Homesteading and Livestock

Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.

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Young Woman Homesteader 

In Fall of 2013, I had just relocated to Boulder, Colo., with the company I was working for as a graphic designer. Graphic design is what I went to school for, I had a decent job making $48,000 per year, a rockin’ apartment in the city, a brand new Subaru Legacy, I hiked or snowboarded on the weekends, rock climbed on week nights, and thought I was finally living the life.

However, despite having what I was taught to be “the perfect life,” I was deeply unhappy on the inside. I was becoming increasingly unhappy with my job. It wasn’t the work itself I was growing to despise; it was working a corporate job altogether.

‘Having it All’ but Wanting More

I hated commuting to work, I was bored most of the time despite expending significant amounts of energy to stay motivated, and after doing the math, I was broke at the end of each month despite making $48,000 per year.

I was a chronic consumer and wasn’t able to practice self-sufficiency in any way — I couldn’t even have a garden patio in my 4th-floor apartment. At the rate I was going, I was never going to “get there.” I didn’t see that I would ever own my own home in this location, I didn’t have the freedom to explore self employment so that I could have control over my time, and I felt just overall defeated. I knew I needed to make a change but wasn’t sure what the next step should be. I was hoping that it would become obvious with time.

Just months later, I was laid off from the job I relocated for. This left me stranded in Boulder with a lot of bills, but it was my chance to spring into action!

Car in Wilderness 

Setting Priorities for the Good Life

Jesse and I had a lot of heart-to-hearts during this time to determine what we really wanted in life. Jesse owned a business in Southern Oregon that was running without him for the most part, but we were both unsatisfied with our lives and were trying to figure out what next.

After weeks of discussion (if not months), we had the perfect plan that we thought would give us the best odds of having the freedom that we wanted in life, both financially and physically. We wanted to buy naked land, build a home ourselves which would save a tremendous amount of money, and begin homesteading.

Coming from deep within the system, this was no easy feat. I was in Colorado at the time, Jesse was in Oregon with a brick-and-mortar business, I was jobless, and we wanted to build our homestead in Idaho!

While Jesse had built a small house before, I had barely picked up a hammer at that point. We didn’t know exactly how we would make the transition to own land in Idaho, but how do you eat an elephant? You eat one bit at a time.

Step-by-Step Toward Our Homestead Dream

Over the next two years, I moved back to Southern Oregon to be with Jesse. I worked hard to become self-employed. We worked to reduce our overhead which meant lowering our standards of living so that we could save up for land. Jesse worked hard to get his business sold, and we spent the rest of our energy building micro-businesses online in hopes we could create some passive income streams to give us the time and financial freedom to buy land and start our homestead.

We took a handful of trips to Idaho to get to know the area, decide where we wanted to buy our land, and ultimately to find a piece of property to buy.

No words can describe the chaos, stress and excitement of this two-year time frame. We lived in four different houses, worked 80-90 hours per week each, and worked into the wee hours of the morning frequently. It was a great test of our relationship to say the least!

However, we knew that we were going to need a significant amount of cash for a down payment on land and as we would be living in a remote area, we needed to have an income stream that was not tied to the local economy. Even though we pushed ourselves to the ragged edge, it felt right.

In the early parts of 2015, we were working harder than ever, made multiple trips to Idaho, and nothing was falling into place! We made a couple offers on land even though the properties didn’t feel quite right, we had a small stream of passive income coming in from the internet, we were building a bit of a savings, we were uplifting our roots in Oregon, and kept pressing forward optimistically.

In July of 2015, we took one more trip to Idaho because we found what we thought was the perfect property. That’s when things finally started falling into place.

In part 2 of this blog post, I will share the next part of this journey, which will include buying our property and making the transition to living on our land. We have been living on our land for three weeks now. Feel free to check our homesteading blog in the meantime, and stay tuned for part 2!

Alyssa Craft moved to Idaho after purchasing 5 acres of land where she will build a homestead from scratch. In the meantime, she lives in a 19-foot travel trailer while beginning construction on a timber-frame home. Follow her many DIY projects, including building a barn and a house, an off-grid hot tub and starting an organic garden. Find Alyssa on her blog, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Baby Goose 

Domesticated over 3,000 years ago, geese were some of the first animals to become part of humans everyday lives. While they have been a barnyard constant since Roman times, geese have never gained the popularity of backyard flocks like ducks and chickens.

The uses of geese in ancient and modern times are numerous: The first records of domestic geese show them being fattened and butchered for food and sacrifice, but by Roman times, geese were also being raised for their eggs and carefully bred for specific traits such as calm personalities or luxurious feathers.

Geese as Guard Animals

Geese came to the forefront of Roman life in 390 BC. Sacred to the goddess Juno, a flock of geese that were kept in her temple noticed a troop of Gauls sneaking up the hill to attack the city of Rome. The alarmed honks of the geese awoke the Roman guards who attacked the invaders and successfully defended their city.

Geese are still used as guard animals in many parts of the world today. Unable to be bribed with treats and exceptionally loud, geese have keener eyesight and hearing than humans and will not miss a potential strangers intruding. They are currently used throughout China's Xinjiang province to guard police stations, and in West Germany, geese were on guard duty at to guard U.S. military bases.

A 1986 Associated Press article describes how the Army had purchased 750 geese from German farmers to guard their military sites. The geese made ideal sentinels, requiring little feed besides naturally growing grass, honking non-stop at any out-of-the ordinary activity. One hundred and twenty geese were even used to watch over the Ballantine Brewery in Dumbarton, Scotland, from 1959 to 2013 — disbanded only when modern security technology rendered them obsolete.

However, geese are not just for guarding and food. Since Roman times, certain breeds of geese have been raised for their downy feathers to be used in cushions and upholstery. Upon visiting Britain, Caesar remarked that though it was illegal to eat geese in ancient British culture, many farmers kept them simply for pleasure and entertainment. Geese also were kept to weed crops in ancient times, and still are today.

Goose Takes Flight 

Geese for Weed Control

At our farm here in Maine, we use geese to keep crops weeded. Pastured with appropriate plants, a goose will nibble all of the surrounding weeds to the ground but not touch the vegetable leaves around them.

Ideal crops to raise geese with include strawberries, raspberries, many herbs, tobacco, and anything grown on a small bush. Besides reducing the need to hand-weed, the nutrients in goose droppings help to keep the soil rich for fruits to grow.

The Maine Organic Farmers and Gardener's Association further describes geese as “the closest foragers known,” applauding their studious consummation of weeds and inexpensive upkeep. The practice of geese to weed is not new:  A 1986 Los Angeles Times article tells about a farmer who rents 20,000 weeder geese a year in California.

Gray Goose 

Geese may not be a common fowl on most homesteads, but their purposes are wide ranging and their entertainment value enormous. They've been part of farm life since before any other poultry.  Over-dramatized as aggressive and bad tempered, geese will make a helpful and entertaining addition to the farmyard.

Kirsten Lie-Nielsen farms about 2 acres of a suburban homestead using geese for weeding and guarding purposes, raising chickens for eggs, bees for honey, and maintaining vegetable gardens for personal use. Find her online at Days Ferry Organics Blog.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Only a rock is an older tool than an axe. Without an axe, the first house could not have been built, the first river spanned by a bridge, or the first wagon made to cross it — nor even the yoke for the oxen that pulled it.

Among the tools and innovations responsible for humankind's rise, an axe was premier. And even today, there are few obstacles that can stand before an axe. Sadly, the need to use an axe in daily life has diminished over the generations, and now only a very few people understand the mechanics of using this simplest of tools to its best advantage.

This video, from respected North American woodsman Len McDougall, a man who has been using axes for than a full half-century, reveals some of the lesser known basics of using an axe to make timber do what you want it to do. For more information about the tricks and tools of lumberjacking, including felling trees and avoiding learning the meaning of "widowmaker," look for Len's newest book, Modern Lumberjacking, from Skyhorse Publishers. 

Len McDougall is the author of more than a dozen books, available at bookstores around the world. His latest work, titled Modern Lumberjacking (Skyhorse Publishing, April 2016), was inspired by a relative who was killed while trying to fell a tree. Read all of Len's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



“Ok” she said as she gestured to the small empty hen house that was sitting in the corner of the yard. “Tell me what I should do with my chickens."

It was a question that I was half expecting, half not expecting. I was visiting some friends who are in the middle of a renovation on a new house that they just purchased, and I had come over to check the place out. Having just returned to California after an extensive time working and learning at Polyface Farm, I have been ready to share the information that I have gathered. With the experience I attained there, I stopped off in Indiana where I helped get a small farm laid out;  I worked with the owners on certain aspect of the infrastructure, planning, and how many animals they would start with.

It was awesome! I’m ready to share and help more fellow farmers.

Sharing this information and my experience with others has been proving to be beyond enjoyable. I love talking with people and hearing their ideas, as well as laying out mine. As I have been having an increased number of individuals ask me to come and check out their places, or wondering if they can bounce ideas off of me, I have been seeing some trends and patterns with people’s questions. What I have begun to do is have a response/first question that I approach them with.

When they ask me “what should I do with my chickens?” I respond with “well…what are your goals?”

When someone says to me “where should I put up this interior fence?” I respond with “what are your goals with installing this fence?”

And when an individual inquires as to “what methods you would use if I had you started managing my cattle for me?” I answer with “well, let’s talk about what your goals are for these cattle.”

You see, your goals determine your approach to a situation and what your actions regarding it are going to be.

If my friends with the backyard chicken coop have their goal being that they want a dozen eggs a week, but that they don’t want the chickens wandering around their yard and pooping on the deck around their pool, then their approach to how they manage their birds is going to be different than it would be if they wanted the eggs, plus a level of tick and insect control that could be accomplished by letting the birds roam free in the yard during the day.

One goal (keeping the birds in their fenced in coop) results in eggs on the table and ticks on their children, while the other (granting the birds range of the yard) might mean fewer to no ticks, eggs on the table, but extra time spent in the evening shutting the coop and sweeping the chicken poop off the deck. There’s a tradeoff. They need to decide what they really want. What they are willing to do for it. What their goals are.

This goal determining needs to be decided before an individual embarks on the journey of starting a farm, and then this question needs to be asked about the subsequent steps that result from the initial goal.

If a person is working full time and wants a little something extra just for themselves, the five hens in the backyard might just fit the bill. They set up their coop. They buy the pullets and feed, and there you go…happy homesteading. At this stage, Jane and John Doe aren’t going to worry about how to position interior fencing on their property or how to set up a brooder that can hold a thousand hens. That’s not part of their goal.

But let’s say that the Does decide that their 20 acres would also be great for raising five hogs and a hundred layers because they want to provide maybe a little additional income and they want to raise some extra food for their neighbors. Now this new scenario again begs the question on what their goals are, not just for themselves, but also for the property.

How much does the land play into it? Maybe they don’t give a rip about the health of the land, and they decide to make a stall in the corner for the pigs and a larger coop for the chickens. The pigs make a mini moon-scape in their pen and the birds continue to do their thing. Overall health of the animals is obviously not as good as it could be if the animals were out on pasture, but the Does still have jobs they have to show up to since those punch cards won’t stamp themselves.

On the other hand, let’s say that they have this awakening and it’s not only the animals that they want, but they see the potential of bettering the soil and increasing fertility and yield by rotationally grazing the pigs as well as granting the birds freedom to some pastureland. Well, now their “free time” is spent moving a group of pigs now and then and gathering the eggs from the Eggmobile that they created to better manage their free-range layers. Gone are the late evenings on the town, because they birds need to be closed in the Eggmobile and they don’t want to be heading out to the field to do it at 1am.

You can see where I’m going with all of this.

Goals determine everything, and I’m not convinced that everyone takes the time to sit down and ask themselves what they are trying to accomplish.

If you can set yourself up with a battle plan that leads to your objective, then you are ten steps ahead of where you would be if you just started throwing things together and seeing where you end up. I’m not saying both won’t work, because both methods probably would. But knowing your goals can save you frustration and trials down the road as you have something you are working towards.

So do it. Get a battle plan. If you need to, get advice. Read a book. Draw from the farming community and experience around you and formulate a plan of action that will help you fill those boxes in on your personal check lists.

I love check lists.

Let’s set some goals, people.

“It must be borne in mind that the tragedy of life doesn't lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goals to reach.”- Benjamin E. Mays

Interested in seeing more of what Tim does at Polyface Farm? Follow along through the lens of his camera on Instagram, username MyPolyfacePerspective.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Using damaged kale as a milking treat.

Most dairy goats demand a treat in return for allowing you to milk them, often a scoop of grain or other purchased, processed snack. Many years ago, we decided to cut back on grain as much as possible, to reduce both expense and health concerns for our ruminants. This partly involved replacing the daily dose of milking treat with another foodstuff that the goats would enjoy sufficiently to remain cooperative on the stand.

Plenty of goats feel that milking ends when the food runs out, not the milk. Grain is like candy to goats, and regular old hay just didn’t produce the same satisfaction and cooperation in our herd. Yet the solution was not only obvious, but efficient: using various leafy vegetables from elsewhere on our farm.

Brussells sprouts, sweet potatoes, and pole beans all produce abundant leafy waste material ideal for goat treats.

What to Feed Goats from the Garden

As a full-time vegetable farm for most of our goat-raising history, we generated a lot of “waste” material which couldn’t go to market or CSA shares, but was just fine for goats. This included:

1. Unwanted leaves left over from harvesting roots or stems, such as sweet potato, carrot, parsnip, turnip, & kohrabi.

2. Damaged or pest-ridden leaves, unsellable but goat-edible, such as cabbage, lettuce, & kale.

3. Plant material left after production, such as Brussells sprouts, broccoli, peas, beans, and cowpeas.

Goats can be picky in their own way, but in our experience they’re remarkably tolerant of damaged or pestiferous vegetable material. Wormy cabbage leaves? Yes, please, with a side of protein supplement. This makes goats a perfect alternative to the compost pile.

We’ve found that sweet potato vines, in particular, are beloved by goats. Sweet potatoes  have can their vines removed several days before digging, so during this period we gradually harvest vines each day and use them as milking treats and overnight food. Then we dig potatoes whenever we’re ready, with the vines already out of the way and turned into goat food.

Growing and Storing Crops for Goat Feed

Diversified vegetable production should have something available for the goats during much of the growing season. We’ve even experimented with overwintering hardy collards to provide fresh green snacks during late fall and spring. We’ve also stored certain greens, such as kohlrabi and cabbage: the latter’s outer leaves are usually damaged and need to be stripped before sale or consumption, so we filled large coolers with these and stored them in our walk-in cooler for weeks, slowly feeding them out to the goats.

Workers on our vegetable farm stripping kohlrabi leaves into coolers, to be chilled and stored for later-season goat food. 

If you don’t have a vegetable farm or large garden, you could still consider planting a simple “goat garden” for a small homestead herd, a block of simple and hardy greens like kale, collards, or chard that will thrive without much attention, and produce a handy source of daily treats on your way to the milking location. These greens will remain goat-edible far longer than human-edible.

What Goats Eat Can Flavor Their Milk

It’s possible some greens may add flavors to the milk. This is something we haven’t experienced ourselves, despite all the different things we’ve fed out over the years. In fairness, we rarely drink our milk straight, turning it all into cheese, yogurt, and other products, which seems to eliminate any flavors our feeding practices might introduce.

Those with sensitive taste buds may want to experiment before feeding large quantities of an item to a dairy goat. That said, we’ve made a point of never feeding any alliums to our goats, in spite of a goat named Garlic being our herd matriarch for years. We’ve also avoided feeding any plants from the solonaceous family (tomato, pepper, potato, etc.) due to potential toxicity of some members of that family, and a lack of definitive answers in that regard.

Feeding sweet potato vines to appreciative goats 

Beyond milking treats, a goat herd of any kind functions as a great destination for large-scale vegetable matter. There are times when we need to clear lots of produce vegetation at once, particularly in the fall as frost looms, and feeding out cartloads of vegetable greenery saves moving fences to new paddocks as frequently.

While bloat is theoretically a concern if you over-feed the animals, we’ve never experienced it from vegetable material. Introduce small quantities of new items first, and keep an eye on your animals. Also, because partially cured hay can cause bloat, we err on the side of caution with fresh greens and don’t feed wilted materials.

Our homestead farm doesn’t like spending money, or importing outside products onto our land, and making use of these greens helps with that. And since we compost manure and bedding, including uneaten plant matter, then use it as vegetable fertility, feeding out waste green helps complete an on-farm fertility cycle. We still have to buy hay for winter, and keep a bag of organic alfalfa pellets around as a replacement milking snack when greens aren’t available, but it’s remarkable how well garden/farm scraps work as goat treats to save money and recycle on-farm resources.

Photo 1 by Eric Reuter. Photos 2, 3 and 4 by Joanna Reuter 

Eric and his wife, Joanna, founded their homestead farm in 2006, within a narrow Ozark-style valley with diverse landscapes and ecosystems. Chert Hollow Farm seeks to integrate food and farming into the ecosystem. He managed a home dairy goat herd from 2008 to 2014, and currently works part-time for a nearby artisanal goat dairy.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



Bees have nested in your home. How do you get rid of them humanely?

There are no easy answers to this situation. After you discover bees have taken nest on your property, the first thing to do is contact a local beekeeping club — and some not-so-local — to see if there is someone in the club who does this, not so much for the bees, but as a part-time job. Sometimes there is, sometimes not.

You may be lucky and find a beekeeper willing to do the work just for the bees. Don’t hold your breath, though. If you do, the beekeeper will probably simply remove the nest — the cleanup and reconstruction will be up to you. If there is a person who does this for extra income, there are several routes you can choose. The good ones will give you a quote over the phone after asking a few simple questions. Be sitting down.

Non-Lethal Bee Removal is Work

Removing the bees, and not killing them, is work: deconstruction, removal and transportation, and reconstruction. This is where choices come in. The minimum amount of work is removing outside, or maybe inside, coverings and exposing the nest and removing it, and then that’s it. This part will cost the least, because it takes the least amount of time.

Once removed, the cavity needs to be washed and filled with insulation so it doesn’t attract bees again. You can do that, then put it back together, or hire someone else to do some or all of this. My suggestion is that you hire a beekeeper, not a carpenter. Hire both because it usually costs less. But not always. Follow the job and the quote and make that decision.

I never recommend killing a nest, but sometimes the difficulty of removal, the expense of repair, or the location of the nest make removal all but impossible. It happens. And bees out of place can be just as dangerous, and just as destructive, as any other insect. Sometimes you simply have no choice.

Call the Exterminator or Do the Job Yourself?

You can call an extermination company, but they often won’t handle this because of the difficulty of the job. And it is difficult to kill an entire honeybee colony in a wall or other structure because very often the brood continues to emerge for days, and they don’t want to return and retreat.

Exterminators will also often say it is illegal to kill honeybees to avoid this task. It isn’t, but now you know why they say that. If they do come, they will spray or use pesticide powder at the entrance in hopes that the nest is nearby. It may be close, it may be quite far from the opening.

You can often locate the nest from inside the home by putting a glass to the wall where you think it might be and listening for the hum of the hive. Find the nest, find the opening(s) and you can plan from there. If the nest is a long way from the opening, a powder will be more effective because the bees will track it into the nest, gradually exposing all the bees to the poison. It’ll take a month to kill the colony if you do this, but once you see no more flying bees, you can do the deconstruction, cleaning and reconstruction yourself.

You can apply the dust yourself and obtain the same results. But here’s a trick: Watch the opening and make sure there is only one. If there are more than one, close all but one. Duct tape is effective for this for a while. However, if you see bees coming and going from more than one entrance, you may have more than one nest. Don’t miss that.

Ladders and such may not be your best friends, but for this you can probably hire a beekeeper to come and apply it. Sometimes you get lucky and the entrance is close, and the nest is right inside. For these you can use wasp and hornet spray 3 times per week, right at the entrance. It’ll take two or three cans, but it will work. If, however, you do have more than one nest and you close their only entrance, you will have another problem — they will find another entrance. And it will probably be inside the structure, not outside. Suddenly, you will have bees coming out of electric outlets, pipe cutouts or wherever.

After the Nest is Abandoned, Clean Up the Mess

Once the nest is dead, you have to go in and clean out the mess. There will be honey, wax, and lots of dead bees — figure a dead cat’s biomass that will gradually rot. The nest itself, now unregulated relative to temperature, will gradually disintegrate and the honey will run out, and soak through walls or ceilings. You have to clean and fill the cavity, fast.

When the Nest Does Not Pose a Threat

However, sometimes the nest is in a location that is not dangerous to passersby, not doing damage and not causing a problem. Can you let it stay there? In all likelihood, it will not make it through the winter and be gone by next spring and you can fix it then with much less difficulty and cost. Just leaving it alone is a choice, too.

Photo by Gallery Hip

Kim Flottum is the Editor-in-Chief of Bee Culture magazine. Bee Culture has international exposure and covers the practical side of keeping honey bees, whether one or two colonies in your backyard or on an urban rooftop, or managing them by the hundreds or thousands.  Connect with Bee Culture on Twitter and Facebook. Sign Up For The BUZZ free, right here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page. 


Please note that I am writing about my personal experiences outlined in Part 1, which take place in the northeast U.S. with mob-grazed beef cattle. Some of the ideas below are not applicable to the Western states, where grass species and range management tactics are very different. I am also not addressing dairy farms or irrigated pastures. However, I firmly believe that the strategy described below works. I have observed its successful implementation on numerous farms from Missouri to New York.

Forage Recovery Management

Allow your grass to get tall enough to hide cows’ legs.

It’s common knowledge that short, vegetative grass is more digestible than mature, taller grass. For this reason, many agriculture professionals recommend a short grazing rotation (30-40 days). I personally disagree with this practice, in favor of tall grass grazing. By “tall grass”, I am referring to Eastern cool-season perennial forages such as orchard grass and tall fescue, grown to at least 10 inches between grazings.

My reasoning for using tall grasses is as follows. You can expect the root system of a grass plant to mirror the size you allow its top growth to reach. That means that a grass sward you regularly let grow to 12 inches has roots about 12 inches deep. If you graze your grass down to 2-inch stubble all the time, the root system will degrade and become very shallow. That’s fine if you could guarantee 2 inches of rain every week.

But when a drought hits (and it will!), short grass with short roots and no stored nutrient bank can’t survive. Nonexistent grass is not digestible at all! In addition, no trampling of forage mass (for decay into soil-building organic matter) can occur unless grass is allowed to reach or surpass about 10 inches in height. You can definitely forget stockpiling winter feed if you’re grazing into the dirt. Say hello to the hay bills.

If you provide your grass-genetic herd with taller, fully recovered grass, they will do just fine as long as their intake is never limited. Read that sentence again: If you provide your grass-genetic herd with taller, fully recovered grass, they will do just fine as long as their intake is never limited! Having hardy, easy-keeping genetics is absolutely imperative to successful tall grass grazing.

Dairy cattle and commodity beef breeds are generally high-maintenance animals with extreme production demands placed on them. These types of cattle may not be suited for grazing mature forages. Equally important is providing more grass to your herd than they could ever consume, every day and every move.

Managing your pastures to build soil fertility and plant nutrient content is hugely important if you’re grazing more mature forages. That topic could fill books, so review the work of Greg Judy, Allan Savory and Ian Mitchell-Innes for more information about holistic fertility building.

What is the key to getting this tall, abundant grass? Proper recovery period management! Recovery is the single most important factor that determines the sustainability of your grazing plan. It is the root (pardon the pun) from which all the benefits of mob grazing grow.

Consistent full recovery is the only cost-effective way to develop a strong forage-soil-microbial ecosystem. Any other fertilization method would require more money and labor than I’m willing to supply. Simply letting grass rest long enough has countless benefits: increased livestock carrying capacity, less water runoff and erosion, more attractive habitat for wildlife, and protection for soil organisms from scorching sun.

A grass plant has recovered fully when it has grown back 3-4 mature leaves after being grazed. This is the earliest point at which another defoliation will not damage the plants. If you graze said paddock again before that time, the plants’ root systems and regrowth vigor will be harmed.

In the Eastern United States, full recovery can take anywhere from 60 to 120 days. It varies based on season, precipitation and soil health. I recommend allowing a recovery period of at least 75 days on every farm east of the Mississippi River. With the right cattle, it’s nearly impossible to have a recovery period that’s too long.

The only exception to the 75-day rule may be during spring greenup, when grass is growing extremely fast. You can decrease the recovery period that follows your first spring rotation, but only if cattle are stocked lightly enough that they eat only the tips of the grass.

When you’re grazing fully-rested tall grass, it should hide the legs of your small, barrel-gutted, stocky cattle.

Forage Allocation

Let cattle eat until they’re full and lie down, hiding their legs.

If you never see your cattle lie down, this could indicate a forage allocation problem. When provided with all-they-can-eat forage, cattle will fill up on grass, then lie down to ruminate. They repeat this cycle multiple times per day. You should regularly see your animals lying down and chewing their cud (which hides their legs).

If there isn’t enough feed for your cows, they will be up grazing all day, trying desperately to fill their rumens. They’re expending precious energy that could be used for gain, and not taking in enough of it as it is. Move the herd off each paddock when a maximum of 50 percent of the forage in it has been eaten. This allows the animals to select the most nutrient-dense forage and trample the rest. Animal performance is maximized, and so is grass sward health and organic matter incorporation into the soil.


Make sure to check the left sides of your cattle for rumen fill regularly. If there’s a sunken triangle between the ribcage and hip just below the spine, the animal’s forage intake has been limited. That triangular area should be full and rounded on properly fed cows. Give your herd more grass if you see sunken spots. You must check the left side of the animal, because the rumen is not visible on the right side.

(On a side note, even well-fed cattle will voraciously graze every new piece of pasture they turned onto. If you are moving multiple times per day, don’t be surprised if cattle are eating constantly. In this case, they’re probably not starving.)

In summary, your cattle should appear not to have legs. Breed for short, stocky, grass-efficient cattle whose legs get lost in the grass. Your grass must be allowed to recover fully to a tall height, covering the legs of your animals. Do not allow more than 50 percent of the grass to be removed and reveal your herd’s hooves.

Allocate your forage so that your cattle have more to eat than they could ever possibly ingest. This allows them to fill up, then lay down and hide their legs to ruminate. Breed and cull your herd to fit into a low-labor management plan, so you don’t have to spend time looking at your cows’ legs. If there’s no legs in sight, you’re grazing right!

Meg Grzeskiewicz is a ranch consultant helping new and experienced farmers build profitable grazing operations. Meg’s articles have been published in Progressive Forage Grower magazine. She now runs Rhinestone Cattle Company, a mob-grazing beef operation built on leased land and custom grazing. 

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