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The return of the native grasses

Nathan Anderson stood at the top of a pasture steep enough to be a ski slope.

“Two years ago this was bluegrass and dandelions,” he said, as a group visitors looked over green bunches of big and little bluestem, Indiangrass and sideoats gramma. “I didn’t do anything other than take the cattle off for two years and burn it this spring.”

It was one of the last stops on a tour of Anderson’s field day last Saturday on improving pasture with rotational grazing, one of several sponsored this summer by Practical Farmers of Iowa. In many ways the Cherokee, Iowa farm that the 2010 Iowa State University grad is working into is a typical corn, soybean and wheat farm.  Anderson farms with his father, Randy, uncle, grandfather and fiancé, Sarah.

But this string of 2- and 3- acre pastures along a creek are where the younger Anderson is making his mark. He currently has eight cows and calves that he moves about once a week, and more often during the tall-grass days of early summer. He tries to rest each paddock about 40 days. With more productive pastures, he hopes eventually to rebuild the family’s cattle enterprise to about 30-cow-calf pairs. Altogether, the paddocks t comprise more than 35 acres.

Anderson has been farming since 2005 but this is just the second year of improving the pastures.

Steve Reinart, a veteran central Iowa grazer who was among the visitors, was impressed with Anderson’s early results.

“It’s amazing how resilient the environment is and what Nathan has accomplished with proper land management,” Reinart said after seeing the flourishing native grasses.

Cattle and controlled burning aren’t doing all of the work.  Anderson and his father pushed lawn spreaders full of red clover seed over one paddock. They’re clearing large, mature cedars from about 12 acres of pasture with three years of cost sharing from EQIP, the Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

With the help of PFI Grazing Specialist Kevin Dietzel,  Anderson laid out 100-foot transect lines in three of his paddocks early Saturday. It’s a way of checking on diversity of plants in the same area as a year ago.

“Things look a lot different in just one year,” Anderson said. “It’s amazing how things have changed.”

Dietzel  told that the PFI work wouldn ‘t be considered scientific research because the farm isn’t leaving any of the pasture unchanged as a control field to compare it to. Nevertheless, the PFI work is giving Anderson lots of useful  information as he starts his full-time farming career.

As a cooperator with PFI Anderson is doing a lot more than checking forage diversity. He also monitors forage consumption by livestock and the amount of hay that’s baled from some of the paddocks. He’s analyzing soil fertility. He’s recording calf rate of gain while on pasture and monitoring the cows’ body condition scores. He’s recording birds and other wildlife. And he’s tacking financial and labor inputs and income earned to determine profitability.

Here are some of his observations:

  • labor required to move cattle is an increase of about an hour a day.
  • cattle are easier to handle
  • resting paddocks can allow for new plant species to get started
  • rotational grazing allows paddocks to rest, which makes it easier for birds to increase or move in. Anderson has seen an explosion of meadowlarks as well as Bobolink, Indigo Bunting and Loggerhead Shrike.
  • rotational grazing has increased cow-calf performance. The calves are gaining weight faster.

For more information about this and upcoming PFI field days, visit

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