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Author Topic: Topping pasture  (Read 1173 times)

wildandwooly

  • Joined Feb 2021
Topping pasture
« on: February 23, 2021, 08:27:32 pm »
Hello everyone! I'm new to AS. Also new to smallholding generally and very much at the start of things......! I need some advice from those of you who will be far more experienced than me land management wise.
I have acquired some pasture which has sadly been neglected for many years. My aim is to improve it and get it back to the species diverse meadow it once was many years ago. We have lapwings who nest as well as pheasants on the land. The pasture has had some ragwort in it which I pulled by hand over a few weeks last year before it went to seed. That was a labour of love!! I know I won't have got rid of it all but it was a start. It also still has some small areas of docks and thistles and rushes/reeds? I'm thinking of getting it topped and grazed using a few sheep like Shetlands for conservation grazing. When would it be a good time to top it? Obviously I'll need to avoid the time the lapwings etc are nesting. Any sage advice would be wonderful and very gratefully received!

Buttermilk

  • Joined Jul 2014
Re: Topping pasture
« Reply #1 on: February 24, 2021, 07:58:03 pm »
You will need the ground dry enough for doing any work on the land, if it is anything like here then it is too wet to carry the tractor/car/quad whatever you are using.

I took on some rough, overgrown land and I grazed it hard with ponies, then sheep followed by ponies the next winter. Once the bulk of the top had been munched down I used a topper to get the stuff they did not touch.  I found that the ponies feet helped break up the clumps of rushes.

I used electric fencing and strip grazed it over winter and put up a back fence to prevent poaching the eaten areas.  There are curlews nesting in my fields.

SallyintNorth

  • Joined Feb 2011
  • Cornwall
  • Rarely short of an opinion but I mean well
    • Trelay Cohousing Community
Re: Topping pasture
« Reply #2 on: February 24, 2021, 10:11:10 pm »
Lapwing and curlew need both cover to hide from predators and open spaces - with cover nearby - for the youngsters to learn to feed in safety.

So if you want them to continue to nest there (as opposed to just visit and feed), you will not top it all hard, but leave a patchwork of different lengths of rushes with some patches of clear grass in between.  The RSPB have some good materials telling farmers / landowners how to manage land for birds.

Basically, top a third each year, leaving a patchwork of rushes of different lengths as described above, after the year's hatch have fledged.  And then, if the ground is not too wet to travel, the same again about 6-8 weeks later. 

Using primitive native sheep such as Shetlands is a good plan.

Rushes managed thus are fab for sheep.  They too derive cover and shelter from the varied rushes, and if you plan to breed them, they will have and shelter their lambs in there.  They will eat the freshly growing shoots after you've topped, so will extend the effect of the topping.


Docks are best managed by regular topping, don't leave any of these!  They will get worn out over time and you might find you don't need to top for them for a few years - but they will probably keep coming back, tenacious things. 

Nettles do no real harm (apart from using up ground space), and give the cabbage white caterpillar something to eat.  Top the grown plants and leave to wilt in the field, the sheep (or cattle or ponies) will then chomp them up enthusiastically.  Sometimes they will follow the topper, they are so keen!   ;D

Thistles need to be topped when they are in flower - too soon and they just come back, too late and they have set seed.  ("Top in June, he'll come back soon; too late in August, he's gone to dust; top in July he'll wither and die".)  Herbivores will eat these after they're cut too.

The very best management for thistles long-term is native ponies such as Fells and Exmoors (other breeds are available ;) ), who love to eat the flower heads.  Over a period of a few years, if they graze the ground in summer, they will eradicate thistles.

I hate to tell you this but pulling ragwort can actually be counter-productive, unless you know what you are doing.  If you pull off the flowering and leafy stems but leave some leafy "rosette" (flat on the ground) stems or root, it can turn it into a perennial plant, whereas the flowering plant is in the final year of its 2-year (biennial) lifecycle.  So if you aren't sure you can get the whole plant and all its root, it's best to let it flower, then break off the flowerheads shortly before they set seed.  (And dispose of them carefully, they will carry on making seeds even after cutting.)

Having said which, if there was a lot. you will have made a big impact for 2022 pulling them all before they went to seed.  But you may have a similar crop this year, which were at the flat rosette (1st year) stage last year.  So make sure you don't let any of them seed, and you will see a big difference from next year onwards.  If you start to get big bushy ragwort plants, chances are they are now perennials, so need a thorough digging out, or may even need spot treatment with weedkiller.

Ragwort is at its most dangerous in hay, as the animals cannot distinguish it when it's dried, so will ingest it in sufficient quantities to get a toxic load over time.  As a growing plant it is quite bitter, so mostly they might try a bit and then leave it alone as it wasn't good.  It can also be dangerous if the ground is being hard-grazed and/or kept short by topping, as the flat rosettes (which are also toxic) may not be noticed by close-cropping herbivores and therefore be ingested in toxic quantities. 

I worked on the Elveden Estate on the Suffolk / Norfolk border 40-odd years ago, and they used to let the ragwort-y fields grow long, along with the ragwort plants.  As the plants started to flower, they would bring the beef cattle in.  The cows and growing calves would eat everything down to a few inches high, with the exception of the ragwort and one or two other more-or-less inedible plants.  After the beef were done, the sheep would be brought in.  They liked the grass at the length the cattle had left it, and ignored the ragwort plants which now stuck out very visibly.  (However I now wonder whether the sheep might still have eaten some of the plants which were at the rosette stage; I am not sure we knew that much about the 2-year lifecycle of ragwort in the 1970s.)

I should also mention, as it sounds like your ground is quite wet / boggy, that there is a Marsh Ragwort, which is not as toxic as the Common or Oxford Ragwort.   (And if the ground is marshy and rushy, you are unlikely to be making hay of it, so that risk factor would not be there)  But if there is loads of this ragwort and you plan on grazing the ground, then you may still want to control it. 

Common Ragwort is the primary food plant for the cinnebar moth, by the way.


So in summary :

  • Look after your rushes, maintaining them, and the patches between them, for ground-nesting birds and for sheep
  • Top thistles when in open flower (but before they turn to thistledown), or graze with native ponies in summer
  • Top docks, keep topping docks.  Always top docks.
  • Let nettles grow and top the grown plants, leaving the cut stems for the grazing animals to eat.
  • Don't let ragwort set seed, but take care about how you remove it (don't leave rosettes or roots, take the whole plant).  Never make hay that could contain ragwort. 
  • Top docks  ;D

« Last Edit: February 24, 2021, 10:14:42 pm by SallyintNorth »
Don't listen to the money men - they know the price of everything and the value of nothing

Live in a cohousing community with small farm for our own use.  Dairy cows (rearing their own calves for beef), pigs, sheep for meat and fleece, ducks and hens for eggs, veg and fruit growing

macgro7

  • Joined Feb 2016
  • Leicester
Re: Topping pasture
« Reply #3 on: February 24, 2021, 11:09:12 pm »
Docks are sheep's (and goats) favourite food  ;)

Their seeds csn supposedly stay in the ground forn60 years, i.e. if they go to seed they will be there for generations.
The good news is as I said sheep and goat love them. Humans csn eat them too, although they taste disgusting when raw. They are closely related to sorrel and can be cooked in a similiar way.
Growing loads of fruits and vegetables! Raising dairy goats, chickens, ducks, rabbits on 1/2 acre in the middle of the city of Leicester, using permaculture methods.

SallyintNorth

  • Joined Feb 2011
  • Cornwall
  • Rarely short of an opinion but I mean well
    • Trelay Cohousing Community
Re: Topping pasture
« Reply #4 on: February 25, 2021, 12:27:12 am »
My experience, over many different farms, types of terrain and types of sheep is that some sheep will eat a tiny bit of dock now and again, but it's not a method of control.

And actually, a lot of dock would not be good for them - too much oxalic acid, iirc.

What sheep eat your docks, @macgro7?
Don't listen to the money men - they know the price of everything and the value of nothing

Live in a cohousing community with small farm for our own use.  Dairy cows (rearing their own calves for beef), pigs, sheep for meat and fleece, ducks and hens for eggs, veg and fruit growing

macgro7

  • Joined Feb 2016
  • Leicester
Re: Topping pasture
« Reply #5 on: February 25, 2021, 11:30:14 am »
What sheep eat your docks, @macgro7?
Don't sheep eat docks??
You need to get some goats then! That's one of their favourite foods!
Chickens eat them, rabbits eat them too.
Growing loads of fruits and vegetables! Raising dairy goats, chickens, ducks, rabbits on 1/2 acre in the middle of the city of Leicester, using permaculture methods.

SallyintNorth

  • Joined Feb 2011
  • Cornwall
  • Rarely short of an opinion but I mean well
    • Trelay Cohousing Community
Re: Topping pasture
« Reply #6 on: February 25, 2021, 11:37:26 am »
Don't listen to the money men - they know the price of everything and the value of nothing

Live in a cohousing community with small farm for our own use.  Dairy cows (rearing their own calves for beef), pigs, sheep for meat and fleece, ducks and hens for eggs, veg and fruit growing

Fleecewife

  • Joined May 2010
  • South Lanarkshire
    • ScotHebs
Re: Topping pasture
« Reply #7 on: February 25, 2021, 01:14:48 pm »
What we found when we had an invasion of docks, was that the Hebrideans and Soay would nibble some of the new leaves on young plants, but the other breeds we had at the time wouldn't touch them.  No sheep ate fully grown docks.
The docks, and amazingly also creeping thistle, have gone now many years later, by a mix of fairly frequent topping, and a bit of grazing of new young plants.  The main place we now have docks is in the veggie patch  :rant:


It is important to learn to recognise the difference between creeping thistle and spear thistle, as the way to deal with them is very different for each. There are other thistles such as carline and river thistles, but they are not invasive. Hive bees and wild bees love creeping thistles, whose flowers give off a lovely honey scent. Bumble bees like spear thistles too, and seed eating birds love the seed heads of both - birds such as goldfinches. We have kept patches of creeping thistle deliberately for the birds and bees, and the occasioanl spear thistle escapes diccovery somewhere in the hedgerows.


We deal with spear thistles by regularly digging out the whole root, once the flower bud is present on a tall stalk but before it opens, then burning them quickly - even a partially burnt thistle flower can open and release some seeds. Sometimes we cut off the flower buds and dispose of them in bags in the dustbin. Tedious!  The difficulty with burning fresh thistles is that they are particularly juicy, so don't easily ignite.  In the early days we had mountains of them so we had to let them dry a bit first.  The juiciness is what sheep love about them - watching a delicate little Shetland ewe carefully nipping off a thistle stalk then turning it so the spikes face backwards, then demolishing it with relish is amazing!


We also effectively got rid of ragwort here by digging out the plants whenever they put up a flower stalk. They really give themselves away with their unmissable bright yellow flowers!  It is impossible to never have any new plants coming in because the seeds drift on the wind.  I don't know what has happened to the law requiring the control of ragwort, because you can see large patches of it on roadsides and waste ground, and in pastures.  We now recognise the rosettes when they appear (usually on our drive) and we remove them as soon as they are spotted.  It began as a mammoth task, but now we maybe get 2 or 3 plants a year. So take heart!


For Lapwings, we used to have them here, but as soon as our livestock density passed a certain mark, the Lapwings left, to our sorrow. Their nests and young must have been trampled. There used to be Curlew here too in the fields around ours, but they seem not to like our small paddocks so they have not nested actually on our land. A pair tries to nest in the area each year but inevitably the land gets cultivated at the wrong time and the nest is destroyed.


If you have Lapwings and Curlews, please go out of your way to maintain the land for them to survive, or we'll lose them.


There used to be plenty of Hares in the fields surrounding our little farm; now they have gone from those overcultivated fields and choose to live in ours  ;D :thumbsup: .  It is a frequent occurrence to stumble over baby leverets in season!


We have had many cats and dogs over the years, and we have found they are a huge danger to all wildlife.  The first time we found a pheasant's nest with 19 eggs in we were really pleased.  Our then 6 dogs made short work of them  :'( :-[ Cats over the years would keep down the mouse population, and the dogs worked their magic on rats, but wildlife suffered.  We no longer have cats since our last puss died a few years ago, and the increase in wild birds since then is amazing.  It might also have something to do with our 33 nest boxes! Our current dogs are townie rescues, and haven't a clue about rats, other than running away from them, and are easily trainable so have not yet chased the hares or any birds which do appear.  So my advice is either not to have pets, or to only keep dogs and train them very well!

Our sheep numbers are now down to a minimum, so we can leave large areas of pasture unmaintained. The resulting rough grass is Nirvana for birds of prey such as owls, kestrels and even buzzards, being pockmarked with vole holes, millions of them!  We have a huge population of Yellow Hammers here, all living or foraging in our rough pasture and getting seeds from under our bird feeders.  Our postie is a birdwatcher and frequently asks if we have seen any Yellow Hammers recently - Yes, we see many of them every single day, which he finds amazing.  That demonstrates how important rough grazing is for them.

Good luck with your new land @wildandwoolly and hopefully you can balance wildlife with whatever else you want to use the land for :thumbsup:
« Last Edit: February 25, 2021, 01:22:21 pm by Fleecewife »
"Let's not talk about what we can do, but do what we can"

There is NO planet B - what are YOU doing to save our home?

Do something today that your future self will thank you for - plant a tree

 Love your soil - it's the lifeblood of your land.

SallyintNorth

  • Joined Feb 2011
  • Cornwall
  • Rarely short of an opinion but I mean well
    • Trelay Cohousing Community
Re: Topping pasture
« Reply #8 on: February 25, 2021, 02:13:06 pm »
I don't know what has happened to the law requiring the control of ragwort, because you can see large patches of it on roadsides and waste ground, and in pastures. 

Because ragwort is the food plant for the Cinnabar Moth, which is a UK Biodiversity Action Plan priority species, it is not desirable to control it out of existence - even if we could. 

The law in England requires Common Ragwort to be controlled only if it is present on agricultural land or on grazing, or is at risk of spreading to agricultural land, which generally means that unless it is within 50 - 100m of any agricultural land, especially grazing livestock or a hay field, it does not have to be controlled.
Don't listen to the money men - they know the price of everything and the value of nothing

Live in a cohousing community with small farm for our own use.  Dairy cows (rearing their own calves for beef), pigs, sheep for meat and fleece, ducks and hens for eggs, veg and fruit growing

Fleecewife

  • Joined May 2010
  • South Lanarkshire
    • ScotHebs
Re: Topping pasture
« Reply #9 on: February 25, 2021, 05:59:28 pm »
Oh this is fun!  Sally you've made me stop being lazy and actually look up the Scottish regs.  They won't be relevant to the OP who I think is in England, but others may be interested:
https://www.gov.scot/binaries/content/documents/govscot/publications/advice-and-guidance/2009/12/scottish-government-guidance-prevent-spread-ragwort/documents/0090932-pdf/0090932-pdf/govscot%3Adocument/0090932.pdf

I really am surprised that there even is such a document here because there is so much ragwort around, and no-one seems to give a damn. Near us there is a small pasture which is used for several horses.  The grass is grazed to the nub, leaving a fine crop of upstanding ragwort flowers.  I suppose it shows the horses don't voluntarily eat it in the green, but they would be at danger of eating any plants which have been broken and have dried.  I am 99% certain the ragwort left growing is not there because anyone cares about the environment and biodiversity, but maybe more that they cannot afford the measures to control it.  The Scot Gov recommendations favour non-chemical methods of control which in large areas means a whole load of people.

Excerpts:<<Ragwort is a native species of the British Isles. It is a specified weed under the Weeds Act 1959. It contains Pyrrolizidine Alkaloids (PAs) which are highly toxic to a range of animals including horses and cattle. It can contain nine or ten different PAs which are metabolised in the liver of animals consuming ragwort, leading to severe liver damage and often death. Chronic ragwort poisoning is most common as the effects of the PAs build up in the liver over time and can often take weeks or even months for symptoms to become visible. However, poisoning can also be acute. This occurs when an animal consumes a large quantity of ragwort in a short space of time, causing death in a matter of days.>>

<<This guidance does not seek to eradicate ragwort. Ragwort, as a native plant is very important for wildlife in the UK. It supports many species of wildlife, including Common Broomrape (Orobanche minor), 14 species of fungi and many different invertebrates, such as moth caterpillars, thrips, plant bugs, flies, beetles and mites. With the decline in flowering plant diversity in the countryside, ragwort has assumed an increasing importance as a source of food for generalist nectar feeding insects in the late summer. Ragwort is the food plant of at least 77 species of foliage eating insects, ....>>

<<When seeking to prevent the spread of ragwort in any particular area it is expected that all adjacent landowners, occupiers and managers will co-operate and, where necessary, take a collective responsibility....>>
I qualify as a total cynic, and I just can't see that happening round here  ::)

So it is the occupier of the land who is responsible for controlling ragwort, be it cultivated fields, grazing land, forestry, derelict land or whatever, if it is within 100m of land grazed by livestock. Ha, Transort Scotland, which has responsibilities for Motorways and Trunk roads, really should get busy.  On the other hand, ragwort is really pretty and makes a lovely roadside display with Rosebay willowherb.

Because we have so much ragwort growing locally, our policy has always been eradication so far, but now I see how many insects and so on benefit from it, I might just let the odd flower show its pretty face, and not immediately bump it off  ;D :sunshine:
« Last Edit: February 25, 2021, 06:05:02 pm by Fleecewife »
"Let's not talk about what we can do, but do what we can"

There is NO planet B - what are YOU doing to save our home?

Do something today that your future self will thank you for - plant a tree

 Love your soil - it's the lifeblood of your land.

wildandwooly

  • Joined Feb 2021
Re: Topping pasture
« Reply #10 on: February 25, 2021, 09:04:16 pm »
Thank you Sally and everyone  :thumbsup:  That's all really really helpful. The ragwort is only mostly in one area with a few bits scattered about in the main fields but it was a labour of love....your good advice would have been helpful I should have joined earlier  ;D
I used a ragwort fork to dig up the plants before they went to seed in the autumn with the roots and then burned them but I know I'll have missed some and it'll be back this year   :(  The ground isn't boggy really it's just very wet and saturated from all the non stop rain last year + heavy snow this year for nearly 2 months! Which has now melted......! The docks are only a big problem in one small open paddock area where the Shetland ponies the previous owner had had really kicked up or 'poached' that ground. That was where the bulk of the ragwort was too. Understand about the rushes and sheep I'll bear that one in mind. Thank you all I feel I now have a much better and more informed plan to move forward with  :thumbsup:

chrismahon

  • Joined Dec 2011
  • Gascony, France
Re: Topping pasture
« Reply #11 on: February 26, 2021, 11:03:31 am »
We have a ragwort problem here as well. Just one area where the seeds blow in from the neighbouring farmland. Easy to spot them as they flower 2 weeks earlier than another similar species, the visible difference is a slightly different leaf shape but the roots are completely different. We use a sharpened trowel to cut the roots about an inch below the surface taking out the 'crown' and then compost them. Two years later with many hundreds removed, now only a few remain. Accepting it will be an ongoing problem as there is no obligation here to control it that I'm aware of, even though the neighbouring farm has cattle and pigs.


The other problem we have is wild carrot which was swamping the grass and that's coming out. We've got plenty of other flowering weeds for the bees, so many in fact that our neighbour has added bee hives. Let's hope he shares the honey.

 

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