From Gene Logsdon:
Garden Farm Skills
A sure way to tell the direction you should take in garden farming is to watch the trend in commercial farming and then do the opposite. Commercial farming has de-emphasized—and all but ignored in the corn belt—pasture and tree crop farming because these types of agriculture lack the ability to return quick and high-gross profits. But quick, high returns demand quick, high costs, so profit, if any, is possible only in large-scale enterprises.
On a small garden farm there is no question that pasture will return more per dollar of cost than any cultivated grain crop. A pasture needs to be mowed, but there are no heavy fuel or machine costs from cultivation or planting. The grazing animals do all the work of harvesting and much of the fertilizing. There is no erosion. Hail and flood cannot really hurt grass. One of the saddest sights to see is an eager new garden farmer plow his 10 acres and plant it to corn because that’s what the large-scale farmers around him do. He’s going to make that 10 acres pay, he declares. He grows the corn just like the pros do and nets very little. But he’s out there on the tractor, tearing up the soil. He’s a farmer now.
Developing a worn-out field into a good pasture is somewhat a matter of patience. If the cover on the field is nothing but weeds and brush, it might pay to go in and cultivate up a nice seedbed to plant to rye grass together with permanent grasses and legumes. But usually, and certainly in hilly terrain, it is far better to plant down through the existing ground cover with a no-till drill like a Tye, or to ruffle the ground up slightly with the disc set very shallow, and then broadcast with no tillage at all. In any of these cases, do the work in early spring when vegetation is dead so the seed has a better chance of coming into contact with the soil.
But before planting anything, apply 2 tons of lime per acre. You can take soil tests to determine the need for lime, but if nothing much is growing there except weeds, poverty grass, and scrub brush, you need lime. (If the soil was of the proper pasture pH, about 6.5 to 7, in all likelihood there would already be a nice growth of grass on it.) After liming, a heavy application of fertilizer will bring on both heavy grass and weed growth, if the soil has any latent fertility at all but this application is not to the garden farmer’s advantage. It is expensive, for one thing. Usually it results in more grass than the garden farmer really needs at one time. And on really barren, gullied hillsides, it may be mostly wasted.
To control weeds, mow pastures in late July just as Canadian thistle and wild carrot are heading out, and then again about the last week of August, if necessary. Some weeds I cut by hand—sourdock, which can grow very thick, and burdock, whose big leaves shade out grass and whose burs get in the sheep’s wool. Grazing sheep will eventually control such pesky weeds as wild carrot, and rich, fertile, well-limed heavy grass pastures tend to crowd out taprooted annual weeds, too. At any rate, a variety of weeds are desirable in the pasture as part of a healthful diet for the animals.
If pastures lie marshy and wet, tile drainage is necessary. Good legumes and grasses can’t grow in wet ground, and the moisture could aggravate foot rot in sheep.
When we moved here, my pasture had hillside areas totally devoid of any growth except for a few stunted weeds. In desperation I tried a quick fix of chemical nitrogen, phosphorus, and potash. Then I planted clover. Nothing happened. So I went back to garden methods. I spread manure and seeded again. On the worst part, I spread over the manure a layer of red clover hay a farmer friend had given me because rain had ruined it in the making. The clover seeds in the hay germinated after rain, and within a year all the bare spots were marvelously covered with clover. Eventually the fixation of nitrogen by the clover (and the manure) enabled bluegrass to grow. This generally happens through the northeastern quarter of the United States, if not elsewhere—bluegrass and little Dutch white clover will eventually become the dominant plants. The clover fixes nitrogen for the bluegrass, and this symbiotic relationship continues, so long as mowing and grazing keep down taller plants.
On less problematic areas of the pasture, after liming, I lightly disked the soil surface and broadcast ladino clover, which looks just like little Dutch white clover but is twice as tall. The ladino covered the weedy, partially bare soil the first summer and was a solid lush stand the next year. I had no animals yet, fortunately for the soil, and all that growth rotted down into the ground. The next year bluegrass emerged, and in a year made a heavy sod that continues to this day.
On other sections of the pasture I broadcast orchard grass for late summer grazing (it also makes good hay). On one plot I broadcast bird’s-foot trefoil and red clover without any soil preparation. Some of the seeds found their way down through the soil cover and sprouted, just as seeds in nature do. Now, every I sow more clover and try other grasses like timothy, which results in a very mixed herbage of legumes and grasses. Even wild strawberries and flowers like blue-eyed grass have grown there.
I find endless pleasure in walking the pasture in summer when a rainbow of butterflies settles on the various clover and weed blossoms. A meadowlark nests in the pasture, as do several ground sparrows and bobolinks. Even if I had no animals, I’d keep a nice pasture just to walk in.
See also Gene’s In The Fields Of Home - What’s The Best Farm Fence?
Gene and Carol Logsdon have a small-scale experimental farm in Wyandot County, Ohio.
Gene is author ofThe Mother of All Arts: Agrarianism and the Creative Impulse (Culture of the Land),
The Last of the Husbandmen: A Novel of Farming Life, and All Flesh Is Grass: Pleasures & Promises Of Pasture Farming