Short run farm fencing and gates

Most rural properties these days have little fencing. Perhaps a pasture will be fenced in, or a garden here or there to try and keep deer out, but usually there are no fences around main fields or around the homestead property.

This is a for a few reasons, but the principle one seems to be the inconvenience and expense of using and making large gates to admit passage of increasingly large vehicles and machines. It used to be 8 or 10 feet was all you would need in the days or horses. Today its necessary it seems to have two 12 foot gates at a minimum to allow any large harvester or tractor through, or even to allow trucks (like propane or septic) and trailers through. Also, folks don’t like getting out of their car to open and close gates. Never underestimate human laziness! So, everybody went gate-less a long time ago opting not to replace the worn out ones that where there. This then becomes the norm of the countryside.

Two things have happened to me recently that have made me want a gate. I no longer want my dog straying off my property and more importantly I no longer want my neighbors rotten mean dogs wandering onto mine. So I decided to put up a very low cost fence that would do the job, not look horrible, and keep dogs in or out. I also put up corresponding gates. After doing so I have realized other benefits. One being that if an animal were to escape out of the barnyard or fields into our “home acre” they would still be contained. Sometimes this becomes a concern when you are delivering animals or doing something like halter-breaking a calf. Also, no more chickens crossing the road.

This type of fence amounts to treated 4×4 posts, 6′ long, sunk about 2.5′ into the ground, which is plenty, and stapling 16′ cattle panels to these posts. I cut the bottoms or tops off my 50″ cattle panels because I think it looks nicer (42″ is plenty) and allows me to adjust for uneven ground. I ran my posts every 16′ which is pretty spaced out, and had to put a post every 8′ at curves. This type of fence is not tensioned like woven wire. Cattle panels are self supporting and this obviates any need for bracing posts at ends or curves. Really, a woven wire fence needs to be a 100′ or so long in a run to maintain proper tension. Short runs of woven wire do not provide the necessary elasticity to maintain proper seasonal tension, and this can pull posts (always the weakest) out of the ground. This isn’t a problem with a cattle panel fence. Now, cattle panels are about 3x the cost per linear foot compared to lightweight high-tensile woven wire, so this type of fence is not for fields and subdivisions of fields; rather it is for use around your barnyard and house, the places where woven wire doesn’t work well.


I don’t like the look of tubular steel gates, and I think they are very flimsy unless one gets the “bull grade” ones. These bull grade gates (made with 2″ tube and bolt-hinges instead of lag screws) cost around $200 for a 12′ gate. And you get a 12′ gate. No customizing. I have found three alternative gate materials, and I made my own Z-gates rapidly for a fraction of that cost.

The first alternative material is treated poplar corral boards. They are 1″x6″x16′ rough sawn and cost around $10 each from a local home center. The traditional Z-style gate made with deck screws and gate hinges will come in at around half the price per linear foot compared to tube gates, and they look a whole lot nicer. They take very little time to construct, too. A tip: work on top of some 4×4 or like posts one the ground and mark the posts to line up the various parts. Use a cordless circular saw and drill with a speed square to make accurate cuts, and of course, a tape measure. If you want perfectly square gates it is easy to measure the X from corner to corner to make sure they are equal, but sometimes you may want to make a crooked gate (because of crooked ground) and that is something you can’t do with a tube gate. This is the double gate pictured before.


Remember, the diagonal goes from the bottom of the gate-end to the other corner. Also note spring-loaded gate wheels go a long way toward preventing sag. With gates this long, even these 8′ posts sunk 5′ deep would have trouble preventing sag. Each gate cost around $90; the gate wheels were $15 each. 

The second material I have tried, and I think works very well for gates under 8′ long, is 1/2″x4″ Ash concrete form boards. These are used to make sidewalks/patios where I live, since Ash is the wood of choice for this kind of work as the Emerald Ash borer has made a whole lot of dead Ash trees available. Ash is probably cheaper than pine where I live now. Because these were formerly concrete forms, I got them for free, and they had cement on one or both sides. I scraped most of it off with a brick hammer, made the gates like I would any other using little 1″ or 1.5″ wood screws, and then I primed (with an all-purpose exterior rated primer for masonry or wood) and painted (white barn paint) the gates to conceal the concrete. They look very cute, and I think they should last a while. These gates are so light that ordinary back-yard gate hinges or household door hinges can be used. It is not necessary to use expensive agricultural-style gate hinges.


This gate cost about $10 for the hardware and paint. The wood was given away. 

The third material, and the one I think most promising, are Ash boards I bought from a local lumbermill. They were rough sawn, nominally 1″x6″x12-14′. They came from a dead standing tree and have many imperfections that make the wood substandard for interior uses. I bought these boards for only $7, 30% less than what the slightly longer treated Poplar boards cost, but Ash is a much stronger wood for its weight than is Poplar. I built the gates the same way but used regular exterior grade (galvanized) wood screws, not decking screws, since this wood was untreated. These screws cost less and work just as well. I then applied Thompson’s Waterseal (for wood, clear, with UV inhibitor), using perhaps a pint of it on a 13′ gate for one coat (which is all that is needed per directions). This gate came out costing about $60 total and is the most rigid. Time will tell if it lasts as long as the treated Poplar or the painted Ash. Maybe in a few decades I’ll report back, but my thinking is that wood which doesn’t come into contact with the ground and is vertical (instead of horizontal like a deck floor) doesn’t benefit much from pressure treatment. What wooden gates need is waterproofing and some UV protection. This can be provided by paint or something like Thompson’s, which both cost around the same and take a similar amount of time to apply per coat (Thompsons is one coat, while one coat for the primer, and one or two topcoats are needed with paint). It really depends I suppose if one prefers the painted or natural wood look.


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Ghee and its uses

There are many good tutorials on how to make Ghee from butter out there. It is a pretty straightforward process.


You start with butter. Yes, pasture fed Jersey butter is this yellow. No filters or color adjustment! 

What is not commonly appreciated is the utility of Ghee and its importance to the small scale farmer or homesteader. Ghee is a high temp cooking fat, an oil at room temperature, that can be used to fry and sauté things that would smoke if butter were used. It can replace most cooking vegetable oils in the family’s diet. It is also relatively low-effort once one is used to making butter and is more or less awash in milk, which will describe anyone miking a good healthy cow.


The skimming process.


An example of the resides and solids left after skimming and clarifying the butter.


Poring off into jars for safe-keeping. 

We milk twice daily, which is the norm, and we use the morning milking for drinking milk, feeding the calf breakfast and lunch, and yogurt/soft cheese making. 4 gallons works out pretty well for our family this way. The evening milking, which is another 4 gallons, is used to make butter. We simply let that entire milking rise, skim the cream, and use the skimmed milk to feed chickens and garden plants, which is admittedly not a very good use for skim milk. It would be much better if we had a bottle calf or a feeder pig to feed that skim milk too, but one can only get so much done. As our heifer calf gets bigger, we will probably start to feed her more skim milk and less whole, probably as we introduce her to hay/pasture.


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Blog Hiatus

I have a lot going on now, and probably will post again sometime this summer.

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Cleaning Blackpowder Muzzleloading Rifles

Backpowder fouling is different from smokeless powder fouling or metallic bullet fouling. One of the major differences is that smokeless powder almost completely combusts within the barrel leaving just a very light varnish (not water soluble) residue and possibly lead or copper fouling from the bullet (since they bullet touches the barrel). The approach to cleaning this is to take solvent, usually petroleum-based, which dissolves the varnish residue and perhaps reacts with the copper fouling to loosen it. Bronze brushes and fabric tightly wrapped around jags abrade away this fouling. This approach doesn’t work for black powder.

IMG_3604 (1)

Blackpowder is a completely different kind of material, and it combusts very incompletely. In fact, about 40% by weight of the original power charge is left behind as a sooty, sulfurous residue. This reside is very reactive with petroleum based oils and solvents and trying to clean it with such will lead to a mess, not to mention consume tremendous quantities of expensive cleaning solvent. Fortunately, blackpowder fouling is quite soluble in water. Hot water with a little dish detergent added is excellent and costs almost nothing, making black powder firearms actually easier in many ways to clean than smokeless, and certainly cheaper. The large bore diameter helps as well.


The first step is to fill up a tea kettle with water and set it on the stove to boil. The next step is to get a cleaning rod with proper jag on it and some cotton t-shirt type cloth cut to the proper size. The next step is to detached the barrel from the lock and the stock. Once the barrel is removed it should be prepared for cleaning by removing the touch-hole plug (flint-locks) or priming nipple (cap-locks) and have a rag or tape wrapped around the barrel somewhere. If there are any plastic parts on the barrel that may be effected by boiling water, they should be removed (and this is why muzzleloaders should never have fiber optic sights or scopes). I take a little pyrex cup and put a little bit of dish detergent in it and bring the barrel, cleaning rod, pliers or an adjustable wrench, and the kettle out water outside onto gravel or a deck or somewhere where it will not be a problem if it gets dirty. Now pour boiling water into the pyrex cup and pour that soapy water down the barrel from the muzzle end. The water should shoot out the hole in the bottom of the barrel. Now the barrel will be warm. Take the cleaning rod and drive a the patch wrapped jag down the barrel using the muzzle protector. If it comes out relatively clean then you may proceed with rinsing it with boiling water from the kettle, otherwise keep repeating soapy water and patch cleanings.

Once the barrel has been rinsed thoroughly with boiling water it will be far too hot to touch and can only be handled with oven mitts or pliers or something. This is why you wrap the barrel with cloth. It will prevent marking of the finish with tools. This heat will result in the water evaporating very quickly. Take it all inside and put it on a cotton towel or some fabric that wont melt. Now clean off the rod and jag and liberally apply a muzzleloader lubricant like T/C Bore Butter to the patch and drive it down the barrel while it is still hot or warm but can be handled. The heat will liquify the grease and it will creep all over and once cooled will protect the barrel from corrosion, provide lubrication for the next shot taken, and help further the “seasoning” of the barrel.

I lubricate the patch with the same kind of bore butter, so every time I reload the rifle to fire it most of the fouling from the previous shot is pushed down to the breech and the barrel is anointed with lubricant. This keeps the barrel conditions consistent from shot-to-shot and completely prevents any lead fouling from being deposited. With this kind of cleaning/firing regime, the barrel seasons much like a cast iron skillet, too. A petroleum-type solvent (like WD-40 or anything out of a rattle can) will ruin this seasoning. Supposedly petroleum waxes (like paraffin) do not have this effect, but they are not good lubricants for the bullet/patch, so I think it is best to stick with a natural (non-Petroluem) type greases for lubricantion and protection of the barrel, and to stick with hot-water based cleaners. One can use saliva or water to lubricate the patch, but unless you are going to clean the barrel and grease it, this will promote corrosion.

I always use cloth (pillow ticking) patched lead round balls, and frankly think plastic sabots, conical bullets, and all that stuff is not only expensive, but disappointing to use. I’ve never found any I could easily get down a barrel with the provided ram-rod which is what you will use while hunting. To me if I cannot reload in the field, then it is a no-go, and I’ve always been able to get lubed-patched round balls down with the ordinary ram-rod. They are accurate and have adequate external and terminal ballistic performance on deer at the ranges muzzleloaders should be used (under 100 yards). If you want long range performance, then you should hunt with an ordinary firearm in the ordinary firearm season using a scope, and I think hunting authorities should discourage the use of “modern” muzzleloaders.

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Rotations can be quite particular. What may work well in one place may not work well in another, or may work only in certain years. The key to finding a rotation that works well for you is putting together certain combinations, beginning with pairs, that seem to work well, and then fitting them together into a workable, reliable whole, and then finally simplifying it down to what works consistently the best. A good source of insight and guidance will be historical information, either from aged farmers (who’s grandparents may have had living memory) in your area or from USDA census data.

I knew from historical documentation that the common rotation used by ordinary farmers in the county where I live, in Southern Indiana with the odd combination of being a windy, upland site with wet silt-clay loam soil that hold water like a lowland site, was this:

corn > field peas (cow peas) > winter wheat > red clover / timothy hay for 2-3 years and then back to corn again. 

This works would well, and sometimes, the field peas were omitted or substituted for something like Sweetclover. Today, the substitute would be soybeans. Corn would be planted in the Spring harvested in the fall. The field would sit over the winter with corn trash on it and would be plowed the next spring and planted to field peas (cowpeas). In the fall after the peas were harvested, which would take place a bit earlier than corn, usually at the end of September or early October, winter wheat would be planted which would over winter and be harvested as grain the following June. Straw would be collected and stacked for bedding. This wheat was a major cash crop, whereas the corn would be the animal feed crop.  The wheat stubble would be sewn, by broadcasting, with red clover and timothy, which would only make minimal growth that year, since they were planted so late and if the summer was dry, may not even germinate until fall. Hay would be collected for 2 or 3 years following, until the red clover began to decline. Sometimes, a year would be simply timothy hay with little in the way of red clover for that reason, and it was the hayfield in its last year that received the manuring. Then it would all be plowed under and planted to corn again in the following spring, the hayfield having enriched the soil and caught the manure preventing it from running off. Nothing holds surface applied nutrients better than the living, shallow, and fibrous roots of perennial grasses like Timothy. This system was fairly sustainable and worked well with the economy of those days, when all that hay was needed for the millions of horses that provided the primary means of transportation.


Easter (April 1st) snowstorm

Sometimes oats were planted in the spring, but oats were never as important as winter wheat where I live, and were basically a high-quality grain feed for working horses. According the 1900 census of Agriculture where I live, they accounted for 4% of the acreage, whereas hay and pastures accounted for about half, and corn wheat and peas made up the difference. But oats do grow where I live, both Spring planted and Fall planted. Fall planted oats, however, are not much good as hay. The weather is too cool and wet when it comes time to harvest fall planted oats, whereas Spring planted oats are ready in late May or June. If you are going to graze Oats, fall planted makes good sense, but straight oats are an inadequate feed for lactating dairy cattle, and my cattle are lactating in the Fall. In short, Fall planting oats makes sense for beef or sheep, but not for dairy cattle. I use oat hay as a dry cattle feed for this time of year, though I will be using wheat hay this way in the future, as it is nutritionally similar.

The problem with spring planted Oats where I live is that they are not very reliable. Oats have a relatively narrow window of optimal planting. Though Oats are a relatively hardy plant, suffering drought or extreme wetness better than one would think, they need a lot of moisture to germinate, and must germinate quickly or time will run out, as there are only around 60 days for oats before the Sun instructs them to go to seed, even if they are just a few inches tall. Furthermore, temperatures below 30 degrees or so can easily kill a young oat plant, whereas wheat, barley or rye would just shrug a snowfall off like the one we received on April 1st this year. If I had planted Oats when I normally do, at the end of March, this may have been a disaster.

This year we had both an unusually early Winter, getting underway in late October, unusually bitterly cold temperatures in December and early January, then a relatively dry and mild February and early March. Then late March came with more unusually cold and rainy weather, and we received accumulating show in April. This kind of stuff drives a farmer mad. While I did get out there in February and frost seed red clover into my baby wheat plants, like I usually do, there was no way I was going to be able to till in these conditions, and Spring oats, and really all grains, need some tillage for good germination. In my experience only small seeded broadleaved plants, like clovers and and brassicas, do well straight broadcast onto the ground. Things like grass seeds do OK, particularly the bunch grasses (Timothy, Orchardrass, Ryegrasses, Fescues) as opposed to the sod-formers (Bromegrasses, Canarygrass, Bluegrass). But the large seeded grain grain grasses like Rye, Oats, Wheat, and Barley and even plants like Corn and Buckwheat, seem to need tillage, broadcasting, then rolling/culti-packing to ensure the good soil to seed contact necessary to soften their seed coats and promote germination. Drilling works even better of course, but you need a drill, which isn’t justified at the scale I am working at (single digit acreage).

I have experimented with other plants, some of which are not historically used in my area, and I found out why. Buckwheat grows where I live. Buckwheat will grow in a gravel wasteland. But Buckwheat is a pretty useless plant. It makes poor forage or green chop, becoming slightly toxic with maturity, and makes very little grain which doesn’t re-seed very well at all and is time consuming and aggravating to harvest. It doesn’t grow nearly as vigorously as red clover does, and doesn’t fix its own nitrogen like red clover does, and the seed is ridiculously expensive. So I just stopped. People go on singing the praises of Buckwheat, and it may yet be the best grain on hand in an apocalyptic scenario because it grows anywhere and is the most nutritionally complete of all grain-like plants, but it just isn’t worth the trouble for me.

Crimson clover and Sainfoin and Birdsfoot trefoil, a trio of oddball legumes, are all abysmal failures at my place. Can’t hold a candle to Red or White clover where I live, or even Alfalfa or Sweetclover. Not cold hardy, don’t germinate well, and the seed is expensive for how much coverage you get. $20 will buy enough white clover to cover 10 acres. $20 of Crimson clover is hardly noticeable on the 1/8th acre plot I planted, and after spending about a hundred dollars just trying to get Trefoil to grow, all I have to show for it are a few solitary scattered pretty yellow flowers dotting the pastures in high summer. When I found about three Sainfoin plants in an entire field that I planted one year, even using Oats as nurse crop, as many do with Alfalfa, I knew that Sainfoin was a mistake. Sweetclover beats it any day of the week!

I’ve been disappointed by Barley. In humid climates most barley is susceptible to Loose Smut fungus. The seed companies insist on growing it in humid climates anyway, and unless the seed is heat-treated, the crop may develop smut. Heat-treatment of course reduces the germination rate and costs money. Why not use Rye or especially Wheat, which is better adapted to clayey, wet soil than is Rye, and is cheaper to seed by far? A bushel of Rye costs about $17 dollars where I live. A bushel of winter wheat costs about $3. True, wheat doesn’t grow as tall as rye, but to my thinking, this is an advantage, since I under sew my winter wheat with red clover. The tallness of rye casts more shade on the struggling baby red clover plants, and it seems to delay them several weeks compared to wheat.

I stubbornly continue to keep chickens outdoors over winter, incorporating them into a rotation with crops and the garden, mainly to capture their manure and because chickens DO seem to me much healthier when kept outdoors. This is difficult though, because if you rotate chickens, their coop must be portable. Portable coops are flimsy and blow over in high wind sites like mine, and offer little protection from severe winter storms or from predators. If you “harden” your chicken coop, it becomes too heavy to move. Another thing we’ve noticed, is that chickens are more productive under confinement. While I think that total-confinement and battery cages are horrific and unhealthy, I have no doubt that you get the most eggs per unit of feed this way. Finding a balance between chicken health and well-being with efficient productivity I think is best served by a static coup, deep bedded, with warm-season day ranging, and chickens being fed commercial rations with naturally foraged feeds as a supplement. Chickens are also hard to work into a rotation. You want a solid year or more for chickens to be off an area before you’d eat any vegetable from that soil. And having the chicken coop distant from the house is difficult in the winter time, so the tendency is to keep it near the house. And this means you get too much chicken poop in some areas and not enough in others. When you confine chickens, deep bed them, and compost litter-bedding, then you control how it is deposited on the fields. It’s more work, but work that I think is worth it. We deep bed our dairy cattle, too. So it is hardly any more work to deep bed the chickens.

So, as the seasons have passed me by, I have gradually abandoned and whittled down my rotations to something very analogous to what 1900 farmers did in my area. The big difference is that instead of corn, I grow a garden in that part of the rotation, and omit the field peas. And instead of using red-clover as hay, I use it as mulch for the garden. I gather all the hay I need from spring and early summer-pastures, and I do not till my pastures.

It goes like this, starting with the garden.

Garden > winter wheat > red clover for two years > garden

A very simple rotation, and many would maintain that it is not long enough, though I’ve never observed a disease or pest-build up problem attributable to the rotation.

And it works very well in my area. Heavy tillage only occurs once every three years, before the garden is planted, usually in late April (which is a better time than late March).

I usually roto-till the garden under and sew and roll the winter wheat, so at no point does an area overwinter without living plants on the surface to reduce erosion. In February or March I then broadcast (“frost seed”) red clover into the baby wheat plants, which are low enough that sun will warm up the cold soil and promote germination.

It is hygienic as I apply compost and manure to the red clover field (after mowing for use as mulch) a full year or more before I eat a vegetable from that soil. None of the compost or manure gets much of an opportunity to run off because it goes into that red clover hayfield, which overwinters. Red clover both fixes nitrogen, improves soil tilth with its branched taproots, and casts pretty solid shade out-competeting most weeds. It is also unrelated to most garden plants, so you don’t have much disease or pest crossover to the garden (red clover is a legume, so it is somewhat close to garden peas and green beans, but they are more like distant cousins than close relatives).

Also, since it is a three year rotation, a given plot is always adjacent to at least one clover field. The clover field is a source of mulch for the garden, so it is not much movement that occurs. Just mow the clover and rake it into big windrow alongside the garden, then distribute it as needed. This is far more efficient process than if there is a field BETWEEN the garden and the clover field. I have my fields laid out in rectangular blocks in a square field, like most people. If you had a four-year rotation, in some years, the wheat and the boundary would be alongside the garden and NOT the clover, making it necessary to carry it over a wheat field. Towards the end of the year, when mulch is less useful to the garden, you can just mow the red clover and let it rot down to enrich that plot.

The garden is going into a plowed legume hayfield that has had manure/compost application. There is perhaps no better place to plant a garden than this, and it requires no nitrogenous fertilizer, and the mineral fertilizer is provided mainly by the animals. I rotary plow, so it isn’t moldboard plowing, which inverts the soil. Rotary plowing is rather gentle, doesn’t create plow-pan, and doesn’t really invert so much as it mixes and crumbles. It also utterly destroys weeds and the red-clover, providing better termination in my opinion than either herbicide or propane “burn downs.”

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A better way to kill chickens

Laying hens eventually need to be killed. After a couple of years, as the number of ova in them decreases, they lay less and less frequently, yet eat as much or nearly as much food as a productive hen in her prime. In this way, if you have a flock with many old hens, the young hens will suffer due to food competition from older hens with lower nutritional needs. The result for the keeper is low egg production relative to the amount of feed consumed. The only solution is to kill the older hens, and I recommend killing them at a younger age, before they actually STOP laying eggs, because chickens, like humans, enter a long period of senescence before finally dying. Their bodies shrink and become less useful as food as time goes on. So, kill your chickens in their 2nd or 3rd year, after about one or two years of quality laying. Their second laying season can be a productive one, but like Red Clover, the third is one of decline.

I have historically been negligent with killing  chickens when it was the right time, mostly because I don’t like doing it. But it must be done. These Rhode Island Reds were three years old expect for one, which was only 2 years old. Unsurprisingly, she was the only one with an active, healthy ovary. The three year old hens had not been laying in some time.

Catching chickens is somewhat difficult. They are fast, and especially old laying hens are agile. If you have a rooster, like we do, he will try and protect his hens and may become somewhat of a hazard. If you want to do yourself a favor take advantage of chickens’ poor night vision. Go out at night, when they are roosting, and simply grab them off their perches. They don’t make much noise, and they don’t put up much of a fight. I learned this from watching night-time predators, like raccoons and skunks, which take full advantage of this vulnerability.


Then pop them in a small wire cage or under a barrel or box with clean bedding or on concrete they can’t scratch or ingest. Provide no food or water overnight. This will have the side benefit of their crops being empty in the morning, making evisceration easier.

Then in the morning, while it is still cool, kill them and process them. I’ve not tried any way to kill a chicken other than chopping their heads off with an axe, which I understand is considered a poor way to do it. It works well enough if the axe is sharp and the chicken’s head is held stationary with a rope.

Old hens are not for eating like ordinary young chicken. They are tough, hard to pluck, much stronger flavored, and have less meat on their bodies. If you do stew them using slow moist heat for 12 or more hours, they do become tender enough to be edible, but the truth is that old hens don’t have much meat, and the chicken flavor is very strong, so strong that it will be found offensive to many people. Yet this incredible flavor strength makes it superlative for making stocks. About three or four times the water can be used make stock with such hens, and this how they are best used. Quality stock and broth is a cornerstone good cooking, and properly made old-hen stock and broth is superior to any that can be bought.


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From Corn Fields to Pastures

A process we undertook a few years ago, which is considered challenging by some, was to convert a continuous cornfield into a pasture/hayfield.

There are certain challenges to be appreciated here. The first is that if it has been a cornfield for long, and not properly fertilized, or only fertilized with NPK, that it will not support good germination or growth of pasture plants, though some are better than others. Another thing to realize is that the surface condition will likely be bumpy and furrowed, which makes haymaking unpleasant, and that there may be herbicide residue.

Pastures are an entire ecosystem. There is a cycle of growth, decay, water and nitrogen cycling, predator-prey relationships, etc. Pasture soils are teeming with life. Cornfields subjected to annual tillage and application of soluble fertilizers for years (ours was about a decade) are a different story. You can really just call it dirt. It is basically a substrate that holds a corn plant. Modern corn farmers rely on soluble fertilizers to sustain yields. There is no way the dirt they plant in could ever manage without the assistance of chemical companies. Cornfields are like a body on life-support, sustained artificially by technology.

My thinking is to transition from the least natural system (cornfield) to the most natural system (permanent pasture) gradually using an intermediate step—winter grains. Of course this may not work everywhere, but generally, where corn can be grown winter wheat, rye, or barley can be grown as well. And don’t forget about winter brassicas.

The first step is to perform a soil test. I used A&L labs. This is well worth the money. I took samples in the spring, which is unusual, and they had results in a day or two. Ignore their recommendations; they are for conventional farmers. You want to be a Biological Farmer. From their testing I learned that our soil is overabundant in magnesium, probably from decades of over-application of dolomitic limestone, because the natural soils where I live are not over-abundant in magnesium. This is also the reason why our soil is unusually high pH. It is not because of calcium. Actually our levels of calcium are low-normal. Our phosphorus and potassium levels were middle, and all the trace minerals were normal except boron and sulfur, which were low to critically low. The solution here is not to apply lime, which would raise the pH to the point that many plants will not grow well. The solution to the calcium, sulfur, and magnesium problem is to generously apply expensive gypsum. The solution to the boron problem is to apply borax. Most farmers where I live would think me foolish for spending about 10x what lime costs on gypsum. But lime would not have added sulfur, and would have raised the pH. If dolomite (as opposed to hi-cal) lime was used, it would have raised the excessive magnesium levels even higher. Anyway, your soil situation will almost surely be different; the idea is to take care of the soil chemistry issues FIRST, before you undertake planting of seeds, because seeds are EXPENSIVE. 10 bucks of mineral amendments per acre is a much better way to spend money than 50 bucks per acre on seed that ends up failing.I had a cornfield that had its soil chemistry corrected to the tune of about $75 per acre.

Then I had my neighbor, who is a farmer in possession of drills and other equipment, drill in winter wheat in October. His payment was the collection of the wheat hay in the following spring. It is good to do it as hay because it will be cut earlier, in early May usually. I asked him to disc and smooth the pasture, which incorporated the mineral fertilizer and the corn trash, and also made it less bumpy, so mowing (I use my pastures as hayfields periodically) would be a smoother process. This will hopefully be the last time any tillage occurs on my fields.

I told him that I would be frost seeding in white clover, perennial ryegrass, and Kentucky bluegrass into the little wheat plants in late February. He probably though I looked funny walking back and forth in careful rows with my hand-held seed spreader marking off each 12’ strip as I went. Walking an acre back and forth on foot gives you perspective not only on the size of a field, but also on life. Walking back and forth this way will beat down miles and miles in a relatively small field. I don’t have a pedometer, but according to some rough calculations, it is over a 20-mile walk to do about 7 acres this way. It will help you gain respect for our ancestors and bees as you dress your blisters and whatnot. It may make you think that marathoners are a bunch of jokers. Put some heavy boots, coat, hat, about 20 pounds of seed on their belly and tell them to WALK over a rough, furrowed clayey field in February. See how many of them finish the job. You’ll be able to tell if they cheated: there will be big wide gaps where the seed didn’t hit the ground and the field will be tiger striped.

In May, my neighbor took off his hay, and he was smitten. It didn’t look like it, but there were little baby clover and ryegrass plants growing beneath the canopy of wheat. You must have some patience and faith. Mowing the wheat smashed some to their death I am sure, but others were released. The sun shone on them now and they began to grow, and so did the mown wheat. Wheat does this sometimes when it is cut green. A second growth of wheat came on and we let our heifer graze this wheat. It doesn’t provide nearly the nutrition per acre that good pasture does, but she was sustained on it through the summer. By August, and we were fortunate to have has a nice warm, wet August, the clover and ryegrass were established and growing rapidly. while the roots and stubble of the wheat were initiating a decay cycle, so the pasture ecosystem was underway. White clover, because it spreads, closes in many gaps and areas where plants were smashed by tractors and trucks; no other legume does this. I didn’t make hay that fall, but I could have. Instead I planted tillage radishes, which helped break up compacted soil, improves surface drainage, and captures soluble nutrients that might wash away during the summer. Radishes will grow simply broadcast into sod. I was impressed with them. I also went back with some ryegrass and timothy seed and some chicory and plantain and seeded them into bare patches I had missed that Spring. The following year it was an established pasture.

There are other ways, perhaps more rapid, to accomplish this. I think my neighbor could have drilled in grass seed, like timothy or ryegrass, with the wheat in the fall. This would have made frost seeding easier. White clover frost seeds better than grass seed anyway, and it flings much further from a broadcaster. I could easily get a 20-foot spread with any clover or brassica. Grass seed sometimes only goes 5 or 6 feet because it catches the wind. If I were to do this again, that is how I would do it, but it would require a drill capable planting small seeds to the correct depth (no more than a quarter inch) and spacing. Most grain drills, especially old ones, do not handle small grass seeds well. But your county may rent out a modern one that does. In retrospect it would have been money well spent (8 dollars per acre) to have my neighbor rent the county drill instead of using his old one that could only do grain and other large seeds.

Keep in mind species selection. Ryegrass is the most vigorous of the grasses. This is why it is used by landscaping crews on completed construction sites. Nothing comes up faster and under adverse conditions like ryegrass, particularly annual and Italian ryegrass. The problem is that ryegrass isn’t persistent. I planted perennial ryegrass, which is more persistent than annual or Italian, but less vigorous as a trade off. Bluegrass and canarygrass, two other grasses I have tried, are not very vigorous. They do not work well this way. Timothy and orchardgrass are in between. I am sure tall fescue works well, too. But I am of the opinion that orchardgrass and tall fescue are of such low quality they are not worth planting. Dairy animals don’t seem to thrive on them. They are coarse and lack the pleasant sweetness of bluegrass and ryegrass and timothy. They are also EARLY maturing grasses. Timothy is the latest maturing of all pasture grasses, giving a nice long window to mow. Ryegrass and bluegrass are of such high quality that even if they get a little over-mature, they are still good, and they will both grow back well if cut when mature. Orachardgrass goes dormant when treated this way, and matures so early you can never get it cut in time. There is always rain when Orchardgrass is ready. Cow opinions matter, too. Our cow’s preference is decidedly for anything leguminous, but if she must eat grass, she WILL eat ryegrass and bluegrass and timothy. She perceives orchardgrass, which grows in an annoyingly clumpy manner, as an obstacle, akin to a plastic lawn chair or something placed in her way. I’ve never seen her eat it.

If you are starting this in Spring, I suggest planting Biannual Yellow Blossom Sweetclover, via a drill or broadcast/culti-pack, after correcting soil chemistry and discing/smoothing, and then frost seeding forage plants the following late-Winter/Spring. Yellow Blossom Sweetclover will likely not overwinter somewhere colder than Indiana, and if it does overwinter, you can just mow it with a lawnmower and use it as an excellent mulch. Sweetclover is the most tolerant of high pH of all forage plants, so planting it into a freshly limed field would probably work better than anything else. Sweetclover is a decent pasture plant in its own right, and an outstanding soil conditioner and nitrogen fixer. It is a bloat hazard, but sweetclover bleeding disease is only a concern if you make hay, so don’t make hay. Easten fresh in the pasture it has nearly the feed value of Alfalfa or Red Clover, and it won’t survive two winters. Just don’t let it go to seed. Mowing will set back the sweetclover much worse than any grass or white clover. After two years it isn’t evident anywhere I planted it on my farm.

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