rotational grazing

Friday, October 21:

   Picking green beans in the cold they snap off crisply in your fingers like they do when they come out of the refrigerator.  I stopped before I got to the end of the first row, but I think I have enough to give to the TOR’s tomorrow when the boys serve for Bishop Zubik.  There must be about fifteen sisters living in the big house, so it takes a lot of green beans to go around.

   The weather has been overcast and drizzly for a couple of days now, and the cold has soaked into the bones of the house.  The fire we lit this morning had to be nursed through the day; whenever it was let to die to coals, the house cooled off too much.  Armloads of firewood have to be carried in from the woodshed out back and stacked in the iron-pipe woodrack in the basement to dry and warm before tomorrow morning when the fire will be relit.  One chunk is curly maple, shimmering under the basement’s incandescent bulb like tiger’s eye.

   All this wood was gathered, split, and stacked a year ago in a long rick at the bottom of the driveway, where now is the new woodshed the men built this summer.  When the new woodshed was undertaken, the cured firewood was brought up in the back of the pickup, and ferried around the house in wheelbarrows.  It has to go through three gates to the old woodshed out back, but then it will be only ten steps from the basement door, close for the morning’s fire.   Seven feet high and nine deep, and twenty-three feet from end to end, the old shed holds about a winter’s wood.  A full woodshed is like a wall between the family and the cold, each log stored heat to be released slowly; all except the occaisional chunk of curly maple which will instead be given to knife and sawblade.  On the rosary shelf in the living room is a bent wood box made of maple rescued from the woodpile; and another box, small, square, and carefully joined in dovetail, is in the study.  When opened, it plays Pachelbel’s Cannon in D, thinly.

   Early as we go down to move the cow’s paddock it is already getting to be dusk, because of the cloud cover and our position under the hills that close our valley the south and west.  We stop at the chicken house.  For fifteen years this was a simple shed-roofed structure of scrap materials, fourteen feet by twenty, soggy with mud in wet weather; this summer it was replaced with a warm, dry pole-barn, small but with sawdust litter on the wooden floor and ample roosts for the laying hens.  Pausing here we trip the string that unhooks the chicken door and allows it to swing closed.  The luxury of that string is still fresh on us, as it was last Tuesday when I was reminded at eleven o’clock at night that the hens hadn’t been shut up yet.  Dangling from the last post at the back of the bread oven shed, only twelve steps from the back door, is the wooden handle S-5 whittled for his creation.  A single tug against slight resistance, then a give, and the comforting thump of the hen door swinging down and wedging shut.  All the hens, and two arrogant roosters, are shut in for the night, away from the curiosity of fox and raccoon and ‘possum. 

   We shift the cow’s paddock daily to new grass, striving always to enclose with her in her corral of electrified twine just as much sward as she will make good use of in a day, no more.  Best results to be obtained if the cow will eat, step on, defecate on, or urinate on, every step of each paddock.  Grazing this way imitates the movement of large herds of wild ruminants.  Isabel is about as far from a herd of wild ruminants as you can imagine, but grazing her this way is having a remarkable effect of our five acre pasture.

   This hillside is about the worst land you can imagine for grazing anything, short of a Walmart parking lot.  It is steep and rocky.  Six years ago the previous owner had the hillside above it logged by people who were no doubt driven out of central America for their barbaric logging practices, and these people, in addition to leaving the woods an impenetrable tangle of lopped branches and wild grapevine, made concrete out of the clay and shale of the pasture.  When they left, the regrowth consisted largely of tough, hard-stemmed weed varieties unpalatable to livestock:  ironweed, ragweed, milkweed.  We grazed our animals there in spring and fall, when the growth was young and tender enough to interest them, but winter and summer we had to supplement with hay.

   Now, one year into our rotational grazing, the bare ground is almost completely covered, much of the growth being clover, timothy, and orchard grass.  We have not planted these varieties.  Joel Salatin discourages tilling and planting pasture in favor of allowing the native species to come into balance under the influence of rotational grazing; Gene Logsdon points out that in Ohio Dutch white clover will come without planting. Such has been the case here.  Some of the grass seed has been imported from our hay meadows via the hay we bring home every summer.  Fed out over the winter in our sliding manger, it passes through our animals and leaves seed spread over the pasture.

   Tonight S-5 and I only have to pull half the fiberglass posts and leapfrog over the lower half of Isabel’s fence.  We unhook the polywire and reel it up, then flip back the ratchet so the line will feed out, fasten it to a new section of fence, and stretch the new paddock.  With two people working, it takes about five minutes, including pulling the water tank down the necessary twenty-five feet so it will be included in the new paddock.  Moving paddock must be done every day, but every time the cow is rotated across the pature, the forage is being improved:  manure and urine are spread over the entire field, and the cow is grazing forage varieties evenly, not over grazing her favorite forages and leaving others to grow until the preferred varieties are crowded out.  How many things can you do in a day that you are absolutely sure are good for the world?  The man who rotates his cattle leaves the world a better place.

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