Designing a rotating pasture system on steep slopes.

Discussion in 'Designing, building, making and powering your life' started by SergioSantoro, May 23, 2014.

  1. SergioSantoro

    SergioSantoro Junior Member

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    Hi, I tried to search the forum for a similar topic, but my connection is poor at present, and this website seems quite hefty. I hope I chose the right section to post in. So, some of you may have watched Geoff Lawton's video about rotating pastures, and I used to be in touch with Greg Judy until his email got hacked and I lost touch with him. All that knowledge seems to apply to flat or manageably slopy areas. We live in the hills of Costa Rica, and our property has 5 pastures, but some of them have an inclination of probably 50ยบ, and I am the only one who is convinced about permaculture; the other monks (I live in a Hindu monastery, so people who live here don't necessarily have agriculture among their goals or background) want to see that stuff works before they approve the investment. So, you can see my predicament. I tell them that if we subdivide our huge pastures into smaller ones, let the cows graze until the grass is half as tall, meanwhile the cows will be concentrated in one area and poop in it, and trample onto what they don't eat, then it will all become mulch and topsoil, and the next time around the pasture will be better and better, and the grass root network will slow down erosion, and more varieties of grass will pop out (that's what everybody says, I still can't understand why. Maybe they say that for what used to be prairies or pastureland in the past, but our pastures used to be tropical forest, so...). Anyway, "the opposition" say that with the cows packed like that on a slope, they might fight for food and fall and break a leg; or they say there is no way to see when they eat the grass down to half its size, because they'll just make a mess of the area with their hooves, and trash the pasture with their concentration, whereas now one cow will go one way, and one the other. We really don't have a big herd. We have two Jersey milkers, who graze in the day, come back at 2pm for the pm milking and stay in the barn all night. Their sons are two oxen, who live in another barn, they are still young (2 years in Sep) to graze with their mothers and not steal some milk (or at least we don't want to find out, they may be old enough), so they graze from 2pm until their mothers go out in the morning. Then there is an older ox, and the Jersey/Zebu bull who is the sperm donor. The bull can only be contained in an electric pasture; a fixed one, with concrete posts and a metal wire. I bought the portable electric pasture kit, but nobody wants to replace the electrified string so often up and down a steep slope. So, if I ever convinced them to do some rotating, it would have to be among fenced, permanent, small electric pastures. Given that the bull can only associate with the 3 oxen, and the two cows only with the big ox, we will never have more than 3 or 4 cows per lot. My question is, does anyone of you have experience or theoretical knowledge of what it's like to do this pasture management on slopes? Once I asked Greg Judy if I would have had to get a back hoe to terrace the pastures. He told me to rather borrow the neighbor's cows and they will make it so spongy with mulched and rich top soil that I won't need to spend money on the back hoe to avoid erosion. Also, cows don't graze vertically, so they'll be creating on-countour terraces just by stepping while grazing. "The opposition" say they have practical experience of the cows trashing a pasture, especially in the rainy season. That's another stumbling block: in North America the growing season doesn't coincide with the rainy season, but here the time of the year when the grass grows fast and lush is also the time in which it rains so much that if so many cows step in the same area, a pasture turns into a mud hole; which is exactly what most pastures look like in this region by the end of the rains, in October. I said there will be some destruction and reshaping at first, but in the long run HDPM is the way to go, because every year we keep spending hundreds of dollars to reseed some pastures. That's another point. I tell them to let the grass go to seed, so it seeds itself, the cows will contribute to it, and benefit from the higher starch, but the peones tell us the cows discard older grass. I don't know what pasture grass is like in non-tropical areas, but the local kinds are basically canes, like thin sugar cane, if allowed to grow fully, or some looks like rice. It's really hard to juggle my knowledge of pasture management which is only theoretical, with the local beliefs and stubbornness, and the ignorance of everybody else here who is playing farmer, but we all come from urban backgrounds. Thank you for any help you can give!
     
  2. songbird

    songbird Senior Member

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    hmm, five pastures, how large?

    with few animals you should be able to do a demonstration on a small part of each pasture by using portable fencing - fencing it off and then controlling the grazing time period. not that much investment in this other than some fencing and time.
     
  3. eco4560

    eco4560 New Member

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    Knowing human nature you won't be able to prove it to your opposition until they see it work with their own eyes. I agree with songbird that you need to set it up as a demonstration.
     
  4. SergioSantoro

    SergioSantoro Junior Member

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    Meanwhile, I played around with Google Earth, I really can't give you an idea of how big our pastures are, but it seems to me like quite a bit of land, with roughly 100 days rotation cycle. The basic idea is to have a central corridor in each pasture with access to water and shade from each paddock. It seems to me that each paddock is enough for 1 to 3 days (two Jersey milkers in the am, and two Jersey/Zebu oxen in the pm. I'll fit the big ox somewhere. Maybe he can stay the whole day, cuz he's big). The corridor and the enclosures are in white. The perimeters of each pastures are colored. Some of them are too awkward to subdivide, so we'll just leave the cows there for a week or so, as long as the grass can take it. The enclosures will be electrified, but not with the cord, rather with electric metal wire running between permanent posts. It seems the most feasible thing, given the nature of the terrain, and how little anybody else feels like struggling with portable fences.

    I may have forgot something, but here is the picture of our pastures. Oh, the blue one on the right is only for the bull (Nandi). Each enclosure is a lot of land just for him, so if it lasts 3 days, his pasture will have a 24-day rotation cycle.

    One thing I don't understand: even if the grass is not chomped to the ground, but only half-way, doesn't it get stressed out having to regenerate itself without going to seed?
     
  5. SergioSantoro

    SergioSantoro Junior Member

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    Wait, I can't post pictures?
     
  6. SergioSantoro

    SergioSantoro Junior Member

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  7. void_genesis

    void_genesis Junior Member

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    Hey there

    Great to see someone else interested in adapting managed rotation to warmer climates- I am working toward a similar thing in subtropical Australia. A couple of ideas spring to mind.

    Firstly- it seems you are keeping the cows mostly as dairy animals, but for such a small herd it seems to me keeping a constant supply of milk is always going to be a challenge for such a small herd (numbers vary dramatically, e.g. if one milk cow gets old or sick then you are down to 50% supply). Have you considered converting over to a smaller milking animal like dairy goats? One mature cow eats as much as about three milk goats, that produce a similar amount of milk overall. This would also improve your ability to use the steeper parts of your land and reduce the concern with large cows injuring themselves.

    Secondly- Grazing animals in the tropics/subtropics seem to benefit from making use of a wide variety of fodder shrubs and trees. In traditional set ups these are often planted in banks and cut regularly by hand, then carried a short distance to a permanent pen. It takes some regular labor, but uses very little fencing. This could be an approach to start small- plant fodder banks and give them some time to mature (1-2 years), then get a couple of milk goats in a small permanent pen to see if you find them worthwhile. If that works out you can look at scaling up to rotating the goats through the pastures. Fencing would be more of an issue but small sections moved often (every day or two) would be easier and more beneficial to the pastures and the goats.
     
  8. rmcpb

    rmcpb Junior Member

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    You don't have to move fences much at all. Once you have run your electric fences just put a gateway in them so you can treat them like a normal fence. You can move the generator from one fence to another. The animals will catch on easily and very quickly will be waiting at the gate to be moved to new pasture.

    On another point I have never seen cattle fight over feed. The odd kick or head butt but not really fighting. If you are giving them extra feed space it out to stop this.

    We graze our pastures down to about 6" then move the cattle. Make sure your paddocks take about a week to get down to this so you don't have to make so many fences.
     
  9. void_genesis

    void_genesis Junior Member

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    There are a few issues with having permanent fence lines for rotational grazing.

    One is that the expense of setting up all the fence posts and wiring can be pretty huge, particularly if you want to do daily moves. Mobile lightweight poles push in with a foot and pull up easily, and the electric tape is also light (takes a little practice to move it without tangling it up though). Having smaller areas fenced means you can use what money you do have getting more reliable energisers and higher quality tape and poles. The broad tape is much better for preventing the animals getting through- the narrow stuff seems to be invisible for them. And for goats or other smaller animals you may want to get electric netting which is also more expensive per meter.

    Secondly having permanent fence lines means the animals will tend to pace along the fences and cause uneven wear to the pasture, increasing the chance of erosion. On the hilly land described by the OP this would be a big concern. Permanent water points have the same issue.

    The final issue is one of flexibility. Having temporary and flexible fences makes it easier to adjust what you are doing. You can vary the size of the paddock, the time the animals stay, and skipping certain places much easier (useful when the size of the herd and weather fluctuate). I find I often run the fence around desirable pasture species that are just about to produce seed to keep the cows off them and this is already having a big positive effect of increasing their abundance. Skipping a large chunk of permanent paddock would be much harder to justify.

    I'm started moving my cows every week and I find it takes about an hour. I probably spend more time chewing my breakfast. Since we moved to small solar panel chargers on an old car battery we haven't had any hassles with flat batteries either. Walking the paddocks to put the fences up is also really useful for weed spotting- two jobs at once.
     

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