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In late fall, cows grazing on turnips.

Forage & Grains
Managing For High Quality Forages, Part 2

By Gary Zimmer

Added June 4, 2012. As I wrote in part one of this series (in the March NODPA Newsletter) on grazing dairy cows, the soil is where it starts but also where there are many limits on production. As soils change, so do plants. This second article, on the plants, will address how to plant pastures, which plants to grow, and how to manage them.

So what makes an ideal pasture?

  1. Thick, nutrient rich and diverse
  2. Very palatable, something the cows can overeat on
  3. Very digestible—this has to do with species, plant size and weather
  4. Has a very good balance between protein and energy
  5. Has a mineral balance, not only for cow health but for plant health
  6. Fits the climate in your area
  7. Tolerates the cattle you're grazing

How to plant

You need to start with soil preparation before deciding what seed to put in the ground. In my previous article on soils, I talked about applying a soil corrective on an established pasture. It's difficult to get nutrients into the soil, not just lying on top of the ground. So before leaving a field in long term pasture, get the soil corrections done first. I like my calcium applications worked into the top few inches so I have a good supply in the area where the seed starts. Choosing the right calcium source for your situation is a major factor in successfully growing good forage plants.

After I have the ideal soil conditions to put the seed in, I need to sow enough seed, and use methods of planting so that my final result is a thick, dense stand like a perfect lawn. Now, how you get that done may vary, but the purpose is threefold: weed control, the cow getting full bites (she is only going to take so many bites in a day), and high yields under proper management. I use a Brillion seeder with a legume and a grass seed box and bulk spread the seed. I also make sure the seed is at the proper planting depth and gets rolled firmly. Accomplishing this is essential to establishing quality pastures. There is no sense in buying expensive seed, then doing all the work, and not getting a perfect, lush stand. Make sure you can achieve this.

What to plant

Your next big decision is deciding what to plant. It's hard to pick out one plant that fills the need for an ideal pasture. Where the climate is ideal, the one that comes closest in my experience in the world is rye. A lot of milk can be produced on rye, especially when you apply enough nitrogen to establish a lush stand, and feed your cows a bale of hay for effective fiber and a grain mix with added minerals.

Now, if I could add a little clover to the rye, I wouldn't need to apply all that nitrogen to the soil, and the mineral balance for the cows would improve, too. Rye certainly has its problems in our area, like coping with cold winters and hot, dry summers, and the need for intensive management. On our farm, we annually no-till in more rye seed later in the growing season-- these are on milk pastures rotated and intensely managed.

Rye, and better yet rye with clover, is great for the milk cow. In our climate it is best in early season and again late season.

Other dependable standbys would be fescues and orchard grass. With newer genetics, these are improved on time of maturity, digestibility, palatability and reduced endophyte problems in the fescue. Here on our Wisconsin farm, the tall soft fescues seem to do the best, even in our alfalfa forage mixes. My observation of what works best in a pasture is two-thirds grasses and one-third legumes with other plants like chicory or plantain added in at a low percentage. Remember, the soil likes diversity and the cow likes it too. What you see in a pasture is what's being managed for: stage of growth at grazing, the rotation, the fertility of the soil and the fertilizers used all have an effect.

Another consideration when choosing pasture plants is the group of cattle you are feeding. Dry cows, heifers, and milk cows certainly aren't all fed the same. Livestock have principles to live by just as plants and people do. The word balance is always there. What you supplement your animals with when they are grazing is what's missing from the pasture. Energy, minerals and effective fiber are things that always seem to need to be dealt with (Part three, in the next issue, will deal with those needs.)

Managing pastures

Once the pasture is established, we need to manage it. What stage do we graze? This could be the topic for another whole book! Most realistic, depending again on species, is grazing plants at maybe a foot tall. Shorter is too extreme for the health of the soil and the cow, taller is too low in digestibility and palatability. Cows don't like eating mature, headed out pastures, even if they're high in Brix. Rye grasses certainly do better at the middle grazing height of about 8 inches.

For adding fertilizer to established pastures on organic farms, a good nitrogen source is chicken manure, but you do need to be careful. If the soil is already high in calcium and phosphorus, you may be getting an excess by adding chicken manure. If there is an excess of calcium and phosphorus when putting on the manure for nitrogen, the program can't be sustained long-term. Remember, the minerals in the soil are going to determine which plants are dominant on your pastures. Nitrogen favors grasses while calcium and phosphorus favors legumes. On our farm, calcium levels are high and legumes are dominant. That means I have to adjust my seeding rates when I'm planting pastures to make sure I can get enough grasses. Just a few pounds of legume seeds go a long way on our farm.

When managing pastures, my vote is to start by getting the basics right with the soil, choosing the right species for your situation, and establishing a good stand. It's then that you can test and experiment with adding other things. For example, you could try extending the grazing season by using summer annuals like sorghum sudan grass, small grains and even a grazing corn may fit the rotation. They do add better digestibility during the hot summer months, too.
As I write this it is April 3 and our cows have been grazing for a week (that's not normal for Wisconsin). This early grazing is on winter cereal rye. It has a two week advantage over our normal pastures. We can then let those get a little taller and become more ideal forage before we start grazing them because the rye was ready first. When we move to the regular pastures, the rye will be torn up and a summer annual planted. Following that, or on a pasture we want to rotate, we will plant a fall grazing crop by mid-August. Oats, forage peas, turnips, with a little added rye grass, and come mid-October, when the other pastures have really slowed down, we have beautiful forages to graze for at least another month.

In order to make this type of pasture management work on our farm, we need to cut and bale some fields, especially early in the season. Also, at least twice a year we clip pastures to get back to a uniform, better grazing sward.

As graziers we know that managing pastures isn't as easy as growing forages for harvest. It's easy to get quality hay by cutting forages at the right stage of plant growth. It's easy to plant alfalfa with a small amount of grass, and after a few years rotate with corn. Successful grazing and pasture management, on the other hand, is intensive, requiring lots of planning and thinking ahead. It can certainly be profitable, however, and like so many things the fun and challenge is the opportunity to use your skills to make it successful.

Gary Zimmer is a farmer, agri-businessman, author, educator and President of Midwestern Bio Ag. Dedicated to improving farming through restoring and balancing soils, he has written two books and spoken to and worked with farmers across the U.S. and in Canada, Europe, Australia, New Zealand, China, and South Africa. The Zimmer family's organic farms utilize the ideas Gary has gleaned over a lifetime spent studying agriculture. Otter Creek Organic Farms includes an organic dairy, pastured beef and poultry, vegetables, and other crops on 1,000 acres.