It has been a mixed summer with a slow start in May and June, but better grazing conditions in July. At Virgilina we had a very dry winter and spring. When we had rain in May and June it seemed to always be followed by high temperatures and wind, so it was not very effective. On June 23 we started a wet spell and from that time to the end of July we had 14 inches of rain. July was one of the wettest we have had in recent years at 9 inches in the gauge.
It is scary moving cows around the pastures knowing there is no growth going on behind them. This actually is one of the big advantages of rotational grazing because you can pretty much plan on how many days you have until you hit the next cycle and nothing is ready to graze. We were within about 10 days of feeding hay when the good rains started, and since that time we have really grown a lot of grass. Again, it eases your mind to look at pastures that are actively growing behind the cows. This is not the case with many of our neighbors who grazed their grass down very short, resulting in pastures that have made little growth even with all the rain we have had. Many of them are still feeding hay!
I have been spending a lot of time thinking about plant diversity these days, especially when working with two of our major pastures that are very diverse. Plant diversity is of great interest across the region and many farmers are finding ways to diversify their forage base either through separate stands of diverse forages, or complex annual or perennial mixtures. See the related article on our Pasture Plant Diversity Field Day and Workshop for a great resource list.
Most of our pastures at Virgilina are diverse mixtures because they are old stands and have evolved into a mix that is stable in our system. Most of the “good” pasture was originally planted with mixtures of tall fescue (KY-31), orchardgrass, bluegrass, dallisgrass, red clover and white clover. When we bought the farm they had been using a lot of nitrogen fertilizer, so while all those plants were present most places in the pasture it was heavily dominated by KY-31 tall fescue.
Over decades of reduced N fertilization the pastures have changed dramatically with more warm-season annuals and perennials and more clovers coming in. Many of the volunteer warm-season grasses including dallisgrass, purple top, crabgrass, foxtail and others are efficient at using both nutrients and water, so they can be really important in this new era of fickle weather and high fertilizer prices.
We have two pastures that are especially diverse. At Triple Creek Ranch, just north of the North Carolina border, we have a pasture called the “Outback” which was clearly not considered one of the “good” pastures. It earned that name because it was mostly broom straw (Virginia Bluestem) and blackberry bushes when we bought the farm. We clipped, limed and fertilized it well during the 1990s and it turned into a pretty much pure stand of KY-31 which was productive but also very toxic. About 2000 we quit the frequent fertilization and it started to evolve away from KY-31. There was a resurgence of the blackberries, but also Purple Top (Tridens flavus) and red clover. We have not limed this field in 15 years, but the pH remains about 5.8 on soil test, and we grow a lot of forage there with no fertilization. With the recent rains we have especially seen a lot of purple top and red clover, so as you might imagine after a pass through that large pasture the cows have slicked off and are looking great.
Our other really diverse pasture is at Pleasant Hills, our location 8 miles south of the NC Border. We use this farm to graze yearling steers, and I generally move that group every day to a fresh strip of grass. This 20-acre pasture was formerly in cropland, primarily corn or tobacco. As a kid we worked in the tobacco there and I remember very well how the soil would stick to your boots whenever it was wet. It was a textbook example of poor soil health. Crop production stopped in the early 1990s but we never did anything to establish forage crops. There were grass waterways that had been planted in KY-31 during the 1970s, but after that everything has come in naturally.
This field does have KY-31 everywhere, but it also has a lot of orchardgrass, purple top, dallisgrass, bahiagrass (invading from the roadside right of way), red and white clover, serecia lespedeza, hemp dogbane and many other minor species. The most interesting to me is Tick Trefoil (Desmodium sp.), and we have identified 5 species in that pasture, with Demoodium paniculatum being most common. Tick trefoil is a native warm-season perennial legume that is widespread in natural areas. You may know it as beggar tick or beggar lice, and in the fall it produces those seeds with hooks that catch onto your pants or socks.
As we start the second cycle through this field I am impressed with how much regrowth there has been of the tick trefoils. At the first grazing most plants were tender and vegetative and about 2 feet high, and the cattle completely ate them. I was worried the hard grazing might kill them, but after 6 weeks of recovery they are again about 2 feet tall and starting to show a few blooms. The plants are woodier than they were the first time around, so it will be interesting to see how the cattle graze them. The purple top in these areas has also recovered to about 2 feet and it is starting to make a seedhead, so we will be grazing soon. I am excited to see how well the trefoils and the purple top survive two high intensity summer grazings before being allowed to go to seed as part of the winter stockpile.
As I get older I am getting more and more interested in these native plants, and wondering how they best fit into a system. Purple top is one that I especially like, but which most of my colleagues have written off as low in production potential. However, in a diverse mix a plant like purple top can make a critical contribution at a time when most of the cool season plants are taking a break. Also, the significant level of protein in the trefoils and a variety of tannins and other secondary compounds that they produce make them of keen interest to me. I wonder why no one ever used this genetic material to breed a good summer perennial legume for our region?
As you manage your farm, take interest in the plants around you. When you find something especially interesting, identify it and “study on it some” as my Paw Paw used to say. Plant identification apps work pretty well and can lead you into a whole new world of plant diversity.
The Alliance for Grassland Renewal is a national organization focused on enhancing the appropriate adoption of novel endophyte tall fescue technology through education, incentives, self-regulation and promotion. For more resources or to learn more about the Alliance for Grassland Renewal, go to www.grasslandrenewal.org