Tackling the South Pasture

My friend Larry stopped by the farm Thursday morning — “to check up on you and see how you’re doin’, girl.” I love Larry. He is much younger than I am but from his kind and bossy manner you would never know it.

He looked out at my south pasture, which is about four acres. “That’s lookin’ better. You’ve been mowin’. What’d you mow it with?” He thought I must have borrowed a tractor and brush hog.

“My lawn mower.”

He laughed. “You’re nuts!”

This seems to be the general consensus. However I don’t have a tractor or access to one — and a lawn mower will do the job if you’re willing to take the time. I can mow an acre in about 1.5 hours when the land is cleared of logs, roots, and rocks. It’s the clearing that takes forever.

Seven years after logging, my two-acre north pasture is almost free of debris, so the main mowing challenge is the shoals of giant ledges breaking the surface.

The south pasture is three years behind.  Though Allen pulled a hundred boulders and I’ve cleared all the roots and broken logs and carted loads of cantaloupe-sized rocks to the fence-line, I am still stopping the mower every few minutes to pick up granite baseballs. Briars still rear their wicked heads in the hollow, requiring a weedwhacker. In places the sour ground is still bare dirt. Most of the “grass” is weeds. However, whenever I feel impatient I remind myself that two years ago I had to rent a weedwhacker with a circular saw blade to cut down hundreds of five-foot poplar and cherry trees in this section. The south pasture is still pitiful but it is turning into pasture.

My farm’s main issue is poor topsoil. The soil is acidic rocky gravel, with very little organic matter. (In this sense, organic means once alive and now decaying.) Because there is so little organic matter, there are also comparatively few microbes present in the soil to eat organic matter.

It is practically a lunar situation. A pile of horse manure from last year still sits on the surface, only disintegrating due to the weather. By contrast, the manure of my sheep on Betty’s pasture is consumed and gone within two weeks, enriching her soil.

It’s a chicken-and-the-egg problem. How do I attract microbes (and someday, earthworms) to my soil without organic matter; how I get the benefit of the organic matter I do have, without microbes.

Back in 2003 a state biologist looked out at my 22 acres of ragged balsam forest and told me I’d never grow grass here. The soil just wasn’t suitable for a prospective farm. This unpromising land was all I could afford, however, so I set out to prove him wrong. The jury is still out.

The land really needs soil amendments, mostly lime to tame the acid, but others too. I can’t afford much in this department. For the moment, the main weapon in my arsenal is mulch.

Mulch? Yes. My manure pile is my greatest source of future fertility, of course. But even twenty tons annually doesn’t go far on twenty acres.

The answer is that I try to mow every weed that comes up, and its fallen shreds become mulch, drawing a thin blanket over the naked soil. Briars, raspberries, thistles, pigweed — whack! Mow them down, chop them up, and make a green litter to conserve moisture on the ground. It’s a slow process but every year the difficult topsoil becomes ever-so-slightly more friendly.

The south pasture is now about 70% weeds, 20% clover, and 10% grass. Early this week I mowed the bottom acre, to provide a run-out space. Then I strung a temporary fence across it, ten feet higher than the mowed area, to keep the animals in this lower section.

The temporary fence confines their grazing to the unmowed strip, forcing them not to wander all over the pasture, picking and choosing, but to eat their fill of what is available.

Every night I turn them out to graze a fresh 10′ x 300′ strip. Every day I bring them in, mow the old strip — chopping the uneaten weeds to mulch — and move the fence ten feet higher up the slope.

Eventually I will put up another temporary fence behind them, to keep them from wandering back down the slope and picking over the already grazed areas, but my perimeter fence needs more attention before I confine them closely.

It’s far from ideal grazing but I’m happy to be making progress. Someday I will have grass.

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4 Responses to Tackling the South Pasture

  1. Amy says:

    Progress is so exciting! I have to tell you, strategically feeding hay (square bales) in small piles all around our pasture this winter – even though keeping the cattle off would have been ideal, but the sacrifice paddock was too muddy for that – has done total wonders for the quality of our pasture plants! We have giant patches of orchard grass, vetch and clover where the past two years saw only weeds, bracken fern (poisonous!) and a little bit of rye grass. I’m totally in awe…and while I know brush hogging now is the best thing, I’m a little nervous to cut all that beauty to 4 inches lest it fail to grow again this year.

    Granted, we only have 2.5 acres of pasture, not 20 like you, but perhaps you can try feeding on the ground when you don’t have tons of snow, and see what that does for those areas.

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      Amy, you’re doing exactly what I’ve done. This is the first summer in the four years that my animals have been on this land that I’m not feeding hay on the ground. That is, not yet. I assume that after the spring flush of grass I will have to feed hay again, but right now if I put hay out, they ignore it. They barely lip at hay in their stalls if I bring them in to escape the flies.

      For the first three years I was working with one two-acre pasture. Between cows, horses, sheep, and donkeys, my animal numbers were such that there was no way two acres of thin grass could support them. Now my sheep are down the road in the summer, the donkeys and one horse are gone, and my four-acre south pasture is fenced and coming into play. Now I have the ability (and if I can put up more fencing this will only improve) to actually allow some land to rest without animals on it.

      Also, I too have the same fear that the grass won’t grow back if I mow, because my land is so poor. However my experience is that the more you mow, the thicker the stand becomes eventually, due in my case partly to the mulching effect improving the soil.

  2. wiiliamsbrookfarm says:

    something people around here use as an alternative to lime is wood ash, and the best part about it is that it is free. what it is, is the ash left over from burning wood chips at power plants. it requires more tons to the acre but the end result is the same as lime. new england organics distributes it in this area….maybe the same is available where you are?

    • adkmilkmaid says:

      Williamsbrookfarm, that is a cool idea and it’s amazing that you mentioned it just now because yesterday I burned off my burn pile and as always noticed how the grass is much thicker and taller around the burn site. A friend of mine says this is due to the potassium in potash. I don’t know anything about New England Organics but I will certainly look it up. The closest chip-burning power plant that I know of is in Burlington, two hours away. Thank you so much for the tip!

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