Using Pigs to Regenerate Diverse Pastures

2 knapweed close-up
Knapweed’s purple flowers are often a good nectar source for our bees, but mature knapweed is poor forage for sheep. This stand of knapweed is several acres in size.

Believe it or not, I actually love winter. But by March I grow antsy, and I start fantasizing about the growing season. So here’s a post to fuel that longing for green:

We aim to have diverse, lush pastures fed by healthy, well-balanced soils. But that’s mostly not what we have, yet. As we use a combination of brush mowing and animal foraging to clear this long-idle and formerly abused land, we have to be careful not to allow opportunistic plants to take over. We have, of course, learned this the hard way. If you’re familiar with knapweed, you know that it’s an aggressive allelopathic plant–meaning that it gives off chemicals from its roots that prevent other plants from growing–so it forms solid stands of nothing but knapweed. We most likely allowed the domination of knapweed by not mowing or grazing it frequently enough.

4 post-pig devastation closeup
After 4 days and 10 pigs, this is what that same field looked like – totally devastated!

We tried clearing it with sheep, but found that the plants were too mature, so the sheep started to lose body condition quickly. Without our own equipment available to mow on demand, we decided to “nuke” the knapweed with our favorite land clearers: pigs.

They did their job with relish, transforming the knapweed stand into pugged bare soil. I was dismayed when I saw it, as I have a visceral reaction to bare soil: it’s naked! cover it up!

6 post-pig pasture recover closeup
Knapweed be gone! Welcome grasses and forbs! Amazing what some managed pig disturbance can accomplish in 4 days, + 1 month recovery

But with no added seed, after one month of recovery, that same field was completely covered with diverse plants. Not one of them was knapweed (as far as I could tell, anyway.) So, I will be watching this field closely this coming season to see what happens next. We probably won’t run the pigs through here again, as I typically keep them only in our brushy marginal areas. But this year, this field will definitely be prime sheep grazing land.

Next up: has anyone out there used livestock to eliminate wild parsnip? I’m working on a plan for dealing with that phytotoxic plant, as we have a corridor where it has taken over. I’m thinking we might need to mow it and then graze the sheep on it just as it’s regrowing from root energy. But we may need to do that a few times to fully knock it back. Your thoughts and advice on this are welcome!


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