A handful of innovative farmers and Oregon State University researchers are improving grass-based pasture systems using techniques common in New Zealand but new to the Pacific Northwest.
"We've got fantastic farmers here. But we have quite a bit of room for improvement," said Serkan Ates, OSU assistant professor of livestock and forage systems.
One innovation is called inter-seeding or over-seeding — drilling and planting new seed varieties into existing pastures to boost quantity and quality of grazing forage.
This technique, researchers say, is rare in the West. Ates estimated 5% to 10% of Northwest farmers intentionally inter-seed.
Ates said 10- to 20-year-old pastures with perennial grasses are common in the Pacific Northwest. The trouble with this, according to Fara Brummer, OSU faculty research assistant, is that many of these "old, tired pastures" have low-quality soil and low forage yields. Even worse, cool season grasses go dormant July through September, offering livestock little to eat.
"I think there's absolutely huge potential for change," said Brummer.
Different plants produce different benefits. Chicory is a de-wormer. Plantain helps reduce nitrogen concentration in urine. Birdsfoot trefoil and brassicas offer high protein. Legume- and forb-based pastures for dairy cows lead to higher milk yield, fewer mastitis cases and even lower methane emissions.
"Healthy soils make healthy plants make healthy animals and probably healthy people," said Don Wirth, owner of Saddle Butte Ag Inc., a forage and seed company in Tangent, Ore.
One cattle rancher working to improve his pastures is John Shine in Lakeview, Ore. Shine said he was "frustrated" by the unproductivity of Kentucky bluegrass during hot months. He knew he could do better, so he asked OSU for help.
In 2017, Brummer and Ates inter-seeded Birdsfoot trefoil into Shine's pastures. It took a few years to flourish, but now Shine's forage production has increased threefold.
Shine and the researchers, funded by a western SARE grant, did further experiments this summer. SARE is the acronym for Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education.
In four plots, they seeded combinations of perennial grasses alongside chicory, plantain, white, red, berseem and arrowleaf clovers, kale, radish, vetch, forage oats, sainfoin, medic and more.
When Ates and Brummer cut samples this fall, they were thrilled to find rich forage.
The researchers also learned timing is critical for inter-seeding so that cool season grasses don’t outcompete new seedlings and that brassica needs high-nitrogen soil and grows better in tilled soil.
One innovative Oregon sheep rancher helped demonstrate the value of brassica.
Cody Wood, owner of Willamette Valley Lamb in Junction City, Ore., grazes his lambs on pasture mixes, including a blend of Bayou kale and Persian clover. Wood said he gets more than twice as much gain with kale compared to grass.
Wood plants his brassica mixes in April into tilled ground.
"It's worth it," he said. "Just look at these sheep."
Wood motioned to a few dozen sheep munching on kale.
Wood developed his passion for pasture management in New Zealand while learning from sheep farmers with more experience.
"For us in the West, these are really, really novel concepts. But New Zealand already has this down, and I'm excited to see it expand here," said Brummer.