Grazing the Savanna: Beyond Grass-Fed

New Forest Farm 2013 Grazing Paddocks - North Ridge in Red

This month, I’m doing something a little different with the cattle. Normally, I have them in a 1-3 acre paddock for 1-3 days, let them graze 3 or so inches of grass off the top, and then move to the next paddock. Up on the North Ridge, there’s a 25 or so acre section that is less manicured than the rest of the farm. There are lots of trees planted: oaks, chestnut, hazelnut, maple, etc, but the surrounding vegetation has not been mowed or controlled. So there are large stands of basswood saplings, prickly ash, box elder, and other woodies, as well as large swards of nice, lush cool season grass. All the paddocks on the farm have a mix of grass, trees, and shrubs, but this one is by far the most diverse with the highest proportion of woody vegetation. I’ve never grazed this area before, so I put up some fences and moved the cows into the largest paddock they’ve ever seen.

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I expected they would eat all that lush grass before eating any woody browse. They are cows, after all – that’s their job! But after a few days, I couldn’t tell they’d even touched one blade of grass. Instead, they went through and ate basswood and grape leaves first! Wild grape is super prolific in early succession fields, and this one is no exception. I never realized how much cows love grape leaves until witnessing them taking out entire swaths of grape before touching the surrounding grass.

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They’ve been on the North Ridge for a little over a week now, and there’s still a ton of forage left. It’s really cool watching the herd walk through this paddock. They make big circles from their watering troughs, eating a little bit of everything. Of course they eat lots of grasses, but they’re also constantly nibbling leaves from oak, maple, walnut, basswood, prickly ash, hazel, apple, pear, chestnut, grape, virginia creeper, goldenrod, dandelion, and many others. They don’t seem to be hurting or overgrazing any one species, just a few leaves here and there. I’m sure if I left them in too long, they’d start to damage trees, but for now, everybody seems happy. It’s almost as if they’re meant to eat a wide range of grasses, flowers, and woody perennials – not just grass. All that diversity means more vitamins and minerals as well as medicine. Once last year, we had a steer start to look sick. We were considering what to do when we noticed him mowing down walnut leaves. Turns out the chemical juglans present in walnut leaves is a natural parasitide. He was totally fine in a few days!

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All animals evolved within diverse ecosystems with access to all kinds of food and medicine. Shouldn’t we try to provide livestock for human consumption with the same ecologies available to wild animals? Not only does it provide the highest quality food, but animals stay healthier and happier.

These are some fat, healthy, happy cows!