What can you learn just by looking at your pastures?
Practical Farmers of Iowa members have been taking specific measurements on their pastures over the past few months and years, part of the Pasture Monitoring on-farm research project. The premise is simple: make a change in pasture management, and observe the results. Changes include adding new forage species – legumes, warm-season annuals, prairie species, medicinals, drought-resistant types – or changing pasture management – shorter rotations, different timing of grazing, and so on.
Researchers are provided data sheets and some tools to observe the effects, and commit to the project for at least three years. In addition to taking soil samples at the beginning and end, farmers track when their animals rotate into new pastures, their animals’ performance (body condition and weight gain), and the species composition of the pastures.
Cheryl and Mike Hopkins started the project in 2013, and are observing three of their goat pastures into which they’ve interseeded a few different forage varieties. This year was mostly a collection of baseline data; the carrying capacity of the pastures, soil test data (not yet available), and the pasture species composition. Some of their interseeded species did appear, and observations from 2014 will see how the pasture condition changes.
Dave and Meg Schmidt also started in 2013, though they’ve tracked feed use during the winter for a few years. As with the Hopkins, they now know roughly what their pastures can handle in terms of grazing. A few individual pastures were also the sites of some experimentation with warm-season forages and cover crops. Continued work in those paddocks may influence the amount of stored feed they use during the winter, and how long they can graze before needing to feed hay.
Nathan and Sarah Anderson began the project in 2010. Through converting from continuous to rotational grazing, reclaiming land from cedar encroachment, and interseeding a more diverse pasture mix, they have observed greater carrying capacity. On just a slightly greater acreage, they now manage about twice as many cattle.
Links to the reports for each farm are below. Check them out! If you are interested in participating in on-farm research through Practical Farmers of Iowa, contact Stefan at (515) 232-5661 or Stefan@practicalfarmers.org.