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Coming up, a night for owners of small farms

October 10, 2006|by JEFF SEMLER

What is the most endearing thing about Washington County?

There are lots of answers. Of this, I am sure because what we call home is close to a metropolitan area yet away from all the congestion.

I think near, if not at the top of the list, is the county's pastoral setting. People do live here because it is home, but most of the new "natives" were drawn here by the scenery.

Our crop fields that green through the year transform into gleaming yellows and browns at harvest. And there are the rolling pastures of green that are home to many flocks and herds.

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It is these pastures that are attractive yet are over used, neglected and abused that I am focusing on today.

Whether you have one horse and one acre, or 100 cows and 300 acres, chances are if you are in majority anyway, you ignore your most valuable resource.

The pasture question I get most often is "How many acres do I need per cow or horse?"

Roughly translated, I am being asked: "How many animals can I get away with putting on my acreage?"

The answer to that is not cut and dried.

In many cases, our productive soils can sustain one animal unit (1,000 pounds) per acre.

The caveat is with management. In case you were wondering, opening a gate and allowing unlimited access to a pasture is not management.

Overgrazing is without a doubt the Number One enemy of pasture.

I often have people say to me, "I wish my pasture grew like my lawn."

And I say to them, "The difference is your lawn gets a rest."

They look puzzled and then I point out you don't mow your lawn every day, but your animals mow your pasture every day.

By dividing your pastures into smaller management units called paddocks, you can actually increase your land's carrying capacity.

By having more grazing cells, your animals will more uniformly graze and by moving them, the area can recover and regenerate.

Another advantage is the animal more uniformly spreads fertilizer - in the form of their manure.

Once the animals leave the paddock, the worms and dung beetles can work to break down the manure piles. These piles are then returned to the earth as nutrients for the plants.

After the rest period when the animals return to the regenerated paddock, they will not refuse to eat where the dung piles are because they have been dispatched by nature.

Now is the time of year to start planning your pasture management system for next year.

My advice is, start slow and remain flexible.

The worst thing you can do is build a lot of permanent fence. Portable electric fence is the best way to start.

Evaluate your pastures now - is your grass cover adequate? If not, renovate or, if there's a couple of bare spots, over seed in just those areas.

Next, take a soil test if you haven't done so in the past three years. Plan to lime and fertilize according to the soil test results.

Assess your weed pressure; if you have been overgrazing, weeds will be a problem and will need to be controlled.

While pasture is not free, with proper management you can significantly cut your purchased feed costs for your livestock.

Most livestock, including horses that are not working or nursing, can be maintained entirely on pasture for most of the year.

Droughts and deep snow are, of course, the exceptions.

My space is too limited to go into more depth, so if you want to learn more about pastures, contact the Extension office.

You should also mark your calendar for Thursday, Nov. 30. From 7 to 9 that evening, we will be offering Pasture 101, which is specifically directed at small landowners.

So, if you have fewer than 100 acres or 100 animals, this program is for you.

While there is no charge for admission, space is limited and registration is required to ensure enough materials.

Hope to see you then.

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