Thursday, 12 July 2012

Swimming in Grass

Can cattle be mob-grazed when heavy clay soils are saturated? I was hoping not to have to find out until winter, however here in the UK, during the summer of 2012, we're enduring the wettest spell in recorded history! The ground is completely waterlogged; every time it rains there are rivulets running down the road as the ground cannot absorb any more water (and it has rained pretty much every day since the beginning of April!); cattle turn land into a quagmire within hours and it is wet, wet, wet!

To say it has been a challenge is an understatement. However, to answer my own question, yes, cattle can be mob-grazed on saturated heavy clay soils. Management practices do have to be adapted, and it's not always pretty. Here are a few of the things I have learned during this monsoon season:
  • Ensure the forage is very mature - mature forage means there's a lot of material between your cattle's hooves and the delicate soil. This provides a significant amount of protection for the soil
  • Don't overgraze - be prepared to waste more forage than normal. Once the cattle get hungry, they start to hunt around the pasture. This increases trampling and poaching massively and accelerates potential soil erosion and pasture damage
  • Give the cattle a larger area than normal - the majority of the most badly poached areas here were on the first strip after they've entered a new paddock. They are completely confined onto it and cannot move anywhere else, so poaching risk increases
  • Move the cattle frequently - go and check them every few hours and if needs be, move them to a fresh parcel
  • If you're providing temporary laneways to your water, move these each day too, onto fresh grazing - once cattle have walked up and down a laneway for a day, it is at risk of becoming a mudbath. New laneways reduce this risk; the cattle graze their way slowly to the water
  • Make sure you give the pasture sufficient rest after a wet grazing - as long as you have not left the cows on the land for longer than a few hours, and definitely not longer than a whole day, the pasture should not be too damaged and the grasses will grow back
  • Offer straw if the forage is lush and rich in protein - I offered a few wedges of barley straw each day when the cattle were grazing a clover rich, high protein, wet pasture which hadn't had sun for several weeks (and so was low in sugars and energy). They cleaned it up with relish
What the wet weather has confirmed to me is that water is definitely the limiting factor here in the eastern half of the UK (we average c.650mm in a typical year here). Even without much decent sunlight and with lower than average temperatures, the grass has just kept on growing. We are, literally and metaphorically, swimming in grass this year!

A field that was heavily trampled during the recent wet weather. The strip on the left was the first part of the field the cows entered onto and looks beyond repair

This is the same field a couple of weeks later, after regrowth has started. There are a few dead patches on the left where it was too heavily trampled but overall it is growing back very well. This field should have a total rest of c.85 days before it is regrazed, more than enough time for the grass plants to fully recover.

Cattle grazing a clover sward yesterday, 11th July 2012, during one of the wettest summers in recorded history. The damage to the land in the foreground is, hopefully, superficial but shows how wet the land is.

A close up of the clover-rich sward the cattle are grazing. It desperately needs some sun but is, I hope, full of protein. Certainly the cows' dung got slightly looser, though not as bad as I'd feared. The sward is very mature so there must be a significant amount of fibre within it.


  1. On your pictures what is the density of cattle per ha ? and how many times a day are you moving them ?

  2. Hi Tom, very interesting, I agree with your points.
    Do you have an estimation of the daily growth rate of your pastures in such a wet summer?

  3. Hey Tom, I was reading through the big mob grazing thread on BFF and saw your post where you put this blog's URL. Too funny, I hadn't realized that "The ruminant" was you! I've been reading here for a while and have sent you a fair bit of traffic from my blog. The photos are awesome, post more. Cheers, Brent.

  4. Hi Tom, how is the regrowth now ? How are you managing things with this wet fall ?