Archive for the ‘all-grass dairy cows’ Category

In answer to questions about winter stockpile:

‘Stockpiled forage’ means mature plants left standing in the pasture and reserved for use after the growing season.  Note that we say ‘mature’ plants, not senescent or lignous.  We time our summer grazing to leave half the pasture acres untouched after their mid-summer grazing.  For this part of Ohio (east central, zone 6), that means that somewhere around the middle of July, or a bit later, whatever we graze over the next six to eight weeks is going to be taken out of the rotation for the rest of the growing year.  About half the farm will be grazed over this lste-summer period.  Then in Sept/Oct/Nov we graze the other half, leaving the earlier pastures to regrow.  We’ll probably make two rotations on the part we’re not stockpiling, depending on what the weather is doing.  In a perfect year — 2018 was pretty satisfactory — we’ll get some good rains and lots of regrowth, and the stockpiled pastures will be fully mature when the cold weather sets in.  Then come late November/early December we finish grazing the fall pastures and start around on the stockpile.

It probably goes without saying that we’ve stockpiled the pastures where we have the most frost-free water (spring-fed tanks).  We don’t like permanent lanes and the impact they get, but in the winter when there’s no snow on the ground we have to leave a temporary lane open back to water.  We use reels to build the lanes, and move them often to minimize the opportunity for back grazing.  Some of the bunch grasses (especially orchard grass) are going to be hit too hard if the cows get bored and start lounging back toward water, so we watch for this and shift the lane fence accordingly.  This method works well for us, and the improvement we’ve seen in our pasture composition and productivity over the last six years has been very satisfactory.

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It’s not that we’re necessarily getting more snow than we’re used to, but that it’s laying longer; the result is that more thought must go into each day’s decisions about grass and grazing.

IMG_4641Not only must we consider the condition of the standing grass (‘stockpiled forage’) and the depth of snow on top of it; the quality of the snow itself, over and above quantity, comes into play.  What kind of snow is it? — and how long has it been here?  turn out to be significant questions as well.

Any amount of powder snow may be brushed aside with a cow’s muzzle (while horses and sheep scrape through the snow with their hooves, cows — ours, at least — push it with their noses), but any more than a thin coat of ice on top of the snow will make for reluctant grazing.  Nevertheless, if that’s what’s for dinner you can serve it, and hungry cows will, if they’re clear that you aren’t going to give in and fetch a few bales, get their noses down and have at it.  Wherever their feet have already broken the crust they’ll begin foraging, and move out from that spot to graze more widely.  Thicker ice is a real barrier to grazing — even walking, if the ice is thick enough; a skim of ice on top of snow will cut a cow’s shins, not dangerously, but enough to make them unhappy.  They’ll huddle together, trampling a perimeter beyond which they will be reluctant to go.

IMG_4733Slush is yet another matter.  If it’s not too thick — half an inch seems to be about the limit — our cows will be philosophical about eating iced forage; beyond that the trouble may not be worth the reward.  But slush has another effect on winter foraging, since it packs down wherever it is stepped on and traps the grass underneath, then freezes.  When the snow melts this grass will be pressed down to the soil, where it’s hardly accessible to bovine tongues and will in any case rot quickly, adding to the soil carbon but no longer available as forage.  So slushy paddocks have to be calculated to allow a percentage, and not a small one, for waste; which allowance has repercussions in the form of potential shortage down the season.


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Eight days ago we moved the fourteen dry cows and steers across the farm to the west pasture.  This puts them on spring water which (so far) has never frozen – thus, less work for us, not having to fill tanks and (religiously) drain hoses – but more importantly it puts the cows on the best quality forage we’ve got, excepting only the pastures reserved for the lactating cows.  At first we found the idea that you feed the best stuff first, and the lower grade toward the end of winter, kind of counter-intuitive – we had a vague idea that you would want to feed out the best forage when conditions – both of the weather and the cows – were worst.  Later we read heard, probably from one of the more experienced farmers in the Eastern Ohio Grazing Council, some good reasons for making a different choice.  We’ve worked out our own reasons, something like this:

  • Stockpiled forage is more nutritious than hay – forage tests confirm this — but it’s also exposed to the weather; thus, to wait to feed it is to let it deteriorate.
  • Feeding better forage first means that cattle come into the worst weather in better condition than if they had been getting the lower-quality grass.
  • Young calves with young digestive tracts need the best we can offer them; when they are older is soon enough for managing on coarser forage.

We can’t tell you what we’ll be saying in three years, but that’s how it seems to us right now.



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milk feverMaybe it’s the grass this year, which has been exceptionally rich and plentiful with  alternate warmth and cool, sun and rain.  Good grass means plentiful milk, so much we’ve had to begin making cheese twenty pounds at a time, and butter in a four gallon bucket, good things indeed.  But heavy lactation right after calving can trigger calcium deficiency, or ‘milk fever’, a nuisance at best, deadly if not dealt with, and we’ve seen two cases now, two for two this month of May.  We’ve got a crick from elevating i.v. bottles for twenty-thirty minutes a go, and a permanent case of the shudders whenever we see a hypodermic needle.

In the case of the seven-year-old Jersey cow Poppy, it’s just not fair:  we gave her prophylactic CMPK paste two days before she calved, and again twelve hours after, and still at about 24 hours she went down, and we had to drip six 500 ml bottles of calcium solution into her jugular before she shifted her freight — the first two, we might add, kneeling for an hour in a cold drizzle.

Makes you feel old and experienced, and pretty triumphant, and certain you’d rather never have to do it again.

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calf2A newborn calf is hard-wired for just a few things, but he does them very well:  he can stand, walk, search for his dinner and get it put away, keep close to Mama and take long naps, all within the first few hours of birth.  He’s almost always generously gifted at all those activities, and with every twelve hours he gets better at them.  So when the college kids who came up from Florida to spend a few days at the monastery reported that they’d gone down to the pasture to look at the day-old bull calf and he wasn’t there, we just smiled.  He was there, we were certain; calves are always near their mothers.  After a good meal they’ll couch down somewhere within a short distance — a few dozen yards at most — from Mama and take a good snooze.  A lump of brown calf and a lump of dirt, or pile of leaves, look almost identical, and a newborn can hide behind a pebble or a blade of grass, so there’s little use looking for them until they get hungry, but they’re there.  But as the afternoon wore on, no calf appeared; and the cows in the small paddock were restless, calling with the regularity of a bell tolling, sometimes for ten or fifteen minutes on end, for that little calf, and he didn’t appear.   ‘Those kids got the cows stirred up’, said Shawn, so we dismissed the event and went and milked the cows.

But afterward, as Delphinium, who is the calf’s mother, and her paddock companions, who only think they are, continued to call, I went out and looked around myself.  The paddock they were occupying is at the edge of the woods, and the woods are at the edge of a steep gully (a ‘holler’, in the Appalachians), and all the grass for miles around is dead and short, with nothing more substantial than the skeleton of a stem of Queen Anne’s lace behind which a calf could hide.  In the woods there are many fallen trees, often piled on one another, black in that mizzle rain and rotting, bound together with greenbriar and grapevine, creating lots of places where a calf could hide — or get stuck.  Shawn took the milk home and I made a circuit of the paddock, then of the perimeter within twenty yards, then further.  In the next hour and a half I quartered the edge of the woods three or four times, followed the holler back several hundred yards, then went up toward the road.  I discovered an old spring tank full of algae and frogs (it was the frogs told me it was there), and came back across the front pasture, tearing through briars, searching, calling occasionally, praying often, sometimes hearing moos not shrill enough for a baby calf, and getting thoroughly soaked in the drizzle.  In the end I went home to eat cold spaghetti.

‘Calves don’t wander off,’ the guys reminded me.  ‘He’s there.’

Calves don’t wander off.  He was there; and in the morning he greeted the milkers by racing around them in an erratic orbit as they drove them milk cows up to the barn.


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Sweetheart, whose name has nothing to do with her personality, is tetchy even with her little boy Reese, and he finds it easier to get his meals from almost any other cow in the bunch than from his mama.  That right back leg is just too quick to lift whenever Sweetheart feels a touch on her bag, and our guess is that he hasn’t always dodged fast enough.  Neither have I; milking Sweetheart is like going out with someone regrettable who keeps trying to get his arm around your waist, only with Sh she’s trying to get a foot in the bucket.

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The price of cow-raised dairy heifers is not knowing how many pounds will be in the bucket from day to day.  Cool days little Rosa takes extra; she fits her skin like she’s upholstered.

A little rain would be appreciated; the mid-month paddocks are already velvety-green, but the short grass grazed in the last week or so is slow to green up, even when you can see it has gotten higher.  It has caught our eye; there is regrowth, but it lacks that emerald color that means plenty of nitrogen was available for those roots.

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