I've heard it said, more than once, that in order to become a farmer of any animal you must first become a farmer of grass.
Now a days, with modern feedlot operations and such, this isn't really the case – after all, what good is grass to a cow that is being fed a 90% grain diet? (Actually, grass would be quite good for the cow, but that's not the point).
My point is that as I continue to prepare for the arrival of our dairy cow in two weeks, I am facing a very challenging and new obstacle: growing pasture.
The house is situated on five acres, most of which is available for grazing. In particular, down by the shop (where the milking parlor will be), there is a few acres of flat land. Perfect for pasture.
It's kind of difficult to tell from the pictures, but you can see there is growth of sorts on the land already, and this photo is from almost six weeks ago. A LOT of growth has taken place since then! Bits of grasses and weeds scatter the landscape. The climate of Wenatchee is dessert – hot summers, cool nights, cold winters. So while the grass is currently green and luscious, come July, it will be brown. That is, unless someone (ahem, me) goes to the effort of irrigating it.
There is irrigation water on the property, which is a huge bonus.
The question now is seed.
What varieties of grass? How much do I water it? When do I plant it?
We don't own any sort of heavy farm equipment for planting the seed – all of it will be done by hand-scattering. Easy enough, considering it's not a HUGE amount of land we have to cover. I think I'll invest in one of these cool things to make the job easier:
Actually… maybe my Dad has one. Hey Dad, do you have one of these I can borrow?
I love that I'll be close enough to borrow stuff from him again.
Point being, from what I've read, hand scattering is an easy enough method for planting the seeds. Which is good, because heavy equipment isn't on the To-Buy list for awhile. It's recommended, if hand scatterring, to broadcast approximately 40 pounds of seed per acre (which should then be stomped on or driven over to help squish the seed down into the soil, followed by a good watering to aid in germination). Watering the seeds will be critical in our area, as the hot summers will surely dry up any fragile, exposed sprouts.
I know alfalfa (a legume) does considerably well in our area, so I know that will be some of what I plant. Unlike grasses which pull nitrogen from the soil, alfalfa (and other legumes) actually fix nitrogen back into the soil. This makes it a wonderful companion to grow with other grasses as it helps to keep the soil fertile. Plus, it's no secret that dairy cows love them some alfalfa. I think Kula would be quite happy to graze an alfalfa pasture. We'll also have a little calf (Lord willing) that will be grazing along with her. If it's a bull calf, we will keep it and raise it for meat, so we'd really be hoping for some nutrient-dense pasture.
Bluegrass is another great grass, as is brome. Clover is another favorite of almost all animals! Mmm! Clover candy. Orchardgrass. Canarygrass. Timothy.
Man. I really should have paid closer attention in my Feeds and Feeding class in college. I sure which I had that text book right about now.
Thankfully, I have a wonderful contact at the local Feed Store who is happy to help in supplying a pasture mix of such grasses.
Eek! Isn't this exciting? To learn about different grasses and their affect on the soil? And nutritional value as feed?
Am I the only one who gets excited about stuff like this?
I've been thankful, as I learn how to be a grass farmer, that I've got my trusty book The Family Cow by my side. It delves quite heavily into growing grasses and preparing pasture land for grazing. I'm thankful for other's expertise where I am, quite obviously, lacking greatly in knowledge.
If I'm understanding what I've read correctly, the new seed should be planted in the late fall. This will allow it to lay dormate over the winter and then sprout fresh, new, lush growth (hopefully!) in the spring. Pasture experts, is that correct? Or would it still be possible to plant the pasture in June for perhaps some fall grazing?
Point being, it doesn't look like we'll be doing too much grazing this summer. Bummer. It's no doubt cheaper to have the cow on grass than it is to buy and haul in bales of alfalfa. Especially since we'll have to purchase enough alfalfa this summer to last us through the long, cold, and snowy winter.
But, as in life, good things take time. And lush, green pasture is a very good thing.
On the plus side, this will give us the summer and fall to fence in the entire pasture area that we'd like to plant. Instead of randomly grazing her all over the property, it'd be nice to have a very large (2 acres?) fenced area for her to graze in. Getting up proper fencing and seeding it for pasture will help to keep the grazing schedule organized, clean, and efficient.
Though, let's be honest, real farms (and homesteads) are anything but clean.
I've looked into a few resources about pasture land to help build up my knowledge:
Books like this.
I'm sure they'd be very helpful to have in my ever-growing homesteading library. Sometimes, it's so much nicer to have tangible paper to refer to (sorry, Google).
I will continue to research until planting time, this fall. Ideally, we'd like to also pasture a hog (or two) next spring, so the better pasture land we can grow now the better off we'll be come next year.
It's been a lot of work, but a lot of fun, to research these off-the-wall topics. Especially when you realize that this used to be common knowledge for so many people – which grasses to grow, which supplied specific nutrients to the livestock, when and how fast they would grow, etc. I eager look forward to reviving and remembering this knowledge on our homestead.
I can't help it if I find legumes exciting.
It's a sickness.