Speaking of Grass

While our end-product is meat, we are grass farmers first and animal husbanders second. Our entire existence is dependent upon growing the food that our animals eat – grass. In our case, that would be the grasses and clovers of the Great Plains in the warm months (and oat, wheat and rye in the cool months). The bluestems, the gramas, and the bermudas, to name the dominant varieties. We have counted 14 of these grasses that have self-restored on Jolie Vue since we began managing our pastures in the “new old-fashioned way”.  It’s a beautiful thing to see if you are grass farmers – or historians – or both. It is one of the personal benefits of farming getting “inside you” - to know that we grow direct descendants of the grasses ranged by the buffalo and the Comanches.

There are 3 primary goals in managing a native grass stand: grazing the grasses when they are at their highest nutritional value; “flash-grazing” the grasses so that there is plenty of grass left when the cattle and pigs are moved; and allowing a sufficient recovery time before the next grazing.

To understand grass farming, you have to understand that grass is first and foremost a solar panel, gathering energy from the sun and converting it to forage. So, don’t graze it too short or you will stunt its re-growth for lack of a sufficient energy gathering surface.

On our farm, we have a saying: “No cow gets her second bite.” In a perfect rotation, not always accomplished, we allow our cows to graze the top 4 inches of a new paddock of grass, then move them before they take their second bite. That’s the goal. Keep those solar panels in play!

The root system of grass grows below the surface at a depth proportionate to the height above the surface. When the grass is grazed, it likewise sloughs off a proportional amount of root. This abandoned root becomes organic matter, a very important food for the little guys on the farm, the microbial, subsurface life. So, you are feeding cattle and pigs on the surface and little bugs below the surface, a win-win situation.

Another important consideration is the timing of grazing; that is, when is the grass ready to be grazed? This choice concerns not only the cow but the health of the grass as well.

Think of the grass life cycle like you would a human life. At 1 to 4 inches tall, it is going from infancy toward adolescence. If grazed at this level, much of it is not mature at its nutrient base. In a lose-lose situation, it will also stunt grass’ re-growth if it is nipped at this stage. Instead of re-growth in 4-6 weeks, it will take twice that time. And if it’s droughty when that happens, it may not come back at all until the following spring.

At 8-10 inches it is at full maturity and at the peak of its vitality, much like humans are in their 20's. Grass is at its optimum in terms of nutritional quality and digestibility at this height. The cattle will take 4 inches of growth with their “first bite”, leaving plenty of solar panels and root system for the grass to rebound about 4 to 6 weeks later.

Beyond the 8-10 inch height, it is starting to grow “rank”. The taller it gets, the less valuable it becomes as forage, and the less efficient it is in terms of what it draws from the soil and sun. The cattle lose the benefit of the nutrients and the root system has too much to support.

Another benefit of maintaining a healthy and rebounding grass system - a good meadow absorbs more carbon dioxide than an equal amount of forest, converting the carbon element to soil nutrients and removing it from the atmosphere while returning the oxygen component. That process not only improves the soil and the grasses that grow there but the environment as a whole.

The natural system is astounding in its design, don’t you agree?

JVF