Let There Be Legumes
Long recovery lets legumes reseed themselves
By Greg Judy; Green Pastures Farm; Clark, Missouri
This is our eighth year of mob grazing. It involves very intense grazing of cattle in relatively small paddocks and moving them frequently. We put 100,000 pounds of cattle per acre of pasture and move them to a new pasture twice a day. That’s 100 cows of 1,000 pounds each on 1 acre.
Since we’ve been doing this, we haven’t put down clover seed; it naturally reseeds itself. I just moved some cattle to a new field today, and I couldn’t help but say to myself, “Wow, look at this clover!”
The secret is a full recovery period between grazings. Depending on the weather and season of the year, in our system, the cattle may not come back to graze an area for 60 to 65 days. In 60 days, the clover in the pasture has a chance to develop mature seed heads, and the seeds inside get fully ripe. We’ll get 15 to 40 black, hard seeds per head. Those will germinate. If they are a light color and soft, they won’t.
The cows eat some of those mature seed heads, and the hard seeds pass right through and come out in the manure and germinate in a cow pie. Other seeds fall to the ground, and the cattle’s hooves tramp them into the soil. The system is reseeding itself every year, and we get a natural 30% to 35% stand of clover without seeding.
We also have Korean lespedeza and bird’s-foot trefoil in our pastures, all from the long recovery period and natural reseeding. We also have some native grasses coming on naturally, especially big bluestem, in place of tall fescue. Big bluestem has none of the toxicity issues. It grows well in the summer heat and has an 8-foot taproot.
Read about our system at greenpasturesfarm.net. It’s let us double the stocking rate in the last seven years. It’s like getting a free farm!
Drilling seed into frozen soil
By Wayne Shriver; Pleasant City, Ohio
I manage two cattle herds: my own private herd and one at the eastern Ohio agricultural research station at Caldwell, Ohio. In total, I manage several thousand acres of pastureland.
Sometimes, producers can get too wrapped up in choosing the right legume, when the real issue is just getting something that will thrive. Here, we have some ladino clover, red clover, bird’s-foot trefoil, and a little alfalfa. I like all of them and want between 25% and 40% legume plants.
We very seldom renovate a pasture from scratch. Rather, we interseed into pastures and hayfields to get new legume growth. If you completely tear up a field to renovate then have a very wet spring, you can end up with not much growing there. If you interseed, you at least still have old growth.
My favorite technique is to frost-seed with a no-till drill when the ground is still frozen. You might think the drill wouldn’t go into the soil, but all we care about is scratching the surface and putting the seed in soil contact. When the ground thaws, it will close over and give seeds a chance to germinate. We think the drill gets 25% to 50% better germination than broadcast seeding.
Of course, the drill takes more time and is more of an investment in equipment. That’s the trade-off.
Another way I encourage legumes is to rotate cattle between pastures quickly, even early in the season. If you let the grass get taller and taller each day, it starts to crowd out the legumes. If you move the cows every two or three days, it keeps the grass shorter and prevents heading out. I use the illustration of trying to plant a tree seedling into a standing forest of mature trees. It just can’t compete.
The secret to good legumes is to reduce competition. Take a cutting of hay or graze it early. Then the legumes can come through.
As for fertility, I like to soil-test and to apply nutrients to pastures in the fall. When you interseed in the spring, they are ready to help the new crop get going.