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Mother Nature Grows Grass Better Than We Do

grow-grass-naturally

If you’ve ever grown a garden then you know how hard grass is to eradicate. Anyone who has tried to keep “the perfect” lawn also knows how hard it is to grow. Yet grass has been growing naturally long before we were around to spray, mow and fertilize it.

We need grass. Its roots stop soil from washing away; grass removes significant amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; it captures dust and smoke from the air; and animals feed on it.

Hay is cut grass that has been dried to store for livestock feed.

As the snow piles up and buries the grass, we need hay to feed our animals. When we bought our farm in 2009, the hay fields were old and tired. Decades of cutting the hay had stripped all the nutrients out of the soil. Large parts of the once fertile ground had turned to sand, and other spots were so compacted that we could hardly chip it with an axe. Something had to be done to rejuvenate the fields, but we were leery of rushing into a decision that would impact the land for years to come.

So, we waited and watched nature right itself.

grow-grass-naturally

Conventional Methods

Local farmers keep approaching us with offers to work our hay fields following conventional farming practices. This usually follows these simple steps:

  1. Spray chemicals to kill everything.
  2. Rip it all up.
  3. Grow grain.
  4. Spray chemicals to help it grow.
  5. Spray chemicals to kill everything again.
  6. Rip it all up again.
  7. Plant hay.
  8. Spray more chemicals to help it grow.

Too many of these steps involve chemicals for my liking. I prefer grass that you can walk on without a mask. Or when you can pick a tender stem and chew on it without getting mouth cancer (not to mention the fossil fuels consumed by the tractors going round and around and around).

There are sometimes good reasons to till your hay fields and give them a break, such as serious disease or other major issue that needs correcting, but this is a very unsustainable practice for long-term grass management.

Nature’s Fertilizer

After we took over management, the yield from the fields decreased significantly as the residue of the chemical fertilizers was used up. The most common fertilizers applied to grass are a combination of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (labelled on bottles as the N:P:K ratio).

Fertilizers are expensive, so nitrogen is usually applied by itself on large fields to increase yield, but this is an unsustainable solution. Nitrogen will increase the yield for a few years, but then it needs to be applied again. The extra money that farmer’s make off the field will usually just pay for the fertilizer.

Legumes such as clover, alfalfa and sweet peas are nature’s way of balancing nitrogen. Nitrogen fixation is when plants take nitrogen in the atmosphere and convert it into a form that the plants can use in the soil. This process can take several years, but it builds the soil and isn’t a quick-fix fertilizer.

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A Sea of Yellow

One year, it looked like we were growing a crop of dandelions instead of hay. Forty acres was a bright yellow that looked absolutely beautiful until they all went to seed. Of course, we were told to spray herbicide, and this is often the same mentality that is applied to urban plots. But dandelions have their benefits, and they did wonders for our soil.

Most dandelions you pick have small leaves with a root about six inches long. But a dandelion can produce leaves the size of a Kleenex (and they are actually an amazing substitute) with 10-foot-long taproot. This root penetrates deep into ground, aerating compacted soil and bringing buried nutrients to the topsoil. When the plants die, the decomposing weed adds healthy plant matter to the soil.

Our fields did not produce much hay that year, but the following year it came back stronger and healthier. All thanks to a little weed.

grow-grass-naturally

Water

When we bought our farm, one of the realtor advertisements was a pond in the middle of the fields: a shallow, murky water hole surrounded by scraggly reeds. There was no life in the fields, and that was sucking the life out of the only water source available. Without deep roots to hold it, water runs out of fields at an alarming rate. In the spring, the melting snow would form a fast-flowing river for a week, and all the water in our fields would wash away.

I wish I had a picture of the 2015 drought when our fields were burned barren. But I think if I looked at it too often it would probably make me cry. The grass was so depleted, and the roots were so shallow, that the sun burned it all away.

But now that the grass has established itself and formed solid roots, our spring river has become a trickle. We now have two vital, healthy ponds, and it looks like more are developing.

A Little R&R

Haymaking strips the land by removing the grass and nutrients year after year. The grass is removed before it goes to seed so it further deprives the soil of future growth.

Letting tires=d hay fields rest for a year has huge benefits. The roots become stronger and more established, the grass dies and adds humus to the soil as it decomposes, and seeds drop from the mature grass heads and reseed the ground to grow the following year.

Wildlife

Leaving the grass on the fields also attracts wildlife which can benefit the soil. In our case, an abundance of deer and elk come in the winter to eat the grass lying dormant under the snow. These large herds apply lots of natural manure, but they can sometimes be very destructive if you are not prepared for them.

The undisturbed fields also become a sanctuary for many birds that nest in grass, and for small mammals.

“Pests”

The population of these small mammals exploded the first few years after we started managing the fields naturally. Pocket gophers and ground squirrels were everywhere, and their mounds and holes pot marked the fields making a very bumpy drive in the tractor. These small rodents are considered pests in the agricultural world, and are shot, poisoned, drowned, gassed and systematically eradicated on farms.

But they actually benefited out land by loosening and aerating the soil.

A single rodent can move up to 2,000 lbs of soil per year.

Their tunnels also slowed surface runoff by channeling and storing water. And we can’t forget about their manure, either. Just when it looked like were going to take over the farm, a family of badgers moved in and kept the invasion at bay.

Isn’t it amazing how nature balances itself out?

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Grazing

Not only wild animals benefit the land. Like the elk on our farm, or the bison herds of old, domestic livestock can positively impact the soil and the grass by eating, digging and pooping. By eating the grass, the animals keep it from becoming too mature and stimulating further growth and root development. Livestock have split hoofs to scratch the surface of the soil to loosen it and let in air and water. And nothing helps a plant grow better than a steaming pile of…you get the idea.

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The Finished Product

This process is never finished, and our 12-year project will continue for years to come. Things are slowly moving in the right direction, and we are standing back and lending a helping hand when needed to the natural processes at work.

Now we are collaborating with a neighbor in a way that is benefiting all involved. He plows our driveway and helps us with his equipment, while his cows graze our fields in a rotation with the hay. His cows get the lions share of the hay since our small flock of sheep doesn't require very much. The hay is eaten on our farm so it eliminates trucking, and the nutrients return to the fields where they came from. Our fields being eaten, stomped and pooped on by livestock and wildlife.

Back to health the way nature intended.

grow-grass-naturally

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

Comments

Bellwether Farming (author) from Alberta, Canada on February 08, 2021:

Yes, the principles of natural grass management apply to every scale. And it's great that your lawn thrives without artificial inputs.

DW Davis from Eastern NC on February 08, 2021:

I am always encouraged to read stories about farms that are taking a natural approach to land management. I never had to maintain a farm field, but I did learn from my father to wait until the grass seeded before the last mow. I have a nicely carpeted lawn and haven't had to buy seed in twenty years.

Nadeem Iqbal from Lahore on February 08, 2021:

welcome

Bellwether Farming (author) from Alberta, Canada on February 08, 2021:

Thank you, Peggy W! The use of synthetic products anywhere, and especially for farming destroys what nature created. Essentially we are letting nature take back what belongs to her.

Bellwether Farming (author) from Alberta, Canada on February 08, 2021:

Thank you, nadeemiqbalbhatti!

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on February 08, 2021:

Congratulations on bringing life back into your land by farming it in a natural way without the use of pesticides, and chemicals.

Nadeem Iqbal from Lahore on February 08, 2021:

very impressive words.

goog job