I am in the process of making pasture right now. It’s been a years-long chore.
To make a pasture, Identify the type of forage you want, consider both common and alternative pasture options, and understand your soil and climate to know what pasture crop will work best. Both native and non-native varieties may work. You may have to clear the land if planting a new crop.
This is a longer article, but you’re going to want to read the whole thing.
Making a Pasture
Making a pasture starts with setting up boundaries and understanding what the land is capable of. If you have the option, pick a location that has a combination of easy access, good sunlight, good drainage, and flatter land. Good location will save you time and grow the most feed value in fodder.
The simplest way to make a pasture is to just fence in semi-clear land and put large livestock on it. Let them eat overgrown brush down and begin fertilizing the soil. It may take a few months, more or less. Cows, horses, and goats are the best for this. They will clear land quite well in time.
By splitting up pasture into smaller paddocks, they will clear the land much more efficiently and you can then give the land a rest to re-grow native pasture crops while they work on another section. My friend cleared him a brush field that way with a few cows. Now it grows the thickest grass you’ve ever seen.
It’s most common to initially clear the land with a brush mower or bulldozer. Although, not everyone actually needs to. Animals will happily clear brush and young tree growth. You may or may not want to seed a specific crop after the land is cleared. It depends on a lot of factors.
There are a lot of different types of pasture which you probably didn’t know about. We’ll get into those in a minute, but for now, just ask yourself what animals you want to put on pasture and will feed for that animal actually grow in decent quantity.
The first step to making a pasture is understanding what type of pasture you want and what you will be using it for. You need to establish it based on your function and intentions.
Understanding Types of Pasture
The two main pasture varieties are annual and perennial pastures. Most are perennial, meaning the pasture crops, once established, will keep over winter and grow back every year. Annual pastures look like a regular crop field. The difference is that it’s not going to be harvested
Annual pasture crops are for livestock forage. This is popular with holistic livestock products like pastured pig operations. Planting a high-energy crop like rye or oats, or more commonly a mixed crop, as an annual for pigs will let them forage in a pasture and get enough to grow well. It takes yearly planting.
Its benefit is that it’s not permanent. You can plant one thing one year and another the next. Or, even two things in a year in a warmer climate. For the farm or homestead that’s not sure which direction it’s going to go, that’s a very good option. I have a section in which I plan to plant a corn/sugarbeet mix for pigs.
My favorite annual pasture crops
- Sunflower- high protein and good carbs
- Corn- high carbs
- Sugar beet- Moderate carbs, good green fodder.
Perennial pastures are more varied and much lower input is needed to handle them. While an annual pasture needs regular planting, perhaps tiling, and maybe a tractor, a perennial pasture is more conducive to a less high-tech operation. Perennial pastures are much more varied and are usually easier to manage.
Perennial pastures can be wild or cultivated, short-crops or silvopasture (trees and shrubs). A more cultivated perennial crop will likely require heavy equipment to establish, and local native plants may make it necessary to re-plant or re-establish from time to time.
Yes, you can have a pasture containing or completely made of trees. More on that in a minute
Wild plants are usually hardier, but perhaps less prolific. The benefit of wild perennial pasture is that you can take any barren land and forget about it, and the result is a pasture. With good management, it can happen very quickly. And most native, wild pasture is a good quality green fodder.
Most pastures are short-growth perennial pastures filled mainly with grasses. That’s what most people think of when imagining a pasture. That style of pasture became very popular after the introduction of tractors with baling equipment, although it has always been around.
Short-crop pastures are very easily and most often overgrazed. But, with good management, they will provide a lot of green fodder for grazing animals. Your classic pasture suits animals like cows, sheep, goats, and horses. The issue is that most grow a very low-protein crop and animals usually grow pretty slowly on it.
Grass is low in protein. Northern climates have a higher protein grass but don’t grow as much. Options like alfalfa, comfrey, and chickory are much more protein-rich and nutrient-dense options, where they can grow. I often recommend folks mix those in with their pasture.
Short-growth perennial crops that I really like
- Completely wild, whatever grows
- Sunroot/jerusalem artichoke (not really short, but it works)
Silvopasture (trees or shrubs)
Silvopasture is designing pasture specifically with trees. They can produce all three types of feeds: protein, green fodder, and starchy feedstuffs. Trees are the only way to grow a truly high-energy feed in a perennial pasture. Consider crops like acorns, chestnuts, and apples.
These all fall to the ground when ripe and provide valuable proteins and carbohydrates Including them at least in part in a pasture will give you a big boost of feed quality at least some of the year. That’s how I am designing our pig pasture. It includes fruit and nut trees which mature at varied times.
Some trees, like crabapple, will hold their fruit well into winter, providing a starchy feed source for animals that can reach, or just shake the tree to drop them for shorter livestock.
Trees also grow leaves which are great green fodder. Tree leaves are higher in protein and minerals than short crops. Trees grown for green fodder are usually coppiced or pollarded. Coppicing is cutting a young tree very close to the ground so it grows more as a shrub. That way, animals can eat from it.
My favorite trees for silvopasture
- White oak
Pollarding is letting the main trunk get a bit taller before topping it. usually, pollarding is done to keep animals from eating the leaves until you cut branches down for them. It’s a more time-consuming management practice, but you can manage things more closely that way.
We are going to be pollarding some trees. By topping the main trunk at about 5 feet and letting branches grow upward from there, I can grow a harvestable feed for our animals and some functional firewood.
The larger branches, called poles or pollards, are usually cut every few years to keep the tree pruned to a manageable size and to make sure the tree still has enough sunlight under it to grow grass.
Shrubs, specifically European Elder, was traditionally used as a fodder source for sheep in England. Since so many properties had borders of elder hedges, it was regularly used for hungry animals.
Types of Pasture Feed Crops
Pastures can grow green forage, high-energy crops, or high-protein crops. They can also have a mix of those. You need to identify what you want your pasture to produce and what type of animals you want to feed. All varieties of livestock can be well-fed from the right pasture.
So, what types of animals might you want to raise? If you ar wanting to raise livestock for meat, then extra energy is well warranted. Sure, cows can grow on grass, but with some extra carbs and protein, they grow much faster.
I’ll split them all into two main categories.
- Vegetative fodder
- Tree leaves
- Starchy vegetables
- High-energy fodder
- starchy tubers
For us, we want to grow food for pigs, chickens, and rabbits. Pigs and chickens don’t utilize fiber that well and need a diet similar to us. Rabbits can eat just about anything green and be happy. Our pasture has to have elements of carbs and proteins in it. We are getting that mainly from trees.
The plan includes a section of apple, mulberry, pawpaw, and pear trees which all mature at different times. Sugary fruits are a valuable source of carbohydrate energy. They really help animals to keep up their growth and activity levels.
We are also planting a few heavy-producing nut varieties like chestnut and hybrid oak. The nuts contain some of the proteins that are lacking in greens and grains and are high in starch.
Choosing the Best Pasture Type For Your Needs
Your soil, region, and intentions will dictate the best pasture type for you to create. Silvopasture is well-suited to sandy or marshy areas, and trees withstand drought better. Short-crops require less care and re-grow more quickly after grazing. Annual pastures provide more feed value and are more customizable.
I’ll give you four questions to identify which pasture type you should consider.
- What is your soil like?
- How much rain do you get?
- What’s the terrain look like?
- What animals would you consider pasturing?
You can’t do much in barren sandy soils, but I could do a few things. In the native sandy soils of Michigan, we have trees more than any other plant. The most common are Red Oak, Red Pine, and Jack Pine. Sounds like a goat pasture to me. Goats can handle a lot of oak leaves, acorns, and pine needles.
I would plant the trees and top the main trunk at 3 to 5 feet. Gpats would be able to reach a lot of the greenery, but enough will grow high to keep the tree alive. By pruning the trees now and then, they will stay shorter and provide even more forage. By letting some oaks mature, they’d produce acorns too.
In marshy or swampy soil, I’d consider wetland grass and/or wetland trees. Poplar (aspen) and willow are two wet-soil-loving trees. Hybrid poplar is the fastest-growing and most leaf-producing tree out there. It’s grown in a coppiced and pollarded form to provide high-protein greed fodder for livestock.
In uneven terrain, grass may be a good option because it establishes quickly and stops soil erosion the first year. Grass is certainly the easiest thing to grow. It naturally establishes itself anywhere and grows very well in semi-fertile soil. Grass also comes back after grazing incredibly well. That’s why it’s popular.
I won’t be creating a grass pasture because it won’t benefit us much. We primarily want to grow feed for pigs. They need protein and high energy so we’re concentrating on tree crops that can grow proteins and sugars. Our soil is very sandy but also rich, so they should grow well.
Look at your land and see what’s already trying to grow? Most open land is already technically a pasture if it’s moderately fertile. Fertility is the key to a pasture.
How to plant a short-growth Perennial Pasture
To plant a pasture, clear the land of any trees and shrubbery then allow it to go wild, or prepare to plant your desired crop. Pasture soil can be prepared by mowing it short, or by tilling the soil. Seeding can be done by hand or with tractor equipment. Tilling is the often recommended method for new pasture.
Short-growth perennial pasture will grow wild anywhere the land isn’t wooded. There is no need to seed anything unless you are wanting a fodder-type that doesn’t grow in your area. Managed, rotational grazing will improve the soil and cause grasses to be the dominant fodder crop if let up to nature.
Grass grows faster than most other pasture fodder, and it grows back after grazing the fastest. Because of that, it will overgrow and crowd out the more stemmy plants and noxious weeds, as long as the soil fertility and moisture is conducive to grow grass. It needs more fertility than other weeds.
One of the things that will undoubtedly help establish a new pasture is a little fertilizer. Regardless of what type of fodder you want to grow, fertilizer will help it, especially in the beginning. In a field full of noxious weeds (usually comes from overgrazing or erosion) adding Urea fertilizer will really help the grass grow back.
Mowing can help get rid of weeds too. Mowing periodically mimicks rotational grazing. The cuttings work as a light mulch to keep the soil moist, then break down into compost to improve fertility, and the plants are stimulated to grow more. But, either mowing or grazing too much is bad.
It’s usually best, if you can manage, to keep your fodder crop somewhere between knee and waist high or so. The taller the fodder, the faster it will re-grow and the more it will cause the soil to improve. As the soil improves, pasture grows better. That’s why rotation is important.
With rotational grazing, you can let animals in a new section before the last section is over-grazed. Overgrazing is considered the leading factor to pasture loss and a big contributor to food insecurity in the world. Most pastures are overgrazed. Don’t do that if you can help it.
How to create Silvopasture
To create a silvopasture, identify useful trees that will grow in your region to grow as a leaf, fruit, or nut crop. You can purchase young trees, but that’s expensive. Trees can be planted from seed and sometimes rotted from live cuttings. Many wild-growing trees can be included in silvopasture as well.
The biggest parts of successful silvopasture is selecting trees and deciding on the proper height. If you coppice trees (cutting the main trunk 4-6 inches from the ground), they will grow as shrubs that any livestock can reach. Coppiced trees will generally never grow fruit, seeds, or nuts in a pasture.
If you pollard trees, you keep them taller and somewhat out of the way of grazing animals, but not so high that you can’t saw off leafy limbs for them. Trees that are pollarded will only grow fruit or seeds if not pruned too much and primary branches are left to mature a bit.
If you want a fruit or nut crop, you need to let the tree growth mature. Remember, most mast crops like that will drop to the ground when well-ripe.
If there are already trees in the pasture area, you can use them. Most wild trees under 6 inches in diameter take well to pollarding or coppicing. You literally just cut the tree down to the desired height. Trees can be planted at any time in any part of the pasture, but new trees should be protected from grazing.
If the pasture becomes over-grazed, animals will eat the bark off of trees, usually killing them off. If there is sufficient green fodder for them to munch on, they like that much more. In full-silvopasture operations, animals killing off trees isn’t really a problem. Just don’t over-graze the land.
During the winter months, animals may decide to nibble on trees, even if you are giving them enough to eat. This is especially true if there is a snow cover on the ground. It’s usually less that they are hungry and more that they get bored and want to nibble at things. Horses are the worst at it. Cows rarely do that.
If starting from scratch with no useable native trees growing, a silvopasture generally includes fodder trees planted in rows for easy management. It’s easier to fence the area that way too.
Some silvopasture is planted with the trees just barely outside the fence and the branches pruned grow over the fence, into the pasture. This will prevent animals from ever chewing the bark off the main trunk.
We are developing a silvopasture. It will have fruit and nut trees planted along the north edge so they won’t shade the rest of the area. We will include both coppiced and pollarded wild trees, mainly red maple and poplar (aspen), as leaf crops.
We will be planting comfrey and alfalfa in sections through the middle, and allowing a lot of it to grow whatever wild, short-growth fodder the soil wants to spring forth for us. I decided to integrate trees as a silvopasture after last year’s drought, as trees are more drought-resistant. Plus, trees grow fruit and nuts.