The Good Life
54 7 great ways to use up grass
When one cow represents a quarter of your stock units, managing seasonal pasture fluctuations can be challenging.
Low stock numbers over winter are the way to get through the feed shortage caused by cold weather.
But what’s the best thing to do at this time of year when the grass is jumping out of the ground, and then goes to waste?
It is better to have too much grass than too little. The ideal stocking rate for your block will mean you have enough in times of shortage (wet winters, dry summers). Any excess in spring and autumn is a bonus to boost growth.
There is no such thing as too much grass. It is always a valuable resource, the embodiment of the nutrients of your soil. The secret is to have alternatives to grazing: use it as fertiliser, for seed, and fresh or stored stock food.
1 Buy in stock
There is no such thing as too much grass.
The obvious solution in times of excess grass is to get more stock.
Nature takes care of this with birthing in spring, but newborns aren’t going to eat much.
It pays to do your maths if you’re planning to buy stock now. Prices can be high if spring weather is good and grass is long because everyone else want to buy extra stock too.
2 Let the neighbours in
This is the easiest option. Talk to your neighbour, open the gate and let their animals graze the excess grass. I have never heard of a neighbour turning down this opportunity.
It is an easy solution, but you and your land are losing on the deal. You are giving away free grass, exporting nutrients from your land, and risk importing worms and disease.
If it is an ongoing arrangement, you could negotiate with a grazer to run a lamb or two with their flock until killing time; or you have an agreed fertiliser programme that they apply back to your land.
3 Make hay
This is what ‘real’ farmers do: bale and store the excess grass now, to feed out during the shortage of summer and winter.
Making hay in one small paddock can be challenging, but it can be done: • find a local contractor who will do the job – if your neighbours want to make hay, it is more attractive for a contractor to do two paddocks nearby at the same time; • book it with them as soon as possible; • make sure your gates are wide enough for a tractor to pass through; • pick up any rubbish and rocks in the paddock ; • keep an eye on the weather.
Making hay involves cutting your grass at maximum length, just before it sets seed; seed production reduces grass energy content. This is usually sometime between late November and January.
You then need about three days for your hay to dry, ideally in full sun with a light breeze.
Predicting that is the tricky part. It’s also why everyone else wants their hay done at the same time and why you need to book in with your contractor well in advance.
While the cut grass is drying, your contractor will be in spreading and turning it. When it’s dry, they will rake it into farrows, ready to bale.
Once baled, get it into a dry, airy, storage shed before the dew falls on it. Keep it separate from machinery as hay tends to mess up storage areas.
Making hay without specialist machinery is possible. You can do it yourself if you have several fit people and four days at your disposal.
4 Make silage
Animals prefer to eat silage over hay. It has twice the feed value, and is more palatable than fresh grass. The cost is higher than making hay, around $13 per small bale for silage, compared to $5.50 a bale for hay.
Ensure it is stacked where you want it. Even ‘small’ silage bales can be 45kg+.
Silage has the benefit of not needing a shed for storage, but any hole in the plastic wrap will cause spoilage. Use silage tape to patch holes.
Make sure stock can’t get near stored bales as they will rip open the plastic. Set traps for rats which can burrow underneath and damage bales.
The disadvantage of silage is that once a bale is opened, it starts to spoil and needs to be fed out quickly. You can remove a 20cm slice off a bale’s ‘ face’ each day to ensure stock aren’t eating feed that has spoiled.
You can make silage yourself if you have fit people and time to spare. It doesn’t need as much drying time as hay but is still a considerable effort. I use a lawnmower and stomp it into drums.*
Fallowing works well on a herb, ryegrass and clover pasture
5 Summer fallow
This is what I do. It is perfect if you don’t need to store feed and you have cows. It is a do-nothing option that has a positive effect on soil, grass and livestock.
Fallowing is a technique of land management from biblical times, used well before anyone thought about importing fertilisers from foreign countries.
Most grasses have a set life-span. Leaving them ‘ fallow’ to set seed periodically will regenerate a pasture. Leaving a blanket of long grass shelters and feeds the biological life in the soil. Remnants of what is called ‘standing hay’ that are not eaten by stock will be trampled down to rot into the soil. It’s like making compost on-site to fertilise your paddocks.
I find fallowing crowds out weeds, greatly improves worm counts and biological soil life, and enhances pasture.
Traditionally, farmers would leave 1/7th of their farm fallow each year. Due to my fencing, erratic stocking rates, and the seasonal growth, I do about 1/5th of my property each year.
When I start to get excessive grass, I take a paddock out of rotation, shut it up, leave it to grow, and set seed. I let the grass shed the seed in autumn and then graze the remains in winter with cattle. There is not a lot of feed value left in the grass by then, as most of the energy has gone into seed production, but my mature cattle appreciate the roughage.
This works wonderfully on my Waikato block with its good herb, ryegrass and clover pasture. It won’t work with kikuyu pasture which is better eaten down low on each rotation so it doesn’t form a thick thatch of roots and stalks.
Areas with a high fire risk over summer should consider winter fallowing. Lock up the area in early autumn, let it go to seed, then graze it off late winter, in time for it to regrow in spring.
6 Mow it
‘Real’ farmers reading this may have a fit, but mowing your paddock is not just to make it look like a lawn.
Regular mowing will feed and nurture a healthy soil biology and a high worm population. Clippings will quickly turn into nutritious fertiliser. It also stops weeds from seeding and keeps grass edible until your stock need it. Many real farmers do it too.
Top your grass at the maximum height of your mowing deck (my husband installed a ‘lift’ kit on my ride-on mower). Cutting the grass: • stops it going to seed and losing feed value; •
clippings feed the worms which turn it into compost and fertilise the soil; •
pasture will grow and thicken.
Another benefit of mowing is it’s a great way to control thistles and weeds. Mow just as the flower buds of annual weeds start to form and you prevent them from setting seed.
Californian thistle, a perennial with a terrible spreading habit, can be prevented from seeding and weakened if it’s mowed regularly. Studies also show mowing it in the rain helps to spread deadly thistle diseases.
But there is a danger of one-off mowing in summer as it can create a layer of clippings that lie on the top of the soil. In ryegrass in the North Island and the top half of the South Island, this provides a habitat for the fungus that causes facial eczema. The toxins multiply in hot, humid conditions, causing problems for livestock between January and April.
We mow our paddocks directly after the stock have grazed it. Once cut, unpalatable weeds and grasses help maintain an active soil biology.
‘Real’ farmers reading this may have a fit.