Jay Pinsky: Give your pastures a chance

Think of your favorite restaurant.

Invite your best friends, and their friends and then their friends. Heck, invite everyone in your county – every day, and for every meal. Don’t even ask. Insist on it.

Eat there, every day. Eat there, every meal – with everyone. Keep doing it well past when you get tired of the menu. Keep doing it well past when you notice the kitchen is running short on food. Keep doing it even when the line to the bathroom becomes perpetual. Don’t leave. Fence in your friends so they can’t leave either. Sleep there. Play there. Live there.

One thing’s for sure. That favorite restaurant status won’t last. The food you once loved will grow old, tired and surely bland. Your friends will tire of the menu, those long bathroom lines, and of you. Your smile, their smiles – the staff’s smiles will all fade away because no matter how good your favorite restaurant was, it simply won’t be able to keep up with everyone’s demands and will eventually fail, or worse make people sick.

That is unless everyone ate somewhere else for a while …

Seems simple enough, right? After all, this kind of scenario sounds absurd, but it’s one some farmers put their livestock in, minus the waitresses, day after day when they choose not to rotate their livestock’s grazing areas.

Rotating livestock between multiple pastures allows pastures a chance to rest between grazing events,” said Dana Gochenour, a conservation specialist with the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District.

Gochenour said grazing livestock tend to go for the newest plant growth first because it is most palatable, but if they are allowed to constantly remove the new growth as fast as the plant can create it the plants can be damaged or killed.

In other words, just like us, cattle eat the good stuff first, like what we keep in the front of the refrigerator, and if forced, will move on to the leftovers, then to that mystery stuff way, way in the back of the bottom shelf. Before long, our refrigerator is empty and so are the pastures.

“Continuous grazing often results in uneven use of a field – some areas will be overgrazed while others will be underutilized,” Gochenour said. “Overgrazed areas can be at risk of eroding and are less able to effectively filter sediment and nutrients from runoff.”

We avoid making these choices by going shopping, or occasionally dining out. Cattle, having no pockets for a wallet or thumbs for that matter, must rely on us to keep their “fridge” stocked with fresh, healthy produce. One way to do this is to open up another refrigerator, or pasture, while we restock the empty one.

“Rotational grazing allows the pasture to recover after grazing, letting the plants generate more above ground growth to keep the soil covered and also to develop deeper root systems to hold soil in place,” said Gochenour.

Healthy forage isn’t the only advantage of using a pasture rotation. Remember those long bathroom lines at your favorite restaurant when you had to eat there forever? According to Gochenour, a proper pasture rotation schedule keeps not only what goes into your livestock top-notch, but also balances what comes out of your livestock in your fields.

“Rotational grazing also allows for more even distribution of manure across pastures, which may lessen the need for additional applications of commercial fertilizers.”

Fear not, rotating livestock to different refrigerators, err … pastures doesn’t have to be fancy. In fact, Gochenour, who is a lifetime farmer herself, said rotational grazing can be as simple or complex as the farmer wants it to be, with that choice ultimately depending on how much time and effort the farmer wants to invest.

“Some folks have a few pastures and move the cattle every week or so, others use temporary fencing and provide access to small amounts of new pasture multiple times a day,” she said.

Gochenour said farm critters don’t need to go moo to benefit from rotational grazing either. “Any livestock can be rotationally grazed, though some like poultry perform best when they are also supplemented with grain.”

Hand or hoof, we all like to eat. If you have livestock, give your forage feeders some variety. The folks at Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District are happy to show you how. After all, no one – cows included – wants to eat that mystery food way, way back in the refrigerator.

James Pinsky is the Education and Information Coordinator for the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District.  Contact him at 540.465.2424, ext. 104, or james.pinsky@lfswcd.org.