Livestock Fencing Workshop – The Recap

Thanks to all the folks who came out for RAFFL’s Livestock Fencing and Pasture Walk workshop on June 29th–the first of our summer workshop series. Despite a drizzly rain, Willie Gibson from NOFA-VT and Colin Stabile of Maple Tree Farm led a great discussion and debate about how to manage pastures and use fences effectively. Below is a quick recap of the evening. Stay tuned for a video of the workshop, to be posted in the next few days!

Workshop recap:
– Quick intro by Colin and Gretchen of Maple Tree Farm. They’ve been raising beef cattle at their spot for 14 years. In the past, Colin believes their land has been overgrazed. With NOFA-VT’s adivce, they went from having four big pastures to creating smaller paddocks with poly wire fencing.  The resulting changes have been really promising.

– Colin uses poly wire electric fencing to block off small chunks of land to manage where his cows graze and where the manure goes to fertilize the pasture. Cows graze a chunk of land and then are moved to new section. Afterward, Colin brush hogs the field and then chain drags his pastures (hooks a chain drag to his tractor and then drags it through field to spread the manure).The field then rests, allowing pasture to grow back, for about a month until the next grazing.

Maple Tree Farm– Willie and Colin debated how often to mow fields and whether or not to chain drag. Willie thinks mowing in the early season is crucial to get rid of unwanted weeds but much more than that isn’t necessary. He also doesn’t believe in chain dragging, as he wants the manure to stay in a clump to support more biodiversity. Colin believes spreading the manure is good for the land and also reduces fly breeding ground. Great debate with both sides making good arguments–more research and experimenting needed! Check out the upcoming video for the full effect.

– The key to a good pasture is diversity. Often animals choose a spot to lay down–that’s where the manure is. If a part of the field is lacking in nutrients, move the fence to force cows to the nutrient-lacking section so the manure will help nourish the land.

– Idea: Grazing on taller grass. Willie discussed an idea about grazing cattle on grass that’s typically taller than normal. The section should be fenced off into a long and narrow chute, with the idea that cows will wonder down the strip looking for a good spot to lay down, not find a bigger opening, and then walk back. In the process, the cows will trample some of the grass, forcing more organic matter into the soil. Colin has tried it. They wasted a lot of the feed, but he will continue to experiment.

– Overgrazing causes weed issues. How do you know when a field is ready to be grazed again? Pasture grass should be at least 6-8 inches, with an ideal height of 8-10, maybe even 12 inches tall. Grass should also be a deep green color. Typically it will take fields 35-40 days to recover, but don’t rely on a set number of days. Graze the field only when it’s ready (high enough grass and deep green). If a field needs 50 days, wait 50 days.

– In the hotter and drier months, don’t let the cows graze the plants down too far as the grasses won’t be able to recover as quickly.

– Fence is poly wire with fiberglass posts. Poly wire is 9v with 6 strands. Get the fiberglass posts with the sun coating ie the grey ones. Colin uses a rubber mallet to get the posts in the ground when he can’t do it by hand–always use gloves when handling the fiberglass stakes. Willie recommended buying a cheap electric cord reel (should be $5 or so–the orange one) from your local hardware store to manage the poly wire more efficiently. The perimeter around Colin’s big fields are wood posts. Colin recommends Wellscroft Fence Systems as a great store to buy fencing supplies.

– Soil compaction. Some of Colin’s fields have compacted soil, which is common when grazing cattle because of their weight. He recommends borrowing an aerator from the Poultney Mettowee Natural Resources Conservation District. Willie added that folks should have their soil tested as soil compaction can occur due to a lack of magnesium. UVM-Extension has a good soil testing program.

– To end the workshop, Colin and Gretchen’s son, Truman Stabile, gave a great demo of the “H construction” corner post. This technique is much sturdier than an end post with supporting 45 degree beams. You should watch the soon-to-be-posted video for more info!

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