring up the potassium levels in our fields. 



Hay, hay, hay!

The incredible increases in fuel prices have definitely worked their way into the hay price structure, and now the drought in the midwest and South has ranchers slaughtering cattle early and selling good horses for less than the price of a bale.  Some friends of ours in TX are reporting $14/square, and with one of them feeding 30 horses I know she’s hurting.

How much is good-quality hay going for in your area?  I priced the poll by the “small square,” but if you buy rounds you probably know the going rate for squares also.

Feel free to leave a comment about where you are geographically as well, and what you’re doing to manage.

Winter Rye

Note: this is installment 3 in a series (Legumes, and Grasses, and Weeds, Oh My!), studying forage and pasture management in in New England.

Winter Rye (Secale cereale), also known as Cereal or Annual Rye, is a cool-season annual grass.  Unlike the previous perennial forages I’ve discussed (Timothy and Orchardgrass), Winter Rye is unlikely to be found as a volunteer grass in northeastern fields.

Winter Rye, photo by

Winter Rye is very popular as a winter cover crop, being one of the most cold-hardy forage crops you can plant.  It will germinate at near-freezing temperatures and once it establishes its deep root system, can survive in its dormant stage down to -30 degrees F.  It is also extremely adaptable to poor soil quality and a wide range of acidic conditions (tolerating pHs from 4.5-8.0), however with good soil (ph near 5-7 and available nutrients) it will commonly produce in the ton-per-acre range in New England (it can top 4-5 times that in ideal conditions).

Planted immediately after Fall harvest, it will germinate quickly, start to produce and then go dormant as freezing temperatures hit.  But as soon as the ground begins to warm, it shoots upwards with generous production of dry matter.  Though it isn’t as palatable to livestock as many pasture grasses, its early availability make it a good option for early spring grazing (if soil water conditions allow pasturing).  Further south where continuous freezing temperatures aren’t as prevalent, Winter Rye will grow throughout the winter and be usable for grazing within a few months after planting.

By early May in NH, the ground has warmed and the sun is up long enough to spark the emergence of the plant’s inflorescence (flowers).  When this occurs, vegetative growth stops and the Carbon-Nitrogen ratio of plant begins to peak.  This is necessary if the Winter Rye is being grown for grain; however, it is better to harvest or graze earlier if it is being used for pasture, baled forage, or silage.  As the plant matures, it also becomes less palatable to livestock.

Like other cover crops, Winter Rye can be an excellent tool in a farmer’s toolbox when developing a herbicide-free or reduced-herbicide weed management program.  The early and rigorous growth of Winter Rye in the Spring competes well against many early weed growth cycles, with its tall and dense vegetation shading and thus stunting weeds that do manage to grow.  In addition, Winter Rye functions as an Allelopathic, meaning that it produces substances in its growth that can stop or slow the growth and/or germination of other seeds.  Because of this, it is important to know the possible undesired side effects such as inhibition of germination/growth of desirable species grown in concert with or after the cover crop.

Winter Rye can be planted by drilling or broadcasting.  UVM Extension recommends 1-2 bushels/acre for the former method, and about 50% more for the latter.  It germinates most quickly when drilled in tilled soil (no more than 2″ deep), and if broadcasting should be lightly tilled or disced in.

No-till seed drill... if only...

At the Flying T this year, we are planting Winter Rye in three areas.

1. “Rough” pasture.  This is an area approximately 1.25 acres that had been “let go” for some time, I estimate ~10 years.  I am still removing unwanted vegetation ranging from an overgrowth of goldenrod to poisonous Pin Cherries and Braken Fern that have grown up in that time.  My hope is that the Winter Rye will slow the germination of remnant plants in the Spring.  The plan is to either graze or cut the Rye in the Spring and then immediately reseed with a Japanese Millet/legume mix.  We will use aggressive cutting of reappearing undesired species and encouragement of both volunteer and sown forage species.  Next year, we will repeat, this time adding a legume in the Winter Rye planting (I am getting too late a start this year to do this).  We’ll rinse and repeat over the next couple years and if the experiment works, we should have both increased soil quality and another healthy grazing pasture for our animals without the use of herbicides or artificial fertilizers.

2. Vegetable garden.  Our goal here is to protect the soil from erosion while stabilizing Nitrogen and other nutrients.  Early in the spring, just before planting (and before maturity), we will till in the majority of the crop as green manure, while drying some of it for next year’s strawberry mulch.

3. Experiment plot.  This small (30′ x 30′) opening was full of Goldenrod, Queen Anne’s Lace, and even some Nightshade.  I’ve cut it low and will till it over this week before planting Winter Rye.  Again, the hope is that the Rye’s early growth and allelopathic effects will interrupt the growth cycle of the weeds.  I have not yet decided if I will allow the stand to grow to maturity (to harvest for grain) or cut it early to plant a small experimental bale forage crop or even a small stand of corn.


Though the most common grass used for hay in New England might be Timothy, another very common component of baled forage around here is Orchardgrass (Dactylis glomerata).

Orchardgrass (photo by Missouri Extension)

Unlike Timothy, which takes a bit of care to get established, Orchardgrass often finds its own way into pastures and hayfields.  Propogating both by seeds and by tillers that spread from its dense, clumped bases, Orchardgrass competes well with other grasses and weeds as it seeks new soil.  As its name implies, Orchardgrass is tolerant to shade (surviving even in less than 40% sun) and thus can be found commonly between trees in orchards or woods as long as they are not overly dense.

Identifiable both by its distinctive seedhead and its leaves, which are folded at the base, Orchardgrass is an increasingly-popular species both for pasture, silage, and hay.  In addition to its self-propogation properties, Orchardgrass is a robust producer in the vegetative state, outperforming Kentucky Bluegrass and Timothy while being more palatable to livestock than other high producers like Reeds Canarygrass.  Orchardgrass also is tolerant to close grazing, and as long as the base and tillers are left behind, regrows vigorously after close cutting or chomping that would kill Timothy.

Orchardgrass is not only more shade tolerant, but also can handle a wide range of soil pH and is more resistant to drought, and heat than Timothy, Kentucky Bluegrass, or even Smooth Bromegrass.  While it may stop growing or go dormant in these conditions, it springs back quickly with a bit of watering and Nitrogen.

Though it can handle infertile soils, Orchardgrass thrives in high-Nitrogen environments.  In a lightly-managed field, it will be common to find the strongest stands of Orchardgrass in the places where livestock frequently deposit manure, or where those nutrients collect during rainfall.  This is where we find most of it at the Flying T Ranch – in the low areas of our pasture as well as on the portion of our trails that get at least part sun.

Given good fertility, Orchardgrass will produce large quantities of Digestible Dry Matter (DDM) while simultaneously providing quality nutrition and energy.

Downsides include the fact that Orchardgrass also can out-compete legumes in its area, lowering the overall energy yield for a field.  Orchardgrass also becomes less palatable to livestock as it matures. 

However, palatability is all relative.  Back when we were in Texas, we didn’t buy “hay” for our horses.  Instead, we bought “coastal’ which of course is a type of “hay.”  Coastal (Bermuda Grass) made up the bulk of the horses’ feed, because what most large herbivores need the most of is roughage, and boy is coastal rough.  Our horses loved the stuff, though they obviously picked through it for the flake or two of alfalfa we’d add for energy and protein content.  Even the most mature Orchardgrass can’t hold a candle to the coarseness of a good bale of coastal!

Note: This is the second installment in a series I’m writing for a class in Forages and Grassland Management.

Forages: Timothy Grass

This is the first installment in the Forage Managment section of our blog.  For more information on why I’m doing this, click here.

Timothy grass (Phleum pratense, or Herd’s Grass) is most likely the base of hay you buy in New England – it’s the predominant species for most well-cared-for and cultivated hayfields around here.  This is precisely why there isn’t much of it here at the Flying T, though since I have found a few specimens here and there around the property, I suspect that at one time, there was a hayfield.  Since it is such a quality forage, before I started the Forage course at UNH, my plan had been to try to get Timothy back in play in our pastures.  That’s no longer our plan.

Timothy - Photo by Immunetech, Inc

Timothy is indeed an awesome forage – highly palatable, yielding relatively high yields of quality digestible dry matter (DDM), and with a solid mix of nutrients and fiber (running around 10% protein, depending on quality and handling).  However, it’s a bit more finicky than other forages and needs careful soil management to maintain a strong stand.  In addition, frequent cutting or grazing can kill it, which makes it less than optimum as a pasture crop.  As I lamented in this post, I’m in the process of bringing our soil pH and nutrition upwards, and that combined with the heavy grazing pressure in our primary pasture means we need to target a different species.

However, there is one place on the Flying T where we have no shortage of Timothy – our hayloft.  It’s easy to identify by the compact inflorescence (flower/seedhead) that looks an awful lot like a Labrador Retriever’s tail.  Most Timothy hay sold up here is actually Timothy mixed with other common grasses like Orchardgrass and Smooth Bromegrass, and legumes like Red Clover, Vetch and Birdsfoot Trefoil, which bring the protein levels up a bit.   The thin leaves and stems of Timothy, as well as its tendency not to be too dusty, are what make it so tasty to horses, and it doesn’t get bitter (or even toxic) when it matures, like some Fescues.  Like most other grasses, Timothy can get into the 20% range for protein content in the early vegetative state, which is more useful to grazing than hay (and remember, close grazing will kill it).  By the time it’s ready for haying, Timothy’s protein content usually is closer to 10%.

Timothy grows in small bunches and spreads only through seeds, not stolons or rhizomes, and has somewhat shallow roots when compared to Orchardgrass or Fescue.  It does best in cool, moist environments, but isn’t tolerant to flooding (or extreme heat or draught, for that matter).  It can take slightly acidic soil, doing best in pHs around 5.5-6.5.

Timothy is relatively easy to establish, is best planted late summer or early spring, and isn’t too competitive with other species, making it ideal as a companion crop (as long as its companion isn’t too aggressive).  As I wrote above, it does better for hay or silage than pasture, unless the grazing is well-rotated to keep it from being grazed too short and to allow it to recover.  It produces well, but not as much as the big boys like Reed Canarygrass and Orchardgrass.

Foxtail inflorescence. Photo by Missouri Extension

Because of its low dust, high-quality nutrition, and palatable form, Timothy is also commonly sold at pet stores for feeding small rodents like Guinea Pigs and Chinchillas, as well as rabbits and more exotic herbivores.  The prices, though, are pretty steep!  I paid $5 per 40 to 45-lb square bale (delivered, with help stacking) a few months ago.  I just looked up on and found a 6lb bag of Timothy on “sale” for $15.99.  That’s $100 – $120 a bale!  If I could manage 3 tons an acre, that’s $18K per cutting per acre.  Hey, maybe I should start growing Timothy…  or maybe I’ll just sell an Internet pamphlet on how to get rich quick growing grass (the legal kind)!

Legumes and Grasses and Weeds, Oh My!

One of the fringe benefits of my new job is the ability to take courses at UNH.  At first, I considered working towards another Masters, or even a PhD.  I started looking through the catalog at the course titles, but “Fun with Complex and Imaginary Numbers,” “Astrophysics For English Majors,” and “Advanced Intermediate Navel-Gazing” just didn’t inspire me.

Then I happened upon the Thompson School of Agriculture courses.  Now we were talking.  I considered “AGRI101: Using Farm Machinery without Losing Appendages,” but I hadn’t taken the prerequisite, “MEDI401: Studies on Tourniquet Application.”  Instead, I settled on “Forage and Grassland Management,” which was a timely offering considering the work we have to do on our two pastures.

Actually, we only have one pasture.  It’s the one the horses graze and romp in for a good portion of every day.  The other bit of land that is fenced and looks like a pasture from afar is our “rough” pasture.  “Rough” in our context means that if I were trying to raise poisonous Pin Cherries, allergens like Milkweed and Goldenrod, and a rock garden, I’d be done.  Here’s a pic of me trying to balance the pH a bit with some wood ash, as well as clear out some of the slash from our cleanup after Irene.

Burning Brush in our Back Pasture

The front pasture is prettier, but it still needs help, as you can see in this pic from early Spring.

Zip and Jasper in the front Pasture


We tested the soil this Spring and the lab said the nutrients were “excessively low,” as in somewhere between sifted beach sand and playground dirt.  The pH level indicated it was somewhat acidic – I recall some warning about not allowing skin to come in contact with the soil for more than five seconds.  The extension office made these recommendations: “Apply lime and wood ash at the rate of two tons per acre” (no joke) and “fertilize… a lot.”

I’ve applied the lime, we’re working on the ash, and I’ve got a bit over two tons of well-composted manure just waiting to go on the field  at the end of the season.  Once I get the soil a bit closer to where it’s supposed to be, I need to decide what to try to grow and how to make that happen.  This course is just the ticket.

The course itself is pretty interesting.  The lectures cover grasslands, different forage species, and management considerations.  We spend the “labs” wandering fields, identifying different forages and weeds and talking about them.  It’s definitely a lot more enjoyable than sitting in front of a screen manipulating arrays to assess the effects of complex gravitational fields.

The final project for this course is due in November.  The basic requirement is to collect 15 forages and 15 weeds, and display them with a brief description.  I’ve decided to make it a bit more practical, gathering specimens that either are on the Flying T property or ones I would like to have.

The 15 weeds will be easy.  In addition to the milkweed and goldenrod, we’ve got a good crop of quackgrass, foxtail, crabgrass, thistles, chickweed, and a bunch of other stuff I can’t quite identify.  One thing we don’t have a lot of which is very common around here is poison ivy, so we’re thankful for that.

Forages are a bit more difficult, but I’m moving along on this also.  Our front pasture is primarily Kentucky bluegrass, Redtop (bentgrass), and white clover, with some smooth bromegrass, orchardgrass, and red clover as well.  Reeds canarygrass, vetch, purselane, and even a small amount of birdsfoot trefoil all grow in the periphery.  Of course we’ve got some cattail down at the beaver pond, and I’m actually thinking about harvesting a small batch of it and hanging it to dry along with some of the larger stands of canarygrass.  I think the goats might enjoy it as a midwinter treat.  If that goes well, we may make that a bigger activity next year.

My plan is to amplify the project a bit further, and over the course of the semester, I’ll start adding posts to the blog about what I’m learning about individual species of forages and weeds.  Hopefully some readers will find this informative and useful.