By Jacki Martinez Perkins
In the life of an organic livestock farmer summer brings one never-ending task: fencing. The winter frosts heave most posts loose of their moorings, the deer disregard the works of mankind in their quest for forage, and mother nature herself eats away at even the stoutest of materials. All this means miles of walking to reset what was already done and to plot out new pasture areas. This maintenance of perimeter fencing allows us a chance to assess how the grasses managed to survive the winter, how they’re growing, and where the fields are ready to support livestock. While palatable pastures keep our livestock happily growing, proper perimeter fencing keeps farmers off the evening news. One must always remember to shut the gate.
There are more types of fencing than there are types of livestock, and they all have pros and cons. Producers must do their best to consider the personality and preferences of what they choose to manage, not just in terms of livestock but time and material as well. For example, cedar posts are a fine option for those with land and access to swamps, however, individuals without land tenure may want to consider fencing that they can ultimately take with them as an asset. Steel wire carries an electric charge and can make a nice perimeter fence but is difficult to handle if paddock rotations are more fluid. White, highly visible poly fencing can be a great visual for animals moving paddocks (including higher strung animals, like horses), but degrades in the sun and doesn’t carry an electric charge efficiently. Innovations in fencing are constant, and most new systems are trying to optimize efficiency.
In the northeastern United States, focus on pasture fertility often falls to the bottom of the list. Most livestock farmers are more focused on optimizing storage crops for those long winter months, since storage crops generally require expenses of fossil fuels to harvest. The argument can be made for paying closer attention to pasture health, since Maine has several good examples of late-season grazing operations that are cost-effective.
While our livestock do ultimately fertilize what they graze, how targeted is that really? Are we taking soil samples? Do we even have the extra fertility needed to be “wasting it” on pastures? The answers are likely negative. Grazing and planting strategies help to keep pastures productive, healthy and resilient in the face of changing weather patterns. Monitoring densities of cool-season grasses compared to legumes and drilling in warm-season annuals is a good strategy for maximizing available fertility, and for keeping moisture levels manageable through groundcover during dry spells and root mass during rain events.
Guarding what’s under our forages is paramount. There’s a whole world under the soil that we continue to learn more about. I have never gone wrong studying how nature functions without intervention and doing my best to emulate it. Paying special attention to the areas that animals are spending the most time in during wet and dry conditions and moving them more often is ideal. Areas lacking in organic matter will become strikingly apparent during dry spells, and these windows can be a good time to add mulch-like material to minimize damage done to the root crowns of grasses by hooves — and to help retain much-needed moisture. Areas that are wet and have smaller soil particles can be noted and planted with tillage crops such as turnips, which can help break up the soil (and be enjoyed by ruminants).
Fungus and Fly Control
Pastures come with their very own disease and pest concerns. Historically, fungus in the hooves and along the backbone of livestock is a springtime issue. Whenever there is an imbalance, disease thrives, and so mitigating wet, unsanitary conditions with things like well-built roads, or strategically placed or moveable shelters, allows livestock to get up and out of fungus breeding conditions. These same management techniques can help to reduce the impact of biting flies in the summer, since a portion of them breed in wet conditions but don’t frequent the shade of shelters. These shelters, otherwise known as loafing areas, should be high and dry. Alternatively, face flies (which spread pinkeye) are abundant in dry late-summer conditions and can be controlled by clipping and dragging pastures, or companion grazing with livestock of a different species. Being sure to move animals through paddocks faster when the weather is dryer can mean the difference between the grass’s ability to rebound or not with a return to ideal conditions.
All this is to say that pastures are complicated: to manage them well requires constant monitoring and adjustment. It’s ok to feel unsure or like you need to adjust the plan; the only failure is the failure to try. So, keep your nose to the ground, your hamster wheel turning, and get those steps in. Food and movement are medicine.
For more targeted technical assistance with pasture management, please reach out to MOFGA’s farmer programs staff.
This article was published in the summer 2023 issue of The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, MOFGA’s quarterly publication.