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The pasture waltz

Woody Lane, Ph.D., for Progressive Forage Published on 31 May 2021
Pasture waltz

Do you know how to waltz?

Ah yes, you answer. You remember the time when you took a dance lesson and learned the box step.

The box step: 1-2-3, 1-2-3. You and your partner carefully moving your feet, looking down at them to make sure you were right. One long step forward or back, two short steps to the side, twice, circumscribing a neat box on the dance floor. The instructor gave you encouragement and then praise. And when you left the room at the end of the session, you felt proud you had learned how to waltz.

Except it was not even close.

A real waltz – the swirling, spinning flourish of grace and excitement – is nothing like the box step. Imagine, for a moment, a scene from a Hollywood movie: a brightly lit great ballroom, the huge crystal chandelier suspended above the dancers, couples gliding around the room, moving with speed and grace, women in swirling brightly colored dresses, men in elegant jackets or tuxedos. Partners holding each other slightly apart, spinning, turning, smiling as they pivot gracefully around the dance floor. And at the side of the hall, the musicians playing a beautiful, mesmerizing tune in three-quarter time. That’s a waltz.

And when you are in that ballroom, waltzing with your partner, moving effortlessly around the hall to the wonderful music, you don’t think about the steps. You don’t look down at your feet or think about a box. No instructor needs to tell you that you are doing it right. You know it.

Which brings us to our pastures. A pasture is like a dance. It can be very special – a magical glistening field of green – or it can be less than special, just a random mix of grasses, weeds and other plants scattered through a field … the forage equivalent of the box step. A great pasture is like a great waltz. When you walk across a great pasture, it’s special. The emerald green forage is so brilliant it’s almost iridescent. Every blade of grass, every leaf of every plant seems to stand out in sharp definition. The forage is incredibly dense, a deep cushion under your feet even if it’s only a few inches high. You can feel the fresh scent of growth and life, the denseness beneath your feet, the explosive growing of something so alive. A great pasture is like nothing else, like no other field you’ve ever walked across.

But unfortunately, not all pastures are like this. Let’s walk across one.

We’ll open the gate and walk in. (And close the gate behind us, of course. We were not brought up by wolves.) As we start into the field, we look across it and notice the bright light-green color of the grass. Also with a slight tinge of yellow. Definitely not a deep emerald green. Also, as we look across the field, we can see small patches that are deeper green and a bit taller and denser than the rest. Hmm … why? The answer is straightforward: This pasture is short of nitrogen and possibly potassium and/or phosphorus. Those patches of deeper green grass are urine spots or manure spots.

We walk farther into the field, this time looking down. We see some bare ground between the plants. Not good. That ground should be covered by the green solar panels of forage, but it’s not – because the sward is not dense. Open ground means less sunlight captured by leaves, less photosynthesis, fewer carbohydrates synthesized in leaves, less plant growth, less feed. As we look around, we also see some taller grasses that are going to seed. That’s tall fescue, which is not as palatable as other forages. Which says something negative about the grazing management – that the grazing pressure has been light enough to give animals the luxury of selecting their favorite forages and leaving the rest. Grazing animals are really just like us. When given a choice, they will always choose chocolate over Brussels sprouts. A low stocking density gives them the choice, and this pasture shows it.

We can also see many areas of low-growing plants. These are species that survive overgrazing, like the bentgrasses and low-growing medics and hop clovers. These forages take up space and nutrients, but their yields are quite low. And finally, we see large weeds like thistles and pigweed and Himalayan blackberry. Many weeds will not persist under intensive grazing, so what do these plants tell us about the grazing management of this field?

Now let’s change our direction. Let’s cross the road and walk on a great pasture. We open the gate, look out over the field … and see a broad sea of deep green. The field glistens in the sunlight. Everything is the same intense dark color, no areas of light green or yellow. We walk across the field. Spongy, dense, full of life and growing so fast that you can almost hear it grow. Weeds? None. Open ground? None. Every square inch is covered with thick forage. We see many different forage species in the sward – grasses, legumes, broadleaf forbs like chicory and plantain. Even some plants folks call weeds, but here they are just part of an appetizing banquet. When managed under intensive grazing with high stocking densities, these weedy plants are just more green forage for grazing. This field is not at all like the box step.

Let’s look at the bigger picture. Yes, a great pasture is breathtakingly beautiful. It produces lots of vegetative forage and lots of high-quality feed. But why is this so important? Because a great pasture also implies many other benefits.

For starters, a great pasture means a healthy soil. Good yields cannot occur without good soil. Good soil supports lots of microbial action. This also means the forages have deep and active roots. The multiple forage species in this pasture implies that roots are drilling down into multiple depths in the soil, and each forage has its own unique capabilities for nutrient extraction. And healthy soil with an active root mass also implies the existence of a thick web of mycorrhizae among the roots. These are the microscopic fungi, intimately symbiotic with the plant, that stretch out from each root and exponentially multiply the plant’s ability to absorb nutrients from the soil. Healthy forages, indeed.

A great pasture is also a place where most toxic and dangerous weeds cannot survive – at least, not for long. Under intensive grazing management with high stocking densities, the grasses and other forages outcompete them. This translates to less money and labor spent on ways to eliminate those weeds.

And one more thing: A great pasture produces high-quality forage throughout the entire growing season, not just in the early spring before haying or in midsummer with warm-season annuals. It produces vegetative forage for the second growth and third growth, month after month, even during the very early and very late weeks in the growing season.

The bottom line, of course, is: A great pasture provides high-quality feed efficiently and economically. Which translates to a lower break-even price for raising livestock on that farm.

A great pasture implies something more. It implies excellent knowledge and excellent grazing management. It says a lot about the manager of that pasture, of the skills and decisions and years of planning that culminate in that field. As one rancher told me as we were walking across his spectacular green pasture under clear blue skies, that after all these years, his pasture was finally running on all cylinders.

Great pastures don’t just happen. They are the result of years of work. To create them, to manage them efficiently and properly, to grow that glistening sea of green so dense that it looks like an ocean of lawn, to manage the forages so they are running on all cylinders … is like dancing a waltz. And when you walk across a field like this, no one needs to tell you that it’s special. You know.

Because a great pasture is like dancing in the sunlight.  end mark

Getty Images.

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.

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

  • Lane Livestock Services
  • Roseburg, Oregon

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