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Determining paddock makeup is a balancing act, but not a tightrope walk.  How large an area any given number of cows, heifers, steers, yearlings, two-year-olds, and maybe the vacationing ram and the pet pony need for a set period of time depends on many factors, all of them in constant flux, but if the ideal exists we’ve never seen it, and, as Mr. Joel Salatin says, “Good enough is perfect.”  You don’t have to be an expert or have a PhD in pasture composition to practice rotational grazing; you just need time, some fence, and a ruminant.  Right now there are six brood cows, four lactating and two about to calve, plus a six-weeks’ calf and a retired ram, in one paddock at the monastery, and seven yearling steers in the other.  We split them up not because they need to be kept separate but because we don’t like walking a quarter mile round trip to bring the cows up to milk, so the steers get the back of the farm all to themselves, and the milk cows stay out front where they aren’t so far from the dairy.  As the grass comes in, we can see the dark spots of high fertility where last winter’s cow pats were unloaded; in twenty years, we hope the whole pasture will be that color.  Right now the brood cows get about forty by sixty paces of timothy/orchard grass/clover with a healthy admixture of weeds, or rather more, every twelve hours; the steers are on larger paddocks because the grass is generally thinner out back, and because we only move them once a day.  All the animals are on either rain water or spring water; city and well water don’t appeal to them.

As the summer progresses, paddocks will be calculated partly by what is in them, and partly by how fast we are trying to go around the farm.  In late July, we’ll start omitting areas from our rotation; that grass will be our stored stockpile for winter.

 

Chickens like milk, but they love clabber.  Like buttermilk, yogurt, or kefir, any thickened milk ferment is haute cuisine to your farmyard chicken.  We find that fifteen or so Rhode Island Reds will clear up a half gallon of clabber per day, leaving nothing to attract flies in the meantime, and lay more eggs to boot.

Likewise, while our hens won’t even look at commercial crumbles if there is any sort of whole grain to be had — our standard mix includes wheat, oats, barley, millet and sunflower seeds — what they really go crazy for is fermented grains, that is, whole, rolled, cracked or crimped grains that have been soaked in water for several days.  We fill a five gallon bucket three-quarters of the way with our mix, top it up with water, and shove a cover on it for three or four days before we start to feed it out.  Actually, we make two buckets, because you want one fermenting while you’re using the other, so you don’t run out.  Smells like a distillery or worse, but modern noses need exercise, and a break from petroleum-derived scents that probably predispose you for cancer anyway.  And the chickens just love it.  Maybe commercially compounded soy-corn crumbles will induce a bird to lay a maximum of eggs — and maybe they won’t, we don’t know — but fermented grains and dairy clabber are fresh, whole and local, not to mention a sight more natural than post-industrial processed-food waste and GM soy and corn.

With new spring grass thick in the pastures, such of our winter-weary dairy cows as haven’t been dried off in anticipation of calving have doubled or even tripled their milk production.  Consequently, the youngest member of our regular milking team (fourteen) has had trouble finishing her two cows by six a.m., but it was misguided to conscript the twelve-year-old to help her, and it is hardly surprising that within twenty-four hours two cows showed up with mastitis in one quarter.  Rich grass, high production, and incomplete stripping out are ample to explain the event.  But intensive rotational grazing establishes a basis of good health that provides insurance against these little blips.  Massage and thorough milking got rid of any symptoms of mastitis after just two or three milkings.  And as an added bonus for at least one farmer, the twelve-year-old gets an extra hour-and-a-half of sleep in the morning.

Apropos  the many variations of ‘right’ when it comes to intensive grazing, our attendance at the April pasture walk hosted by that gem of local farm institutions, the Eastern Ohio Grazing Council, which reminded us that farming decisions are as fluid as farming conditions, and just as experience alters our methods, alterations in pasture and weather add to our experience.

Two years ago, the phrase we took away from the April pasture walk (phrases are easier to remember than formulas for ‘dry matter conversion’ and things like that) was ‘no hard lines’, meaning that in the first spring pass over the farm, paddocks should be so large that there is no distinct line between grazed and ungrazed areas.  Implementing this gave good results last year, when our first quick pass left plenty of leaf matter to continue the work of photosynthesis and to keep the soil shaded and cool, conserving moisture and postponing dormancy of pasture plants.  Consequently our second pass found us in good shape going into the summer grazing.

This year we’ve applied the same principles under altered circumstances of weather and winter impact, again with good results (so far); but Thursday night we heard from some of our variously-experienced local grass farmers that they are using the cool, wet conditions prevailing in this prematurely early spring to hit their pastures fairly hard, even on the first pass, grazing to even as close as two inches.  The idea is to get all they can out of the pasture early, depending on generous regrowth to keep plants vegetative into June or beyond.  As we have observed before, methods alter pastures, and altered pastures result in new methods.

You’re not done learning until you’re dead.

 

 

Some of our thinnest, weediest, briary-est pasture is out back by the woods’ gate, where last year, after the mid-summer grazing, two months of dry weather meant poor regrowth for the cool-season grasses we were counting on for winter stockpile.  Lost us at least a couple of weeks’ grazing for the dry cows and steers in December and January, but we passed over it lightly, leaving plenty of cover.  On the first pass this spring the regrowth was still rather thin — not that there were bare spots and exposed soil, just short, unthrifty grasses and plenty of the low cane we call ‘tanglefoot’.  We wanted to hit it lightly, and each paddock was bigger than the last as we tried to minimize close grazing.  We don’t have a guidebook for how to remediate this kind of pasture, so we have to make it up as we go along.  A week or two later, regrowth seems to be coming on all right.  Intensive grazing seems to be more art and intuition than science, at least in the day-to-day decisions, and the results are remarkable.

The trick about intensive rotational grazing is the intensive rotation, isn’t it?  Every year is the same.  We think, read, think some more, and then set up a paddock; twenty-four hours later we take a look at the impact, ponder again, and set up a new one.  Perfect grazing probably only exists in the imagination, but even our amateur efforts always seem to improve the pastures.

Green-up started early this year, with warm temperatures and sunshine in March.  Grazing the last of the stockpile with early grass coming up through was ideal, and, anyway, we were running pretty short on hay, and while we could have hauled more, we figured maybe we didn’t need to.  We put all the cows together (dry cows, lactating cows, and steers), and took them around the farm in a three-week turn, covering almost everything.  Maybe it was a little early.  The ideal (according to present wisdom, at any rate) is not to show any hard lines between grazed and ungrazed on this first pass, but who is going to define ‘hard’ in this case?   April rain is a little thin; if the ground dries out, regrowth is going to slow way down.  Half an inch of rain last week got things jump-started again, and considering this is, after all, only late April, we’re looking at good grass for beginning our second pass over the farm.  The animals are fattening visibly, and the milk in the bucket has doubled.

 

 

rain

Hope it rains tonight.

We finished hauling about nine or ten tons of stable litter tonight — horse manure and sawdust bedding, rotted black — and we feel a little more sanguine about this year’s garden, but we do need the rain.  Three-tenths of an acre of potatoes, give or take a little, are in the ground under a light mulch of rotted hay; when the tops appear, we’ll mulch again, more heavily.  Two-tenths are in field peas, for green manure, which will be tilled under and planted to field corn in late May/ early June.  All the spring vegs are in the kitchen garden, coming up nicely, but, like everything else, they need the rain.

Did we mention we are hoping for rain?

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