This post is already out of date (photos are from about three weeks ago). Hemphill Angus is now at the tail end of haying, so keep in mind that these images are a little behind the times.
An exclusively grass-fed beef operation like Hemphill Angus is only as robust as its supply of good forage. Carol Hemphill is a cow farmer, but intrinsic in that job is the need for a deep appreciation and understanding of the local grass cycle. During the spring, summer, and fall, Carol’s black angus cows feed on pasture, and in the winter, they eat grass (and some alfalfa) hay, most of which comes off the ranch.
Carol and Stu manage their ranch land with multiple interests in mind. Obviously they want to keep their cows healthy and well fed, but they also consider their impact on the area’s larger ecosystem. Part of their plan is to encourage pastures that are full of good introduced forage grasses as well as native grasses and herbaceous plants. They don’t have a single pasture on the property that is a true monoculture, and they like it that way.
In this pasture, grasses are peppered with native and introduced wildflowers.
Species like bird’s foot trefoil are high in tannins, so when grazed by cows, they help prevent bloat that can occur from feeding on legume-rich forage. Access to varied pasture allows cows and other ranch residents (deer, turkeys, occasional elk, etc.) to pick and choose what is most palatable and most nutritious at any given time. This free choice system promotes a balanced diet for cows and a balanced ecosystem that benefits other flora and fauna.
This time of year, groups of cows remain in one fenced area for a few days or up to a week (depending on the number of cows in the herd and the size of the area within the fence) before they are rotated on to the next area. When we rolled in to this field to check on plants, mama cows immediately started loudly calling in their calves in preparation to move on to the next pasture. They know and appreciate the system almost as much as Carol does.
The huge variety of wildflowers blooming like crazy across the lush green landscape adds incredible color and beauty to the scene. Some of the blooms like oxeye daisy, however, are widespread invasive species that displace natives.
Wild native rose bushes aren’t generally eaten by cows, but they do provide good shade and scratching opportunities.
Wildflowers are also a good food source for native pollinators and Henry and Stu’s honey bees.
Meadow foxtail is another invasive species with low forage value, and unlike oxeye daisy, it’s not even pretty.
Since deciding to forgo chemical fertilizers about six years back, Carol has seeded in quite a bit of clover to provide nutrient-intensive pastures that can sustain more animals per acre than grass-only pastures. Clover, a legume, is much higher in protein than grass.
High Animal Density Pasture
During the wet Oregon winter, mud is pervasive on the ranch. Carol’s cows eat mainly hay for months at a time. Cows still move from one pasture to the next, but they stay in each area for longer. In some fields, hay is fed out daily on the ground, so anything that isn’t eaten goes back into the soil. In other areas, hay is fed into feedbunks, and large numbers of cows congregate on a small area to eat. The high-density areas are sacrificed to some degree in order to preserve good grasslands in other areas of the ranch.
Each spring, these damaged soils are reseeded with annual ryegrass in order to improve and regenerate the area as much as possible before the next rainy season. Annual ryegrass (NOT the same as cereal rye) is commonly grown for seed in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, and it is know for doing well on marginal soils.
Two large hay barns serve as storage bases for winter feed. In the very near future, the barn above will completely full of grass hay off the ranch.
Last year’s cool, wet spring yielded a bumper crop of hay, and the warm, wet fall allowed the grass to grow later in the season. The result was that Hemphill Angus only had to purchase one semi truckload of hay during the course of the winter instead of five or six that would be needed in an average year. This spring was similarly cool and wet, so it should be a good hay year. We have yet to see what the weather will bring this fall.
Rotation and Cross Fencing
Here you can see the fenceline between two pastures. The right side has been grazed, and the left side hasn’t. Carol’s cows are fairly well trained to stay within the confines of electrical hot fences.
This area has yet to have cows on it.
This area has been grazed but cows are moved off the piece before they’ve eaten the grass down to the nubs.
Without cross fencing and rotation, cows will selectively eat what they like best and then procede to graze those species out of existence, leaving mainly the less palatable, less nutritious species to propagate. Giving pastures a rest between grazing periods allows them to regenerate and gives the farmers some choices about what species to encourage and which ones to weed out.
Mature trees provide shade and good scratching spots for cows. Most of Hemphill Angus’s pastures have at least a few trees spread across them, and some are adjacent to wooded areas that provide a nice respite for cows, deer, and other wildlife.
This year, Carol has noticed more lanceleaf plantain growing across the ranch than ever before. This non-native species is the host for the Northwest’s endemic Taylor’s checkerspot butterfly. Strangely, the host is very common, but the butterflies are thought to be quite rare, which is both confusing and concerning to local scientists.
Every year, the balance of species diversity on the ranch shifts in a different direction. There’s always something new (native or invasive), something that grows in greater abundance than has been seen before, and something that has faded into obscurity. This flux is partly due to human design and partly dependent on the natural characteristics of the particular growing season.
This summer, native yellow cress has turned a swath of swampy ground golden. Carol has never seen it before, but she has done her best to identify it and inform herself about what the implications of a new species might be.
Carol and Stu aren’t big self promoters because they spend most of their time caring for their animals and planning and acting in the best interest of the ranch. I will tell you that they are great people raising happy, healthy (and good tasting cows). Hemphill Angus sells live animals and beef halves and quarters (highly recommended for locals!). For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Henry (my husband) provided common and scientific names of all species in this post off the top of his head. I didn’t take the time to double check his Latin spelling, so if any botanical geniuses out there find small errors, please let me know.