I am not altogether comfortable writing about uncertainty while it prevails. Problems are neater if you wait until you have resolved them to write about them, the vulnerability associated with the problem already a thing of the past. I hardly think, however, that this is consistent with our explicit promise not to discourage others by disguising our own weaknesses, so I am forcing myself to take (figurative) pen in hand and summarize the last few weeks.
Not that they have included anything untoward. Late fall has hurried into winter, and we have had snow on the ground almost constantly for the last month, a condition that usually doesn’t prevail until January. The cold has come earlier and dipped deeper into the mercury than usual at this season, and this may be the reason for my unease, or it may simply be the light-deprivation normal to residents in the upper river valley around the winter solstice. Frequent visits to the barns and pastures is the best cure for nervousness of that kind.
Having to feed hay, as we have had to do when the snow is crusted over with ice, may contribute to my sense of insecurity, since there is only just so much hay in the barns. But after all, this is our first year to winter dairy animals at the monastery, and only our second year to winter any stock there at all. We formulate estimations of how long the standing grass will feed the animals, basing our estimates on how long those pastures fed the animals under summer conditions, but so many factors change from season to season: the animals grow, their state of fertility or pregnancy progresses; warm season grasses give way to cool season varieties, and in cold weather more grass must be consumed just to keep the animals warm.
Every day, even every milking, means another decision about where, and even whether, to pasture the lactating cows, whose paddocks on the east side of the lane have no protection from wind and precipitation. The dry cows, on the other hand, have had to go on the tire tank pasture several weeks earlier than we had planned for, where they can get into the woods for protection from the weather but where they are moving at a greater speed over the forage than we had hoped. Given that the front pasture lasted the lactating cows for almost eight weeks this fall, where in the summer it had provided only four weeks of grazing, we hoped, expected even, that the tire tank pasture, stockpiled over the same period, would give similar results. The mature grasses eaten in July were replaced in part by cool season grasses growing over the months of August, September, October and November, forage we expected to find more palatable to the cows, and with a higher protein content, hence providing more nutrients. In the front pasture, once our principle hay meadow, this was demonstrably the case, and the grass that fed the lactating cows in July, now regrown, fed them again over the months of October and November. On the tire tank pasture, however, where there is less clover, the dry cows seem to be moving across the ground very quickly, although it is difficult to make a just estimation of how hard they are grazing when there is snow on the ground.
This is grass we had intended to begin grazing in January. The back gate pasture was intended to last the cows through the month of December, projecting their speed from the rate at which they grazed during the summer months; but nature is in flux. The calves and heifers got bigger over the summer months; the open (not pregnant) cows were bred, and now must nourish the calves they are carrying as well as themselves. Two steers came home from the farm west of here where they spent the summer, large animals scheduled for slaughter as soon as the weather turned consistently cold, which it did not until they had shared the dry cows’ diminishing grass for a full month; and more grazing was lost because the cows are unwilling to push through the dense briars we are still fighting on the back gate pasture.
Hence we found ourselves, at the beginning of December, needing to push the cows onto grass stockpiled for January. This move, as it happened, coincided with the onset of consistent below-freezing temperatures, when it is more convenient by far to have the animals watering on the spring-fed tire tank, which does not freeze over, but still the sight of our winter grass disappearing so early is disconcerting. We don’t really know how much grass we need for the winter, any more than we know what weather we will have over the next few months. We don’t even know enough to wish for one event over another; it is this very uncertainty that is creating my unease.