Trampling Grass for Good

You’d be forgiven if you looked at our pasture after the cow herd moved across it and thought, “This can’t be good.” The field looks like it’s been been run over by a steam roller.

But I want to make the case for trampling, for doing what we can to encourage the cattle to leave a swath of trampled plants in their wake.

I took this photo in late July, two months before today. It shows a sharp dividing line, with a grazed paddock on the left and an ungrazed paddock on the right. The cattle grazed the best, most nutritious leaves from the plants and trampled the hard stems and stalks into the ground. The trampled grasses quickly turned brown, leaving the whole area looking desolate, and in strong contrast with the vibrant green of the nearby untouched grass.

But instead of all this activity creating a problem, we have learned to manage the cattle to create an environment that is actually beneficial for the grasses, for the soil microorganisms, and for the whole biological web. Let’s take a closer look at a patch of grass after the cattle have grazed it, trampled it, and dropped their manure on it.

There’s not much of a color palette here. The stalks are flat, even the manure has been squashed. But even though it all looks dead, I like to think of this photo as capturing an inflection point, just at the transitional moment that allowed natural systems to reset and then to ratchet themselves up to another level.

Instead of opening up the whole farm to the cattle, giving them full access to graze their way across the same fields day after day, we take a more management-intensive approach. We bunch our cattle up and move them in a group to fresh grass every day. When managed in a tighter group, similar to the way they would behave in a wild environment, their grazing patterns change. They graze the best grass and trample the rest. The next day we move them somewhere else and they won’t come back to this spot for some time. We typically allow our pastures about two months rest between grazing events.

During that recovery time, the fallen plant matter creates a mulch-like covering over the soil. Because the cattle haven’t been in place for enough time to damage the roots, the grasses quickly send up new green shoots through this matted layer. And because the cattle aren’t there to graze the tender new growth, the plants regrow without setbacks. The leftover soil-protecting mulch is especially important in years like this, when we experienced a very dry period mid-summer. Our trampled grass mulch protected the soil from excessive drying and allowed our pastures to spring back up to full production when rains returned a few weeks ago.

This crushed layer of plant stalks and stems also sets up a feeding bonanza for all kinds of animals and fungi. Insects and earthworms can’t do much with standing plants, but they go after it hammer and tongs when forage has been laid down in contact with the soil. They carry plant matter down into the soil profile, and then microscopic animals, fungi, and single celled organisms further disassemble the pieces. This biological disassembly process is the foundation for soil development. From the tiniest single celled organisms that are digesting this plant material and incorporating it into the soil, all the way up to field mice and from them to the hawks and owls that hunt them, life thrives. We find that creating localized, short-term disturbance events leads to increased opportunities for more life to abound. There’s a full vertical stack of life, from below ground to the surface to above ground, all dynamically participating in this biological pulse.

Undoubtedly, moving cattle from pasture to pasture every day creates a lot of work for us. Rachel does all of the daily cattle herding chores, and this ties up many hours of her week. But if we want to raise cattle in a way that truly regenerates our land and our local biome, there’s no getting around the work. Cattle can destroy land or they can make it better. If we work with them in a way that reflects their natural grouping behavior and their natural grazing instincts, we can unleash their potential for making positive changes within our landscape. To us, that reward seems worth the effort of daily moves.

Here’s a look at that same land as of this morning, with a lush regrowth and a diverse plant community. This is excellent forage, ready for the cattle to move in for another day of grazing.

8 thoughts on “Trampling Grass for Good”

  1. There must be a lot of joy in seeing all that grass consumed. I wonder how you decided on a 60 day rest period. I read that typical regrowth times vary from 17 to 40 days during the season with 21-30 being most typical. (Accidentally silage is cut 4-5 times a season, giving about the same rest period.) The proponents of managed grazing then argue that one must always keep the grass at its maximal growth rate by returning cattle before the grass growth slows down. This also ensures that the grass is more digestible. I heard that some use 60 days rest periods for small ruminants in order to manage parasites better, but they have a problem with grass being too mature by the time the stock comes back to the same spot. Does your mob grazing stress out the grass so that it takes about 60 days to regrow and, if so, why wouldn’t you graze it less intensely?

    1. Hi Kirill,

      We vary the cycle time with the seasons. In the early spring when the grass is coming quickly, we’re in a 14 day cycle just rushing across the farm catching the first bites of grass and moving on, with very little trampling. Then as the grasses reach maturity, we use the trampling to beat down the stemmy stuff.
      Longer rotations definitely help with parasites and they are undoubtedly better for pasture health.

      Observing the way cattle graze and the rate at which they gain weight, I’m not convinced by the idea that one must always maintain the plants at maximum growth rates. The cattle are good at finding the best bits of grass and trampling the rest.

      Those really short grazing cycles were popularized by farmers who built grazing systems around ryegrass monocultures, but there are a number of reasons why we can’t or won’t do it that way. We don’t want to be tilling up our fields to plant ryegrass, instead we much prefer a widely diverse pasture composed of hundreds of plant species. Also, the most intensive grazing systems typically depend on synthetic nitrogen to help the plants recover from all that grazing, as well as irrigation. I don’t feel like synthetic fertilizers or irrigation are appropriate for our farm.

      A polyculture pasture, unsupported by fertilizers or irrigation, just needs more time. You mentioned cutting silage 4-5 times per season. That might be possible in some places. Around here, even fertilized alfalfa fields only get 3 cuts per year, and a 4th cut would be possible only in a year when everything lined up perfectly. Hay fields get two cuts, or three in a good year, depending on rain. The climate in some places may permit a much longer forage growing season.

      I listen to a several podcasts from New Zealand and UK farmers who use these short cycle grazing practices, and the results are spectacular. But I don’t feel comfortable with their dependence on monoculture grazing and outside inputs.

      1. Thanks for the explanation Dave. It all makes sense. The 4-5 silage cut is done by a nearby dairy farm; I guess they have a lot of manure to spread and thus provide the needed nitrogen.

      2. Yes, having that extra fertility from the dairy manure probably pushes the growth rates up quite a lot. We see that in a small scale in the fields where our chickens live. There’s a much deeper shade of green in the grass when it regrows after the chickens have moved over it.

    1. Sure, our grazing methods line up pretty well with the ideas André Voisin wrote about in his book Grass Productivity.
      It’s funny you should mention Voisin. When writing this, I started to include an anecdote from him, but I decided to cut it out for the sake of brevity.

      1. Very cool to see it in practice! I love what you’re doing on your farm. I’m currently a firefighter but I attended UVM back in the early 90’s and a lot those principals were controversial, especially Voisin grazing.

      2. Yes, these days the rational or rotational grazing ideas are no longer controversial. They aren’t implemented on the majority of farms, but the concepts are slowly finding their way into the mainstream. I think a lot of people have trouble getting over the idea of managing their grazing, when they are used to just turning the cattle out in the spring and then bringing them home in the fall with very little else to think about in between. So the idea of moving cattle every day or every few days becomes intimidating. But if one can keep up with the management, the results are hard to argue with.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top