Walking through a pasture in the Kansas Flint Hills during the spring makes you feel like you’ve been dropped in the middle of Ireland. The rolling hills of lush green grass expand as far as the eye can see. Eventually, black dots will begin to dot the landscape as local ranchers start hauling their cattle out for the summer.
I’ve always wondered what goes through an animal’s mind when that trailer gate is first swung open and it sees the heavenly field of grass laid before it. So much to eat, so little time! They’ll buck a happy little dance as they trot off the trailer and begin to explore.
Why Pasture Cattle?
Local rancher Kordell Krispense (also my brother-in-law) took time to sit down share the ins and outs of putting cattle on grass.
First thing to know, he mentioned, is that ranchers put cattle out on grass for several reasons. For one, it gives them a whole summer break from the daily feeding chores. You still have to check on the the herd’s needs throughout the summer, of course. But the daily commitment of mixing, loading and distributing feed has been taken away for awhile.
Cattle on grass can be somewhat healthier than those confined to a pen, too, as they have a much larger space to roam, fresh grass and won’t be standing in muck. When taken off of the grass at the end of the season, these healthier grass cattle tend to sell better than cattle from the feedlot.
So what kind of pasture or grass do you need to have to turn cattle out on? Kordell explains that the pastures we regularly use are made up of primarily bluestem grass. But some areas of country like different kinds of grass, such as fescue grass down in Arkansas.
Up here in Kansas, some folks feel that fescue is too hard, and thus the cattle don’t like it as much or grow as well as they would on softer grasses. On the flip side, though, it makes a decent winter grass because it stays green all winter.
One of the most important things you can do for a cattle pasture is to manage it well. This means keeping on top of the weeds (such as musk thistle, bull thistle, buck brush, etc.) and dead grass.
Typically in the spring, the air is thick with the smokey smell of pasture fires. Burning pastures is a great way to get rid of dead grass and ensure that cattle will graze the land evenly (and not just in clumps around the dead matter).
Dead grass has little to no nutritional value and simply acts as a filler for cattle if they eat it. Burning only removes the top part of the grass. The actual root is far underground allowing it to grow back year after year.
Burning also helps to prune back small trees (which should be removed if they continue to grow to keep from ruining the grassland). It also kills ticks and parasitic worms that hide in the dead grass. This keeps your grassland clean and cattle-friendly!
When it comes to water supply, there are a few different options. Nature does the best work, and a constantly flowing stream is always a first choice. So long as the stream keeps flowing, you won’t have to worry about having a working windmill or hauling water.
Be careful to watch for contamination though. Your herd can be severely impacted if the water becomes undrinkable. Check the banks routinely for any trash that could hurt the water quality.
Kordell also explained that when you have streams or creeks running through your pasture fence, you will find a need for something called a “flood gap”. This is a specially built section of the fence over the ravine or creek with solid posts on either side of the ravine. When the area floods, only a certain section of the fence will be taken out by the water and debris.
Some fences are built with a “flood gate” that lifts up to allow the water and debris to pass through. This way the fence stays intact and doesn’t have to be rebuilt each time there is a flood.
To help you remember the difference, a flood gap makes a section of the fence disposable. A flood gate makes the whole fence reusable.
If a stream or river is not an option for you, ponds are a great second option. A good pond that doesn’t leak can be a great way to help cattle stay cool during the summer. But keep in mind, if it is their only source of water, they can end up with manure-filled drinking water.
Ponds also requite a back-up plan. Some can go dry during the heat of summer. A least being aware of where you can find a large stock tank and the means to transport water out to it will be a good way to prepare for the unexpected dry pond.
The other option for a good water supply is an old-fashioned windmill. We keep working windmills in a couple of the pastures we run cattle in during the summer. Some of them are around 100 years old.
Climbing up to work on them can be a bit intimidating, of course. But a dependable windmill can be a wonderful thing for those who live in an area with some breeze. Finding wind usually isn’t an issue here in Kansas!
As the season moves on, you’ll want to routinely check in on the herd. This will consist of different tasks, depending on what their needs are. Tasks can include:
- filling mineral feeders
- checking cattle for illness or injuries
- treating sick animals
- checking windmills or ponds (if you have them)
Later on in summer, it will be time to gather the cattle up and take them home or to the sale barn. It’s always a little bittersweet to see them rounded up and the pasture bare again.
But we know that it’s part of the circle. After a few months break, the pasture (and we) will be ready to send more cattle out to the Ireland of Kansas.