Farming Smarter, Not Harder, Part 1: Pasture and Hay

Reader Contribution by Mary Jane Phifer and Steelmeadow Farm
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Commercial does at SteelMeadow Farm, Missouri

Having a farm on one’s own; it is a dream, a vision.  One day the stars align and with blood, sweat and tears you transform your Dream into Reality.  Hopefully the fences were in place before the livestock arrived.  Coop built before the chicks came in the mail. Garden site prepped the autumn before spring planting.  In a perfect world, maybe- in reality, not so much.

We brought home goat kids first and had to use make-shift fencing, peeps in the mail grew quickly and then we built a coop, and the garden?  Make beds as you need them, why plan?

In the years since, we have made a major move from Virginia to Missouri. Hauling goats in the backs of our two pickups, chickens stuffed into a trailered station wagon, the other truck pulling a trailer with our little tractor, chest freezer, large tools and perched on top — the mailbox. Looked like the Beverly Hillbillies. It was all hard work and we brought it upon ourselves.

Farming Mistakes, Old and New

We have made all the rookie mistakes and then some. Neither of us were raised on a farm so all of this was, and still is, new.  Cattle have learning curve, but goats a steeper one.  Beekeeping was much harder than anticipated. The rocky, clay-filled, topsoil poor garden site in Missouri had none of the soft, rich dirt of our Virginia lowland location. And the rocks, all the rocks.

It has been 14 years now since the move and looking back, we are amazed at what has been accomplished. Perimeter fencing, barns, a productive garden and yes, we are still making mistakes.  When I look forward, the path is clear: living on the farm is what we want, but as we age we need to make some key adjustments to keep the farm of our dreams a happy and joyful thing and not turn it into a nightmare. We should have made a sign years ago or got tattoos on our forearms that would remind us every day to “farm smarter, not harder.” To this end, I have identified the key tenets for us to achieve this:  Grass, Numbers, Smarts.


Map showing grazing paddocks from satellite imagery.

(Still) Learning About Grass

We embarked on this new and larger farming adventure in 2006 with excitement. We embraced farming, gardening, and beekeeping.  Our farm has 25 total open acres out of the 80, divided between two fields and three smaller paddocks.  We learned Management Intensive Grazing practices and these helped us through the shorter dry spells, but intensive means you have to manage it often, sometimes once or even twice a day.

Simply: Divide a field of any size into sections, limit your livestock to a section and the livestock will better utilize the available forage.  Sound reasoning! The nine acre field went from zero divisions to three and eventually nine.  The larger, 12-acre field went from zero, four and later to 16 grazing paddocks. We learned that we could keep goats within the paddocks as well, but that meant three strings of electric twine and a suitable shock to keep them honest.  Still, baby kids and calves would invariably wander into sections closed to their mommas and the midnight calls of a cow for her calf would get us (me) up.

Hay Considerations

To feed our herds in the winter, we began with having a neighbor cut hay on shares. Later, we acquired equipment and began cutting hay ourselves, putting it up into square bales.  Cutting hay is fine, as long as you get autumn rains and don’t mind picking up bales, loading bales, unloading bales, stacking bales again. Our farm population of goats and cows grew the next several years. In 2012 a major drought hit right after we had cut and baled an early cutting of hay. We had been counting on the usual rains to get in another cutting and then more for regrowth of winter forage. 

Ponds went dry, the old shallow well could only pump 50 to 75 gallons before giving out. The damage was done and due to the lack of forage and hay, we had to drastically cut back on our livestock numbers that winter in addition to buying out-of-state hay at premium prices. Not a good year. We decided then and there “no more cutting hay” and we went headlong to stockpiled forage for winter feeding, with purchased hay that would last over a few years. Haying equipment was sold and we were happy. The next six years went by like a dream- everything was working!

Spring of 2019 was a banner year. We picked peaches, something that happens infrequently down in our hollow.  Fields were lush and tall. We could not rotate the cows and goats fast enough to keep the grass short so we decided, just this once, to have our hay cut again.  We got our name put on the list of two different folks who were cutting hay for our neighbors and we waited.

Rains were often and frequent and the April hay cuttings got postponed until May, and May into June. The first gentleman “forgot” us and left our area after he finished the neighbor’s field to the east.  The other gentleman was delayed, due to the weather and his previous commitments, until he showed up mid-July to cut hay for our neighbor to the west. In hindsight, we should had passed on the cutting but with all the rain we had received already, a wet fall was in the future, right?

We removed the strands of electric twine, taking down all sixteen grazing paddocks. He baled forty-four round bales of post-mature hay off the twelve acre field. To add insult to injury, we got hit with another drought, seven years after the last “big one.” The field did not recover to the level we needed for stockpiled forage.

This winter we have precious little forage available for serious grazing and have already fed all but six of the 44 round bales. We “expected” the grass to be lush and plentiful when we should always be anticipating a bad year. Large square bales of mixed grass hay from our local hay supplier have been supplementing the goats. We are paying for our mistakes literally with our hay purchases this winter.  To farm smarter, one cannot be lulled into a false sense of forage security- even if a drought is a rare occasion. The prudent farmer should expect/plan the worst and be surprised with the best.

Read on for Part 2: keeping track of livestock numbers and why it’s vital to maintain an updated farm business plan.

Mary Jane Phifer is a heritage cattle farmer and owner of SteelMeadow Farm in Mansfield, Mo., where she and her husband raise Irish Dexter cattle and Spanish commercial goats on their farm. Read all of Mary Jane’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS postshere.

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