When it comes to raising dairy cows, pasture management requires more intentionality than you may expect.  From understanding the nutritional needs of cows to recognizing signs of poor pasture health, Suzanne of Reverence Farms is a wealth of wisdom on this topic.

Whether you have future plans of owning a grazing animal or you are looking to take your current pastures to the next level, this conversation with Suzanne is rich with practical information and plenty of education for every homesteader.

In this episode, we cover:

  • Pour THIS on your pasture to increase pasture health
  • What to look for on the surface of your pasture to gauge its health
  • The beginnings of a healthy pasture
  • How you can determine a cow’s level of nutrition by their appearance
  • Understanding the nutritional needs of cows
  • A real world example of a dairy cow’s diet
  • What rotational grazing can look like on a small homestead
  • Markers to look for in evaluating the quality of your grass
  • The problem with fescue and how to manage it
  • Shifting our perspective about taking care of our pastures

E17: What You May Not Know About Pasture Health | Suzanne Nelson of Reverence Farms Homesteaders of America

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About Suzanne

Suzanne is a farmer, educator and encourager of others’ agrarian dreams. She and her husband, Hue, own and operate Reverence Farms. 

The farm, located in the Piedmont of North Carolina, started with a single family cow and a ¼-acre garden while Suzanne was pregnant. Vivian, who is now 14 years old, milks the herd and schools herself at home. Suzanne’s parents and brother are also involved, making the farm a three-generation livestock operation with the middle generation being the first to farm in several generations. 

The 400 acres they manage also includes a flock of primarily St. Croix sheep, Berkshire pigs, eight (8!) Great Pyrenees, four horses and 40 Jersey bulls of mixed ages that travel all over the U.S. and Canada, either on hoof or in straws, to breed more cows that can efficiently convert forage into high-component, high-cheeseyield milk. The milk is made into cheese at Chapel Hill Creamery. 

Prior to farming, Suzanne was an investigative reporter on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. She covered money in politics and the “inside baseball” of the U.S. Congress for Roll Call Newspaper, then a subsidiary of The Economist. A couple of life-shattering encounters with the conventional medical system caused her to rethink the foundational role food plays in health, and she began a radical journey to grow food that at first led her to a year in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2006. 

She chose North Carolina to start a homestead in 2007 because of then-inexpensive land coupled with nearby universities (and burgeoning food culture). With her first cow and heifer, along with a small cadre of goats, sheep and chickens, she began to learn the forgiveness in grass and the alchemy of restorative food systems. From 2016 to 2019, Reverence Farms ran a farm-to-fork cafe, with 90% of the food sourced within five miles — ultimately shutting it down because their rural community wasn’t ready to metabolize the true cost of a hamburger (healthy cooking oils, fair wages for labor and integrity in ingredient sourcing). Suzanne’s passion remains helping to restore the rural community they are a part of by forging relationships and creating opportunities for solar-powered agriculture, which also includes helping those getting started in dairy navigate the unique challenges of lactating animals. 

Dairy cows brought Suzanne and Hue together — he was the vet giving the talk at a 2015 Acres USA conference, and she was the farmer in the front row. Five months later they were married and farming together. Caring for their own 80-cow Jersey herd and helping others to grow their pastured-dairy dreams now consumes their days.

Hue is still the vet: innovator and formulator of holistic treatments for the company that bears his name that Suzanne helps manage, resource for farmers and other veterinarians with organic husbandry, as well as caretaker and milker of the farm’s A2A2, 100% grass-fed Jersey herd. And Suzanne is still the farmer: coordinating the nursing relationships of 80+ calves on their own dams, grazing and improving 250 acres of pasture and breeding her beloved Jersey cows to produce butter from sunshine. 

Hue and Suzanne both grew up in the northern suburbs — he outside Philadelphia and she Chicago — and a circuitous route brought them both to an agrarian life in a part of North Carolina more culturally rural than its proximity to Chapel Hill would suggest. Together, their life’s work is to bring people back into connection with land, livestock and one another in purpose-driven farming communities and empower others to take care of God’s creation as the stewards He originally put in the Garden.

Resources Mentioned

Treating Dairy Cows Naturally by Dr. Hubert Karreman

Understanding Ag with Allen Williams

Grass Productivity by André Voisin

Managing Cover Crops Profitably by Andy Clark


Suzanne Nelson of Reverence Farms | Website | Instagram | Facebook | Reverence Farms Instagram

Homesteaders of America | Website | Instagram | Facebook | YouTube | Pinterest

Join us at the Homesteaders of America Conference in October 2023!

When it comes to raising dairy cows, pasture management requires more intentionality than you may expect.  From understanding the nutritional needs of cows to recognizing signs of poor pasture health, Suzanne of Reverence Farms is a wealth of wisdom on this topic.
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Pasture Health Transcript

Amy Fewell Welcome to the Homesteaders of America Podcast, where we encourage simple living, hard work, natural healthcare, real food, and building an agrarian society. If you’re pioneering your way through modern noise and conveniences, and you’re an advocate for living a more sustainable and quiet life, this podcast is for you. Welcome to this week’s podcast. I’m your host, Amy Fewell, and I’m the founder of the Homesteaders of America organization and annual events. If you’re not familiar with us, we are a resource for homesteading education and online support. And we even host a couple of in-person events each year with our biggest annual event happening right outside the nation’s capital here in Virginia every October. Check us out online at HomesteadersofAmerica.com. Follow us on all of our social media platforms and subscribe to our newsletter so that you can be the first to know about all things HOA (that’s short for Homesteaders of America). Don’t forget that we have an online membership that gives you access to thousands—yes, literally thousands—of hours worth of information and videos. It also gets you discount codes, an HOA decal sticker when you sign up, and access to event tickets before anyone else. All right. Let’s dive into this week’s episode. 

Amy Fewell Hey, guys. Welcome back to this week’s Homesteaders of America podcast episode. I’m your host, Amy Fewell. And this week I have with me Suzanne from Reverence Farms. Thanks for joining me, Suzanne. 

Suzanne Nelson Amy, thank you so much for having me. 

Amy Fewell Yeah. Go ahead and tell us a little bit about who you are because in the world of social media, you’re probably not… You know, you’re not like Homesteaders of America with tens of thousands of followers. Right? Or maybe you do. I haven’t checked recently, but you’ve been growing pretty steadily on there because you’re super awesome with information. So tell everybody who you are. And you guys, as she does that, check out the show notes, too, and we’ll link all that information there. 

Suzanne Nelson Thank you. We’ve been pretty quiet in our little corner of the world because the farm, for me, was at first a sanctuary for myself. And then I was building something that I knew was going to take a really long time, and I wanted to have something to show before I spoke about it. And so we’ve been farming now for… Well, my daughter’s 14, so 15 years. And we’re in the Piedmont of North Carolina, which is in the central part of North Carolina. We’re really close to Chapel Hill, but the area we live in is far more rural than our geography would suggest. We live in a pretty rural county, even though we’re only 15 minutes from the not-so-major metropolis of Chapel Hill. We have about 60— soon this year, it’ll be 80 milking Jersey cows. It’s nuts even to me, given that I started with one and her heifer calf in my backyard rotating on 9.6 acres. And no, the herd was not grown all organically. We bought some cows at some point. We also raise hogs, just a few. And we have inherited sheep, mostly St. Croix breeding. We have a laying flock, a couple of them actually, and we’re working on breeding some heritage Delawares. The farm historically has raised quite a few pigs and chickens, and that’s how I built the soil and built up my husbandry experience, because dairy cows, as you know, are kind of like the pinnacle of husbandry, and it takes a while. And I always recommend that people start with those smaller species because it teaches you a lot. So my mission is to turn sunshine into butter. Along the way, at a conference, I met my husband, Hubert Karreman, who is an organic dairy vet. And we started farming together and we’ve been together about seven years. So it’s our little corner of paradise. We have about 400 acres that we manage of farmland, and then we have another hundred or so hay acres. And that’s pretty much our life. 

Amy Fewell Pretty much your life in a nutshell, right? Yeah. So the funny part is Suzanne and I connected on Instagram, and Suzanne, before I realized who you were married to, because that didn’t matter, but I was consuming Hubert’s books because they were the only natural cow books really out there that I could find of any substance. And so Suzanne actually reached out to me, and we were talking about Hazel, my little cow Hazel, and just dairy farming and farming and homesteading in general. And then I finally put the two together as to who you were married to. I didn’t even know it those first couple weeks, so I thought that was really funny. But all right, so the one thing… Let’s just put out there how we got started with bringing you on the podcast was I saw you post a video on Instagram, and you were actually putting whey on your pasture. And so for you guys, if you haven’t seen her Instagram, it’s pretty captivating because she just kind of lays it all out there. But it’s also a lot of stuff you’ve never seen before. Like, I’ve never seen anyone spreading whey on their pastures. So I wonder if you could talk to us a little bit about pasture management and things like putting whey on your pasture and how to build up your soil and grass. 

Suzanne Nelson This is my favorite subject and I’d love to talk to you about it. And I’m also obsessed with it, but I have to rewind a little bit and address how you knew me and then you realize who I was married to. That is not an uncommon response because Hubert and I were both independently operating in this world of organic dairy for a number of years. And we actually met at Acres USA. I sat in the front row of his talk and we got married a few months later. And one of my most entertaining things for many years thereafter is when he and I would speak at conferences, particularly dairy conferences, and we’d run into people who we both had known for 10, 15 years who knew each of us independently. And then we’d be walking in the conference and speaking on the same podium and holding hands, and all of their faces every time, it was just always awesome because they were just like, “What happened?” 

Amy Fewell That’s hilarious. Oh my goodness, “How did this happen? When did this happen?” 

Suzanne Nelson And I say to him every day, I say, “I can’t believe I get to be married to you.” And he says the same to me. And it’s a really amazing love story. And I hope if one day, if nothing else, that were inspirations to people that love a second time around is really possible. And both of us were convinced that we were just going to be a monk and a nun, respectively, and just being married to our work and married to the Lord. And we had both made that same vow on the same weekend before we went to that conference that it was okay with us that we walked this path solo for the rest of our lives. And God clearly had other plans. And so I love being married to him. And I always joke with people that it was a pretty good career move, but that I actually really, really, really love him, independent of the fact that I have an organic vet on the farm to do whatever I want, whenever I want. And I will say that my— 

Amy Fewell How convenient for you. 

Suzanne Nelson My veterinary skills have gone downhill a lot. Like most dairy farmers, I was a pretty decent hack vet before I married him. And now I have to remind myself sometimes to just practice doing things because I can’t always just be like, “Hubert, come and fix this.” So thank you for letting me go down there, but I think it’s a fun story. But spreading whey on the pastures. So my single biggest obsession is pasture fertility. And outside of heaven, where all of our treasures really reside, I really believe that the only safe place for our treasure on earth is in the soil. And every day when I walk around my house and I see literally piles— you’re not seeing it behind me because I cleaned up a little bit, but everywhere in my life, in my basement, in my car, in my truck, in my kitchen, in my office, every place in my life there’s a mess. And I’m not a naturally messy person. But it’s because the singular focus of healing the land is so consuming and it’s so big of a project. And so I tell myself every day as I walk through other things in my life that are far from perfect that that’s what I’m focused on right now. And the great thing about our little microbe partner friends is if I can just get them fully employed and I can build up their numbers and I can get them shelter and food and water, then they can go out to work, and then I’ll clean up the rest of my life. So I tell myself that every day that I’m just trying to get my microbe friends going, and spreading whey on the pasture is a big, big part of that because it’s really a perfect food for them. It’s got protein in it. It has water in it, of course. It has all sorts of probiotic bacteria, depending on how the cheese was made. It can be very acidic. And so I’ve actually burned a pasture before, just in a spot because I had to dump it on the pasture because I didn’t have a funnel. I got it all over me as well when I was getting it out of this 275 gallon tote. And so like any fertilizer, you can go too far with it. But in general, it’s a pretty low octane, and for us, relatively easy to acquire fertilizer. And so the hardest part has been how to figure out how to spread it, because most agricultural sprayers and the nozzles and the hoses are meant only for chemicals, and they’re not really designed to handle residual protein and fat and sugar. And all of those things, to some degree or another, are in whey. And so we clog machines fairly often. 

Amy Fewell That’s hilarious. Okay. So let’s bring it down to a homesteading standpoint when it comes to pasture management. So, for example, I had texted Suzanne and told her, “Hey, I’ve got moss growing and I’ve got bare spots and stuff I never really noticed until we really started putting animals on our front pasture area.” So you live on a bigger farm and you obviously have a bigger dairy operation, but what’s some things people on a smaller homestead should look for in their pasture that kind of says, “Hey, I need some attention,” and could potentially use whey and other products. 

Suzanne Nelson It’s so interesting you ask that, Amy, because I knew that that’s the question you were going to ask me. And so I’ve spent a good amount of time thinking about it and even went to one of my mentors, Allen Williams at Understanding Ag, which I highly recommend you guys check out Understanding Ag. It’s a wonderful, wonderful resource. And Allen Williams is a mentor of mine and a consultant of mine because I need a teacher too. And I asked him about that to make sure that I was correct. So the first thing that you will notice, if you notice moss growing on your soil surface, and I had lots of it. And I said to Allen, I said, “Well, I know what fixes this, and I think I know what causes it,” but I wanted to make sure I got the biology right. And so basically it’s from too much water on the soil surface. And so what I knew to be true is there is the wrong kind of fungus growing on the soil surface and the lack of a good fungus in the soil and a lack of biology in the soil. And so basically the soil has formed a crust and in the process of that crust being formed, water—even if it’s a very tiny, almost imperceptible amount of water—will sit on the soil surface after it rains. And then you’ll have moss. And really, the only way to break that soil crust is with some kind of mechanical action, either with a disc or a rake or a cow hoof. But one of the challenges for a homesteading scale is how do you do the things that people are seeing about on these large pastures and these large properties? How do you bring those down into a small scale and make it with the tools that are available to you? Like you have Hazel, and she doesn’t even weigh 1,000 pounds. So how in the world are you going to have like a million pounds per acre that they’re talking about in some of these mob grazing scenarios? You’re not going to. So how are you going to provide disturbance to the soil and also rest to the soil? And so I think a lot about these things because I started as a homesteader, and now even though I have bigger tools, I still think in the unit of a family cow

Amy Fewell Yeah. So one thing we have been doing is putting Hazel on those areas. Like we have a few areas with moss, not the whole pasture. But most of it is closer to tree areas, but then we thought it was really weird when it was just moss randomly in the middle of a field. So, yeah, we’ve been trying to focus on that. When we were boarding a friend’s cow the other week, we really tried to focus on those areas, not just breaking up that ground, but also having her droppings on it and fertilizing it and all of those things. And so do you have some common things that a homesteader might see? Like you had mentioned to me fescue grass or different types of grasses that we should think about in pasture management for our dairy cows. I know that there’s a lot of information out there. And I think I’ve told you this, like, “Suzanne, could you please just write a book with the basics of like, here’s the grass they should have, here’s what your pasture should look like.” Kind of give us a glimpse of what should a good pasture look like before you place cows on it. 

Suzanne Nelson I think about this question a lot because how do you start? Right? You’re trying to create a complex system that’s biologically alive, and you’re dealing with a system that is, for the most part, biologically dead, which is why you have moss growing on a soil surface. But the only way of fixing that really is either large amounts of animal impact and/or large amounts of organic matter. Or I guess you could say you could plow it and put a bunch of fertilizer on it, but then in a year you’re going to be in the same spot. So what do you do? I think the first thing to consider in that circumstance is that you’re not going to feed the cow from your land. And that bothers a lot of people when I say that, because everyone has this romantic notion that, well, if the grass grows and the cow can eat the grass and she seems to like it, then that’s all I need. And isn’t this a beautiful, elegant little system? And frankly, there’s a lot of people putting that out there. And I think it’s really not cool for people as well as the animals, because what’s possible for me with 100 cows to have an impact on a piece of land at a given time is not possible with one. And even with a hundred, I would have to nutritionally stress them so much in order to just say like, “Well guys, this is what I got for you today. Like, this is what you’re going to eat.” And so what you were talking about with the cow you were babysitting, for lack of a better word, cow-sitting, is really good. You were putting her on that land. But I know you were also feeding her hay. You were feeding her some sort of energy or protein when you were milking her. So you were offering her things. She was pooping those things out the other end, and you could be the manager and decide where she was going to poop, for lack of a better word. Like that’s kind of the way, for a homesteader, and also for us. I mean, we still use that all the time. And we’ll even do something like bring cows to a poor field when they’re really full and have just been on a really rich field, and they actually will bring some of the manure and the urine even will be different and even their saliva will be different after having been on that rich field. And now when they go to the poor field, they’re kind of sharing the biological wealth. And it’s not just in terms of nutrients. We think of everything in terms of urine or manure, but it’s actually a far more complex system than that. Like the cows’ mouths are probiotic in their nature. And even their saliva is symbiotic with the grasslands that they were meant to be on. And yet at the same time, as beautiful as all these things are, I can’t emphasize how long it takes and how much patience is required. And so one of the things that I advise when people are getting a cow or goats or sheep is just expect you’re going to feed that animal. You’re going to provide, just like you did with your chickens, just like you did with your pigs, what that animal’s going to eat. And the byproducts of it will benefit your soil. And over time, you won’t need to feed as much. But in the beginning, you’re working with a broken system. You didn’t break the land that you’re on. That land was probably abused by people before you. And so you have to do something to put back into the system to start it going forward again. 

Amy Fewell Mm hmm. I think that’s really important because a lot of stuff that you hear nowadays, whether it’s on social media or going to an event, is just stick the cows on there, don’t worry about their nutrition. They’ll figure it out, and just go with it. And so I’m glad you touched on that because that’s one of the things we mentioned. I keep using Hazel as an example, but she’s the only example I have, right? So I’m going to go with it. So like I had mentioned to you, Suzanne, how much Hazel loves to graze and she does forage some roughage as well. And Suzanne had mentioned that Hazel, her coat was actually extra fluffy this winter, which these are tidbits of wisdom that books don’t tell you. I’m telling you, it has to go into a book. But she had mentioned that it could be because she had some nutrient issues. Right? So could you explain that a little bit? What that conversation was. And then we can kind of go into more of the pasture and how we have to manage our animals with that. 

Suzanne Nelson So what I saw with Hazel was very, very common. And by the way, she was not in bad shape. I’ve seen a lot of really skinny animals and she was not that, but she was fluffier than you might otherwise want later into the spring than you otherwise want. And that usually indicates… Well, in our region it indicates two things, but it always indicates, regardless of the region, at least one thing, and that’s an animal who’s probably missing some macro nutrients. Those would be like the big things, right? Like protein and energy. There’s a lot of focus in the homestead movement on minerals. And minerals are so important, so important, but you can’t feed energy in a mineral bag. You cannot get rock. I mean, technically, phosphorus is energy. So a biologist could quibble with me here, but you’re not going to get sufficient energy from a bag of minerals. I don’t care how much phosphorus is in it. And so that energy needs to come from somewhere and that fat needs to come from somewhere and the protein does. And when an animal is sufficient in those things, they’re generally slick hided. I’ll give you an example, and you can use Hazel because that’s your cow and I’ll use mine because we only can really learn, of course, what’s intimate to us. And that’s what’s so amazing about this process. We have a 14 year old cow named Polka, and she’s 14, and so she tends to shed her coat later into the spring than the rest of the herd, and she tends to get a little bit of a coat on her before everyone else does. And all things being equal… And keep in mind, in husbandry, all things are never equal. There’s a million different factors to consider here. But all things being equal, the animal who gets a coat first and loses it last is more challenged than other animals, either nutritionally or it can be a genetic challenge in the sense that our more dairy animals tend… We have only a dairy herd, but the dairy-er of the dairy cows tend to be fluffier. Their bull calves tend to be fluffier. The more milky that animal is, the more fluffy her bull calf will be. Why? Because his genetics are priming him for higher levels of production, which is going to require higher levels of protein, higher levels of fat. And in the absence of having that, he’s going to have a rougher coat than a son out of a mother who’s not quite as milky and is an easier performer on what she’s got. And so even though the sons don’t make milk, they still carry those genetic tendencies of their mothers and, of course, their fathers, too. And so what I see also is animals who tend to be more dairy tend to be fluffier. That’s why it’s easier for a beef cow to be slicker on poor forage than a dairy cow because their nutritional needs just aren’t as high. 

Amy Fewell Yeah, that’s really good. 

Suzanne Nelson And a growing animal will always have a higher nutritional need and a nutritional plane than a mature animal. And a lactating animal will always have a much more significant nutritional plane than any of the other animals. 

Amy Fewell Mm hmm. Okay. So what does a dairy cow… Let’s break this down. A dry dairy cow and a dairy cow that’s in milk, what’s the main difference in between their nutritional needs? Because I think a lot of people go into getting a dairy animal and they don’t really actually know what they need to eat or how much protein they need or how to even do it. So is there a quick way for you kind of to break down the difference between the two to equip people with that information? 

Suzanne Nelson The only way I know how to explain it simply is drawing out what an experience would look like. And I’ve thought a lot about what would I ask of people before they were to buy one of our dairy cows? What I would ask of them, in an ideal world, is that they have raised a dairy steer and that dairy steer is fat, slick, and happy. And if they can raise a dairy steer to be fat, slick, and happy, then you’re on your way to understanding dairy cow nutrition, which is even more than that. But if you can’t take a dairy steer who’s not lactating and get him fat, slick, and happy, then you certainly don’t have the nutritional plane to do that for a dairy cow. One of the things that I like to say as a farmer and just I suppose as a human being is we have to understand the rules before we break them. And there’s a lot of, for lack of a better word, iconoclast. And I don’t even know if you can use that word as a noun like that. In the homesteading movement that we’re rebelling against something without really understanding it. We’re like, “Well, we’re against TMRs.” We don’t even know what TMRs are. It’s total mixed ration. It’s what dairy cows are fed in confinement. We don’t think that we need a mixer to feed our feed. We don’t think we need a nutritionist. We’re just going to let the cows decide. Well, that’s all true as long as what your cows have to choose from is good. It’s like you asking your newborn or your infant child to say, “I’m going to give you this cardboard box or only dry cereal,” and you’re like, “I believe in the inherent nutritional wisdom of my child. And she can choose.” One of the things I like to say in livestock is, “We put up the fence.” And that gives us enormous responsibility. Like if we didn’t fence them, then sure, they could choose a lot of things. And actually, just as a side note, my favorite way of dealing with a sick animal… And this was much more possible on a homesteading scale than on the scale that we’re at now, but we’ve employed it… is we just open the gate and let that animal choose whatever. And I would put a whole mineral bar in front of them. The best feeds, all sorts of different kinds, and they can medicate their way out of a lot of things, but they have to be able to choose. And what’s in most pastures is not… It’s like the equivalent of eating the cardboard box or the cereal, and we haven’t offered them very much else. 

Amy Fewell Mm. Yeah. So you’re pretty much grass-fed on your farm. Do you give any grain? Or what does your typical supplement look like for your cows? 

Suzanne Nelson Well, I’ll tell you a little bit about where we are now, but also talk to you about where we started because we couldn’t have gotten to where we are now from day one. And that’s what always makes me nervous when people are like, “Well, we’re only going to be organic and we’re only going to be grass-fed.” And I was like, “Well, your cow is only going to be starving,” because it took a long time not only to work on the pastures, to work on our husbandry knowledge, but also to work on our genetics. I like to say that we all start with pastures way over here, and we start with genetics way over here. And it’s like the East meets the West, and every year we can make it closer to something that’s going to work together as a system. So what we do now is the cows get anywhere from 3 to 5 breaks of fresh grass a day, and then they come up—this particular season, this won’t be true in the summer, but in this particular season—they come up to the barn and eat hay at night. And that’s in part because the grass, at least until a couple of weeks ago in our area, was so lush that they just would have had the incredible squirts. And you can make an animal really skinny feeding them the best grass in the world if it’s not fibrous enough to stay in them long enough to digest. So the hay was, for us, a way of slowing down their digestion. In an ideal world, every cow in every bite would have a mixture of lush grass, last year’s old grass and maybe a stem from earlier this year. And they would sort of total mixed ration their own diet. But that’s not possible in a lot of contexts, and it’s not even yet possible in ours. So that’s how they’re working right now. And they’re eating a very diverse mix of many different types of clover, oats, wheat, rye. We don’t ever feed them fescue. So even if there is a little bit of fescue on the edges of our pastures and the lanes and such, we don’t make them eat it. You put them in a pasture and if you want them to eat the fescue, you’d have to basically starve them because they know that they’re not going to be made to eat it. But how we started was very different than that. So we started on a 50… Well, I started on a 50 acre fescue field. This was before I met Hubert. And before that, I started on a two acre homestead with fescue. So in the very, very beginning, I had one pasture with a barn, and I fed the cow. And then I learned, well, maybe some of this pasture needs rest. So I built another pasture in the next paddock over. And then that was my rotational grazing, such as it were. We had one pasture and then another pasture. And I had skinny cows, and I was still feeding them some— I think I fed some cows grain, but I fed a lot of beet pulp, chaff hay didn’t exist back then, and some really nice or the best quality hay I could buy. Sometimes alfalfa, sometimes really nice leafy orchard grass. Then I moved to a 50 acre fescue farm and rotated those 14 cows or so and their calves on that 50 acres and followed them with chickens, and the sheep were with them as well. And slowly improved that land and lost my lease on it. So then I moved to where we are now. And I mention all that because, along the way, we obviously did not have forage to feed the cows that was sufficient for their dietary needs. And so in the beginning, I fed them flax oil, which I kept in a friend’s refrigerator. I bought a 50 gallon drum of flax oil. This was back in 2011. It cost me $800. I can’t imagine what a 50 gallon drum of flax oil would cost now. 

Amy Fewell No. Oh my goodness. 

Suzanne Nelson I was so committed to being grain-free that that’s how I got them energy. Had I do it all over again, honestly, I would have just fed them grain. It would have been way cheaper. It was what they were used to eating. 

Amy Fewell Right. 

Suzanne Nelson And there’s nothing wrong with feeding a cow grain who’s used to eating grain. And if that’s the energy you can afford. I really want to cancel any shame that people have about that. It’s really, really important to feed the animal. And so then slowly over time, we used other energy supplements. I mean, we’ve used molasses. We’ve used molasses on soybean hulls that were not non-GMO. I wish they were. We all have to kind of do what we can do with what we’ve got. We’re currently certified grass-fed, so that means—and I have a lot of disagreements with these standards—but that means we cannot feed any molasses. So we were only feeding them like a handful of molasses on soybean hulls a day, just as a treat to get them in the headlocks. It was literally a management tool. It wasn’t enough of their diet to even literally move the needle on their dietary need of energy for the day. But it motivated them to do what we wanted them to do. But we can’t do that anymore because we’re certified grass-fed. So we now use chaff hay for that purpose and it works well. And the only time we use chaff hay as a nutritional piece that’s a significant part of the cow’s diet is during her first day or two after she calves and she’s in a box stall with her calf. We will give her chaff because she might not go out and graze those days. She has a high energy and protein need and it’s a very highly digestible supplement. I really love that product a lot. 

Amy Fewell Yeah, we used to use chaff hay for a bunch of different animals we had. Our rabbits really liked it, and even our chickens would peck at it sometimes. So that’s something I do need to look at getting Hazel, too.

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Amy Fewell Okay, so I think it’s great. I’m glad you touched on that because grain was my next question. I know that you go… So you guys don’t feed grain any more. You’re saying that you found other ways around that, but you did start with that. And I love that you said, you know, there’s no shame in doing that especially if the cows are used to it. And it was much cheaper than what you said, you’re big—what was it?—50 gallon drum of oil. So yeah, so there’s different ways. And this is one of the reasons I wanted to have you on here, because it’s a different perspective. We’ve had lots of people talk about grass-fed and doing only grass-fed, but a lot of homestead based folks that are just getting into having their first milk cow, they’re buying it off Craigslist or they’re buying it from a friend of a friend. And they really don’t know the nutritional needs for those cows. And then next step, you’re putting them in the pasture and not really giving them what they need. So going back to pasture and what cows need. So what is a… Okay, so I have a five almost six acre homestead. We’re going to use my homestead for an example. What would a rotational schedule look like for me? So let’s say half of my homestead is wooded or kind of wooded, and then the other half is open pasture. I think mine’s a little bit different than that. But if you had someone coming to you saying, “Hey, I want a milk cow. Half of my six acres is wooded, half is open pasture.” What would kind of be your recommendation for somebody getting started with one milk cow? 

Suzanne Nelson I would start… and this is very similar to how I started on my 9.6 acre homestead. I only had, I think, three open acres on that property. And I had a cow and her calf there, and the calf grew up, and so I had two cows. And I just… When I started learning about rotational grazing, at that time, I had a couple goats and a couple of sheep. And so I used sheep netting, and I moved them around the pastures in that way and just created paddocks. And then when I ran out of grass, instead of going back to a spot that wasn’t adequately rested (and we can talk a little bit about how do you determine if it’s rested), then I would just feed them hay in a little area that needed additional fertility, like the areas you were describing that have moss or that the forage is poor. There’s one thing I want to mention here. The number one question that I always get from people is, “Where do you buy your seeds? And “What do you plant in your pasture?” And I always answer people’s questions. However, I always want to say, “That’s not your problem.” You can buy all the seeds you want. They’re not going to grow. And we even have spots on our farm that seeds won’t grow. Why? Because it’s not lack of seed that the pasture isn’t growing. It’s lack of organic matter, it’s lack of biology. You’d do much better to buy a round bale of hay and just roll it out and let it rot than you would to spend that money on a bag of seed. There’s seeds in the hay too. So that’s literally what I would do is I would roll out bedding. So let’s just say it was not crummy enough to put them in a barn, but it was like, eh, it’s a little chilly out here. I would roll out a bale of straw or take a couple of square bales of straw and roll it out. Cows and sheep and goats love to lay in stuff like that. And then they’ll poop in it, and there’s some wheat seeds in there and you’re going to get some wheat plants in that. And then I’d move them on. So you could train them to… If you just had cows, you could train them to a single wire or two wires at first. And the whole thing about any grazing system is you always have to think first, where is my water? How am I going to get back to the barn to milk, if that’s what you’re going to do? I milked in the field when I had 50 acres. I just milked… We didn’t have a barn, so we just milked in the field. I milked in corral panels, and every day I moved the corral panels to a new section, just by hand and just drug them and set up and put my stool down and milked the cow. So you have to think about those logistics. How far am I from water? Do my animals need shade? Do they need shelter? And given those constraints, how can I give them a fresh paddock? I would like to see a minimum of every five days that they have something fresh to eat. I say “as a minimum” because it takes five days for a grass plant, in most climates most of the time, to start growing back. So if you move the animals at a minimum of every five days, at least you’ll allow the grass to rest. And then you might be feeding them on those spots because you might not have enough grass in the beginning or grass of sufficient nutritional quality to provide for their nutritional needs. But if you rotate them while you feed them, then you will get better grass when you come back around that rotation again.

Amy Fewell Yeah. We have been finding that with our front pasture. While we’re moving her, it brings more and more good green grass, like, the more she’s on something, then we move her. She’s off of it for at least nine days, I guess, because we’re able to get pretty good rotation out front. If we were to bring her back around, we could probably even do a full 14 days, just depending on where we have her on the property. But we’re already seeing some progress, at least on one side of the property with her being on there and then just letting that rest. So how do you—that’s a good question—how do you know when a space has been fully rested long enough? 

Suzanne Nelson Well, there’s a couple different things. The first is that every plant, every grass plant, each tiller will have a leaf on it, or two or three or four. Your grass plant isn’t rested until it has three and a half leaves per tiller on 80% of the sward of the area that you’re about to put the animal back on. So the first thing I would say about your rotation is that while you are absolutely going to notice some additional grass, and any time you rotate animals, again, even if it’s only pasture A, pasture B, you’re going to have an improvement. But you’re not going to see measurable changes in organic matter and in root life of the plants and really change things until your rotation is long enough that at least the grasses have three and a half leaves per tiller before you come back to them. And I would say other than in the peak peak of spring, when it’s totally raining and everything is absolutely perfect, that’s going to be a minimum of 21 days in most places. In our rotation in the summer, in the winter, but even the summer, can sometimes be 45 or 60 days that they don’t come back to a spot. And really, when we start noticing improvements that are mind blowing is when we’ve had a heavy impact on a spot and we leave it alone for two, three, four, five, six. I’m working on a pasture right now that I haven’t touched in seven months. And you can over rest a pasture and you can go the other direction. The whole game is about managing disturbance and rest, and the more you disturb, the more rest you need. So that’s why with pigs, for example, if you have pigs on a spot, you really shouldn’t come back for six months to a year because pigs are very disturbing. But if you wait that whole time, because the level of disturbance was so high and the impact was so high, you’re going to have a proportional response that’s like really, really big. And I can’t believe what’s happened to our pastures that we were forced to rest last year because it didn’t rain, and there was two or three pastures that just ended up in the wrong timing of our cycle as it came, like the stopping the raining happened right after we had disturbed the soil and seeded it. And so then we had this baked clay, and we had two pastures last year real near the barn that we did not graze for the entire season. And in the fall we tried to plant them, and because it had been kind of like a baked clay, even though we disturbed the soil, it didn’t come up. We planted again. It was like eh. And then we just let it rest. And they… I mean, it almost made me cry, it was so beautiful. This year… I’ve never in my farming life had the ideal where we’re grazing forage that’s not seeded out, that’s as tall as the cows’ shoulders when they leave the pasture. We had 70 cows on an acre for one day. That’s it. And it fed 70 cows for one day. And there was so much litter on the soil surface that there is no sunlight that’s… Well, I’m sure there’s some sunlight, but like, the soil is completely covered even after feeding those 70 cows for one day. And I say all that because rest was what made that possible. So the longer your rest periods can be, even if it means you have to put them in and dry a lot and feed them for six weeks, eight weeks in the summer when things aren’t growing, that can’t emphasize how important that rest is to something amazing happening. And you might not see the amazing thing for a year, but it will happen. 

Amy Fewell Yeah. So how quickly… So speaking of seasons and grass growing, so my first question in that is how tall should the grass be when cows are grazing on it? So you’ll see a lot of homesteaders with yards just like mine, and they’ll graze really, really short grass. Or some, like we do in the front, we try to let our grass grow at least that much. And so what is kind of the rule of thumb with letting, especially on a small homestead, letting your cows graze? What’s the length of that? And then the next thing I do want to talk about before we get off here is fescue, because I know we’ve brought that up a little bit. I know my cow won’t really touch it at all. We have these little patches that she just doesn’t touch. So those are my final two questions, I think, unless something else comes up. So let’s talk about the grass length first. 

Suzanne Nelson I wish I could give you a square answer about grass height. And the answer is that famous farmer answer: it depends. And it depends a whole lot on a whole lot of things. One day I’m going to print T-shirts that say, “You can’t lie to a cow about hay,” and you can’t lie to a cow about grass either. She knows tons about it that you could never even begin to understand, nor did I. But after a while of observing animals, you’ll start to see the patterns. They want to graze something that’s still in its vegetative state, a stage of growth. And that is entirely a function, not entirely, but primarily a function of two things: the species of grass, the time of year. And then also the biggest thing it’s a function of is fertility. So that grass that I told you about that was as high as the cows’ shoulders and wasn’t seeded out was right next to a pasture that has grass that was only knee high and was totally seeded out. Same species, same farm, same climate, same weather pattern. What was the difference? Organic matter. In the spot that was fertile and full of organic matter, that grass could grow very tall and remain vegetative, meaning it hadn’t started to head out. And so all of the nutrients were still in the leaves, as opposed to the plant starting to put the nutrients into the head. Whether it’s a perennial or an annual matters a whole lot as well. So I would say if you’re interested in this subject, there’s a great book called Grass Productivity. It’s been sort of discredited in the regenerative grazing movement. But I think there’s a lot of reason to reconsider what Andrew Voisin said. And if homesteaders started to appreciate the concepts in that book, in Grass Productivity, you would go a long way to understanding the answer to your question. But it really just so much depends. They want to graze vegetative things, but if you graze them too vegetative and there’s no stem and there’s no fiber, then you’re going to get the squirts. And that’s not good either. But if it’s overly vegetative, it’s going to be very high in fiber. You can tell a lot by looking at your cow’s poop. If your cow’s poop becomes almost horse like, then they’re getting way too much fiber. If it’s like the runs from, they’re not getting enough palatable fiber that they want to eat. And then in that case, like a really nice dry hay that they want to eat. And they’re the determination of whether or not it’s nice, by the way, not how much you spent on it. They totally have their own judgments.

Amy Fewell Yeah, that’s really good. I like that. Okay. The next thing was fescue. So let’s talk about fescue, because I know there is a lot of talk about that in the homesteading world when it comes to dairy animals. Obviously, I guess there are cows that do fine on fescue. You said you had a fescue farm, right? But then there are others that do not. So would you mind talking about that just real quick? 

Suzanne Nelson I don’t think any dairy animal does well on fescue. Some just do better than others. You can mitigate fescue with a lot of different things, particularly having free choice hay that they like to eat. Again, they have to like it. Just because it’s there, you can’t just lie to yourself and say, “Well, my cow doesn’t like it. They must not need it.” It’s probably just not good enough quality hay. But fescue is just toxic. It’s not a native grass. Obviously it works in conjunction with the endophyte. The endophyte is mold. It’s very, very hard on their livers. It makes them much more prone to flies. So many skin issues that people want to address in dairy cows are really fescue toxicity. I’ve seen a tail fall off a newborn calf from the mom eating fescue and the baby drinking the milk and the tail just falls off. That’s obviously extreme, but it’s not unheard of. One of the ways that fescue works in the bloodstream when it’s digested is it decreases peripheral circulation. So one of the things that we’ve done in the past when our bulls have had to graze some fescue is we offer them these lick tubs that are Vitafirm is what they’re called, and it’s molasses and cayenne, and cayenne increases peripheral circulation, as you know. And so fescue really affects dairy cows more than beef cows, primarily because their bodies are like race cars as opposed to boxcars. And they need such good circulation. And the udder, of course, is a place that needs a lot of circulation. So it’s not uncommon grazing fescue as a young calf for that heifer to come in with a dead quarter. So she’ll just come in—this still happens to us even to this day, even though we don’t graze a lot of fescue—they’ll come in with a dead quarter. Of the four, they only have three that come alive. And when I first met Hue, he kept telling me, “Your calves are cross sucking on each other. That’s the only way that that can happen.” And I said, “No, it’s really fescue.” And for many years he didn’t believe me. But then after a while, he’s like, “No, you’re right. Our calves don’t suck on each other. And this still does happen.” So the biggest thing is to try to not make your cows graze it. If they want to have some, because they want to have some green grass and you’re providing for their nutritional needs in the hay bunk and your energy supplement and all those ways, and they want to have some, then that’s where you can trust the cow. But where we get into trouble is when we make them eat it and we don’t provide them anything else. And that’s big trouble, especially for a dairy cow. It can cause abortions. I mean, all sorts of feet problems. You can see cows panting because of it. Tongues will be out. Their skin will be… Like they’ll have all these little bumpies on their skin, like some of their skin will just slough off. It’s a pretty nasty little problem. 

Amy Fewell Yeah. Okay. So how do we get rid of fescue? We only have like one little patch, I think. But there are some people who have entire fields full of it. So what’s a good management system for that? 

Suzanne Nelson Pigs. 

Amy Fewell Pigs? 

Suzanne Nelson They’re the best. 

Amy Fewell Yeah. 

Suzanne Nelson Honestly, I don’t know any other way other than—on a homesteading scale—pigs or Roundup. And obviously we’re here because we don’t really like Roundup. 

Amy Fewell Right. 

Suzanne Nelson So pigs are the only thing that I’ve ever used effectively in that size acreage. One of the ways that we get rid of fescue is we— and you could ask your neighbor to come do this who has equipment, come disk the soil really, really well. So anytime you want to kill a plant, you always kill it when it’s vulnerable, when it’s most vulnerable, when it’s trying to reproduce. So right now actually is when we’re trying to kill the fescue in our lanes. So if we get time, and I don’t know that we will, we’ll go out with a tiller—which we have not used in ten years, but we’ll use it for this purpose—and we’ll go out and till the fescue. Disking is… It’s hard to even kill it with disking, but you could try. It would be better than not. And do something to disturb the soil to show bare soil. And then in the… This time of year, we would plant something like sorghum Sudan. Then you’re going to have to fertilize it because it is a heavy feeder. Or millet. In the fall, my favorite way of dealing with fescue… My favorite way of dealing with fescue is in the fall is to disturb the soil in the fall. Again, the fescue is kind of coming on in the fall. It’s going to go through another reproductive cycle towards the end when it’s throwing up those seed heads. That’s the time you want to go after it. And my favorite plant for dealing with it is hairy vetch. And you’re not going to notice any improvement over the winter. You’re going to feel like your effort was lost. You’re like, these little meager plants are going to take over this fescue. And just wait. If you get enough hairy vetch established and it has enough of a hold and the fescue doesn’t choke it out, so you really have to disturb the soil, by spring the root system of that hairy vetch will be very extensive and it will form these beautiful billowing towers of netted… It will tangle you up and bring you in like quicksand kind of forage. Do not try to mow it for hay. Do not try to bring your homestead scale lawnmower out there. You will mess up that lawnmower because those hairy vetch tendrils are serious, but they will shade it out pretty effectively. And it just happens to be that when the hairy vetch is coming on… And you have to look up in your region. So for those of you who are not in the Southeast or in the southern part of the Midwest, you’re going to have to find a different forage. There’s a wonderful book called Managing Cover Crops Profitably. It’s a Sare publication. It’s a wonderful, wonderful book. And it details all the cover crops, where they work, where they don’t work, and the management needs of each and establishment needs. But to find a cover crop that grows rapidly in your area, that can shade out fescue during the time that it wants to reproduce, which would be something that’s going to have a really billow canopy. Like for us, it’d be right now. For you, it would probably be in a couple of weeks. But that peak, that canopy you want to have. And then you just kind of have to keep doing it. So the first year, you’re going to make an impact, but winter is your time because that’s when you can establish root systems so that when the spring comes on, that’s when you can really have an impact. It’s very difficult to get ahead of fescue this time of year if you’re just starting now. 

Amy Fewell Right. Yeah. Good to know. Awesome. Okay, I’ve had you for over 45 minutes. Is there anything else you want to talk about before we get off here in regard to pasture management or cow nutrition?

Suzanne Nelson I guess I’d like to say one thing about pasture management is people think of their pastures differently than they think of their gardens, and I think that’s where we get into trouble. Our pastures are gardens. And so the same principles that you would apply to your garden, you have to apply to your pasture if you want your pastures to be something that your cows are going to eat. And that’s an overwhelming thing because many of us are overwhelmed by even a 20×20 garden. I know I’m so overwhelmed by it, I don’t even have one. So I understand that it sounds like a daunting task. However, it’s the only way. And so even if you only start with a small section… And I’m not suggesting that a pasture needs as much care as tomatoes, but I’m suggesting that it needs more care than most people give it, and our pastures will perform as well as the attention we give them. And the thing that most of our pastures need the most is organic matter. And so we have to be really patient with that. So I used to chase down the tree chipping trucks. I mean, I literally would get out of my truck, park on the side of the road, and run after them and be like, “Would you please bring those chips to my farm?” I mean, I was like the crazy stalker lady for years. Joel Salatin, in his books, talks about how he used to go and shovel corn cobs. Anything you can get. Old hay. I’ve had neighbors say that they were going to burn some hay. I mean, I’ve knocked on doors and said, “Hey, that hay, can I buy it from you?” You can get yourself into trouble with that because people are like, “I was going to feed that hay,” and you’re like, “Wow, it looks really bad.” But your pastures need food, just like your garden needs food. And we would never expect to just go dig a hole in our front yard and put a broccoli plant in and have it go. But somehow we expect our pastures to do that, and it’s not going to work. We’d much better off spending money on applying mulch or applying leaf compost or whatever you can get. Most counties and cities have a leaf mulch program and people are like, “Wow, there’s a lot of trash in there.” I know. I pick up trash by the garbage bag full on our pastures because of the mulch we get is full of trash from the City of Durham. But it’s worth it to me because I’m getting all those leaves in those ground up trees. So our pastures just need attention. And in the meantime, I think it’s just so important to remember that our animals need to be fed today, not what our pastures are going to produce in five years. And so if we feed our animals today and don’t think of our cows so differently than we think of our chickens or our pigs… We would never think that our chickens could just make it out back. We’d never think that the pigs would just make it out back, nor should we think of our cows that way. And so if we change our attitude about those two things and then we’re really patient, over time, something really beautiful will happen. 

Amy Fewell Yeah. Ooh, that’s a good word. Thank you, Suzanne. Thank you for joining me today. Thank you for sharing your information and education with us. You guys can find all of the information we’ve talked about, show notes, a transcript on our website. And then you can also find links to Suzanne’s website and Instagram and all of those fun things in the show notes as well. And if you have any questions, definitely leave comments on our YouTube channel if you’re watching on YouTube, or you can shoot us an email as well. Until next time, thanks for joining me, Suzanne, and happy homesteading. 

Suzanne Nelson Thank you, Amy. 

Amy Fewell Hey, thanks for taking the time to listen to this week’s Homesteaders of America episode. We really enjoyed having you here. We welcome questions and you can find the transcript and all the show notes below or on our Homesteaders of America blog post that we have up for this podcast episode. Don’t forget to join us online with a membership or just to read blog posts and find out more information about our events at HomesteadersofAmerica.com. We also have a YouTube channel and follow us on all of our social media accounts to find out more about homesteading during this time in American history. All right, have a great day and happy homesteading.

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What You May Not Know About Pasture Health Podcast with Suzanne Nelson | homesteaders of america