Big Bluestem Management Using High Density/Short Duration Grazing
Purchasing the materials needed to set up experiment:
Preparations began as soon as we got the word our project had been approved. The first thing we had to do was purchase the needed fencing, water lines, hoses, valves and water tanks. Secondly we purchased seed of two types of legumes, generally regarded as native to this area, to incorporate into our stand of mostly Big Bluestem grass.
Labor, first grazing and demonstration/field day:
Once we installed the fence, water lines, and tanks, we measured out and marked the control area. Next we measured and pounded in posts at specific locations where everything would be measured from throughout the experiment.
I broadcast the native legume seeds by hand using an Earthway shoulder strap type hand crank seeder. Sawdust was mixed together with the small seeds to help distribute them more evenly at a light rate across the area. Once the area was ready to go we brought our cattle down from another pasture and put them to work for a couple of days ahead of the first demonstration so that we had grazed a couple of paddocks which were aligned next to some untouched paddocks helping to illustrate what we are doing.
Our first demonstration field day was held early in the grazing season on the Big Bluestem grass while it was still dormant but soon to or just beginning to break dormancy. What the cattle had available to eat at this time in the season was a selection of cool season annuals and cool season perennials that are growing amongst the dormant BB plants; plants like Quack grass, Rye grass, Kentucky blue grass, young thistle, wild parsnip, golden rod plants etc. The visitors observed the cattle eating the cool season plants and were able to see the trampling action of their hooves incorporating last year’s dead vegetation into the surface of the moist soil for good decomposition this year. Where the native legume seed had been broadcast the cattle grazing through also served the purpose of tamping the seeds down to the soil surface all the while depositing much needed fibrous patties of slow release organic fertility behind them as they moved through the field.
Flyers were printed and distributed to publicize the day and graziers, prairie enthusiasts, a magazine editor, and NRCS and SWCD people attended. Howard Moechnig, our collaborator, was the main speaker at the demonstration and identified plants and explained to the visitors what they were seeing in great detail.
After the demonstration we continued to move the cattle through the field, but skipping the control, one paddock per day for about 9 days. The cattle were content and had enough forage available to them.
Identifying, counting and quantifying plants:
Twice during the season Howard has been out and we have gone into the grazed area and the set aside control area with the clipboard and measuring tape counting and recording the existing plant species or areas of no plant only litter.
Howard documented the all of the plants present on a spreadsheet and then followed that up by cutting all the vegetation in a small representative area, separating the plants by species, drying each and weighing each.
This process of documenting and collecting data will be repeated again this coming summer. Once this process is repeated for another season we can compare the results of each count and inventory, 2011 and 2012 and look for a trend.
The results we are looking for are unknown to us yet at this point in time, it will be another grazing season before we can look for the results.
Looking for effects in a community of plants, some of which are perennial takes some time to see a pattern. A few things have come to light. One being that our Galloway cattle will definitely eat weeds and the cows teach their calves to eat weeds by example. I was able to capture mother and daughter on tape munching away on young thistles. The herd seemed more willing to eat the weeds after a day or two, and not because they got so hungry they gave up and ate them. It seemed like they just had to get used to the flavor of the new plants so the second or third day when they were turned into a paddock thick with Golden rod for example, they went right to eating it instead of walking around searching for something they recognized.
Mustard was not on the list of weeds that they would eat, at least not in 2011, and that species stood tall, lightly nibbled after they were completely finished with everything else.
I also learned that we have quite a bit more Indian Grass out in the Big Bluestem than I noticed before, it may be spreading fast. It may not be as palatable as the Big Bluestem so it is then left to go on and produce seed.
Lastly I learned that good communication is always key. I chose to forego the September 2011 field day due to the lack of re-growth of forage on the field. In July we had extreme heat and did not get on to the Big Blue to graze until late in that month, this left not enough grass regrowth to graze again in the September window. In hindsight I realized we could have had the field day without the cattle present, I felt they were an integral part of the experiment and had to be there for the event, but really they did not.
By the time all that communication was clear it was getting too late in the year to schedule anything. That missed demonstration can be done in the fall of this year.
WORK PLAN FOR 2012
The grazing treatment this coming year 2012 will be a repeat of the last. While of course many factors like the weather (spring is breaking here about 3 weeks early this year), and maybe nutrient availability will be different, we are planning to do basically the same treatment to the field and the same measurements and counts will be done on the plants so that we can then compare.
We held a field day in the spring of 2011 and explained what we were doing and told everybody we would keep them notified as to the next demonstration field day as this was a two year experiment and some time would pass between field days. We had about 12 people attend.
The second and final field day demonstration will be held in September of this year 2012, as there will be more information to share and the mature seed heads are present on all of the plants that time of year which really helps people to identify the plants. We will also be able to observe the establishment of the native legume seed that was broadcast and then trampled in.
We would like to adjust our outreach so that the third planned outreach can be attending the Small Farm Conference in Columbia. We can participate in the Farmers forum by setting up a display booth and talking to people about our project.
37484 90th Ave.
Cannon Falls, MN 55009
Office Phone: 5072633149
Root Prairie Galloways
28135 298th Street
Fountain, MN 55935
Office Phone: 5078674004