Pecan Creek Farm is named for the small creek that divides our 20 acres. We don't actually farm pecans, but we do farm pasture. Some years ago when our pasture knowledge was sketchy, we asked an individual somewhat experienced in all-natural grassfed beef what he used to fertilize his pasture. He said "nothing". I did not question him further. I took his answer to be literal and final. Since then we have discovered that adding fertilizer to your pastures may not be needed, but if you literally do "nothing", that is what you will have for a pasture, "nothing". In defense of the individual who answered our question, he may have been doing many other things to improve his grazing. We now wish we had asked more questions.
Pasture farming is based in the concept that grazing animals will eat and do well on a diet that is more than just grass. A monoculture pasture (one species--usually grass) requires a lot of labor and usually chemicals to sustain. A multiculture pasture ideally will have many species of edible plants which exist in a natural balance with each other. However, pasture farming is subject to the same variables as row crop farming. Drought, excessive rain, extremes of heat and cold are factors that can really wreak havoc on pastures. Our farm was used to produce corn and cotton until 1995. So the land was heavily treated with commercial fertilizers. The soil is heavy clay, and the farming practices of the previous 50 years had left the surface soil hard and compacted. Since then, we have used no inorganic fertilizer on our pastures.
At the onset, let us say that the number one, most important, most significant, invaluable ingredient to pasture farming is water! If there is no water, nothing will improve your grazing. So, keep this in mind. The quality of your pasture and the effectiveness of your management will be directly affected by the availability of water. This obvious and simple conclusion was hammered home to us in the spring and summer of 2011. For years we have subscribed to the Stockman Grass Farmer and strongly recommend subscribing to that publication. It is full of hints and methods for pasture improvement, but none of them will work adequately without water. That being said, good pasture will lessen the amount of water needed and hasten recovery following a water shortage---even a severe shortage as happe ned in 2011.
We are not soil experts, but we are soil observers. What we are concluding is that pasture following commercial fertilizer withdrawal will recover somewhat on its on with some good management. Here are a few things we have done which seems to help. If you fertilize, use something which adds or encourages the microorganisms in the soil. Around central Texas, Sustainable Growth Texas and N-Texx BioSoil Enhancer are good placed to start. Certain legumes, in particular clover, seem to help with naturally fixing nitrogen into the soil as well.
Here is another aid in pasture farming---goats. We do not particularly like goats. They have a habit of going places where they are not invited and eating food intended for other livestock. Our goats also like to kid in the worst weather and in the worst places. Nonetheless, they are terrific at keeping most weeds under control. Goats are "browsers" and prefer weeds or brush to grass. Most of our pastures have had no weed killer at all for the past 15 years. So, if you are starting out and needing to fence your property, consider goat proof fencing for your perimeter. We generally allow the goats to wander wherever they want inside that perimeter fence.
The biggest weed problem that we continue to struggle with is control of noxious/poisonous weeds. The goats and the cattle will not eat certain weeds because they sense that they are not good. Now, this may not sit well with some individuals, but we decided to spray broad leaf weed control in a two acre area to control False Ragweed and are considering spraying the dry creek bottom and sides to control Cockleburs. This will amount to an area of about three acres that we will spray. We are looking at the overall picture. Sometimes, you just need a little help. In these areas we have used frequent mowing, over seeding, hand removal, and propane torch burning. Still, we have made little progress. We welcome any suggestions from anyone reading this. I am not suggesting this as a regular activity, but to bring a particularly obnoxious intruder under control, you may need to resort to spraying, Be aware, however, that other beneficial broadleaves may also be killed and you will disqualify that area from organic certification for 3 years. The one area we have sprayed thus far has come back very strong with nice Coastal Bermuda and Johnson Grass. No additional fertilizer added except for what the cows left behind. Email us with comments, questions or suggestions. We are still learning.