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A walk through the valley

Woody Lane, Ph.D., for Progressive Forage Published on 31 December 2020
The valley

The valley was breathtaking. Driving across a twisting mountain road, I could see the green strip far below.

Isolated and remote, the valley floor was a series of narrow fields along the river bottom, with the stream meandering among the hardwood trees on the far side of the valley. Here in the rugged, forest-covered mountains of the Oregon Coast Range west of Corvallis, those fields were being rented by a rancher in our forage study group. He was trying to piece together enough acreage to raise cattle, and we were visiting that valley for this month’s meeting.

I say “we,” but I am referring to the local rancher study group composed of livestock producers from across the broad Willamette Valley in western Oregon. For more than five years, we have met monthly to take pasture walks, share experiences and discuss technical issues and ranch economics. I’m the group’s facilitator. Members pay annual dues, and our meetings are not open to the public. Although the members all have solid technical knowledge and practical backgrounds in forages and grazing, they are not all cattlemen. They actually raise many types of livestock – beef, sheep, meat goats, horses and dairy. These different perspectives help expand our discussions and make them more insightful and rewarding. This evening’s meeting in this valley was particularly good, and I want to share parts of it with you.

We gathered near a tiny church at one end of the valley – 15 people in rubber boots carrying clipboards with soil test reports and other notes. We left our vehicles in the parking lot and started walking across the nearest field. After a hundred yards, we stopped, gathered around, and the host rancher described his operation. He spread out a couple of aerial maps so we could orient ourselves to the layout.

He explained that although the fields were contiguous, he had rented all of them from five different owners along the valley floor. This was a satellite operation for him. His home place, where he ran most of his cows, was nearly 40 miles away over those tortuous roads. This valley represented a potential opportunity to expand his operation and draw more financial support from the beef cattle business. But he only had short-term leases for these fields, and he wanted feedback on options for better utilizing the fields in the context of his entire operation, so we discussed these fields in terms of strengths and impediments.

The first impediment is that here is not there. Those 40 miles of mountain roads between his home ranch and these fields translate to at least a half-day to drive here and take care of chores – not an easy thing for someone with many other irons in the fire, especially in winter. So we discussed options that were either one-time events or self-sustaining projects, which ruled out options like intensive rotational grazing.

The second impediment is, well, history. For many years, nothing much had been done to these fields. Oh yes, some hay had been removed and some cows had been fed – but by and large, the landowners were rather set in their ways and a bit (maybe more than a bit) reluctant to support major changes. Unspoken, of course, was the understanding that the landowners were probably apprehensive about a younger newcomer with lots of radical ideas. We couldn’t disregard these subtleties. Our suggestions had to consider more than straightforward production benchmarks. If we weren’t sensitive to that traditional culture, the lease agreements could be at risk.

We walked across the pastures, field after field, looking at the forage and the cows. The cows were in good condition – not particularly surprising since it was only late spring – but the fields were underwhelmed with forage. The soil tests revealed why. All the fields had pH levels between 4.6 and 5.1, values that may be unbelievably low to corn growers in the Midwest but are unfortunately rather typical of our coastal Oregon valleys. But the buffer indices of these soils were also low, which was economically serious. It meant these fields would respond only reluctantly to limestone, and therefore a lot of limestone would be needed to cause any significant improvement. “A lot” meant 3 to 5 tons per acre to raise the pH even to 5.6, which meant the need for equipment to incorporate that limestone. Which was generally not practical for such a short-term lease.

One field was particularly low in phosphorus and calcium and also marginally low in magnesium and potassium. Our host had named that field “Rocky.” Good name. We suggested that unless our host won the Oregon lottery, he should put his limited resources into the other fields and leave Rocky alone.

All the soils contained lots of organic matter – from 7% to 13% – which is typical of valley soils in the Coast Range. This much organic matter would act as a deep reservoir of soil nutrients, even at the low pH. But as we walked across the fields, we couldn’t help but notice the deep green spots of manure and urine patches. A major clue: a shortage of nitrogen. Everyone concurred about one option: try applying some nitrogen and sulfur early in the fall to one or two fields and then monitor the results.

Then we talked about feed availability. Sure, intensive grazing would be nice, but for these fields, who would be available to move animals and fence? There was no local hired labor, no teenage kids. Maybe (folks initially suggested) if water sources were available, these fields could be split into halves or thirds with electric fence so each grazing cell would have enough feed for seven to 10 days. We discussed this in depth but decided the risk was too high.

The water sources were not dependable in all the different grazing cells. Also, it would not be prudent to plan for tightly scheduled animal movements because those mountain roads could be covered with ice and snow. But we thought, after some intense discussion, it might be feasible to install some electric cross-fencing in two or three of the most promising areas, particularly those with added nitrogen, and then see what happens. This seemed a reasonable balance to minimize risk and maximize the chance to increase feed supply, at least for a short period during the grazing season.

We discussed the “holes” in the feed supply – months when forage growth was especially slow or lacking. In Oregon, anyone can grow feed during the spring. But these valleys, which receive 60-plus inches of rain in the winter and spring, experience summers that are bone dry. Our host had some irrigation capabilities – not much, but some. So we considered this: What about planting a productive annual forage in one field, a forage that can get by with only one or two shots of irrigation but would still provide nutritious green grazing well into the dry summer? Our first choice was sorghum-sudangrass, but then we rejected it.

It would require late planting because it’s a warm-season grass, which makes it too risky for the available labor and schedule of this operation. Then, we thought, what about a forage brassica? Particularly one of the new hybrid turnip-rape-kale varieties that have been bred successfully for leaf yield, multiple cuttings and fast growth. Some group members already had lots of experience with these brassicas and were enthusiastic about them. We also toyed with another option: Italian ryegrass, which is a specialized annual ryegrass planted in the spring to provide vegetative growth during its first summer. Both options seemed promising.

Finally – which field to plant this annual? We had to weigh the subtleties and explore strategies. One of the landowners had a house on the southernmost field. Of all the owners, he was the most open to innovation and trials. Perhaps this was a strategic opening. If our host planted his annual forage in that field, and then worked closely with this gentleman to watch over the field, move the irrigation pipes and perhaps move some fence once the cattle began grazing that field, then he could see firsthand the benefits of improved forage and fertility. And if that person was impressed, he would probably talk to the other landowners in the valley. Then they might be more willing to let this newcomer make additional changes. They also might be more willing to extend the leases, which could permit other, longer-term field improvements like adding limestone and building better water supplies.

The meeting was drawing to a close. Everyone in the group had participated in the serious conversations and had helped develop practical options. And the host rancher had received valuable feedback on his ideas from people he respected. It had been a good discussion.  end mark

Woody Lane is a certified forage and grassland professional with AFGC and teaches forage/grazing and nutrition courses in Oregon, with an affiliate appointment with the Crop and Soil Science Department at Oregon State University. His new book, Capturing Sunlight, Book 1: Skills & Ideas for Intensive Grazing, Sustainable Pastures, Healthy Soils, & Grassfed Livestock, is available on Amazon and through Woody Lane.

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Corey Lewis.

Woody Lane, Ph.D.
  • Woody Lane, Ph.D.

  • Lane Livestock Services
  • Roseburg, Oregon
  • Email Woody Lane, Ph.D.

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