Digging In

Experimental grazing: Tripling hay production

Experimental grazing: Tripling hay production

By John Mesko on Thursday, 26 December, 2019

After spending much of my career advising other farmers, I wanted to do research on my own farm to understand the impact of grazing on soil and how it could improve the economics of the farm.

I was rotationally grazing cattle and sheep on 160 acres that included pasture ground, and hay production acres as well. 

One year, I grew some corn. The following spring was very late and wet and I had no place to go with the cattle. I feared using my pasture because I didn’t want the cattle to trample in the mud and destroy it, so I made the decision to turn the herd out into the prior year’s cornfield. They ate whatever was there, which was mainly leftover corn stalks and weeds. When I was able to return them to the pasture, I felt it was too late to plant another crop in  the cornfield, and other priorities had crept into my plans for that season, so I left it alone for the rest of the summer.

The field turned into a jungle! The weeds had taken over and it looked really unkempt. I was committed to no-tilling, which was hard because it would have been easier to just work the ground.

That fall, I was out of pasture and didn’t want to feed hay yet, so I turned the cattle back out into that jungle field. This began my experiment with intensive grazing.

The next spring I set up a grazing system in that field where I gave the cattle a little more room to graze each day. I inched them across the field for about a month and then let the field rest the remainder of the year. 

I continued that pattern for several years: never planting, fertilizing, or tilling the ground.

In 5 years, the field had completely transformed. Grazing had stirred up the seed bank and allowed new, diverse species of grasses and legumes to germinate, which increased feed quality.  Controlling access to the field and grouping animals into larger groups impacted soil organic matter and diversified plant species.

The economic benefits were clear, too. Along with tripling hay production, I was able to get more pasture productivity without adding acres, which allowed me to put more cattle in the same space. By controlling access to the field and grouping animals into large groups, it impacted soil organic matter and diversified plant species. 

What started out as a mistake, per se, actually became my greatest lesson.

Soil is a living thing; so you can’t solely think your way into changing how your field performs. As I look back on my grazing experiment, I am reminded of the importance of testing different practices and methods.. Don’t be afraid to give your idea a try!