When Buttercups are Bad: Co-Pasturing Field Day at Wild Geese Farm

Nancy Apolito, our Finance & HR Manager, sends in this report about her recent adventure in Western New York, staffing a field day in Rushford, NY at Wild Geese Farm.  The field day’s theme was “Maintaining Pasture Systems to Meet Your Farm Goals.”

Lynn and Shawn Bliven pasture feed a herd of cattle, 5 horses, and 25 sheep in addition to housing a dozen chickens.  Lynn Bliven led the field day with a walk through four of the pastures to demonstrate the results of co-pasturing livestock.  Aaron Santangelo from Cornell Cooperative Extension–Allegany & Cattaraugus County provided valuable information regarding pasture plants that are harmful to livestock and the way that these plants propagate.  Farmers who know about the full lifecycle of these invasive can strategically manage their herds on pasture to avoid problems and sometimes alleviate the weed pressure using the animals’ inherent capabilities.

Bull Thistle

Canadian Thistle

Bull Thistle

Canadian Thistle and Bull Thistle grow and spread differently.  Bull Thistle needs two years to produce seed–it’s less aggressive when its life cycle is disturbed yearly by turning the soil, but it’s a problem in pastures since they are not tilled.  Canadian Thistle has underground growth that makes it problematic even in tilled fields.  I found out that even common plants, like buttercup, can be very dangerous to a herd.  Grazing behavior (as in, what to eat) should be taught to animals–they won’t know what is poisonous by instinct.  Older animals in the herd or flock can set the right example, and farmers should be careful to watch what the young animals are eating.  Lynn shared that she lost 15 sheep due to their grazing on a plant in the nightshade family.  Even wild rose can cause problems for the smaller animals.

The highlight of the afternoon for me was seeing the sheep and the cattle pasturing in separate areas. Lynn spoke of the differences in the pastures after the different herds have been grazing.  I was amazed at the difference (I don’t live on a farm, remember!) between the vegetation in the pastures, which was impacted by the physical size and shape of the different species.  One great way to deter invasive plant species is to allow cattle in to trample the plants down.  The sheep on pasture clip the field down farther than the cows want to and this maximizes the value of each pasture.

The pastures at Wild Geese farm have taken 17 years to reach this point.  Co-pasturing takes organization and each species requires different enclosures and management; Lynn also discussed some common problems with grass fed herds, weaning calves, and establishing healthy environments for many types of animals on a farm.  However, going this route has helped make the pastures more productive and the farm more profitable.

Lynn shared aerial maps and grids that help the farm plan out pasture schedules.  They’ve also used this tool to carry out a slight re-grading of the landscape and some drainage improvement projects.  This allows for animals to have access to high-quality pasture areas and a water source at all times.  Healthier animals will make for higher-quality meat and better returns for the farm!  My day was rounded out by two Red-Tailed Hawk and one Osprey sighting over the gorgeous landscape.

Further Resources:

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