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Animal Health Notebook
A pasture with diverse forage and trees. Alan Newport
Diverse and healthy pasture comes from the good practices of the manager.

A baker's dozen natural model principles for pasture

Here are things to monitor in your pastures to build a resilient, highly productive grazing system.

One of the worst feelings I’ve ever had concerning my pastures was when I realized just how much better the roadside was than our pastures where our cattle were grazing.

The same can mostly be said about my use of salt fertilizer and our history with broiler litter. As a matter of a fact I’ll just remind everyone that we do not break natural model rules and principles, but they will break us.

Mississippi grazier Gordon Hazard used to say that when money was gone it was gone. Most money I’ve seen spent on pastures for quick fixes is gone.

My No. 1 principle is that nature loves and needs diversity. Nature loves a loaded seed bank, covered soil, lots of growth, huge plant diversity, carbon in quantity, and lots of critters on top of and under the soil surface. If you don’t have huge numbers of birds, dung beetles, earthworms, voles, moles, and more, you should ask yourself why? Clean farming and short grazing will kill your operation. If your ponds are not covered with bank growth and full of frogs, they are nasty. Birds are your first pasture cleaning crew and frogs are your first pond cleaner.

My No. 1 thing to monitor is outside my pastures. Look at the roadside. The prettiest legume field I have ever seen could not beat the nearby roadside.

Think about many of the roadsides you have seen, assuming the county isn't spraying with herbicides. In most cases if we can match the roadside we are boogying, and the truth is we can beat the roadside. Yet that is seldom done.

To make progress we must ask ourselves: What are the characteristics of highly productive, biologically diverse soil and land?

I consider these ideal characteristics of good land, and the ideal goal to manage for. (This is what we manage for)

  • Limestone base, well-drained with gentle slopes.
  • Ample rainfall of 25 to 35 inches annually is near perfect.
  • Soil organic matter in the top six inches of 5% or greater.
  • Soil pH of  6.8.
  • Colloidal saturation with 75% calcium, 10 -15% magnesium, 2-5% potassium, 3-5% trace minerals.
  • Cation exchange capacity above 15.
  • One ton of annual plant growth per four inches moisture.
  • Black colored soil.
  • Well-drained, well-aggregated soil, and well-stocked with birds, earthworms, dung beetles, mole, voles, field mice, and more. By the way - to have birds you have to have ample nesting sites. Don’t build them, just don’t destroy them! We need blackberry, buck brush, rose bushes, trees, thistles, iron weed.
  • Highly diverse plant life that is 90% perennial and consist of 100 or more species of grasses, legumes and forbs per acre. The high-seral warm-season plants should predominate after May 10. Annuals and cool-season plants should make up 10-30% of the mix on an annual basis. But remember that every year will be different. Diverse, well-managed pasture should be highly productive every year.
  • Have ample shade and water and freedom of soil compaction or mud or ruts or cow trails.
  • Year-around grazing, since hay-feeding days are very costly.
  • In winter - have tall, medium and short plants that are red, brown, yellow and green. Have almost no white. Well-mineralized plants stand up and don’t melt until spring. It is still early fall in our pastures in mid-December or later.
  • In spring - Have medium brown, short brown, and lots of green.
  • In summer - Have mostly green, with tall, medium and short plant heights. By mid-July the short has a large brown component. This holds moisture for the soil and holds manure together for cattle health. The brown is feeding the microbial life. Red and white clover are two of our favorites. But remember that clover requires calcium and magnesium.
  • In fall - Have jungles of tall plants with huge amounts of new medium and short growth.

These diverse, well-managed pastures have major component changes every year.

I’ll take a minute here and remind everyone that nature requires and depends on destruction and death. Death is just as normal as life.

Every year will be different from a standpoint of moisture, storms, sunlight and market and all these things are mostly out of our control. But with information-rich land and using boom and bust management the swings have minimal effects. Our job is simply to tweak and cushion the natural model.

Things to avoid

It's worth discussing the things you generally will not see at my 499 Ranch or on similar ranches managed with natural-model principles. These are not so much things to manage against, but things you should not manage for.

  1. Mono, bi-, or tri-culture clean plant growth.
  2. Multi-wire interior fencing.
  3. Gates.
  4. Lack of predators.
  5. Mowers/brush hogs.
  6. Hay.
  7. Barns.
  8. Water troughs every 1,600 feet.
  9. Lots of iron.

In summary

Remember also that mankind's No. 1 mistake concerning pasture plants is partial plant recovery.

Our No. 2 mistake is mining and spraying. These are done with the plow, the uncontrolled cow, the hay-making process, the feedyard, and lack of well-managed, adaptive grazing.

Manure and urine can be soil and plant builders or toxic waste, depending on concentration and location.

Cattle are our No. 1 tool to build our land, wildlife and water resource -- or they can be our demise. The choice is ours.

Beef from grass is the No. 1 health food in the world.

This business is based on the use of healthy cattle grazing in high densities to harvest and build and renew the plant and soil resource and create wealth in the form of biological and physical cash. We market the excess production and save no less than 20% of the proceeds every year.

The No. 1 profit center in this business is to retain the money that most producers are spending. Folks, this business is not a "big lick" or home run deal. It is a series of making a profit every year and piling it up. You have got to keep your hand on the pile. It can easily and quickly blow away. Once it’s gone it’s gone.

Also remember that everything relates to everything else. Declaring war with the natural model is a big, big mistake.


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