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Dealing with mud: Help for graziers

Kelli Boylen for Progressive Dairyman Published on 12 December 2016
A community pasture walk

Changing weather patterns across the U.S. has meant dealing with more mud for some graziers.

Dirty cows are an issue, but University of Wisconsin Extension ag agent Vance Haugen said mud can also have an effect on cows’ feet and legs, somatic cell count – and can even make grasses unpalatable.

“It is very important to take a good look at your lane system,” he said. “It can injure the cows, and if you can’t move your cattle quickly and efficiently, you are more apt to overgraze the areas that are easy to get to.”

Haugen spoke at Great River Graziers pasture walk at the Doug and Sue Konichek dairy farm in Crawford County, Wisconsin. The Konicheks farm in a valley and experienced heavy rains, high water tables and a creek that came out of its banks many times this past summer.

Part of their cattle walkway/lane literally disappeared with a mudslide and erosion; their calf area is much wetter than they want it to be, and they lost about 15 feet of pasture on a curve of the creek where the soil washed away.

Konichek said he saw more feet and leg issues in his herd with the mud on the rocky terrain, and their somatic cell count went up when the ground was wetter. “Mud is the enemy,” he said.

The Konicheks started dairy farming five years ago when their land came out of Conservation Reserve Program. They milk about 40 cows and both work off the farm. Although starting farming from scratch can be difficult, they said their biggest challenge so far has been dealing with too much rain.

Haugen recommended having cattle lanes 16 feet wide, but having a 4-foot strip along one side (the uphill side generally works best, but it can be done on either side) of the lane that is really well built (think breaker rock, lime screenings and gravel, or even better yet, concrete) to be used even in the wettest weather.

During heavy summer tains, the cattle walkway disappeared with a mudslideRaising lanes can sometimes be helpful, but that often creates ditches that could encourage erosion.

One of the most basic tips Haugen gave to help lanes and other areas that may erode is simply to “slow the water down.” He said, “It’s not only the amount of water that comes down a hill and the slope; it’s also the length of the area that the water comes down.”

For example, water coming down a hillside for 300 or 400 feet picks up much more kinetic energy than water coming 100 feet down a hillside of similar slope.

Creating “water bars” can be a big help. A water bar is simply a hump (much like a parking lot speed bump) 5 to 6 inches high created across the lane that diverts the water. This will slow the water down as it runs down. On the Konichek farm, Haugen recommended placing water bars every 20 to 30 feet parallel to the hillside where the water runs.

Their hill road is about 200 feet from valley to ridge. This slows the water velocity, and the slower-moving water is more likely to filter through the grass as well.

Konichek said thus far they have created five water bars on the problem hillside. “That has helped on the bottom half immensely. We would like to add two more to the top half.”

Haugen said water bars can be a pain when driving across them, but it is “much less inconvenient than replacing your lanes every time it rains.”

The U.S. Forest Service can be a good resource for best ways to build roads on hillsides, Haugen said. The U.S. Forest Service publication on road construction recommends “water bars be installed at about a 30-degree-angle downslope.

The outflow end of the water bar should be open to keep water from accumulating and should not flow directly into a stream to allow the sediment to settle out of the water and to prevent erosion.”

In areas that tend to be wet, such as the valley where the Konicheks’ farm is located, Haugen suggested using movable gates and wire rather than permanent gates to give areas a chance to recover and dry out after getting trampled.

And, of course, plants with deeper roots are recommended for heavy-use areas such as reed canarygrass and improved fescues.

It can be helpful to leave a grass filter strip around heavy-use areas on your farm and between paddocks and waterways. “Grass is a great filter,” Haugen said. He recommended a minimum 25-feet buffer strip for areas with little or no slope and wider strips when the slope is steeper.

Sometimes the best solution for muddy areas is to shape the bare ground to create a 1- to 2-inch slope to get the water to drain off and build up the area so water doesn’t pool. Haugen stressed the importance of allowing natural vegetation to be well established before starting to use the area again.

Wet areas near buildings can often be remedied with gutters and downspouts. Make sure all diverted water drains into areas away from manure piles. Clean, grassy areas where the cattle do not graze work well.

Chronic wet areas can also be tiled for better drainage. “This can be an environmentally sound practice, but it needs to discharge correctly,” Haugen said.

Depending on the situation and soil type, Haugen said geotextile may be useful, but that it is quite pricey, so consult with an expert before spending the money.

Another issue in grasses that never really get a chance to dry out is fungus growing deep down in the thatch. “If the grass looks fine but they aren’t eating it, get down and look around at ground level,” Haugen said. The fungus will stink, and it often will have a mildew-type appearance.

To deal with fungus refusal, Haugen said it may be necessary to clip down the grass so the sun and wind get a chance to dry it out.

Although many states and the Natural Resource Conservation Service have cost-sharing programs to help with grazing and erosion issues, the costs of maintaining them once they are built falls on the farmer. “It’s important to find the root cause and treat that, not just the symptoms,” said Haugen.  end mark

PHOTO 1: At a community pasture walk, University of Wisconsin Extension agent Vance Haugen (left) instructed dairymen dealing with mud to consider “water bars” to slow down the water.

PHOTO 2: During heavy summer rains, the cattle walkway at Konicheks’ dairy disappeared with a mudslide. As a result of the wet summer, Konichek dealt with more feet and leg issues in the herd and greater somatic cell counts. Photos by Kelli Boylen.

 Kelli Boylen is a freelance writer from Waterville, Iowa.

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