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‘Fields with a broader view’

Woody Lane Published on 22 August 2014

dairy cows in a pasture

When is a pasture walk more than a pasture walk? When the farmers and ranchers in a discussion group help each other in unexpected ways. When a meeting about forages leads to decisions far larger than the conditions of that pasture. I want to share with you one of those meetings.



Last spring, the monthly meeting of our local forage discussion group was held on a member dairy farm. The farm was located south of Portland, Oregon, in the emerald green fields of the Willamette Valley. It was a clear, cool evening, not a cloud in the sky. We met on a leased property 15 miles from the home place.

Just before six o’clock, pickup trucks began pulling into the driveway. Members come from all across the Willamette Valley, from Salem in the north to Eugene, more than 70 miles to the south.

This forage discussion group is composed of dairymen, beef cattle ranchers, shepherds, hay growers and seed company personnel. Our official start time was 6 p.m., and within a few minutes, nearly 20 members had arrived.

I called everyone together next to the barn. I am the group’s facilitator. My job is to keep things on track so the meeting accomplishes its goals and everyone’s time is well spent. I opened the meeting with a brief overview of our agenda and then turned things over to our host.

He described the situation on this property and explained what he hoped to gain from today’s meeting. He wanted us to walk across the fields, observe the forages and animals, and suggest options for improving the land and increasing forage nutritive value and production.


This property represented a real challenge. The dairyman had started leasing it two years earlier for his replacement heifers. The rent was low, but he had spent most of his time clearing brush and cleaning up the fields.

In this part of the Willamette Valley, “brush” meant heavy growths of hawthorn trees and Himalayan blackberry – aggressive plants that can grow into impenetrable thickets. There were other weeds on the place as well, like curly dock and an impressive array of thistles.

But all the fields still had open areas, and he was running 60 heifers on the place. “Running” was also a good word to describe his activities, as he had busily driven back and forth from his home place a few times each week to do projects and care for the animals.

We opened the gate and walked into the nearby pasture. The first thing we noticed was what we didn’t see. There was not much grass in that first pasture. Lots of brush and low trees, some open space, some low grasses and clover, but not much forage mass. And this was during mid-May, a time of peak grass growth in western Oregon.

We also observed poor drainage; there was still some standing water in the low places. Lack of forage can be due to many things, such as low soil fertility, poor drainage, inefficient grazing strategies, overgrazing, low-yielding forage species, etc. But in the next field, we saw the same thing.

We weren’t walking blind; we had soil test numbers. In preparation for this meeting, the farmer had tested five fields. Everyone studied the lab reports, and some things stood out. The good points were: The soil organic matters were quite high (8 to 13 percent), the potassium levels were all greater than 300 ppm (we recommend 175 to 200 ppm in this area), and the calcium and magnesium levels were similarly high.


But the fields also had serious problems. Phosphorus levels were all less than 4 ppm (we recommend 15 to 20 ppm here), and the soil pH ranged from 4.8 to 5.1. These pH values are very low even for our area.

And more troublesome, the buffer index values for these fields all hovered around the very low value of 5.1. (The buffer index – some laboratories call it SMP buffer or buffer pH – helps determine the amount of limestone needed to increase soil pH. Lower numbers mean that more limestone is required.)

We walked across each field and periodically stopped and gathered in a circle to discuss the situation. The conversation went back and forth. Everyone contributed ideas. The discussion initially focused on ways to improve the forage and the soil. Although the nutritive value of the forage was very high, there just wasn’t enough of it.

Members made suggestions about a laundry list of high-producing forages: annual ryegrass, various species of annual clovers, tall fescue, white clover, festulolium, “tonic” plantain, etc. They evaluated the pluses and minuses of these different species under current and future management scenarios.

The members also explored ways of improving soil fertility, balancing potential gains versus costs. The 800-pound gorilla in the room, however, was the soil pH. The low buffer index was a powerful argument against adding limestone.

Our reference tables showed that 2 tons of limestone would have little impact in these fields, and the true expense of adding enough limestone (including tillage) could not pay for itself.

This was a quandary, because the low soil pH combined with rock-bottom phosphorus levels made it costly and inefficient to add fertilizer. Sure, applying urea would turn the forage deep green, but how much additional yield would really occur? Everyone concurred: not much. And winning the state lottery to fund fertilizer applications did not seem like a good strategy.

But then the conversation moved to a different plane with a larger perspective. We reviewed the current grazing management and discussed possible improvements, considering the limitations of the fields and labor.

Our host periodically moved the heifers from field to field, although not often enough to prevent grazing of forage regrowth. The good news was that the perimeter fencing was in excellent shape, and some cross-fencing was already in place.

But it was clear that moving animals more often would require additional cross-fencing, or at least lots of temporary electric fence. And also someone to move animals and fence. This brought up the issues of labor and time.

Since the milking barn was 15 miles distant, each routine visit would take a couple of hours and at least 2 gallons of diesel. Adding more trips to support an intensive grazing operation seemed like a bad business decision.

One member suggested an alternative strategy: move the dairy heifers back to the home place and replace them with stocker beef cattle. These cattle could be set-stocked for the months when the forage grew naturally. Once that forage was gone, the animals could be sold. Less labor, less inputs. Hmmm. That was an intriguing suggestion.

But then the conversation moved to an even broader plane. One of the members quietly asked, “How does this property fit into your entire enterprise?”

This was the critical question. This question got to the root of the business; everything stemmed from this fundamental point. Namely, did this leased property really add profit to the entire farm or did it drain funds and require a subsidy from the rest of the operation?

The group talked about this at great length. The host was deeply engaged in the conversation, answering questions, thinking carefully. We were now addressing the big picture, the important profit-and-loss picture. And in the larger business perspective, this leased property was beginning to look pretty expensive.

We walked back to the barn. It was getting cold and dark, and there was a pot of hot coffee in the barn. I ended the meeting at 9 p.m. Members then climbed into their pickups and drove down the driveway to the main road.

But out in those fields, something very important had transpired. People helped each other. Members of the forage discussion group asked serious questions. They looked at issues from various perspectives, listened carefully to each other’s comments, offered new ideas and constructive criticisms, explored potential options, and in a friendly way, gave real support to the host dairy farmer.

He gained invaluable perspectives. Ultimately, he will make his own decisions, of course, but he will carefully consider the ideas raised by his fellow graziers.

But he will not be the only one who gained from this meeting. Members offered their best judgments. They shared many options no single individual would have considered alone. And during the conversations, they all reflected how these options may apply to their own operations.

Yes, the discussion ultimately focused on the profit-and-loss balance of a single farm. But in a broader picture, this meeting gave all the members valuable insights. Everyone profited. PD

Woody Lane has a Ph.D. in livestock nutrition from Cornell University and has operated a private consulting service based in Oregon since 1990.

Photo by PD staff.

woody lane

Woody Lane
Ruminant Nutritionist and Forage Specialist
Lane Livestock Services