Want to Improve Your Spring Pastures?

February 18, 2022

Want to Improve Your Spring Pastures? Prepare Early, then Rotate and Fence

Grassy rolling hills, rocky outcrops, and steep, north-facing forested ridges dominate our West Marin agricultural landscape. In the spring, with warmer temperatures and spring rains, our grasslands grow rapidly, with production peaking between late April and late May.

Optimal spring-pasture growing conditions depend on how well Marin farmers and ranchers have managed their grasslands during the previous months. We recently spoke with Eric Rubenstahl, MALT’s stewardship program manager—easements, about the some of the ways local producers can improve their spring pasturelands.

Q. What is the definition of ‘spring pastures’ in Marin County?

A. It’s a traditional concept in agriculture, in which pastures are left fallow in the winter in order to regrow relatively quickly come spring. Springtime typically is most conducive to forage production because of increased soil moisture and sunlight, but it is important to develop a grazing strategy that works with nature to encourage optimal pasture growth and regeneration.

Q. What are the most important ways that Marin County ranchers and farmers can improve spring pastures?

A. With two key methods that work together: rotational grazing and cross-fencing.

Q. Describe those methods for us.

A. Rotational grazing is a strategy that moves animals from paddock to paddock so that land can rest and recover. Cross-fencing is the primary means for controlling the rate and timing of disturbance (in this case, grazing) on working lands.

Q. What are the benefits of rotational grazing?

A. Rotational grazing can have many positive impacts on working lands, such as increased forage production, increased soil fertility, improved water infiltration, less soil compaction, and increased forage utility. Rotational grazing can serve as a really effective tool for spring pasture and rangeland management.

For example, if one large 100-acre field were broken into five smaller 20-acre fields, the ranch manager could move animals from paddock to paddock to allow four of the five paddocks to rest at a time. Ultimately, rotational grazing is an effective means of combining long-term conservation objectives with agricultural production on spring pastures through proper rest and disturbance patterns that allow for optimal species development and soil conditions and to move evenly distributed manure.

Q. And that’s where cross-fencing comes in?

A. Yes, cross-fencing is a tool to help producers achieve a strong rotational grazing regime. One exciting innovation we are starting to see in our community is rollable electric fence tumble wheels. These portable electric fence wheels allow for streamlined temporary cross-fence setup and work extremely well within a rotational grazing context. The fence consists of a number of electrified ‘wheels’ spaced across the pasture with poly-wire running through the middle. This system really works well only on flat pastures, but the opportunities and efficiencies of the system are quite exciting!

It is also worth noting that protecting high-impact areas where animals congregate—or pinch points like creek crossings, fence lines, or gates—are worth extra focus. Rock aprons around water troughs, a mobile feed rack, and any practices to reduce trailing can be helpful in protecting soil quality, reducing muddy conditions, and preventing erosion.

Q. Why are rotational grazing and cross-fencing so necessary on Marin County agriculture lands?

A. Making the best use of the land requires active management and knowing your landscape. Generally speaking, West Marin’s landscape is one of rolling hills populated by annual grasslands, rocky outcrops, and steep north-facing forested hillsides. To best maximize seasonal forage production, Marin producers need to break up their fields by strategically taking into consideration their particular land’s topography, water resources, soil type, forage species, slope, and available shade for the animals.

Q. What happens to forage production if producers don’t actively management the land?

A. Neglect can lead to unintended consequences. For example, the residual dry matter (RDM) from the previous season plays a large role in how grasses and forbs [i.e., herbs other than grass] respond in the spring months. RDM relates directly to water infiltration and plant growth.

If a field has too much RDM from the season before, it might lay over and create thatch, preventing water from penetrating the soil. Too little RDM creates bare soil conditions where water may sheet off versus sinking into the soil. The presence of bare soil on pastures limits biological activity and forage production because the soil chemistry is heavily altered. Through active management and a good rotational grazing regime, the land is more likely to have recommended levels of residual dry matter, which leads to ideal water infiltration, more balanced soil chemistry, and a healthy balance of sun and shade to create optimal springtime growing conditions.

Q. Besides rotational grazing and cross-fencing, what can farmers and ranchers do to improve their spring pastures?

A. Other beneficial methods with a huge impact potential include spreading compost on the land and seeding with perennial species. For best results, it is best to apply compost and to seed in the fall before the cool and wet season so that the soil amendments have time to settle before the hot and dry season.

Because, ultimately, spring pastures are products of the conditions before them.

Interested in learning about how MALT assists ranchers and farmers in stewarding the land? Visit our Stewardship Assistance Program page to explore more.

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