When we first moved up here 10 years ago, I was terrified of going out the garden gate. This was a shame, because I was dying to re-enact that opening scene from Little House On The Prairie, in which a young Laura, dressed in layers of skirts (it’s the 1880s), flies downhill through the (no surprises here) prairie, with the long grass parting around her.
Now, running through long grass in a paddock in summer is of course highly dangerous in Australia (as it also may well be in Minnesotta/USA, however the producers of the show obviously decided to ignore that fact in favour of a picturesque moment – and it was so effective I can’t blame them). The dangers in this country however lie in the hidden and deadly eastern brown snake who, taken unawares, could strike to kill as you run over the rise; or they are the hidden rabbit or wombat hole into which you place your unsuspecting running foot, consequently breaking your leg and perhaps your head as you fall and hit a rock.
And last but not the least is my most feared event – becoming the unwilling recipient of thousands of ticks who, sensing the opportunity to feed on blood from a warm body, somehow gain a foothold on your clothes as you brush past at great speed through the long grass, with the music from Little House On The Prairie playing in your ears.
So you may have guessed, it has taken me many seasons to be able to head out into the paddocks in the middle of summer. This is because, being a mechanically challenged family, we do not own a tractor to slash (no, not wee, this is a tractor term for mowing) the paddocks. Subsequently our house is surrounded by long grass. In fact, we are like an island in the midst of a long grassy weedy ocean.
So 10 years on, I probably still wouldn’t be heading out into it, except for the fact that I seem to have committed myself thanks to my decision to ensure our steers (for those newcomers to this blog, these are young bulls with their balls cut off) retain their ability to graze on something (ie. don’t starve). This means they need – you guessed it – long or fresh grass.
Up until this current herd of steers, my paddock management has been minimalistic – ie, non-existent – they pretty much had the run of 50 acres to themselves. This also meant that they were able to pick and choose their diet, picking only the good grasses and leaving all the weeds. This is a little akin to just choosing to eat dessert, thanks very much.
Whilst I have learnt many things from my time spent at the local sustainable farm field days prior to my children gaining the ability to walk, probably the most important lesson has been the basics of sustainable paddock management with a herd – ‘let the cattle do the work for you’. No tractor? So what? Instead of the whole paddock, give the cattle a strip of it. Wait until they have eaten that strip down, incl. the weeds (which they will, because they are in a limited space and so those weeds within reach are suddenly looking very attractive), then move them along to another next strip alongside. The bonus is that not only are some (not all) of the weeds gone in that strip, but the cows have been poo-ing all over that particular area so the nutrients in their manure is condensed into a smaller space, which is good news ultimately for the soil and not for the weeds.
Incredibly, it works. Even for me. And it’s giving me a closer relationship with the cattle, which is bizarrely rewarding. Sometimes they even come when I call (NB – I said sometimes, not always)! And I find myself watching them for ages – they are quite transfixing, calming, and beautiful as they stand and chew, chew, chew.
They probably don’t feel the same towards me, as it takes me a long time to move them from strip to strip, and I don’t think I’m moving it as often as they would like. This timing is proving to be quite a challenge. I look at them
and wonder if they are too skinny, maybe I had better move them, but then I look at the strip and think there are still many weeds that need eating down, so I shouldn’t move them yet. What to do? What to do? To move or not to move? It’s certainly a fine line – we are both working hard for the grass.
And so I err on the side of caution – give them a tiny bit of extra time in a strip to get to at least some of the weeds, and then move them on to greener grass ‘on the other side of the fence’ to gorge themselves silly. One small step at a time.
And they certainly are small steps, because whilst I haven’t yet run down the hill ‘a la Little House On The Prairie’ to move the fence, or (touch wood) move at a rapid pace away from a snake, or broken my leg or head from a wombat hole, I have been absolutely covered in ticks – big ones, tiny ones, invisible ones. Oh, to have a tractor and no long grass… But farm girl that I now am, I just bend down and slap slap slap get them off me before they can sink their tiny little teeth/fangs/whatever they are into my flesh to give me itchy bites that will last months.
Then I run up the hill instead of down and jump almost fully clothed into the shower. Try and film that, Little House In The Prairie.