This weeks update is about our pasture revitalization project of tree planting. Last fall I took a permaculture course and the information I learned there confirmed my earlier desire to plant some small groves of trees in the pastures. There are a variety of reasons to plant native trees in our pastures, some of them being seasonal shade and wind blocks for the livestock and shade for the clay soil we have. We live in a mild, non-brittle climate so our animals are not accustomed to temperatures much over 72*, which is our average high temperature in July and August. During the peak of the summer months the daytime temperatures can get as high as the upper 90’s, and in the direct sunshine,that sure is hot! Personally, I love the heat. But I’m alone in this infatuation with high temperatures. My husband, my soils, and the animals are much less excited than I am. It is hard on the animals as they get stressed and lose weight, and it is hard on the soil as it heats up and begins to go dormant and all soil life moves down to cooler temperatures.
Our clay soil gives us very poor drainage as the dense soil becomes saturated and takes on a state much like heavy grease when disturbed. Our area receives an average of 41″ of rainfall, and our part of the county receives closer to 50″ annually. As difficult as grease-like soil can be for the wet months, of which ours are a majority, it is also very difficult for the short dry and/or warmer season because the ground turns suddenly into concrete. We have been managing our pastures with topsoil building in mind for several years now and we are starting to see some exciting changes. The expectation is that as the trees take hold and their roots penetrate the hard soil that they will draw up nutrients that are deep below and that the roots will cause penetrations that will allow the water to sink deeper into the ground and allow the rainfall to stay closer to where it falls. Also we have noted that areas where there are a few small groups of trees that the shaded soil produces better grass than the areas left out in the open all day. Of course there is a balance here – in the densest part of the woods there is no grass and where there are many trees close together in the pastures there is poor grass growth (and the blackberries had taken over in many of these areas).
As we dug with a post-hole digger we were careful to observe the differences in the locations we dug and what the soil looked like at each location. We did not record these because it was raining and writing on wet paper just isn’t any fun at all. So far we have planted about 1/4 of our trees and we’ve noted that where there were earthworms is also where the animals had their shelter set up when they were in those pastures. The manure buildup in those areas was dense, much more than throughout the pastures. This is where the soil seemed to be less dense, easier to dig into, easier to break the sod apart.. Some locations had many earthworms, but most had one or two. As we started planting on noles where the grass wasn’t very thick we noted that the soil was very compact and had very little, if any, diversity to the layers. These are areas where the ground gets scorched quickly and grass does not grow well. These areas we planted the native trees that prefer a dryer soil.
Then we headed down toward some of the wetter areas with our water-loving trees & shrubs. I have to admit that even we were quite shocked at the first hole we dug. Not 6″ below the surface and the hole was filling with water faster than he could dig the soil out. And we were only half way down the hill. We were digging in sloppy grease and it was a mess to fill that hole back up. In these areas the Reed Canary Grass thrives, and that’s okay because the animals love to eat it. But if it’s left too long it grows to over 6′ tall and gets very woody. At this point nothing wants to eat it – livestock or wildlife.
The pasture we are working on bringing back this year has been left ungrazed for a few years and we found no earthworms at all in this section. Some areas had better soil than others, but nothing at all like what we found in the shelter areas where the sheep have been for the past 3 or 4 years. Our family has owned this property for 40 years and it sat fallow for the majority of that time until we came 15 years ago and began to move animals through the property. Only in the last few years have we started to densely graze on a daily rotation and to be honest, we don’t have enough animals to manage the Reed Canary Grass in these lower sections. That is changing one section at a time. To our knowledge, no herbicides/pesticides/fungicides/etc have been used on our property with the exception of a few areas for spot treatment of blackberries roughly 12 years ago.
So, all in all, we are pleased with how the soil is coming to life under the grazing of the animals, and we are happy to see positive changes in the areas we’ve been focusing on daily rotational grazing.