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Pasture grazing

GAYS MILLS - I recently went on something called a pasture walk. Pasture walks have become more common in recent years as farmers turn to grazing their livestock rather than keeping them confined. Pasture walks happen when farmers who are grazing livestock currently, farmers thinking about grazing, or like me, people just interested in the idea of grazing, get together and visit a local grazing operation.

The walk was the first of the grazing season and was organized by the Kickapoo Grazing Initiative. The KGI was begun in 2012 and is a public-private partnership between Trout Unlimited, Vernon County Land and Water Conservation, the Valley Stewardship Network, the Mississippi Valley Conservancy, and the University of Wisconsin Extension. There will be several walks throughout the summer and into the fall.

Grazing is an impressive way of farming and has a lot to recommend it. The concept is to keep livestock in a more natural environment, out on the grass, rather than tightly corralled, fed and managed in a more labor intensive way. The Driftless Area is a perfect place for grazing livestock with our varied landscapes, concentration of organic producers, and small family farms.

Grazing today is not the grazing of days gone by. Grazing today is commonly known as intensive rotational grazing. Cattle are directed to a small area known as a paddock within a larger pasture area. They graze this area for a limited period of time, maybe a day or two, and then are moved onto another small paddock.   Paddocks are allowed to rest and recover for about 30 days until the herd returns. Using easily moved and effective electric interior fences within permanent perimeter fences makes rotating pastures possible.

Pasture walks are somewhat unique among meetings for farmers. Farmers, known to be independent and self-sufficient, attend pasture walks to share ideas and solve common problems. Farmer hosts of pasture walks are usually very open about what problems they have or had. They show what they did to remedy the situation or ask the group for advice on what to do. 

The walk I went on addressed three problem areas: lanes, overwintering a dairy herd, and providing water in the pastures. Grazers construct lanes for dairy cattle to travel to and from the barn for milking. Coarse rock covered with gravel keep the cattle out of the mud on their daily treks. This farm was very steep and ice became a problem during this past tough winter. Various ideas were tossed around about this problem as we stood on a steep lane.

We moved on to a feeding area where the herd was wintered. During the past winter, the cattle did okay, although the owner did open up a sheltered draw for them during the worst of it. One of the goals of pasturing is increasing the fertility of the soil. By moving feeders around on the wintering area, the manure was distributed quite uniformly over the site.

The last site was at an interesting cattle waterer. In the middle of a large pasture, the cattle must visit something called a Mira font waterer to get a drink. The device uses geothermal energy to provide water year-round with no freezing. Ground water, from six to eight feet deep, is about 53 degrees and the heat of that water keeps it liquid in the insulated waterer. Cattle push on a blue plastic ball fitted into a round hole to access water. When the cow leaves the ball bobs back up to fill the hole and hold the heat in and the water wet.


Former Crawford County Agricultural Agent Vance Haugen led the discussion for this “field trip” in his usual quite entertaining and very educational manner.