Thompsons Rebuild Pasture Fertility

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By Cindy Baldwin
CANTON – Three years ago, Chris and Sheri Thompson, Canton, looked at their 350-acre pasture and saw the possibilities. Now they are seeing the results. The Thompsons are being recognized as the 2019 McPherson County Conservation District Grassland Award winner for their work in improving the pasture located north of Maxwell Game Preserve between Canton and Roxbury. The pasture, which had been in the family but rented out for many years, is now managed by the couple.
“The pasture was poorly managed with the brush and cedar trees taking over,” Chris said. “Buck brush covered about 15 percent of the pasture when we started.”
Working with rangeland specialist Doug Spencer, the McPherson County Conservation District/NRCS and funding from the EQIP program, the Thompsons developed a plan that will eventually restore the pasture to full productivity. Work immediately began on clearing the pasture. The couple continued cutting cedar trees and believe they have that problem under control. The pasture has been aerial sprayed twice to address brush and noxious weeds and was burned last spring. Thompson said he plans
to burn again this spring. Relieving the competition from trees and brush has made a clear difference in the health of the native
grass. The Thompsons have not had to plant any grass as it is regenerating on its own.
“Where there used to be patches of musk thistle, now there’s grass,” Sheri noted. “The grass is coming in much thicker.”
But, eliminating competing plants was only one part of the equation in regenerating the pasture. Recognizing that former grazing practices played a big part in degrading pasture quality, the Thompsons developed a grazing plan that would immediately utilize the pasture while giving it a chance to put on new growth.
The pasture had been managed as two parcels, but the Thompsons developed a rotational grazing plan that has it divided into six paddocks. The roughly equal-sized paddocks were designed for efficiency. The pasture has three ponds and two creeks providing reliable, year-round water sources, and each paddock has natural access to water. Cattle are moved through the paddocks dependent on the rate of grass growth. Over a 90-day grazing period, they plan on three rotations through the paddocks. How quickly the herd will be moved will be determined by grass condition in the paddock.
“The cattle will rotate through all six paddocks three times, but how quickly we move them depends on rate of grass growth. The first rotation, when the grass is shorter and growing rapidly, will have fewer days than a rotation later in the season when the grass is more mature and growing slower,” Chris said.
The Thompsons have been using a reduced stocking rate to reduce pressure on the grass but expect to be at a normal or higher stocking rate for the area soon. They have been able to make progress toward that goal. In the second year, they were able to graze twice as many head as they had the first year but for only half the time, which allowed the grass a recovery period.

In 2019 the pasture held stockers. Chris Thompson said cattle were put in the pasture in May and came off in August as they wanted to give the pasture a late season rest.
“Even though we had a dry fall, the grass really put on a lot of late season growth,” he said.
To take advantage of that winter grass, the couple moved cows into the pasture this month for 60 days of dormant season grazing. They plan to graze three of the paddocks – which they have temporarily split with polywire into even smaller paddocks. Keeping the cattle tighter utilizes the grass better, improving the uniformity of grass regrowth. The cows will be supplemented with alfalfa hay. The couple plan to bring stocker calves back for summer grazing.
“There are lots of good things coming out of winter grazing. We’re able to cut back on winter feed costs by utilizing the dormant grass. The cows are in better shape and, by stomping the dead stuff down, they are effectively mulching the pasture, kind of like using no-till in a field,” Chris said.
“And, they are spreading their own fertilizer,” Sheri added.
In addition to grass management, the couple have done some dam work around the ponds. The pasture had experienced some areas of erosion, but Chris said that seems to be resolving itself as the grass rebounds. They have also noticed more deer and quail since the grass has improved. Work on pasture improvements has meant a lot of late nights, according to Sheri. Both have off-farm jobs – Chris works for MKC and Sheri is a nurse with the Newton public schools – so the work has been
done on evenings and weekends. The couple have been pleased with their progress. Chris said they saw the best improvement in the second year and have been told to expect the third year to double that growth.
“People talk about sustaining the pastures, but we want to do more than sustain what we had. We want to improve it to where it returns the best profitability possible while maintaining good grass health,” Chris said.
Chris and Sheri are well on their way.

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