Purposeful pasture pruning

CEW-MR-1-Purposeful pastureby Troy Bishopp

On June 9, 2010 my friend, grazing customer, mentor and fiercely independent farmer, David Huse tragically died when his tractor and mower were hit by a car on his way to help a neighbor.

At his funeral I recollect writing this passage: “A large, skylight provided a mottled scene over my friend’s casket, as I sat in the pew at St. Vincent de Paul’s Church in Cobleskill clutching a little farmscape card with the 23rd Psalm on it. I heard and felt the words from the pastor and David’s brothers, all the while looking up at the view of the sky in an attempt to hold in all the emotion I was feeling. It was during the singing of Amazing Grace that I noticed the portal filled with sun, shining through a crystal clear blue sky. My eyes and heart couldn’t hold back the flood.”

When I got home with reddened eyes and heavy heart, I jumped on the ole 1974 Deutz 7006 tractor with attached Woods brush-hog and just felt like mowing pasture and clearing my head. Maybe subconsciously I was also paying homage to a fellow farmer and finishing the job.

Upon neatly finishing up the 4-acre paddock, I parked the tractor and headed down the hill for home. I hadn’t gone 500 feet when I saw out of the corner of my eye, the rig moving towards the gully at a high rate of speed. Talk about a surreal moment, as I watched it crash through fences and take a nose dive into the bank below with a piercing crash. Whether an omen or the tractor just popping out of gear, I was essentially tramatized, broke and done with mowing.

Two weeks later I took a holistic grazing course with South African Rancher, Ian Mitchell-Innes and discovered the attributes of high density grazing, only grazing the top third of the plant and that brush-hogging was — evil. It was a tool that cost too much, leveled wildlife habitat and couldn’t compete with a grazing animal’s stimulation of the mysterious, soil microbe and plant complex. He said, “A grazed plant will grow faster than a mechanically cut one.” As I arrived back at the farm inspired with a new path, I made a decree that clipping will be on sabbatical, much to the chagrin of my dad.

After 4 years of practicing the soil and animal health benefits of planned grazing and being through one drought and three huge unpredictable rain events, I have to say the principles I was taught are sound and they have helped our farm tremendously. But like most farmers, I like to keep tinkering with things, succumb to new influences and do my own research and monitoring.

Because last winter kept me inside alot, I reread my favorite, Newman Turner’s, “Fertility Pastures” and the chapter on making herbal leys with a mower. He said, “After grazing a herbal ley, a considerable proportion of these deep rooting herbs have been down in the subsoil bringing to their stems and leaves a rich supply of minerals, trace-elements and who knows what to the topsoil.”

“I soon discovered the considerable benefit resulting from the use of the mower after grazing which contributed to soil fertility and the subsequent nutrition of the crop from the feeding back of this un-grazed surplus.”

This approach has always intrigued me which seemingly coincided learning from another artful grazier, Cliff Hawbaker from Chambersburg, PA, who inspired me to look at this practice of pruning, not merely clipping, as a way to improve my swards and get ahead of the surplus before the first day of summer. Upon visiting his farm and seeing his gorgeous, vegetative, taller grass made with grazing cows and a timely mowing, it seemed to make sense to reconsider dusting off the iron to tame all this seasonal, flourishing biomass.

Now I don’t want to portray that I haven’t had my struggles and disagreements over using a bush-hog over animal mouths and the vanity mowing paradigm. For me, eating a little crow may help the “whole” of the farm by using a planned, deliberate and purposeful approach to harvesting the surplus without overstocking, making hay or succumbing to brush. I’m also very cognizant that if you have bigger properties, challenging topography and different goals, mowing wouldn’t be an option.

Last night I greased up the mower, sharped the blades, filled the tractor with $4.39 diesel and started on a journey of discovery, albeit under the scrutiny of climate change. I felt purposeful vigor when I pulled into the field behind the cows as the locust blossoms pierced my nostrils from across a new hedgerow I added. Some would suggest I am a heathen for domineering nature with depreciable iron but I submit to you I had a clearer vision; to feed the soil with diverse plants, stimulate new growth and just be a guy relaxing on his well-worn tractor.

As I pruned and sang songs from within my radio earmuffs, I began to really hone in on my pasture surroundings. With every pass I noticed which areas were thicker, where the weeds popped up, the quality of the manure and how many of my grandfather’s orchardgrass seed-heads were being propelled towards the soil.

As dusk grew closer, I saw the chubby woodchuck feeding, the bluebirds dashing for bugs after the mower, deer bedding down with their fawns in my nearby summer-fallowed field and cows contently chewing their cud. Against the sound of the machine, it was becoming peaceful. All this stimulation helped me think more clearly on how to manage pasture chaos. From that tractor seat making the 7 foot rounds, I could see my landscape from a different perspective again. It was a beautiful site. The clipping/pruning practice is a mainstay on most farms because everyone has different goals. It’s just a tool that when applied, helps to achieve a certain objective just like the grazing of animals. Because of stockpiling strategies, right-sizing animal numbers to match grazeable days into winter, financial opportunities, time constraints and quality of life goals, we are using the pruner again.

But now we are using it with more purpose.

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