September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
Martin and his wife, Annetta, and their eight children, milk 60 crossbred cows. They moved to Wisconsin from Indiana a few years ago and are still in the process of setting up their farm for grazing and getting pastures well established.
Last year's drought prompted him to feed hay to his dairy herd for about a month, until the rain came again, toward the end of July. Feeding hay last summer left Martin short of stored feed this spring for 80 head, consisting of cows and calves.
"We were out of feed and buying hay," Martin said. "Then it took a long time to green up and we were desperate. They were out here grazing before they should have. So I'm suffering now. It's hard to keep these cattle full of feed. I'm moving them through too fast. It's not growing fast enough."
The Martins have 60 acres in grass, divided into several paddocks. At the first one, visitors saw a calf pasture that was thin. Calves had already been on it twice this year.
In 2010, his first year of grazing, Martin seeded the area with a mix that included ryegrass, festolium, orchardgrass, soft-leaf tall fescue and red clover. Observers noted that the orchardgrass and tall fescue seemed to be the only grasses left.
But Geoff Brink, from the USDA Dairy Forage Research Center, found something he said looked like Berseem clover along with the red clover. Berseem is an annual clover, not a perennial. Said Brink, "If you have a good year, like this year so far, it can be pretty productive in a short rotation."
Berseem clover, he said, does not have the potential to cause bloat that other clovers do. It needs to be cut before it flowers, if regrowth is to occur, and it should not be cut or grazed very low. When July's hot weather rolls around, the Berseem clover will probably be finished.
What can Martin do to thicken up that pasture? Brink, along with Crawford County Extension Agriculture Agent Vance Haugen and Iowa County Extension Agriculture Agent Gene Schriefer, plus the farmers at the pasture walk offered suggestions.
Haugen pointed out that graziers tend to shoot for 50-50 stands of grasses and legumes. It's not always easy to tell just by looking what the actual percentages are, he said, because the big leaves on clovers exaggerate the amount of that legume.
Kura clover, Haugen said, might be a good choice for Martin, though it might be hard to find seed for it now. Graziers have had great success with kura clover in southwest Wisconsin, and stands can easily last 15 to 20 years, he said.
Red clover, on the other hand, might persist just two or three years when it's grazed. And alfalfa might persist four or five years when it's grazed.
The consensus seemed to be that the paddock needed more grass. Getting more grass into it means tearing up the ground or interseeding, said Haugen.
Schriefer, from Iowa County, said it looked like the pasture contained too much legume to tear it up and start over. And he warned that July - usually the hottest, driest month - was nigh. "Every time we do a tillage pass, there's a half-inch of moisture that's going to evaporate, Schriefer said.
However, Martin has a no-till drill, so he could add grasses without tilling the paddock.
Ryegrass was mentioned as an option, but early summer is not the best time to seed it, said one farmer. Spring wheat was also suggested.
To that idea, Haugen, from Crawford County, said, "You can't mess up with a small grain. I don't care what it is - barley, oats - as long as it's a spring one."
Another idea: Wait until early August and drill in peas, oats and a brassica like turnips. Martin would have to keep the cattle out of that paddock awhile, but it could yield 1.5 to two tons of feed per acre.
Martin said he already had planted a few acres of Sudangrass, plus oats and peas, for emergency forage. Haugen, mentioning the so-called summer slump that July and August often bring, said that if it was his farm, he would like to have another emergency feed source besides Sudangrass.
Martin said he had oats left, but was thinking about sowing them this fall. Haugen said, "Oats is generally your safest and gets you the most tonnage. Then I would go to barley, simply because you get more tonnage and a little bit better feed. Wheat would be my last choice."
To make the paddocks more productive in future years, Martin was advised to keep up on his soil tests, and to get them done by an approved laboratory. The dairyman already uses a nutrient management plan and soil tests in five-acre increments.
An application of nitrogen could boost the grass production, but Brink wondered whether that paddock had enough grass in it to make good use of added nitrogen. Besides testing for macronutrients, Brink suggested testing every four or five years for micronutrients, such as sulfur, calcium, boron and zinc, too. Haugen added that a plant tissue analysis might be in order if the macronutrient amounts seem terribly high or low.
What kind of thistle?
Down the slope and over a couple of electric fences, Martin showed his pasture walk guests a thistle that no one in the group was able to positively identify. The thorny plants were abundant on the south-facing slope.
Haugen suggested calling the plants "plowman's thistle" for the time being, adding that positive identification really is the first step in figuring out how to control the weeds. A few days later, Schriefer said he had identified them as musk thistles, while Haugen said he had identified them as plumeless thistles.
Brink, the forage researcher, mentioned that one year of data is in from a study at the University of Wisconsin-Madison on controlling Canada thistles with grazing. He said the research found that mob grazing - turning a large number of livestock onto a paddock - yielded a significant reduction in Canada thistles during that year. But, Brink said, it's not yet known whether that reduction in thistles will carry over into subsequent years.
If he does not want to attack the thistles with an herbicide, he can clip the pasture, Haugen said. That might not kill the thistles, but it will certainly damage them.
That pasture, said the Extension agent, is a good candidate for clipping with a batwing mower or stalk chopper. The idea, said Haugen, is to pound the living daylights out of the thistles.
The best way to keep thistles from invading a pasture, Martin was told, is to manage it so a good, heavy stand develops.
In an adjacent pasture that contained few thistles but plenty of good forage, Haugen suggested that Martin might break it into smaller parcels so his cattle eat it down a bit. He could also move the cows every 12 hours if he made smaller paddocks.
Be sure to back fence the paddocks, Martin was advised. That way, his cattle can't go back over land they've just recently grazed.
It's also a good idea to pay attention to cow psychology, Haugen said, and not make long, narrow paddocks.
"A cow is kind of goofy," said Haugen. "She wants to walk the entire thing, find the perimeter, and then graze. If you've got a long, rectangular paddock, the cattle are going to knock down a lot of stuff. Plus, it takes the most amount of fence."
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